Cyphenothrin Toxicity: Negative Reactions to Sergeant’s Gold Flea and Tick Squeeze-On in Dogs

Sally is a dog lover who appreciates canine companionship, but she understands that it isn't for everyone. Owning a dog is a big commitment.

Flea and Tick Product Toxicity in Dogs

I want to start out by saying that there are lots of websites and message boards online that tell you not to use Sergeant's Gold Flea and Tick Squeeze-On, and they are all correct; however, I (like many people) had not seen them when I did use this product and my dog experienced problems with it.

Prescription Products Can Be Expensive

In the course of this incident, I talked to quite a few people who advised me that over-the-counter flea products are worthless and dangerous and should never be used. That may very well be true, but I know that there are lots of people just like me who want to do something to keep fleas off their pets and simply do not have the money to buy prescription products from the vet.

I fully understand that choosing to buy OTC flea products is not necessarily a matter of not thinking your pet is worth the money (as many people will imply). It’s a matter of just not having the money. Although I now think you would be wise not to choose this particular product, the purpose of this article is not to tell you not to use it.

Know What to Do If Your Dog Has a Reaction

The purpose of this article is to tell you what to expect and what to do if you do use this product and your dog has problems. I am writing this article because when I was looking for just this kind of information online, I didn’t find it! So here’s what happened with me and my dog. I hope it’s helpful for you.

How to Find a Safe Product

When using over-the-counter flea products, it is important to protect yourself and your dog by:

  • Doing your research first
  • Asking your vet for advice
  • Avoiding products containing cyphenothrin
  • Keeping your receipts
  • Keeping all packaging
  • Reading instructions completely
  • Applying the product carefully
  • Staying with and observing your dog after application

Warnings and Side Effects for Flea Prevention

My Dog's Scary Reaction

There are many over-the-counter preparations for fighting fleas and ticks in dogs. I’ve used a variety of brands for a number of years without problems. I’ve heard that other people’s dogs have had negative reactions, but that has not been the case with my dogs; however, yesterday I got a little careless and neglected to read the application instructions before giving my dogs their first flea treatment of the flea season.

When the Symptoms Appeared

I applied Sergeant’s Gold Flea and Tick Squeeze-On as I had applied a different product last year in spots at the shoulder blades and base of the tail. This was at about 6 pm in the evening. All was well for several hours. I took my big dogs out for their walk, gave them dinner, and settled in for the evening. Then, my oldest dog, Daisy, began licking at the spot at the base of her tail. She began to gag and became very anxious, shaking, and acting like she wanted to jump out of her skin.

She was also drooling and seemed to be a little bit off-balance, but it was hard to tell if it was a reaction to the chemicals or just anxiety because she tends to be an anxious, shaky sort of dog anyway. She paced around the room and seemed like she didn’t want to put her feet on the floor.

Symptoms of Topical Flea Treatment Toxicity

Here's what to watch out for when using cyphenothrin and topical flea products in dogs. The following symptoms may indicate an adverse reaction:

  • Drooling
  • Anxiety
  • Trembling
  • Hair standing on end
  • Unsteady gait
  • Tenderness in paws
  • Seizures (in severe cases)

What to Do If Your Dog Shows Signs of Toxicity

Here's what to do if your dog has a negative reaction to cyphenothrin or any other topical flea product:

  1. Wash your dog thoroughly with warm water and dish soap (no bleach added).
  2. Keep your dog comfortable and keep a close eye on him/her.
  3. Make sure water is available and encourage your dog to drink.
  4. Do not induce vomiting.
  5. If no improvement is noted within 30 minutes, take your dog to the vet.

Call the Manufacturer to Report It

I called the number on the Sergeant’s package (1-800-781-4738) and it was answered right away by a woman who told me to wash all the product off of Daisy using dish soap (with no bleach added) and water and to take her to the vet if her symptoms worsened.

She said that the amount Daisy would have gotten licking it off one spot like that was not enough to do damage, but it would taste terrible and cause a tingling pins-and-needles sensation in the mouth and throat. The woman also gave me her name and a case number for future reference.

I washed Daisy off, made her comfortable, and looked up the chemical (cyphenothrin) online and found toxicity and regulatory information.

Warnings About Seargent's Gold Flea and Tick Product

It seems that this pesticide has caused problems in a number of dogs, but in small amounts, it is not fatal, and it doesn’t cause permanent damage except in large doses. The treatment recommended is to wash the affected area and to give water to the dog to dilute any of the product that has been swallowed. Instructions said not to induce vomiting.

Other instructions I located explained that, if washing did not help, you should take your dog to an emergency clinic where a medication called Robaxin (methocarbamol) would be given to stop the shaking and then the dog would be given IV fluids to help with a quick recovery.

Daisy’s symptoms started at about midnight, worsened for an hour (she experienced some weakness in her legs), and then became less and less until about 6:30 am when she got up and had some food and water.

What Our Veterinarian Had to Say

When I talked with my own vet in the morning, he said that if Daisy did not seem fully recovered by afternoon, she should come in for some IV fluids. I told him that she had been drinking well (but not excessively) on her own and seemed to be fine now, and he said that she probably was alright in that case. She ended up being okay after all.

Read Instructions on How to Apply the Treatment Properly

My other dogs did not have any problems with the treatment and I don’t think Daisy would have if I had applied it properly. I would say that washing the product off didn’t really help in this case because I don’t think it was the product on the skin that was causing a problem. It was the product that Daisy had ingested that caused the problem, and she just needed to drink lots of water and rest to get it out of her system.

So, I think in this case it was my own fault that there was a problem. I should have read the instructions before applying the product! With this squeeze-on flea deterrent, you are supposed to apply it on the back of the neck and the shoulders to halfway down the back so that the dog can’t lick it off. Information found online backs this up and says that in some cases where dogs had problems, it was because the product was not applied correctly.

Finding Cautionary Sites by Googling "Sergeant’s Gold"

There are quite a few sites that tell about various people having problems with Sergeant's Gold and Sergeant's Silver, even when they do apply it correctly. In fact, there are quite a few negative reviews of the product on Amazon.

In my opinion, it seems like many dogs are very sensitive to cyphenothrin and it’s best just to steer clear of it entirely!

Tired of euthanizing puppies due to OTC flea products on December 14, 2018:

While I am encouraged that you have done your research, and it is to correct to bathe your pet after anything toxic touches the skin. You should not wait 30 minutes. You should not try to monitor symptoms. Even minimal tremors can cause hyperthermia in a dog in that half an hour and prolonged hyperthermia (even 30 minutes) that you would monitor can cause organ damage and ultimately death. I am an emergency veterinarian and if your dog ever experiences any adverse reaction seek veterinary care immediately. This product is toxic. Many products at pet stores are not safe or approved vet products. A pet stores sole purpose is to sell product and make money. They have no moral obligation to help your pet, your vet does.

Sally Branche (author) from Only In Texas! on August 18, 2013:

Yes, Sweetie, ticks are very hard to get rid of. Thanks for reading and voting. Thanks for your comments Steel Engineer. Very good points! ;D

Steel Engineer from Kiev, Ukraine on August 17, 2013:

The mass poisoning of populations (e.g. McDonald's food products; milk, meat, children's toys, and Christian jewelry from China) is so prevalent now, it constitutes a global war.

What you are exposing about this flea collar may be more insidious: The poison on the dog is going to spread to the couch, the people who pet their dog(s), and to many other things contacted by human skin.

Always pray before you buy ANYTHING. And, don't eat tuna (mercury).

sweetie1 from India on August 17, 2013:

My friend had a female German Shephard. She had lots of ticks in season because desite his all tries she would run to a small street pup who had lots of ticks. So definitely we had to get her lots of tick baths and collars but they never helped. Sharing it on hubpages and voting it up.

Sally Branche (author) from Only In Texas! on August 03, 2013:

Many thanks! ;D

jtrader on August 02, 2013:

Thanks for the warning. The manufacturers should put a note on the possible side effects right where the package has to be pulled. Voted up and useful!

Sally Branche (author) from Only In Texas! on July 28, 2013:

Thanks ladies! Yes, everybody's doing fine now. I actually am using an OTC flea product now that contains permethrin, which is a drug that has been in use for a very long time. Everybody seems fine with that, and it works pretty well on three out of four dogs. My littlest old dog doesn't seem to get any relief from it, though, so I use fipronel on him. It is a little more expensive, but it makes his life worth living! ;D

Peg Cole from Northeast of Dallas, Texas on July 27, 2013:

This is an important reminder to us all to read the directions that comes with the product. I worried when I put the Frontline on my two dogs that one would try to lick the chemical off the other one. That sort of defeats the purpose of putting it between their shoulder blades. Thankfully, that did not happen.

Your article will undoubtedly help others who are tempted to use the Sergeant's product. Thank you for sharing your experience and I hope your pups are doing well.

Barbara Badder from USA on July 27, 2013:

I'm not sure we read the instructions. Now you have me wondering. We use one our vet gives us, but I am sure it still might have something harmful in it. Thanks for the heads up.

FlourishAnyway from USA on July 27, 2013:

Awww, poor Daisy. It's so important to get the word out. Best of luck to you both. Voted up and useful. Sharing.

Sally Branche (author) from Only In Texas! on October 04, 2012:

Yes, I agree! There are lots of dogs that have a negative reaction to OTC flea medications! I have been using the Listerine cure I mention above, and I'm happy with it. You have to do it every couple of days, but it works without harm! Hope your little dog has a full recovery!

nenen on October 01, 2012:

i have a pomeranian dog 12 y.o., after bathing her, i use the pronyl otc antiflea med by sergeants. an hour after, she became agitated, so restless, breathing fast and did not sleep. i took her to the vet, wash off the med with dish soap. she improved slightly. this med should be taken off the market. so toxic to the dog. this anti flea med is not worth at all with the negative effect it has on the dog. and there is no antidote for this?!!!

Sally Branche (author) from Only In Texas! on July 09, 2012:

I just discovered this: Spray him all over with original formula Listerine (or an inexpensive generic type) and towel him off. The fleas can't get off fast enough! It keeps them off for a couple of days. Be careful of his eyes, mouth and private parts of course. Listerine can sting and burn. After he is groomed, go ahead and use the Frontline. It doesn't have Cyphenothrin: it's active ingredient is different.

Incidentally, Listerine will also keep flies off a horse or donkey for a day or so! ;D

Denise on July 08, 2012:

Thank you very much for this article. I've ben having a lot of problems with fleas on my shih poo. He is miserable right now. I've tried some otc products but he didn't do well and they didn't work. I can't afford a vet. right now and I'm not really sure what to do. After complaining to the pet store about the last product he gave me frontline to put between his shoulders, but I'm afraid to now because I afraid I'll poison him. Anyone know of some home remedy that might help for a couple of days, hes going to be groomed in a couple of days I'm hoping that helps

Sally Branche (author) from Only In Texas! on May 18, 2012:

Mike K: I was very clear about the purpose of this article:

"... the purpose of this article is not to tell you not to use this product.

The purpose of this article is to tell you what to expect and what to do if you do use this product and your dog has problems. I am writing this article because, when I was looking for just this kind of information online, I didn’t find it! So here’s what happened with me and my dog. I hope it’s helpful to you."

I was also very clear about my own error in the situation:

"So, I think in this case, it was my own fault that there was a problem. I should have read the instructions before applying the product! With this squeeze on flea deterrent, you are supposed to apply it on the back of the neck and the shoulders to halfway down the back so that the dog can’t lick it off. Information found online backs this up and says that in some cases where dogs had problems, it was because the product was not applied correctly. " (These instructions differ from most spot on products.)

I wrote this article to help other people who might find themselves in the same situation. These things happen!

Clearly, you did not read or understand the point of the article. Your hateful, inaccurate comment is unhelpful and unappreciated.

Mike K on May 18, 2012:

So you love your pet so much that you would apply an isectacide without reading the instructions. Then you take the time to write at length how bad the product is.

Lorraine Sergeant Sufferer for Life on May 12, 2012:

Keeps Happening!!! Dogs and Cats Suffering as Sergeant's continues to poison our loved ones!!!

Must Read!!!

Sally Branche (author) from Only In Texas! on May 09, 2012:

Hope that works out well. I have 4 dogs, and only one had ill effects, but I won't use the product again!

Joe_Dog_Owner on May 08, 2012:

Just applied 1 tube of Sergeant's Gold to my 40lb Shepherd. No ill effect's as of yet. Exp. date stamped on top of box 10/28/11. A picture illistration on the back of the box (top right corner) shows to apply from shoulder blades to stop at 'mid-back', so dog can't reach around to bite or lick applied area.

Sally Branche (author) from Only In Texas! on January 30, 2012:

My pleasure! ;D

Paulart from 2510 Warren Avenue Cheyenne,Wyoming 82001 on January 22, 2012:

Great hub. Thanks for sharing with us.

Sally Branche (author) from Only In Texas! on January 17, 2012:

Poor little thing! I'm so sorry to hear that! I've been having good luck with food grade diatomaceous earth. I use it as a flea powder. You have to apply it pretty heavily and pretty often (every day) but it works. Also, you can use it as a wormer in your dog's food. It is completely natural! No chemicals! See my article about natural wormers to learn more! :)

dianewinter on January 15, 2012:

My 10-lb shih tzu, Sadie Mae, was a patient of Animal Poison Control this morning, after applying only 3 drops of Sargeant's Gold to her shoulder area only. She has been jumping out of her skin, crying, spinning, heart beating rapidly for hours with no relief in site for the next 24-48 hr according to the vet. Her symptoms began 10 min after application, at which time I immediately washed her with dishsoap. An hour later, I called the pet hospital which had me contact Poison Control who knew instantly, after hearing the word "cyphenothrin" what was wrong. I urge you to never use this product or any with this ingredient. My Sadie will spend the next 24-48 hours suffering due to my neglect of putting this toxic drug on her back. No flea problem is worth what she is experiencing as I type these words. My guilt is horrendous & my dog is miserable. ps-No relief was given after the bath or two doses of benydryl and was told only time will end the symptoms.

Sally Branche (author) from Only In Texas! on November 22, 2011:

I'm glad your Schnauzers are OK! Yes, it's important to read labels and choose products with care!

Merry on November 21, 2011:

I did same thing did not see my box was for 40 -60 pound , I have 2 schnauzers 10 an 8 year old... Do not use these products they are pesticide an it's like spraying raid on your dog.

My schnauzers are 19 lbs an 24 they got deathly sick ,,twitches,drooling licking an needed emergency care. The company needs to inform people on front box about complications.This is why they use to only sell in veterinary clinics.

Last June Diane Bromenschenkel applied a flea-and-tick product to her English pointer, Wings, so the dog wouldn’t get ticks while hunting pheasant in the tall grasslands of western Idaho. Wings, a healthy five-year-old with a sleek white coat and a chocolate brown mask, enjoyed long walks in the woods, bacon treats, and burying things in the yard. But three months after the pesticide was applied, the animal was dead.

It was just hours following the use of the product that Bromenschenkel knew something was wrong. She noticed her dog walking around in a daze. Wings was unresponsive. On the advice of her veterinarian, Bromenschenkel tried to wash off the treatment —Bio Spot Spot On Flea and Tick Control for Dogs — but the next day Wings was still suffering.

The dog stopped eating and drinking despite the application of appetite increasers, said Patricia Pence, the veterinarian and owner of South Wind Veterinary Hospital in Nampa, Idaho, where Wings was treated. “The anorexia is a direct result of the Bio Spot,” Pence said. She believes the insecticide in Bio Spot damaged the portion of Wings’ brain responsible for hunger and thirst. So she inserted a feeding tube into the dog’s neck and for the next three months Bromenschenkel and Wings were in and out of the veterinary hospital.

During this period, Bromenschenkel woke up every two hours at night to give Wings an injection of liquid nutrient through the neck. She spent thousands of dollars on vet bills. Despite the best efforts of Bromenschenkel and Pence, however, the damage was done. In September, Wings’ kidneys failed and Bromenschenkel made the difficult decision to put her dog to sleep. In days Wings had gone from a healthy dog, running alongside horses in the Owyhee Mountains, to an emaciated wreck, chasing phantom birds in the kitchen. “What’s so terrible about it is that if you had known, you would never have used it,” said Bromenschenkel of the Bio Spot.

The Debate Over Pyrethroids

Bio Spot contains a 45 percent solution of the active ingredient permethrin, a synthetic neurotoxin belonging to the pyrethroid family of chemicals. Bio Spot is one of several over-the-counter spot on (meaning squeezed on to a particular spot) anti-flea-and-tick products that consumers apply to cats and dogs between the shoulder blades and sometimes at the base of the tail. The animal’s natural oils spread the insecticide over its body, making its skin and fur inhospitable to parasites. These pyrethroid-based flea and tick treatments — from Hartz, Sergeant’s, Farnam, and Bayer — are approved for sale by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and they are readily available at grocery stores, specialty pet retailers, and hardware stores. But they are also linked to thousands of reported pet poisonings, and they have stirred the ire of pet owners, the concern of veterinarians, and the attention of regulatory agencies.

Manufacturers and distributors of over-the-counter spot on treatments say the products are generally safe and effective when used properly, but they concede there are cats and dogs that either have a preexisting condition or an acute sensitivity to these treatments that leads to an illness.

The industry position, however, may dismiss safety concerns too casually. At least 1,600 pet deaths related to spot on treatments with pyrethroids were reported to the EPA over the last five years, according to an analysis of EPA pesticide incident exposure data by the Center for Public Integrity. That is about double the number of reported fatalities tied to similar treatments without pyrethroids, such as Frontline and Advantage — although these products also have critics.

Pyrethroid spot ons also account for more than half of “major” pesticide pet reactions reported to EPA over the last five years — that is, those incidents involving serious medical reactions such as brain damage, heart attacks, and violent seizures. In contrast, non-pyrethroid spot on treatments accounted for only about 6 percent of all major incidents.

In the last five years, the EPA received a total of more than 25,000 reports of pet pesticide reactions of every sort — fatal, major, moderate, and minor — to over-the-counter pyrethroid spot on products. This compares to 10,500 reports of all pet incidents related to shampoos, powders, sprays, collars, dips, mousses, lotions, and towels. This analysis does not take into account how much of each product was used over the last five years as the EPA does not have that information.

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The EPA cautions that it does not confirm the authenticity of these reports and most of the claims come from consumers and not trained toxicologists. The EPA uses the database to observe broad trends and to identify significant spikes in incidents for specific products and chemicals.

Warning Signs

A few websites, run by pet owners, specialize in educating people on the dangers of over-the-counter spot on treatments. Almost every day someone posts a new horror story, often involving a late-night emergency trip to the vet. “I cannot stop crying knowing that if I hadn’t put that on them then they would still be here playing and loving as they always did before,” reads one post about a woman’s loss of two kittens in October.

The concentrations of pyrethroids in over-the-counter spot on pet treatments range from a 40 percent to an 85 percent solution, eight to 17 times stronger than the strongest pyrethroid product currently approved for use on humans. Neither the EPA, which generally regulates topically applied products, nor the Food and Drug Administration, which generally regulates orally applied pet products, has a product registered for human application containing a pyrethroid concentration above 5 percent, and that FDA-approved product requires a doctor’s prescription. In fact, the Sergeant’s Gold Squeeze-On for Dogs warning reads: “Harmful if swallowed or absorbed through skin,” while the application portion of the label directs people to apply the treatment “to the dog’s skin.”

But these high concentrations may be necessary in pet products because pets are more apt to come in contact with fleas and ticks, according to Margaret Rice, chief of the EPA’s Office of Pesticide Programs registration branch. Some human products, like the 5 percent permethrin shampoo, also call for more of the product to be applied than the just under one ounce in the spot on treatments.

Pyrethroid toxicity targets nerve and muscle cells in pets, according to a study published in The Veterinary Journal in June 2008. The study found that dermal exposure by application to the skin or coat is the most common route of toxic exposure, potentially causing hyperexcitability, tremors, profuse salivation, and seizures. The seizures can result in brain damage or, less frequently, death.

Representatives of Central LifeSciences, the parent company of Farnam, the distributor of Bio Spot, said that they could not discuss the death of Wings because their investigation of the incident is still underway. The company said reports of adverse reactions are rare, about three of every 10,000 doses for cat products and five of every 10,000 doses for dog products. These numbers include incidents that resulted from misapplication and preexisting medical conditions, according to Central LifeSciences. “Bio Spot Spot On Flea & Tick Control for Dogs has met all applicable EPA registration requirements and is approved for topical use on dogs,” the company said in a letter they sent in July to one unhappy customer whose dog had recently died.

Hartz Mountain Corp. representatives said via e-mail that the active ingredient in the company’s spot on dog treatments, the pyrethroid d-phenothrin, and the active ingredient in their cat product that kills adult fleas, the pyrethroid etofenprox, are categorized as least toxic by the EPA, as opposed to the active ingredient in Frontline, fipronil, and the active ingredient in Advantage, imidacloprid, which, while much less concentrated, are rated as moderately toxic. Sergeant’s cat spot on treatments also contain etofenprox, but the company has spot on dog products that contain cyphenothrin and products that contain permethrin, moderately toxic pyrethroids.

Another possible explanation for the number of incidents is that consumers often misuse flea and tick products, causing the sickness that pet owners later blame on the treatments, said Jennifer Windrum, a spokeswoman for Sergeant’s. “Pet owners feel incredibly guilty if they misapply it to their pet,” Windrum said. “It’s easier to blame a company.” Common misapplications include applying more powerful dog products to cats, applying the product where the pet can lick it, and using a treatment meant for a large animal on a small one. The directions on these products include a description of where to apply, sometimes a diagram, and if it’s a dog product, multiple warnings not to it use on cats.

Forest Desmond and his wife Marilynn received a letter from Sergeant’s offering to pay their $125 vet bill after they applied Sergeant’s Gold Squeeze-On for Dogs to their five dogs. The letter from Sergeant’s also stated that the company believed the dogs may have licked the product off each other, a violation of the application instructions. “The Sergeant’s Gold Squeeze-On for Dogs is for external use only and has several warnings on the package indicating such,” the letter says. The product’s label does not instruct consumers to keep dogs separated after treatment, but Sergeant’s has submitted a request to the EPA to have the label changed. Sergeant’s “Look at the Label” website already recommends people separate their pets after application.

“What they’re trying to say is the dogs licked it off each other and thereby took it in internally, but they didn’t lick it off, it burned their skin,” Marilynn Desmond said. “My response to that is they’re trying to shift the blame from the producer to the user. If this had been my first dog, I might have fallen for that.”

The authors of the study in The Veterinary Journal agree that misuse of pyrethroid products is often the cause of illnesses, although they also point out that accidental ingestion by mouth or during grooming is another common exposure route. “The best way to avoid serious problems is by educating pet owners to use products strictly according to label directions,” the study says. “Veterinarians must advise clients using flea care products to read and follow label instructions completely before applying them on or around their pets.” The rub here, some veterinarians say, is pyrethroid spot on treatments are over-the-counter products, easily purchased without consulting a veterinarian.

Michael Murphy, a veterinarian and toxicologist at the University of Minnesota, speaking for the American Veterinary Medical Association, said he rarely hears of pet reactions to spot on treatments, and when he does it’s usually because a consumer applied a stronger dog product to a cat. But for some pet advocates, the misapplication explanation misses the point. The Humane Society of the United States has heard this reasoning before, but still recommends pet owners avoid over-the-counter spot on products and only use treatments recommended by veterinarians, according to Stephanie Shain, the organization’s director of outreach. “With the number of complaints we get it seems like an extraordinarily high rate of problems,” she said. “Even if it is owner error much of the time, something is not working the way it should be. I think at the very least there need to be much stronger warnings on those products cautioning pet owners about the dangers involved with using them.”

Others express similar concerns. “Sometimes I wonder why it’s still approved,” said Mark Grossman, a co-owner and veterinarian of Roanoke Island Animal Clinic and a toxicology consultant for the Veterinary Information Network. “They can’t get it out there without the EPA approving it. Apparently they say if they do enough tests, it’s still OK. In real life though, I think we’re seeing more problems than we should.”

Paying the Bills

After Samantha Ribble’s English bulldog, Bella, and pug, Chloe, developed oozing sores where she placed drops of Sergeant’s Gold Squeeze on for Dogs, she asked Sergeant’s to pay her veterinarian bill, $309. Without admitting any liability, Sergeant’s agreed to pay the bill, on the condition that Ribble sign a release that read as follows: “I agree not to make any oral or written communication which disparages or has the effect of damaging the reputation of or otherwise working in any way to the detriment of Sergeant’s. This Release shall inure the benefit of Sergeant’s heirs, legal representatives, successors, and assigns and shall bind me and my heirs, legal representatives, successors, and assigns.” In the same letter, Sergeant’s notes that its products are closely regulated by the EPA and tested in “accordance with EPA rules and regulations in order to ensure that the products are safe.”

This is true. The EPA approved the company’s pyrethroid spot on treatments just as it has approved all spot on treatments, but the agency has a history of approving pet products in the past only to pull them from the market later. The EPA approved the use of chlorpyrifos products, cancelled for use on pets in 2001 diazinon products, cancelled for use on pets in 2001 and phosmet products, cancelled for use on pets by 2004. The products were approved, defended aggressively by the chemical industry, and then yanked off the market. They were largely replaced by pyrethroid products, which are generally thought to be less acutely toxic.

Even pyrethroid pet products, however, have been approved and then pulled. In 2000, the EPA received a rash of reports from cat owners concerning Hartz Mountain Corp.’s Advanced Care Once a Month Flea & Tick Drops for Cats, a spot on treatment containing the pyrethroid d-phenothrin. The agency received reports of cats losing their hair, salivating uncontrollably, experiencing tremors, and sometimes dying. Judy Van Wyk of Rhode Island filed a lawsuit against Hartz in November 2001 on behalf of pet owners whose cats had reacted to Hartz cat drops. The complaint alleged that “Hartz has also known since at least March 2001 that adverse reactions in cats to the Drops is a common problem.” The suit was voluntarily withdrawn in November 2002, which may indicate an out-of-court settlement, but neither Hartz nor Van Wyk would comment on the case.

Three years later, after the company and the agency experimented unsuccessfully with stronger warning labels, the EPA entered into negotiations with Hartz Mountain Corp. and the company agreed to stop selling the product.

Rice, chief of the EPA’s Office of Pesticides registration branch, said the agency knows it has had problems with these products in the past. Still the EPA holds the position, as with all products registered by the agency, that pyrethroid-based spot on treatments are not harmful if consumers follow label instructions. The 25,000 reported incidents alone will not change this conclusion, Rice said. The EPA is investigating pyrethroid incidents, involving both humans and pets, and when it finishes this process — the EPA does not have a target date yet for doing so — it may make regulatory changes, but until then the agency stands by its conclusion. “Our decisions to register these products and compounds are done with significant data,” said Marion Johnson, branch chief of the EPA’s Office of Pesticide Programs registration division. “When we register these products, we feel they’re safe.”

So safe in fact that Johnson said the EPA does not expect any pets will have a sensitivity to spot on products leading to an illness the incident reports, in Johnson’s view, are not at all definitive. Manufacturers, for their part, do acknowledge the existence of sensitive cats and dogs. “There is a certain percentage of dogs out there that, just like with humans, will have an allergic reaction no matter what,” Windrum, the Sergeant’s spokeswoman, said. Less than 1 percent of sales result in an adverse reaction when the product is used as directed by the label, she said.

The EPA cannot make its own assessment because unlike the regulations directing the FDA’s approval of human products, the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act does not require pet products to undergo field trials prior to approval. So the agency can only require less extensive testing, often only on one breed of dog or cat. This makes it difficult to predict the effects on the broader population of users.

The EPA also considers the need consumers have to control fleas and ticks on their pets and the benefit provided by low-cost pyrethroid spot ons when making decisions about these products. The over-the-counter pyrethroid spot ons are typically half the price of Frontline and Advantage.

EPA scientists continue to monitor the safety of pet pyrethroids. In November, several EPA employees at the Office of Research and Development authored a piece in BMC Genomics, an online journal that publishes peer-reviewed articles, that found exposure to the pyrethroids permethrin and deltamethrin in young rats “could result in detrimental effects on neurological function later in life.” The study found this was a possibility even using doses of permethrin that do not cause immediate, acute symptoms. The authors of the article suggested many other avenues of research — including examining the effects of other pyrethroids on neurological function.

The EPA also hopes to improve the quality of incident reports through an online reporting system for veterinarians that began this fall. In addition, the agency is analyzing pet incidents to identify patterns that may lead to additional labeling or further regulatory action, and reviewing the process of approving pet products to see if changes are warranted.

“We need to make sound scientific decisions,” Johnson said. “On the one hand we have the data that says this product might be safe and on the other we have incidents that say it might not be.”

EPA Orders Clearer Labels, Instructions on Pet Topical Flea, Tick Products

11-month investigation finds many labels inadequate but products will remain on the market for now

Companies that make topical flea and tick products must immediately improve the labeling on their packages to ensure pet safety and prevent misuse of the treatments, according to changes announced Wednesday by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The agency, however, said it is not banning or pulling any topical or spot on flea and tick products off the market at least not yet.

The action comes in response to the EPAs nearly year-long intensive evaluation of spot on flea and tick products. The EPA launched its probe last April amid reports of a significant increase in adverse reactions linked to the treatments, including burns, neurological problems, and even deaths.

The agency confirmed that in 2008 it received more than 44,000 reports of adverse reactions associated with these products, which are applied by squeezing the contents of a vial or tube to the skin between the animals shoulder blades or along the back. That figure represents an increase of about 53% from 2007, the EPA said.

During its 11-month evaluation, the EPA said it discovered the warning labels on many topical flea and tick products are inadequate and do not give pet owners clear information about dosages or even if the treatments should be used on dogs or cats.

We concluded that the existing warning labels are not working and do not provide adequate protection, said Steve Owens, assistant administrator for the EPAs Office of Prevention, Pesticides and Toxic Substances. We found a number of current labels have insufficient warning labels on themthe warnings were buried in the text of the label and not noticeable. They were easily overlooked.

Clearer labeling

To address these labeling flaws, the EPA said it will immediately require companies that make topical flea and tick products to take the following action:

• Make the instructions on the labels clearer to prevent possible misuse. For example, if a product is intended for a dog, the labels will now be required to say something like do not use on a cat, Owens said

• Have more precise instructions on the labels to ensure the proper amount is applied according to the pets weight. A dogs weight clearly makes a big difference and the doses for small dogs is different than the doses for large dogs, Owens said. We found that smaller pets, cats and dogs, are more susceptible to adverse reactions (to these products). Its not an exclusive thing we are seeing larger dogs affected, too. But there is a correlation between pets weights and the dose, and all pet owners need to be careful

• Require clearer markings on packages to ensure consumers can tell the difference between products for dogs and cats. We found that (flea and tick) products for dogs and cats are labeled similarly, Owens said. People have applied the wrong spot on products to the wrong animal. We have to make sure the label warnings make it clear that a dog product should not be used on a cat.

• Prohibit similar brand names for dog and cat flea and tick products. Those similar names have led to product misuse, the EPA said

• Require labels to clearly state that pet owners should not permit interaction between dogs and cats after the products are applied. Cats are sensitive to these products, Owens said. It is critical for pet owners to keep their cats and dogs apart after these products are used.

Owens said he also wants the new labels to include symptoms of possible adverse reactions to these topical flea and tick products. Asked when pet owners will see new labels on these products, Owens said, "by the end of the years."

Requiring these label changes, however, isnt the only action the EPA said its taking to ensure the safety of dogs and cats the use topical flea and tick products.

Other actions

The agency also announced it will:

• Only grant conditional, time-limited registrations when new products are registered with the EPA. The agency said this will allow for post-marketing product surveillance. If we see a problem, we can take appropriate action, Owens said, adding that action can include pulling a worrisome product off the market

• Restrict the use of certain inert ingredients that may contribute to adverse reactions. Owens did not specify which inert ingredients if any are on the EPAs radar. If we believe an inert ingredient is causing adverse reactions, we will take action to limit or prevent its use, he said

• Launch a consumer information campaign to raise public awareness about the new labels. We want to help consumers not make error in cases in which the labels are unclear or hard to read, Owens said.

• Require more standardized post-market surveillance reporting on adverse effects linked to these products

• Require companies to submit more sales information to the EPA to ensure the agency does a better job of evaluating incident rates

• Update the scientific data requirements on pre- and post-market testing to make sure they are more in line with the Food and Drug Administrations (FDA) requirements.

First steps

The EPA emphasized these are only the first steps the agency is taking to address growing concerns about topical flea and tick products.

Were going to continue to monitor this situation closely, Owens said. We want to make it clear that were going to continue to gather data and if the label requirements are not working, we will take more significant action.

We will remove products from the market if we have to, he added. Were not banning any products or removing any today, but that is certainly something that we will be more than willing to do as we move forward and gather more data.

Earlier today, the EPA met with companies that make topical flea and tick products to discuss these required changes.

They realize this is serious problem they need to address, Owens said. And they understand we are serious about this. Their reaction was very positive. No one in the room said no way.

Companies that make flea and tick products, however, have routinely downplayed reports of adverse reactions and often blamed the problems on pet owners misuse of the treatments.

The EPAs new labeling requirements refute that argument, Owens said.

I dont know how you blame a victim when the label is not clear. There is not specific language on the labels about the dosage and consumers in many cases are left to guess for themselves on the appropriate amount.

The reforms were announcing today address those problems, Owens added. While there are cases of misapplications, we think the far great problem is the labels are not adequate.

Are they safe?

But are these products safe?

I think in most cases, yes, Owens said. But I want to underscore that these are poisons. These are products designed to kill fleas and ticks and they do their job. We urge pet owners and other to exercise caution and be careful when using them. And read the labels carefully.

Given those risks, pet owners whove contacted wonder why the EPA still allows these products on the market.

Theyre pet owners who say theyve witnessed horrific reactions from these products in their dogs and cats, including burns and welts on their skin, drooling excessively, shaking uncontrollably, whimpering in agony, losing control of their legs, or even dying.

Theyre pet owners like Sharee F. of Tennessee, who is convinced Sergeant's Gold Flea and Tick treatment attributed to the recent death of her dog.

We applied it as directed and later that Friday night, my dog started foaming at the mouth and whining as though he was in pain, she said. Around 4 a.m. on what was now Saturday morning, my dog began seizing. His legs were flopping, his head twitching uncontrollably, he was whining and crying, and he was breathing unbelievably heavy.

Everyone in the house was asleep, but (we) were awakened by the banging of my dogs body jerking against the wall, she added.

Sharees family gave the dog some cool water and tried to comfort him until the vets office opened a few hours later.

It was not until 8 a.m. that my dog was driven to the nearest Pet Meds, she said. Unfortunately, by the time my mother and brother walked into the vet, my dog went into cardiac arrest and they couldn't revive him. I am completely heart broken. I can't go a day without tearing up, and every time I replay this traumatic moment over in my head I get nauseous.

I want these products pulled off the market.

Another pet owner in Texas told us his dog experienced a horrible reaction to Sergeants Gold Flea and Tick Squeeze On treatment.

Within an hour she was going crazy, whining, barking, jumping up and laying down, rolling over and running and laying down and back up and running, said R.A. of Whitney, Texas.

The dog also started breathing heavily, drooling at the mouth, and throwing up, R.A. said, adding he used the product according to the labels directions. R.A. bathed the dog four times to try and relieve these problems. She is still going off her rocker, he said. This stuff is dangerous.

Dangerous to humans?

The dangers may not be restricted to dogs and cats.

I even got a little on my finger while putting it on her and I washed my hands, he said. Within a few minutes, my lips started tingling and I started having a hard time breathing myself. This stuff is a danger to (humans) health, not to mention your pet. also heard from a Florida pet owner, who said her 14-year-old dog suffered serious neurological problems from Sergeants Gold Flea & Tick treatment.

Twelve hours later she was drooling, shaking, and could hardly walk, Debra O. told us earlier this month. There were no dangerous side effects listed on the box. I called the emergency number on the box and was told (my dog) was having an adverse reaction to the meds.

I had to give her three baths with dish soap, pour water down her throat, and also give her vitamin E oil, Debra added. I am still watching her behavior closelyshe is still suffering right now.

Debra is outraged that a product linked to so many horrible reactions in pets is still on the market.

I had no idea or I would have never bought (it) and risked the life of my 14-year-old buddy, she said. This product hurts and kills animals. Someone needs to do something.

The EPA said its aware of concerns like Debras and will continue to evaluate the safety of these products.

The agency, however, pointed out that most of the reports it received about adverse reactions were minor and included skin issues and gastrointestinal problems. The EPA also confirmed it received some reports of deaths linked to these product, but said they were rare less than 2 percent of the adverse reactions reported during 2007 and 2008.

The agency said pet owners should continue to carefully follow the labels directions when using topical flea and tick products and watch for any adverse reactions in their dogs on cats after applying these treatments.

Pet owners should also talk to their veterinarians about the best methods to protect their dogs and cats from fleas and ticks, the EPA said.

A copy of the EPAs findings on topical flea and ticks products is now available on the agencys Web site.

Flea and Tick Products Directory

Keep your pets safe, by choosing your flea and tick treatments with care. NRDC checked the listed ingredients of more than a hundred flea and tick products and found that many contain toxic chemicals that could poison pets and harm people, even when applied as instructed on the box. Pick from the list below, or use the search boxes to find out about pet care products you are considering, which chemicals they contain and the level of risk they may pose. All products have been sorted into one of three potential risk levels. When chemical control is necessary, avoid the most toxic chemicals by selecting a product marked with one crossed-out paw. For more information, see Nontoxic Ways to Protect Your Pet.

Please note that while this table attempts to provide a reasonably comprehensive and accurate look at the insecticides most commonly found in pet flea control products, it does not claim to be an exhaustive list of products nor should it be used as such. New products are introduced regularly and many companies make multiple products with different chemicals. Pet owners should take care to examine the active ingredients in all flea control products they buy.

Flea and Tick Insecticide Poisoning in Cats

For more from Dr. Justine Lee, find her at or on Facebook!

If you own a cat, this blog is a must read!

Before applying any topical flea and tick medication to your cat, pay heed.

One of the most commonly presenting emergencies I see is accidental poisoning of cats by their well-intentioned pet owners. They often put “small dog” flea medication onto their “big cat,” without appropriately consulting with their veterinarian or reading the label carefully, resulting in severe poisoning in cats.

The flea and tick topical spot-on medication most commonly implicated? Drugs from the pyrethrin and pyrethroid family. These active ingredients are commonly found in household insecticides, sprays, and topical spot-on medications. These chemicals are very safe for dogs, but should never be used for cats.

So what exactly are these chemicals? Pyrethrins are actually natural chemicals derived from the Chrysanthemum flower (commonly called the “mum”), while pyrethroids are synthetic derivatives (made by man). Common chemical names for pyrethroids include the following – note, they typically end with a “thrin.”

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