Recently, I saw so many disturbing and heartbreaking posts about flea treatments, dips, baths, shampoos killing cats or causing severe mental issues, that I had to write this post. Hopefully, it will help spread the word and motivate people to do more research before buying over-the-counter flea products in stores.
It is so easy to hop on to Amazon or the local store and pick up the cheapest or the first flea product you see. Who would have ever thought something sold in stores can be toxic and harmful while its primary purpose is to help your pet! So thousands and thousands of people buy cheap over-the-counter flea products trusting the stores and the manufacturers that their product is good for pets. And, a lot of those people end up regretting their worst purchase in life that killed their pet or poisoned them resulting in negative consequences for days or even weeks. I can only imagine how awful and guilty those pet parents must feel. But it is not their fault. They didn’t know. Only after they had this awful negative experience, they learn about the toxicity of over-the-counter flea medications from their vet, with an enormous vet bill.
Flea products carry not only a risk for your pet but also humans that come in contact with the flea shampoo, collar or other flea products. If you have a toddler, they are at even higher risk from such products.
Most of the data in this post is from the NRDC document Poisons on Pets: Health Hazards from Flea and Tick Products (2000).
What is toxic in flea and tick treatments?
According to NRDC, organophosphates are the ones to blame for the toxicity of the flea products. Organophosphates are a group of chemicals most commonly used as insecticides. NRDC listed some harmful insecticides (which fall in the group of organophosphates) and the products that contain them in their document.
These are some of the compounds you should avoid in flea and tick products:
- Pyrethrins and pyrethroids
See page 50-52 of NRDC document for a more detailed list.
Signs of poisoning in cats
Cats are more vulnerable than dogs to poisoning from flea and tick treatments. This is presumably due to their smaller size relative to dogs, their grooming habits (frequent licking of fur), and their absence of enzymes needed to detoxify certain organophosphates, according to NRDC.
Some signs of OP poisoning in cats are
- watery eyes,
- lack of appetite,
- excessive salivation and urination,
- nervous signs such as tremors,
- behavioral changes such as hyperactivity.
But often, the signs are too subtle or atypical to connect it to poisoning so pet owners can’t easily know that their pet is poisoned.
Least toxic approach to getting rid of fleas
Before you treat your cat for fleas, NBCP suggests you first try non-toxic options for getting rid of fleas.
First, examine your pet to make sure they do have fleas. If they are scratching, it doesn’t necessarily have to be because of the fleas and ticks. Only after you are sure that your pet has fleas, you can start with the measures to get rid of the pests.
And yes, this non-toxic approach will be more time-consuming than a regular flea bath, but if it can help you avoid using harsh flea and tick treatments on your fur baby, it is worth it.
Sometimes, basic physical measures are enough to get rid of the fleas. So try this first:
- Bathe your pet with a regular cat shampoo (or a dog shampoo if you are treating your dog). Sometimes, this might be enough to get rid of the fleas.
- Use a flea comb to get the fleas out of your cat’s fur. Do this outside if you have a fenced yard so that the fleas don’t stay in your home, or dip the comb in a bowl of water after you get the fleas out of their fur, so they don’t jump back.
- Vacuum the entire house and wash the cat’s bedding.
- You can limit your pet’s outdoor time until you get rid of the flea issue.
These are cheap and non-toxic options that can help if you have a mild flea problem.
NRDC mentions prevention with insect growth regulators as a safer alternative. Insect growth regulators and insect development inhibitors stop the next generation of fleas from growing. I have none experience with those types of products, but I suggest you ask your vet about it if you think this could help in your situation.
If the fleas got out of the hand and you feel you must use a flea product, look at page 43 to see the list of safer flea and tick products for pets. But, again, I suggest you consult with your vet before doing any kind of purchase.
I might be too cautious about everything. But I think it’s better to be on the safe side and annoy your vet with too many questions than to buy a product that is not good for our cats. Keep in mind that this document and table of products is from the year 2000. There might be less-toxic products on the market now. I’m sure your vet can recommend one.
What to take from this
If there is something you should take from this post, it should be this:
- Never use products intended for dogs on cats.
- Make research before you buy any flea product and check with your vet to make sure the product will not hurt your cat.
- Avoid using products containing toxic pesticides such as the ones listed in the document, page 50-52.
- Follow the exact instructions on any product you use. Many cats were poisoned or even died because their owners applied too much of the product.
This post is just a preface to everything that should be known about the flea and tick products and there isn’t much info on this topic out there. All I could dig out is a great document from NRDC: Poisons on Pets: Health Hazards from Flea and Tick Products from the year 2000. So even if that document contains a bunch of valuable info, there are now new products on the market and new dangers.
Do your own research before buying any pesticide-based products for your cat. The one thing that worries me the most is that those harsh products we apply to our pets don’t even have to be tested for toxicity or potential dangers they carry before putting them on the market. Plus, the long-term consequences were never studied and we can only hope it won’t result in something bad for our pets and us.
Do you use over-the-counter flea and tick products? Do you worry about their effect on your cat?
Let me know in the comments!