Spot-On Flea and Tick Products: Never Ever Apply This to Your Cats (Not Even a Drop)... Can Kill Within Hours

Spot-on Flea and Tick Product

Story at-a-glance

  • Recently, over a four-week period, four cats in the Pittsburgh area died after they were treated with “spot-on” flea and tick products intended for use on dogs.
  • According to staff at the veterinary clinic that treated the cats, the warning “Do not use on cats” on the canine spot-on product appeared in very small print. In addition, the owner of two of the cats thought it would be okay to apply “just a drop” of the canine treatment on his pets. Veterinary staff believe a label warning more along the lines of, “THIS PRODUCT COULD KILL YOUR CAT” is needed to prevent these kinds of tragedies.
  • Based on the deaths of these four kitties and the veterinary staff’s comments about labeling issues with spot-on treatments, it would seem not every manufacturer of these products has complied with the EPA’s labeling recommendations issued two years ago.
  • If you’re concerned about the dangers of spot-on treatments, there are ways to avoid using the products altogether -- these include substituting safe pest deterrents like cedar oil, food-grade diatomaceous earth, and fresh garlic. It’s also important to bathe and brush pets regularly and perform frequent full-body inspections to check for parasite activity.
  • If you find yourself with no choice but to use chemical flea/tick treatments, there are several things you can do to make application of these products as safe as possible for your pet.

By Dr. Becker

I've been writing about the dangers of spot-on flea and tick treatments for years, and recently I ran across yet another report illustrating just how toxic these products can be.

Four Cats Die from Misuse of Spot-on Flea and Tick Products

According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, four family cats died in a recent four-week period because their owners treated them with spot-on products intended for dogs. In one tragic case, the owners noticed fleas on both their cats, so they applied "just a drop" of a topical spot-on flea treatment on each kitty. Within hours both cats were very sick and one was having convulsions. The owners immediately took both kitties to a veterinary clinic, but neither survived.

In this case, the owners knew the flea treatment was intended for dogs, but figured a small amount would be safe for cats.

The practice manager at Greentree Animal Clinic where all four cats were taken said, "I am very upset that the warning on the canine flea topical – 'Do not use on cats' – is so very small. I wish it said 'This product could kill your cat' in very large letters."

The staff at Greentree contacted the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette to help spread the word about the extreme danger of using spot-on products indiscriminately.

Why Spot-on Flea and Tick Products Can Be Hazardous to Your Pet's Health

It would seem, based on the deaths of these poor cats and the comments by the Greentree practice manager about problems with spot-on product labeling, that perhaps not much has changed since the EPA issued its first advisory about these products over four and a half years ago, in April 2009. What prompted that advisory were over 44,000 reports of adverse reactions during 2008, including 600 deaths. This was a 50 percent increase in reported incidents in a single year.

In March 2010, the EPA published the results of a year-long study of spot-on products. Their findings included the following:

  • 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 excessive 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 high 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.

EPA Recommendations and Drug Company Responses

Based on their findings, the EPA determined that spot-on product labels needed to provide clearer warnings against using treatments meant for dogs on cats. The agency also recommended that manufacturers lower recommended dosages for some pets to prevent over-medicating.

In September 2011, the EPA sent a letter to companies manufacturing spot-on products requesting that they submit a draft of label and packaging changes to include:

  • Larger font sizes on labels and images of animals that allow users to quickly determine whether the product is for a dog or a cat.
  • Precise language on labels of products for dogs that warns against use on cats, plus repetition of the word "dog" or "cat" in product instructions, plus the addition of a "cat prohibition icon" in the lower right corner of canine product packages.
  • More language about the potential for adverse reactions and instructions on who to contact if a reaction occurs.
  • Narrower weight ranges, appropriate pictures of weight ranges, and more clearly defined species, age and weight ranges.

The EPA asked for the new label drafts within six months, which would have been April 2012.

In May 2012, the VIN (Veterinary Information Network) News Service noted that, "It's unclear whether manufacturers ultimately will make all of the EPA's suggested label changes." The EPA explained that it was "going back and forth" with companies to approve new labels and packaging, but the agency would not confirm or deny whether any changed labels had made it into the marketplace.

A spokesman for the EPA told the VIN News Service, "Some registrants are proposing alternate language or an alternate approach to address the mitigation changes requested."

A couple of spot-on manufacturers claimed they had already made changes to their labels. Others responded that they were still in discussions with or were "working closely with" the EPA on the topic.

Meanwhile, consumers alleging the use of spot-on products caused skin irritation, paralysis, seizures, and death in their pets have filed class-action lawsuits against several spot-on drug makers, including FidoPharm, Summit VetPharm, Hartz Mountain Corp., Sergeant's Pet Care Products, Bayer, Farnam, Merial and Wellmark.

Alternatives to Spot-on Products

Regardless of improvements to the labeling of spot-on pesticides, please know there are safer solutions for flea and tick control for your pet. Chemical pesticides, no matter what form they come in, can have side effects.

Just because a spot-on product is applied to the outside of your pet doesn't mean it can't make its way inside. Any sort of product applied to your pet's coat and skin can be absorbed into the body.

Alternatives I recommend include:

  • A safe, natural pest deterrent.
  • Cedar oil (specifically manufactured for pet health).
  • Natural, food-grade diatomaceous earth.
  • Fresh garlic -- work with your holistic vet to determine a safe amount for your pet's body weight.
  • Feeding a balanced, species-appropriate diet. The healthier your dog or cat is, the less appealing she'll be to parasites. A biologically appropriate diet supports a strong immune system.
  • Bathing and brushing your pet regularly and performing frequent full-body inspections to check for parasite activity.
  • Making sure your indoor and outdoor environments are unfriendly to pests.

If You MUST Use a Chemical Flea/Tick Control Product

If you find yourself faced with no choice but to use a chemical pest preventive, I strongly urge you to take the following steps to reduce the health 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.
  • Use only when your pet is in a high-risk environment (i.e. camping in a Lyme disease endemic area), then discontinue.
  • Monitor your pet for symptoms and adverse reactions after you apply a chemical product -- especially when using one for the first time.
  • Consult your holistic vet about natural therapies that can help alleviate your pet's toxic load.