"My tabby, Sparkle, had fleas on her skin, which ended up all over my home," she said. "We had to bomb the house with chemicals a few times to make sure they were all gone."
While stories like Carter’s are familiar to veterinarians, the Environmental Protection Agency has recently become more concerned about the harm anti-flea-and-tick chemicals may do. After an increase in reports of adverse incidents associated with these medications in 2008, the EPA has made product-labeling rules more stringent and has also increased safety review standards.
Below, Dr. Katy Nelson, a Virginia-based emergency veterinarian, weighs in on the pros and cons of using chemicals – and more natural alternatives – to keep your feline free of fleas.
The more stringent EPA labeling requirements clearly reflect where the bulk of problems with flea and tick preventives lie: with cat owners who don’t use them correctly, giving incorrect doses or canine-only products on their cats.
"My biggest piece of advice is to really read the label," says Nelson. "If you’re not sure about the instructions, pick up the phone and call your vet. Never assume a product made for a dog is safe for your cat just because the animals weigh the same."
The Benefits of Traditional Products
Flea and tick products contain small amounts of chemicals that keep fleas and ticks at bay, protecting your cat not only from disease-carrying bites, but also from ingesting fleas – often carriers of tapeworms. "Cats are good groomers. If a flea is biting them, they’re likely to eat it long before you see it," says Nelson.
The risk of tick-borne illness is greater, as ticks carry more deadly diseases, including Lyme disease. Many traditional repellents also contain protection against flies and mosquitoes. Mosquitoes transmit heartworm larvae, so keeping your furry friend from getting bitten is crucial to its heart health as well.
Nelson, like most veterinarians, is a strong proponent of these products. "Since the preventives have been available, the incidence of heartworm, intestinal parasites and tick-borne diseases has gone down dramatically," she says. "The risk of these diseases is much worse than the risk of using a preventive that contains chemicals."
The Risks of Traditional Products
"Most of the risk is misuse," emphasizes Nelson. For example, Canine Advantix contains a chemical compound that cannot be metabolized by cats and can cause them severe harm.
Side effects in cats have, on rare occasion, included skin irritation, vomiting and diarrhea, and even (in rare cases) seizures. It is unclear whether pet owners who reported these problems used the products correctly. Even if you carefully follow the directions, it’s a good idea to monitor your cat’s reaction to flea and tick products, especially the first time you use them.
Natural Pest Prevention
Some natural flea and tick repellents are ingestible, containing ingredients like garlic; others are "spot on" and contain active ingredients like peppermint and cinnamon oils.
"Natural products can potentially help some. But they don’t have the guarantees and the backing of veterinarians and the pharmaceutical companies, who will pay in full for disease treatment if your pet gets, say, heartworm while using their products," says Nelson.
Even with their stepped-up standards, the EPA continues to recommend use of products containing chemical pesticides. "Most people use the products with no harm to their pets," reports the EPA. "They can be appropriate treatments for protecting the public health – both animals and humans."
Nelson agrees and says she has seen very few incidents of flea and tick product-related sickness in her career. She says the worst she has observed is a cat having a slight reaction and getting an itchy face. However, it’s better to risk such a possible side effect than to deal with a house full of parasites and the diseases they can spread.