Safe or Sorry
About a week ago, I discovered that our Siamese cat, Mr. P, had fleas. Because our cats are indoor cats, it’s easy forget about fleas. However, they do have access to the roof via my office window. At any rate, if Mr. P has fleas, then Elvis, our Burmese, probably does, too, and there’s a good chance some of the nasty little buggies are in the carpets. I drove to Target and picked up some Hartz flea treatment under the assumption that all flea treatments are created equal. I applied a little bottle of liquid to the back of each feline’s neck and assumed I was done. An hour or so later, I was on Amazon.com buying something and thought I’d see what the flea treatment cost there. To my surprise, the user reviews for the product I’d chosen were all one star, each accompanied by horror stories of sick or dead cats resulting from its use. I admit, I panicked. I drove to the local vet and asked what I should do. She told me that most cats don’t suffer any harmful effects and offered a suggestion of two similar products that they feel is safer (and also kill fleas more effectively). I felt better but still went home and bathed the cats. Did you know, by the way, that soapy water kills fleas if you leave it on for five minutes? A week later, I treated them both with Bayer Advantage II. Fleas, dead and dying, began falling off them almost immediately. End of story. Almost.
I was curious just how dangerous the Hartz product was compared to other spot-on treatments and how dangerous are fleas medicines in general. If you take to the web looking for information on Hartz flea products, you could quickly become convinced, as I did, that your cat would be suffering seizures or dropping dead within minutes of using the Hartz products. People whose cats suffered illness or death can’t be expected to write a balance commentary. Add web articles with titles like One Pet Death is Too Many and Hartz Flea Products are Poisonous and no one would blame you if you swore off flea medicines entirely And if you want absolute safety, that the best thing you can do for your cat because flea medicines are pesticides and pesticides are in fact poisons. But if we were to ban every pet product … or for that matter, every human medication … that caused one death, not to mention some severe side effects, our medicine cabinets would be empty indeed. We don’t ban air travel after one plane crash. According to the Humane Society, there have been at least 1,600 pet deaths due to flea products reported to the EPA in the last five years and in 2008, there were 44,000 reports of adverse reactions. According to the ASPCA, there are 70-80 million dogs and 74-96 million cats in U.S. households, so even if flea treatment incidents are under reported, they occur in a miniscule percentage of pets. Naturally, if your pet is one of that small percentage you don’t want to hear statistics, you want to go online and warn the world, which is your right.
For the rest of us, the process of choosing Safe or Sorry is never a sure thing. Whether it’s you on medications or treatments for your pets, there are always side effects and always risks. Safe, as defined by the FDA, means that severe side effects are rare enough (and minor ones tolerable enough) to justify treatment of a condition or illness. The level of side effects that are acceptable depend upon the seriousness of the ailment. Chemotherapy is, after all, giving someone poison in doses that will hopefully kill the cancer without killing the patient. Not to trivialize that, the same can be said for flea treatments. Freeing your cat of fleas by applying a little liquid to the back if its neck once a month is very convenient and in most cases, does not harm the cat. But it can. You have to make the tradeoffs for your pets just as you do for yourself. Lawyers and bereaved owners and animal rights organizations can say things like one death is too many, but the rest of us have to know, it’s never the case. And, while our medicines are required by the FDA to undergo stringent testing (take a look at the number of posts questioning that!), the EPA, which controls pesticides, has no such powers.
Personally, I will choose to use spot-on flea medications but I will be careful in the future to choose one with a better track record after talking to our veterinarian. Here are some other reminders, mostly from a Humane Society article on flea treatments. Never use dog flea medicine on a cat … some chemicals that dogs tolerate are deadly to cats. Use the medication as directed and never use large cat medications on small cats. If you have multiple cats, keep them apart after treatment so they won’t ingest the chemicals while grooming each other. Most manufacturers make the treatment bitter tasting but you know how cats can be. Keep an eye on your pet for a day or so after use and know the symptoms of possible poisoning and get to the vet if they turn up. You can find the symptoms here. Does that sound scary? There are other alternatives, both natural and medical. You can find some here. Choose what works for you. But don’t believe it if anyone tells you a product is completely safe. And don’t be surprised when pesticides turn out to be poison.