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EPA and FDA Acting to Increase Public Awareness of Dangers of Cheap Flea Control Products

Right from the start, let me say that I don't think the EPA and FDA are going far enough. Now, on to the story. If...

Dr. Eric Barchas  |  Mar 25th 2010


Right from the start, let me say that I don’t think the EPA and FDA are going far enough. Now, on to the story.

If you want to see someone get mad, mention the words Hartz or Sargeant’s to a veterinarian. Seriously, try it.

These companies make topical flea control products for cats and dogs. The products are available at many pet and grocery stores (shame on the stores that sell these products!). Their packaging makes them look like Advantage or Frontline. Many people actually think they are buying Advantage or Frontline when they buy Hartz or Sargeant’s.

But, to paraphrase Lloyd Bentsen, Sargeant’s is no Frontline.

Frontline, Advantage, Vectra and Comfortis were originally veterinary-only products. A lively black market rapidly sprung up for Frontline and Advantage, and some pet stores have been selling the products for years. Costco now sells Frontline.

Most veterinary products are designed act on nerve cells that only fleas or other arthropods possess. They therefore are very toxic to fleas and very non-toxic to mammals (although individual dogs and cats can react to the active or inert ingredients in any of the products).

Most cheap over-the-counter products contain pyrethrins or pyrethroids. These pesticides are toxic to just about every creature. Fleas and other arthropods are most sensitive. Cats are next. Then come dogs. Their margin of safety is poor. It is my opinion that these products are dangerous, period.

Problems occur most commonly when people accidentally apply a tube of canine Hartz or Sargeant’s to a cat. Problems also occur when a product designed for a larger animal is applied to a smaller one. However, I have seen many adverse reactions to these products when they have been used correctly.

Consider a pair of cats that I treated two nights ago at the emergency hospital. The owner had purchased Sargeant’s topical flea control for them and her dog. She had applied the properly sized feline product on each cat. She had applied the appropriate canine product to the dog. None of the animals consumed the products orally. She thought she would save some money by using a cheaper product.

All three animals rapidly developed tremors (progressing to seizures in the cats), disorientation, and irregular behavior. The dog improved and was able to go home after the family veterinarian bathed him in dish soap. The cats were not so lucky. Despite bathing and clipping hair that was coated with the poison, both cats continued to suffer from symptoms. One cat had a nasty blister at the application site. Both cats required hospitalization, IV fluids, intensive care monitoring, and regular injections of muscle relaxants, sedatives, and anti-seizure medicines.

I expect all three animals to survive. When my shift ended the owner’s total veterinary bills were $2,600 and counting. So much for saving money.

Like every owner in this situation, she felt extremely guilty and very angry. She had no idea that Sargeant’s was so dangerous. I have seen dozens of similar cases. In every one of these cases the affected animals experienced adverse reactions far worse than I have ever seen from Advantage or Frontline.

Enter the Environmental Protection Agency and the Food and Drug Administration. From the EPA website:

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is pursuing a series of actions to increase the safety of spot-on pesticide products for flea and tick control for cats and dogs. Immediately, EPA will begin reviewing labels and determining which ones need stronger and clearer labeling statements. EPA will also develop more stringent testing and evaluation requirements for both existing and new products. EPA expects these steps will help prevent adverse reactions from pet spot-on products.

EPA is coordinating with Health Canada and with the Food and Drug Administrations Center for Veterinary Medicine on these actions.

EPA doesn’t name names, but I will. HARTZ and SARGEANT’S!

I wish EPA would ban these products. Sadly, that doesn’t seem likely. I urge you, in the strongest terms possible, never to use these products.