Flea & Tick Treatments: Are They the Best Option?

Categories: Dog Health
By Amy Wence

Fleas and ticks are the number one enemy to dogs, cats, and pet owners everywhere. They are not only a nuisance, but can transmit diseases to both pets and humans alike. Not to mention, an infestation can be a nightmare to deal with; especially when multiple animals live in the home. Flea and tick preventatives seem like the obvious choice and simplest approach for dealing with such unwelcome pests. While many of these products are effective in killing fleas and ticks, their toxicity to humans and animals should be taken under serious consideration before using. Veterinarians commonly recommend flea/tick preventatives, but this does not mean they are totally safe. Veterinarians prescribe many medications that have risks or side effects involved and flea/tick treatments are no exception. So, what is a pet owner to do? Well, the objective here is to present facts, discuss options, and educate owners so that you can make an informed decision when it comes to flea and tick treatment and prevention.

Get the Facts

The most common topical flea and tick preventatives on the market today are EPA registered pesticides. These include: Frontline, Frontline Plus, Advantage & K-9 Advantix; just to name a few. For a complete list, visit: http://www.epa.gov/opp00001/health/prodname-reg.pdf. In April of 2009, the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) began investigating these monthly “spot-on” flea and tick treatments after a significant increase in the number of adverse reactions and even deaths being reported. “Incidents reported by consumers who used the products on their pets rose from 28,895 in 2007 to 44,263 in 2008, an increase of 53 percent in one year. Most of the problems were minor, such as skin rashes, but about 600 dogs and cats died in the incidents reported in 2008, EPA records show” (http://www.thedailygreen.com/environmental-news/latest/is-frontline-safe-0318 ).   After a year-long investigation, the EPA reported: “The main organ systems affected were the dermal, gastrointestinal, and nervous systems. Clinical signs included such effects as vomiting, diarrhea, salivation, itching, hair loss, skin ulceration, lethargy, nervousness, ataxia, tremors, and seizure. Although most incidents were classified minor, all products had some deaths and/or incidents classified as major” (http://www.regulations.gov/search/Regs/home.html#documentDetail?R=0900006480abc643). The EPA investigation also found that small dogs (<20lbs) were most at risk for an adverse reaction from the spot-on pesticide. In response to the findings, the EPA plans to place further restrictions on dosages and labels, as well as impose tighter regulations which include standardized reporting, pre-market clinical trials and post-market surveillance.

Weigh the Risks

According to Merial, the manufacturer of Frontline, “When you apply FRONTLINE, fipronil, the active ingredient, is stored in the oil glands under your pet’s skin. It is then distributed continuously to the skin and hair of your pet through the hair follicles.” (http://frontline.us.merial.com/prd_how.asp) This statement taken directly from Merial’s website is misleading because it gives the impression that the pesticide does not migrate further into the body affecting other organs. However, an EPA study that used radio-labeled fipronil demonstrated that it is indeed absorbed systemically in dogs. (http://www.epa.gov/pesticides/chemical/foia/cleared-reviews/reviews/129121/129121-85b.pdf)   That is a major concern considering the hazards pesticides pose to the body. Topical flea and tick treatments may use low concentrations of pesticide, but one should question the cumulative health effects from a lifetime of small doses of poison. Chronic diseases can take years to manifest and it may be impossible to pinpoint the cause. Furthermore, the EPA does not require cumulative effects of the products to be tested before it can be registered and made commercially available. Therefore, we may never know the chronic effects such products can have on our dogs (or cats). However, at higher concentrations we know from laboratory animal studies, that Fipronil (used in Frontline products), Imidacloprid (used in Advantage and K9 Advantix), and Permethrin (used in K9 Advantix and BioSpot) are carcinogens (cancer-causing agents), neurotoxins, teratogens (reproductive damage), and are capable of causing organ damage. These products are not only a concern for your pet, but also for the other members of your family. Kids are especially a concern because they often play and come into close contact with pets and can accidentally ingest these pesticides. Also, children’s nervous systems are still developing, so doses that may be safe for adults are not safe for children and can cause lasting damage. To learn more about the dangers these products pose to young children, please visit: http://www2.nrdc.org/health/effects/npets.asp

Ok, so fleas are more of a nuisance, but ticks are a little more worrisome because of the nasty diseases they carry. If you feel it necessary to use pesticides for fear of ticks alone, consider this: Many of the tick-borne diseases, including Lyme and Anaplasmosis, are transmitted within 24-48 from the time the tick attaches to its host. Frontline Plus does not repel ticks or even prevent them from attaching. Instead, it kills ticks within 48 hours of contact (http://frontline.us.merial.com/hlp_faq.asp); which means ticks still have an opportunity to transmit disease before being killed. Also, the more common tick-borne diseases can be caught early with testing or annual screenings and can be treated successfully with relatively safe and inexpensive antibiotics.

Know Your Alternatives

Although harsh pesticides are probably most effective in killing fleas, there are safer alternatives to explore. They may require a little more effort on your part, but the upside is that they do not pose any health risks. Natural ways to keep fleas and ticks at bay include: regular grooming with a flea comb, use of a tick removing device such as Ticked Off (http://hikingclub.lovingpawsllc.com/gear ), bathing your dog in soapy water, vacuuming, and regular washing of bedding. Keeping outdoor areas trimmed also helps. Essential oils can be useful as well, but beware that not all essential oils are safe. Some, such as clove and pennyroyal oil may cause severe allergic reactions and should be avoided.  Herbal or natural products that contain cedarwood, lemongrass, peppermint, rosemary and thyme are safest.

Make a Choice

Now that you have the facts and are aware of the risks and alternatives, it’s time to decide what’s right for you and your pet. If you’d like more help with your decision, the NRDC (National Resource Defense Council) has a wonderful site called www.greenpaws.org; which is dedicated to educating pet owners about various flea and tick treatments. On the website, there is a nifty product guide that assesses the risk level of each product, giving it one paw for the safest and three paws for the most hazardous. And for a quick pocket guide to safer flea and tick treatment, please visit: http://www.greenpaws.org/_docs/GP_pocketguide.pdf


1.       http://www.epa.gov/pesticides/health/petproductseval.html

2.       http://www.apnm.org/publications/resources/fleachemfin.pdf

3.       http://www.greenpaws.org/

4.       http://www.thedailygreen.com/environmental-news/latest/is-frontline-safe-0318

5.       http://frontline.us.merial.com/prd_how.asp

6.       http://www2.nrdc.org/health/effects/npets.asp

7.       http://www.epa.gov/pesticides/chemical/foia/cleared-reviews/reviews/129121/129121-85b.pdf