Be careful with Fido's flea meds; treatment can go awry

Veterinarian Jerrold Boone says Cookie, who has roundworms, is too young to receive topical pesticides. She gets a tablet instead.
Veterinarian Jerrold Boone says Cookie, who has roundworms, is too young to receive topical pesticides. She gets a tablet instead. Elizabeth Shogren/NPR

The EPA has received thousands of complaints from pet owners and veterinarians that flea and tick medicines are triggering reactions ranging from skin irritation to death.

Veterinarian Jerrold Boone sees lots of sick cats and dogs whose owners say the pets were fine before being treated with topical flea and tick medicines. These pets often have red, itchy skin and lose fur where the medicines were applied. Some suffer from fever and vomiting.

"A lot of times, pets will actually lick the actual product and ingest it orally, and that's when you'll see a lot of the severe reactions because probably it wasn't applied correctly," Boone says. His office found that many people used pesticides on cats that were meant for dogs or applied doses meant for large dogs to small dogs.

The Environmental Protection Agency says tens of thousands of dogs and cats have gotten sick and hundreds have died after flea and tick treatments. The agency says it's working with manufacturers to improve labels. It's also urging pet owners to consult their vets, and it's still investigating whether a few of the products might be toxic.

The Problems With The Medicine

One of the biggest issues is labeling that's not clear.

"So you really can't say that if you bought a pet product and did exactly what the label said that there wouldn't be injury to your pet," says Steve Owens, assistant administrator of EPA's Office of Prevention, Pesticides and Toxic Substances.

The EPA is pushing manufacturers to make labels more specific. The agency is also investigating whether some of the products on the market are toxic to pets.

"But by and large, for the vast majority of these products, if they are used in the way they're intended to be used, they should be safe for your pets," says Owens, who himself has two dogs and three cats.

The most popular flea and tick treatments are branded Frontline, Advantage and Advantix, but the concerns extend to many other labels. The EPA recommends that pet owners consult vets about the treatments to make sure they use the appropriate doses and apply them correctly.

At The Vet's Office

At his clinic in Washington, D.C.'s Adams Morgan neighborhood, Boone examines an adorable puppy named Cookie. She has one blue eye, one green one and a big round belly.

Boone suspects worms, so he takes a fecal sample. One glance under the microscope proves his hunch was right.

"That's why she's got that belly right there. That's why she had the diarrhea, because of the worms in her system," he tells Cookie's owner.

Cookie has roundworms, which some of the topical pesticides can control. But Boone says this puppy is too young for those treatments. (The EPA also recommends against giving them to pregnant or elderly dogs.) Boone gives Cookie a tablet instead to get rid of the worms.

Generally Safe

Fleas are responsible for another another type of pet parasite: tapeworms. And ticks can give pets Lyme disease. That is why Boone recommends using topical flea and tick medications, despite some of the reactions he's seen.

The American Veterinary Medical Association agrees.

"We generally feel that these products are safe for pets," says Lynne White-Shim of the group. "Fleas and ticks can cause diseases in the pets themselves, and some of those diseases can be transferred from the pet to the family."

Even so, Owens says people should be cautious and should keep pets receiving treatment away from other animals and children. After all, he says, pesticides are poison. Copyright 2010 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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