Flea treatment side effects can be traumatic for both owners and pets.
While fleas and ticks can be a problem year round, they really become a nuisance as the weather warms up and pet parents start taking their fur children outside more.
Even if you have an indoor kitty who never ventures outside, if you have a dog (or several), these voracious little parasites can hike a ride on the animal’s fur and take up residence in your home. Before you head to your local store to pick up a topical flea treatment, you may want to find out what Dr. Cathy Alinovi of Hoofstock Veterinary Service has to say about this topic in an exclusive interview.
Donna Cosmato (DC): Is it possible to generalize about the most common side effects of topical flea medications for pets or do these vary so much from brand to brand that it is hard to speculate?
Dr. Cathy: Side effects to topical flea treatments tend to be patient dependent. In other words, different pets will have different reactions to different flea products. It may be that one dog or cat in the household tolerates a medication well while another may develop a bald spot or the skin may turn red and itchy. Clearly, the reactive pet is allergic to either the topical insecticide or the carrier (the oil or the ointment). If your pet has a reaction like that, you do not want to use that product again.
DC: If you can generalize, in your experience, what are the common side effects of flea medications?
Dr. Cathy: Where I see the biggest and scariest reactions to flea medications is when a cat owner mistakenly applies an over the counter (OTC) dog flea and tick product to their cat, which is toxic to the cat.
While that is the scariest reaction, the most common reaction is scratching and digging at the spot where the medication was applied. Sometimes the medication is annoying and the doggy or kitty will dig at the spot until the fur is all pulled out – sometimes worse – and there is a skinned spot.
The other common reaction to topical flea products – running and hiding! Some pets get the “heebie-jeebies” – kind of like a skin crawl. Flea medications for dogs and cats are not interchangeable. Never, ever put a flea and tick product that is labeled only for dogs on a cat.
Cats have a different metabolic configuration than dogs; their liver processes medications differently. If a dog flea and tick product is used on a cat, the cat may become very weak, drool and have seizures; and if they do not get veterinary treatment, they can die. Also, if you have a dog and a cat that are good friends and they sleep together, take care. From the time that the flea treatment is applied and still wet on the skin until it is completely dry, the animals should be separated. This is for the cat’s safety.
DC: What do the words “pyrethrin” and “pyrethroid” mean? Are they dangerous for my pet?
Dr. Cathy: These words mean the chemical is derived from chrysanthemum; because it is a natural flower, our instinct it to think it is safe. This is not true. Uranium is “natural” and it’s far from safe. Similarly, pyrethrin-type flea products are very dangerous.
DC: What are the major differences between veterinarian-prescribed flea medications and over-the-counter (OTC) products?
Dr. Cathy: Recently, generic equivalents to veterinarian-prescribed flea medications have become available everywhere. While the active ingredient, fipronil, is the same, the carrier is not; it is the carrier that makes the product effective to translocate (see application below) across the body and into the pores. Other OTC flea medications which are pyrethrin-based (the active ingredient will be some name with “pyr” in it) are toxic. These medications cause the most problems: kidney failure, seizures, and death.
The EPA, not the FDA, regulates flea and tick medications; therefore, the rules for protecting our pets are different. Side effects are very common in these OTC pyrethrin-based products – and these are available everywhere – grocery stores, pet superstores and other pet product locations.
DC: Can pet parents use the same medications on both their dogs and cats?
Dr. Cathy: For the most part, no. This is where reading the label is crucial – if the label says dogs only, do not put it on the cat. However, the cat product can go on the dog, it just may not protect against fleas.
DC: How safe and effective are natural flea remedies?
Dr. Cathy: Diatomaceous earth, garlic, brewer’s yeast, and essential oil products are the most common natural remedies. In a pet with a healthy immune system, garlic and/or brewer’s yeast can work fine. However, many pets do not have enough flea protection from garlic or brewer’s yeast. Diatomaceous earth rubbed into the dog or cat’s coat works to dry out the flea. Frequent reapplication is required, especially after the pet bathes, swims or grooms. More recently, essential oil-based products have become available. The reports from owners are very positive; the only caveat is application must repeat every 3-5 days as essential oils are volatile and will evaporate and lose their effectiveness.
DC: What should owners do if they suspect their pet is having a negative reaction to a treatment for fleas?
Dr. Cathy: Wash it off immediately with lukewarm water, – “the solution to pollution is dilution” - is a favorite saying for these cases. Then, call your vet and seek help immediately. Document everything, keep the packaging and call the poison control hotline listed on the package. There’s a reason there is a hotline listed on the package – think about it...
DC: Are there animal populations that should not be treated with these medications?
Dr. Cathy: For pets that have skin disease, kidney failure, liver disease, thyroid disease, diabetes, cancer and so forth, owners should consult their veterinarian before applying topical flea medications. Follow all package directions carefully as these preparations will specify the types of animals that should not be treated with the medication. As a rule, do not treat very old pets with any chronic diseases without consulting your vet.
DC: What about the hairless canine and feline breeds? Do they naturally have less oil on their skin and would this be a concern?
Dr. Cathy: Breeds of hairless animals actually have more natural oils on their skin and will leave an oily spot behind when they lay down if topical flea meds are used on them. Furthermore, as these pets are often bathed weekly and have no hair for fleas to hide in, they are rumored to be less likely to harbor fleas.
DC: What is the proper application method for these medications?
Dr. Cathy: Many of the topical preparations use a process called translocation to spread the medication across the skin. Part the fur, make sure you can see the skin, and put the tip of the applicator on the skin and squeeze out the contents of the tube. The liquid spreads itself over the skin of the animal; but, in order for translocation to happen, the cat needs to have some natural oils on the skin. If you plan to bathe the animal before applying a flea treatment, you need to use a safe shampoo first. Wait three days for body oil to build up again, and then apply the topical preventive so the cat has time to restore some oil to its skin.
DC: How often are side effects the result of operator error (the medication is applied improperly) rather than a true reaction to an ingredient in the medicine?
Dr. Cathy: In my experience, side effects are usually a reaction to the ingredients of the medication. Occasionally the products are misapplied. However, what normally happens is the pet parent goes to their local superstore, sees flea and tick medication labeled for their pet, and thinks it is safe to use. Instead, a terrible reaction occurs.
DC: What else do pet owners need to know that I have forgotten to ask you?
Dr. Cathy: When it comes to flea preventive, you get what you pay for. The medicines you get through your veterinarian may cost more, but they are more effective and usually safer.
Never use flea shampoo! Flea shampoo is toxic, and bathing in Dawn dish soap is just as effective. Fleas and ticks carry very deadly diseases that can cause anemia, inflammatory conditions and other health issues such as Lyme disease, Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever and so on. Fleas and ticks are not benign co-inhabitors; they transmit parasites and tapeworms. In reality, a flea infestation can kill a cat or small dog or puppy because of the blood loss.
Author's note: In addition to the diseases Dr. Cathy mentioned, fleabites could cause flea allergy dermatitis (FAD) in dogs that have a flea saliva allergy. In a recent interview with this author, she shared her experiences in dealing with this dog health problems and offered answers to some of the most commonly asked questions about FAD. Your best option is always to seek the advice of your personal veterinarian whenever you suspect your pet has a health issue.
In addition to using a flea medication on your pet, you may want to treat the house or use one of the best flea treatments for yards to make sure that you have eliminated all the fleas. That way, there are no adults left to lay eggs and perpetuate the life cycle.
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About Dr. Alinovi
In addition to being an expert source for articles on pet health issues, Dr. Alinovi is collaborating with Donna Cosmato on a book to be released in 2013 that contains answers to FAQs about dog health problems.
Image provided by Dr. Cathy Alinovi and used with permission. All rights reserved by Dr. Alinovi.