Spot-On Pet Medications Might Not Be As Safe As You Think

babykittyThis post is one of a series. If this topic interests you please see:
My Cat Has Fleas: Earth Friendly Solutions
My Cat Has Fleas: Update
Pet Meds Don’t Work

Why Not IPM?

You know, like most people, I have an authority problem. When someone like my veterinarian tells me how to take care of my pet I tend to believe him/her. Because taking care of pets is a vet’s day job. Because I am aware veterinarians get specialized training.

Except, even experts aren’t immune to being influenced.

Up to 14% of a veterinarian’s practice (especially in the warmer regions of the United States) relies on flea product sales. How do vets keep up to date about these products? The sales rep who visits the office or hosts a seminar obviously occupies an influential position. Add on the branded schwag and a plethora of ads placed in trade publications and it isn’t hard to see how the use of pesticides might be the first solution that springs to mind. In my experience most vets seem unwilling or unaware of IPM (integrated pest management) approaches. The advice most frequently given is that if you see fleas go for the hardest hitting pesticide first.

In contrast, an IPM approach begins with the least toxic option instead. The Texas IPM site speaks of garden pests but the principle applies:

The goal of IPM is not to eradicate pests, but to eliminate pest problems …

Emphasis is given to cultural (non-chemical tactics) and biological (biological control using predators, parasite and pathogens) methods of control.  Properly-applied chemical control methods are used only when justified, and then by choosing the least toxic methods.

The potential for inappropriate pesticide use has gotten worse recently. Now that fipronil’s patent has expired people no longer need a gate-keeper to purchase these products. They are easily bought over the counter at big name stores. As a result, a lot of pet owners have lost the opportunity to hear a conscientious vet’s cautions about pesticide use.

(Note: not all vets have been compromised of course. Back in the day I did see one vet who urged me to try other approaches first.)

Recent History: the EPA and Spot-On Pet Medications

Beginning in 2008, people began noticing that the numbers of pets having adverse reactions to “spot-on” pet medications was not only rising but rising continuously over time. This pattern suggested that pets might be building up toxins within their bodies through repeated use. Pets were also dying earlier, becoming more obese and developing cancers more frequently. People wanted to know if the increase in health concerns might be connected to pesticide use.

By May, 2009,  the relentless public pressure finally pushed the EPA to formally put spot-on pet medications under scrutiny. The use of the word ‘scrutiny’ is ironic but apt. The English word comes from the Latin word scruta, meaning rubbish. So basically, a scrutiny is a dig through the garbage. Seen that way I can better understand the EPA’s reluctance to complete this chore.

The EPA started collecting information and asked for public comments. This page holds the public comments describing the suffering of pets poisoned by these products. Some of these accounts make for a heartbreaking read. Take a deep breath first if you decide to go there.

In March of 2010 the EPA met with the manufacturers to discuss their findings. Following the meeting the EPA hosted a webinar for the public.

Does that sequence of events sound odd to you? It almost seems as if the EPA were representing the manufacturers instead of the public. In my mind’s eye, I see two thieves huddled together at the police station making sure their stories will agree.

The Recommendations

The recommendations that came out of the review do sound like they were written by the industry. There was no admission that the products were toxic; instead, they spun the story to sound like pet owners were ignorant and negligent. The EPA recommended:

  • using a larger font and adding pictures to the packaging;
  • educating the public that cat and dog medications were not interchangeable;
  • packaging dosage according to pet weights to make sure an 8 pound dog would encounter less toxin than a 30 pound dog, for example.

The EPA did ask for stricter testing before future products enter the market but since all the research is done by the industry rather than independent agencies this seems pointless — especially since no guidelines or definition of what stricter testing might look like was offered.

At the time, the EPA were working with a poor set of data concerning the actual number of complaints of death and damage to pets. Besides the public comments, they only knew of the complaints that manufacturers were willing to report and some of those sources were known to be unreliable. Manufacturers such as Hartz had already been fined multiple times for inaccurate reporting. Since then, the EPA created a reporting mechanism that veterinarians can use to report incidents but those numbers don’t seem to be available to the public and most vet offices don’t seem to test for toxins. Many lack the equipment to do so.

I kind of feel the EPA’s response cheated us. One of the chief concerns, potential problems from long term dosing of pets, was never even examined. I can guess why. Even back in Rachel Carson’s day scientists were telling us that there is no safe dose for these kinds of poisons because they tend to build up over time. The very idea that there can be a safe minimum dosage is a lie. Plus, the EPA was already aware that some ingredients in over the counter pet meds are known carcinogens. Never mind the ‘inert’ ingredients that tend to create synergistic effects … or how some of these poisons become MORE toxic as they break down.

And Since Then?

I guess the EPA assumes that once they made their recommendations the issue could be considered closed and didn’t require review. I have not been able to find any follow up information on their site. Have you?


9 thoughts on “Spot-On Pet Medications Might Not Be As Safe As You Think

  1. Vet in the family. Be aware that vaccinations are also to be questioned. Consider the exposure you pet faces – if not around other animals and indoors only, may not be necessary – certainly these can be given less frequently and still maintain protection against diseases.
    Climate and lifestyle should also be considered with flea treatments. Here in semi-tropics must keep infestation from happening in the first place in homes and yard. But be wary. Some brands/combos are more dangerous than others – do the research for breed and area.
    Shampoos should also be given scrutiny and chosen with care ( If you don’t do it yourself, what does your groomer use? Do you know?)
    Chemicals don’t always mean better lives, sorry, marketing


  2. Embedded microchips are also suspected to giving pets cancer. My samoyed died of brain cancer at 9 years old, young for her breed. I always felt guilty knowing I may have shortened her life. She also was on Advantage.


    1. Oh, I am sorry to hear this, Donna. That was the worst part about reading the public comments to the EPA: people expressed such terrible guilt for unknowingly hurting/killing their pets. Yet they couldn’t be blamed … when things are so commonplace we trust them to be safe.


  3. Thank you for a very interesting post. I don’t have a pet at the moment but I have used these “Spot on” products in the past and so have many of my friends and had been unaware that there was this ongoing concern with them. Well I know now and what you say makes very good sense. Thank you.


    1. Thanks. I was happy to do this. These toxins are so common place people think they must be safe — at least I used to think so.


  4. We can all be so complacent about chemical pest control. The idea that we are typically employing a neurotoxin gets overlooked. Insects aren’t the only ones with nervous systems and lifelong exposure, endurance of toxicity and the potential for build-up are factors we ignore at everyone’s peril. IPM provides many better starting points with the chemical option in place if it is called for – but only as a last resort. Chemicals are costly in more ways than one.


    1. I know and I am so mad at myself for being so gullible all these years. Why didn’t I ever question these guys? *head smack


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