Counterfeit Flea and Tick Products

"There is a risk to pets," confirms Joe Bailey, special assistant to the office director of the office of pesticide programs for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). "The products go through a rigorous process to be approved by the EPA, so unintended risks don’t occur to [affect the] health of people or pets, or affect the environment. When there are no controls, we can’t be sure of what’s in the box." The EPA allegations concerning counterfeit packaging, issued in early March, are a result of several years of ongoing investigations.

Specifically, the dosage might be different in the counterfeited products, according to Bob Walker, director of communications and public policy at Bayer Corp., manufacturer of Advantage, a spot-on flea preventive. Both Advantage and Frontline-a spot-on treatment for both fleas and ticks-are given to pets based on the kind of pet (dog or cat) and the animal’s weight. You don’t want to put a toy dog dosage of Advantage on a very large breed dog; it won’t work efficiently. And you definitely don’t want to overdose a small dog. "There’s no telling what’s inside (the counterfeit products), we know that the dosages aren’t always what they should be," Walker says.

Dr. Zak Mills, executive director of veterinary services at Merial Ltd., maker of Frontline says, "If you want to feel 100 percent confident about what you’re getting, purchase the product through your veterinarian." In fact, both Merial and Bayer only offer Frontline and Advantage directly through practicing licensed veterinarians. But despite this, both products can readily be purchased at retailers, through the Internet and toll-free telephone numbers (as advertised on TV). Some veterinarians actually order twice or five times as much as they need, and then re-sell the pesticides to other outlets, according to several industry sources. But these veterinarians are in the minority, and both Bayer and Merial are doing what they can to prevent these tactics in the first place, according to both companies.

If the makers of Frontline and Advantage aren’t selling to sources other than vets, how are the illicit sellers getting these products? The EPA refuses to comment, suggesting their investigations are ongoing. Merial and Bayer say they don’t know. So it remains a mystery, at least for now. "We’re only beginning to understand the scope of the problem," Walker says.

Many consumers bypass vets to buy Frontline and Advantage elsewhere in order to save money. But the savings aren’t always there. After taxes and/or shipping fees, Frontline, Advantage and similar products available from other outlets can actually cost more.

Other pet health products, which are also supposed to be sold exclusively at veterinarians’ offices, are increasingly available via these other sources. And if there’s a question about what’s inside the package and/or dosing, a pet’s life may be at risk. For example, Advantix is a flea and tick preventive for dogs, but can be lethal if used on a cat. What if Advantix is inside a package that is labeled Advantage for cats? This is an absolutely hypothetical example, so Bailey at the EPA wouldn’t speculate.

Mills says he’s optimistic as the EPA goes after the offenders, the action will effectively cut off at least some of the counterfeit supply, The EPA main office in Washington, D.C., won’t comment on how they are doing that, or even exactly who the violators are. In a press release, the San Francisco EPA office said, "The counterfeit pesticides appear to have been unlawfully imported."

The American Veterinary Medical Association does not endorse specific products for flea and/or tick prevention. However, Dr. Bruce W. Little, AVMA executive vice president, does endorse the idea of consumers purchasing these products through licensed veterinarians for their own protection and in their pets’ best interest.