EPA issues warning for flea treatment

Posted May 08, 2009, at 8 p.m.

As flea season approaches and tick infestations move north, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is warning dog and cat owners about potential health risks to their animals from a variety of spot-on flea and tick medications.

Spot-on products generally are sold in tubes or vials and are applied to one or more areas on the body of the animal, such as in between the shoulders or in a stripe along the back.

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More than 44,000 pet health-related incidents from spot-on treatments were reported last year to the EPA, ranging from mild skin irritations to death. As a result, the EPA recently announced it was intensifying its evaluation of these products.

When Sherri Poulin of Lewiston couldn’t get to her veterinarian to pick up her dogs’ regular flea and tick medication, she didn’t think twice about grabbing a similar product at a local grocery store, she told the Lewiston Sun Journal.

Three days later, one of her dogs was dead, euthanized after suffering severe chemical burns that Poulin’s vet said came from Sergeant’s Silver Flea and Tick Squeeze-On for Dogs.

Ten days later, Poulin’s three other Lhasa apso-poodle mixes — Fanny, Tazzi and Birdie — were on antibiotics and steroids. They’re still in pain.

“Fanny lays on her back and just whines,” Poulin told the Sun Journal.

Maine’s hunting and sporting dog community is particularly concerned. In addition to being potentially dangerous, the products also may be ineffective.

“A few years ago one of our Brittanys suddenly became lethargic, depressed, limped, and licked his joints as if they were sore,” Ann Short of Acton, who breeds and trains Brittanys, said this week. “We immediately brought him to the vets and after a series of blood tests, discovered he had Ehrlichia, a disease similar to Lyme. An aggressive treatment of antibiotics was prescribed and our dog recovered.”

Short said she had used traditional spot-on tick medication with the dog before the onset of his illness. “Using a product does not guarantee freedom from tick disease,” she said.

Maine is a high-risk state for Lyme disease, according to information from the American Lyme Disease Foundation.

“Owners of hunting dogs are especially concerned with ticks this time of year,” Short said. “As soon as the snow is gone, many of us take our dogs into the woods and the fields. It’s so important to go over these working dogs literally with a fine-tooth comb, even when a product designed to control ticks is used.”

Short also contracted Lyme disease while walking her dogs in the woods. “Initially I felt as though I had been run over by a freight train — achy, sore, depressed and lethargic,” Short said. “Many of the same symptoms the dogs demonstrate. Once more, early diagnosis was key.”

Short said she now uses a flea-tick collar and spray to protect her pets.

Dr. Anne Lichtenwalner, a veterinarian researcher at the University of Maine in Orono, said veterinarians “have known for a long time that some less expensive spot-on treatments can be somewhat dangerous.”

Lichtenwalner said pet owners have complained that some popular spot-on treatments are losing their effect and they are using more than one product on their animals. “This is very controversial and pet owners need to talk to their vets.”

She said some pet owners choose to go product-free but that requires extreme vigilance, including carefully examining a pet each time it returns indoors and extremely frequent vacuuming of the home. “That can be very, very intensive,” she said. Lichtenwalner said there also are holistic methods that pet owners can try.

The EPA investigation will center on incidents with spot-on treatments, sprays, collars and shampoos.

“However, the majority of the potential incidents reported to EPA are related to flea and tick treatments with EPA-registered spot-on products,” the EPA announced.

Pesticide registrants are required by law to submit information to the EPA on adverse effects resulting from the use of any registered pesticide. EPA said seven products represent about 80 percent of all adverse incidents.

The EPA is cautioning that a cause-and-effect relationship between these products and any individual adverse reaction or incident has not been confirmed.

“EPA is carefully evaluating all available data, including incident data, to help identify and, if necessary, take prompt regulatory action to address risks. By collecting, compiling, and reviewing the incident data, EPA is able to make better decisions to reduce risks and target other regulatory activities,” according to the formal EPA announcement.

Health Canada has identified similar concerns about the use of spot-on flea and tick products, according to the EPA. Health Canada and EPA will be meeting with product manufacturers soon to address this issue, including whether further restrictions are necessary to protect the health of pets.

Merial, the maker of Frontline and Frontline Plus products, responded to the EPA assertions in a Providence online publication that the higher number of reports of adverse effects likely is because of its popularity as one of the top-selling flea and tick control products. The company further indicated that adverse reactions usually are mild, and said its products are safe for the general population of cats and dogs. It urged pet owners to follow the directions on product labels.

Frontline products are not sold in Canada, the company said.

A company spokeswoman for Sergeant’s told the Lewiston Sun Journal this week that most adverse reactions are caused by the pet owner administering too high a dose, and said the company welcomes the EPA investigation.

For more information, go online to:

www.yosemite.epa.gov/opa/admpress.nsf

www.epa.gov/pesticides/health/flea-tick-control.html

www.epa.gov/pesticides/factsheets/flea-tick.htm

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