5 On Your Side

Used incorrectly, pets' flea medication 'can literally cause death'

Posted November 21, 2011 6:00 p.m. EST
Updated November 22, 2011 3:27 p.m. EST

— They are furry, loving members of the family, but dogs and cats are also the perfect mode of transportation for fleas and ticks. Millions of people rely on spot-on flea and tick treatments, such as Frontline and Advantage, which are easy and effective, but many pet owners have found that products like these can also be dangerous.

Sarah Biddle says she followed the directions to apply a store-bought treatment to her normally playful cat, Uno. Within hours, he was “under the bed and howling and crying and meowing,” she said.

“I thought I had poisoned him,” Biddle said. “I instantly knew that whatever I had done last night, or I had put on him, was making him sick.”

WRAL News did an online search and found multiple posts showing animals with similar reactions. Some side-effects include seizures, vomiting, lethargy, skin burns and death.

Dr. Audra Alley is a holistic veterinarian at Bowman Animal Clinic in Raleigh, where thousands of pet patients use the treatments. While the practice has seen few problems, Alley says the products do contain serious chemicals.

“The most common thing we see is hair-loss at the application site,” she said. “I do think we need to be aware that they are pesticides. They are not a benign class of drugs.”

In 2008, the Environmental Protection Agency, which regulates the treatments and logs complaints about problems, launched an investigation after receiving 48,000 reports about pet reactions to spot-on treatments. About 1,300 included very serious reactions or death. That’s out of about 270 million doses that were sold.

From 2007 to 2008, pet reactions to the medication increased 53 percent. That’s around the same time that the products, which used to be available only through veterinarians, became available online and in stores. The products also started coming from many new manufacturers and with some different ingredients.

Manufacturers and many veterinary experts say that, while some of the reactions aren't explainable, most of the products are safe, when applied correctly. They also say that many of the adverse reactions involve mistakes, such as pet owners using the wrong type of product.

“If people mistakenly put a dog product on their cat, it can literally cause death,” Alley said.

Another mistake is incorrectly guessing a pet’s weight. Applying treatment made for an 18-pound cat to a cat that weighs 11 pounds could be toxic. Alley says pet owners need to be very careful about following directions and putting the medication where it’s supposed to go.

“It says ‘between the shoulder blades.’ How many people know exactly where the shoulder blades are? And if you go a little too far back, cats are little yogis, they can get around there and lick that stuff off pretty easily,” she said.

Watch Alley demonstrate how to apply flea and tick treatment:

Last month, the EPA reiterated that it is working to get manufacturers to offer a wider range of dosages relative to a pet's weight. For example, instead of 31 to 60 pounds, the range might be 31 to 40 pounds. The EPA also wants all packages to clearly state if they are for a cat or dog.

Alley says the risk of disease from fleas and ticks is significantly higher than the risk of reactions from the treatment. Pets can die from tick-carrying Lyme disease and flea reactions. Those pests can also be a health risk to humans.

Alley says alternative treatments, such as electromagnetic tags, flea paper and supplements, are not as effective or consistent as spot-on treatments. Beyond effectiveness, even natural products have health risks. Alley says garlic can cause anemia in pets, and brewer's yeast can cause intestinal problems.

As for Uno the cat, he's back to his old self. Biddle says she wants pet owners to realize the risks of spot-on flea and tick treatments.

“I just want people to be aware that they can be very dangerous and potentially deadly,” she said.