In mid-March the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) held a free, public webinar titled “Evaluation of Pet Spot-on Flea and Tick Products and Next Steps.”
The purpose of the webinar was to discuss findings from a five-year study of flea and tick products. The increased scrutiny was prompted by rising rates of adverse effects from these products.
"(Current) label warnings simply are not working,” according to Steve Owens, assistant administrator of EPA's Office of Prevention, Pesticides and Toxic Substances.
To combat it, the EPA is calling for new labeling requirements including warnings, a listing of possible symptoms, better labeling instructions, dosage guidelines for consumers and even possible restrictions of certain ingredients. No products are being banned, but Owens says EPA isn't ruling out such drastic measures in the future.
In April of last year, the EPA issued an advisory about “spot-on” chemical products. These are products applied to the neck or back of dogs and cats as a flea and tick preventive.
The advisory was issued due to a significant increase in reported adverse reactions -- everything from mild skin irritation to seizures and death. In 2008, over 44,000 reactions presumed to be tied to spot-on products were reported by pet owners, veterinarians and other animal caretakers.
If you’re wondering why the EPA is involved in regulation of a pet medication, it’s because these particular products are considered pesticides, and pesticides fall under the EPA’s jurisdiction.
At the time the advisory was issued, manufacturers of spot-on flea and tick products predictably pointed out that no cause-and-effect relationship between the products and reported adverse reactions had been confirmed.
Common sense and the first-hand experience of people who have used the products, however, points to the extremely high likelihood that 44,000 reports in a single year do indeed link application of the products with adverse reactions.
And in fact, the 44,000 reported incidents in 2008 is a significant jump from 28,000 the prior year, and includes 600 deaths.
In my opinion, the risks of these products are simply too great to warrant their routine (monthly) use. I encourage my dog and cat owner clients to avoid these pesticides in favor of safer alternatives.
I’ll discuss my recommendations for harmless, natural flea and tick control a little later in this article.
What the EPA Found
- Most adverse reactions were seen in dogs weighing between 10 and 20 pounds.
- Reactions in mixed breed dogs were most commonly reported, however, the Chihuahua, Shih Tzu, Miniature Poodle, Pomeranian, Dachshund, Maltese, Yorkshire Terrier and Bichon Frise seem particularly at risk.
- Products containing cyphenothrin and permethrin were especially problematic for small breed dogs.
- Most incidents occurred in dogs under three years old, likely at their first exposure to a spot-on product.
- Adverse reactions for both dogs and cats were primarily skin, GI tract and nervous system related. Skin reactions included redness, itching, hair loss, sores and ulcers.
- Gastrointestinal symptoms included vomiting, diarrhea and salivation.
- Reported nervous system symptoms included lethargy, nervousness, ataxia (movement problems), tremors and seizure.
- A number of adverse reactions in cats were the result of the cat either being treated with a product intended for dogs, or through exposure to a treated dog. Cats treated with products intended for dogs had an especially rate of serious reactions and fatalities.
- Inert ingredients in spot-on products were generally assumed to contribute to toxicity.
- Dosage ranges were considered to be too wide in some cases.
- Product labeling was identified as needing a revamp in many cases.
- The EPA’s Companion Animal Studies guidelines are insufficient to predict the toxicity of spot-on products.
The full EPA report can be found here, and includes a list of the specific products reviewed and the adverse reactions reported for each. For more information, you can also review the EPA Analysis and Mitigation Plan.
My Recommendations for Safe, Natural Flea and Tick Control
In addition to the risks associated with spot-on treatments, there is simply no chemical based pest control pill, dip, solution, shampoo, or collar that is without the potential for side effects.
Just because a compound is applied to or worn on your pet’s fur doesn’t mean it’s safe. Remember: what goes on your pet goes in your pet, by absorption through the skin or ingestion during grooming.
Fleas, ticks, mosquitoes and other parasites feed first on unhealthy animals. So the goal of preventive pest control is to bring your dog or cat to optimal health, which will make him naturally more resilient and less attractive to parasites.
Toward that end, I encourage you to work with your holistic vet -- visit the American Holistic Veterinary Medicine Association to find one who should also be able to provide a number of natural products for pest control.
Here are just a few suggestions:
- Essential oil sprays containing lavender, peppermint, geranium, lemongrass or citronella can be very effective as parasite deterrents. You need to purchase a pre-blended product or work with an animal aromatherapist to make sure you’re using safe oils at the correct concentration as dog and cat doses are different
- Cedar oil is a long-recognized flea eradicator, and products exist that are specially formulated for cats and dogs.
- Natural, food-grade diatomaceous earth helps to remove fleas and ticks from your pet’s body.
- Fresh garlic can be given to dogs and cats to prevent internal as well as external parasites. Work with your vet to determine a safe amount for your pet’s body weight.
If You Must Use a Chemical Pest Preventive, Here Are Some Tips for Reducing the Risk to Your Pet
- Be very careful to follow dosing directions on the label, and if your pet is at the low end of a dosage range, step down to the next lowest dosage. Be extremely cautious with small dogs, especially if you own one of the breeds reported to be at high risk for adverse reactions. And do not under any circumstances apply dog product to your cat.
- Don’t depend exclusively on chemical treatments. Rotate natural preventives with chemical ones. An every other month rotation works well for many pet owners. In many parts of the country owners find they can successfully control ticks with 2 doses a year: one in the spring and one in the late summer.
- Monitor your pet for adverse reactions after you apply a chemical product – especially when using one for the first time. Keep an eye out for symptoms like those described in numbers 5, 6 and 7 above under “What the EPA Found.”
- Since your pet’s liver will be tasked with processing the chemicals that make it into the bloodstream, it can be very beneficial to give your dog or cat a supplement to help detoxify her liver. I recommend milk thistle, which is a detox agent and also helps to actually regenerate liver cells.
You can get milk thistle through your holistic vet, who should also guide you on how much to give your pet depending on her age, weight and the medications she’s taking. I recommend one dose daily for seven days following any flea, tick or heartworm application.
- Another product I recommend is chlorella, a super green food that is a very powerful detox agent. Your holistic vet should also advise you about how much chlorella to give your pet.
Remember -- keeping your pet’s immune system healthy and strong is the best way to help him fight off parasites as well as disease. A high quality, species appropriate diet is the foundation upon which your pet’s good health and long life must be built.