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Flea & Tick Treatments – PART 1: Commercial Treatment Options & their Effects

Article by Andrea from Mai Co. 

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Continuing our discussion on the causes of skin conditions of our beloved four-legged family members, we arrive at the topic of Flea and Tick treatments – commercial vs natural.

Lets start by discussing the commercial treatment options.

Anyone that has had a flea jumping around on them, understands what an irritating feeling it is. So we can only imagine the irritation our pets experience from an infestation of these 'nasties'. I am sure we would all agree – that is a feeling we would all like to spare our pets.

Many people that live in 'high density' infestation areas, where the tick and flea populations are difficult to combat, feel that they have no other option other than to turn to the chemical treatments and pesticides in order to eliminate these pesky critters. It can also be an emotional decision (and understandably so) as perhaps they have previously lost a pet to Biliary or Tick-Bite Fever. No one wants to see that happen to your furry Best Friend!

So what exactly are all the options available to us in this war against jumping/ crawling parasites?
We can either try going the natural, holistic route using herbs, essential oils and even our pets diets, knowing this takes more effort and a lot more time.
Or we can use the commercial alternatives of dips, spot-on drops, pills, shampoos, powders and even collars. And lets face it, most of these are fairly quick and painless options. Like the drops for example – drop the onto the fur and you only need to worry about the flea problem in six weeks time again.

But is this really a better, safer option? Are we really aware of all the risks involved to our pets and even ourselves [see addendum A] when using these treatments?

Well the truth is, that according to tests conducted by the Natural Resources Defence Council (NRDC), over 100 flea and tick products were found to contain toxic chemicals that could poison pets and people – even when applied as instructed on the box.

Thats right – in 2012 the manufacturers of spot-on flea treatments were given a new directive by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to make changes to their labelling in an effort to address the increase in adverse reactions associated with the misapplication of these products.
Adverse reactions in both cats and dogs included problems in the skin (redness, itchiness, hair-loss, sores, ulcers), gastrointestinal system (vomiting, diarrhoea, salivation), central nervous system (lethargy, nervousness, ataxia – movement problems) as well as tumors, seizures and in some cases death.
In many cases of cats - they were treated with products intended for dogs, or they were exposed to a treated dog.
Changes for labelling requirements included updated warnings, lists of possible symptoms, better instructions for use and dosage guidelines, as well ass possible restrictions of certain ingredients.

The NRDC went on to launch a website listing the various flea and tick treatments available on the market and the chemicals they contain, along with the potential risks they may pose. The products are arranged into 1 of 3 potential risk levels. (Go to

Toxicity of some of the chemical ingredients of the more well known products are listed as being: possible carcinogen, suspected endocrine disrupter, toxic to the nervous system, irritant, may report vomiting, diarrhoea, lethargy, loss of appetite and itchy skins, and in some cases even ' insufficient information to determine toxicity'.
In short, regardless of improvements made to the labelling of spot-on pesticides, chemical pesticides can have serious effects, no matter what form they come in.
Remember, just because the product is applied to the pets coat, does not mean that it cant make its way to the inside. As with any product, if it is applied to the skin, it is absorbed into the body.

Think about your pet for a second, and how you apply the drops – you begin at the neck and work your way down the back. As it is absorbed by the skin, it comes into contact with the spinal nerves. These nerves carry impulses to and from the brain and spinal cord, and serve as communication lines linking all parts of the body to the central nervous system. They convey impulses to/from the skin, muscles, joints and in impulses activating muscles to contract and glands to secrete. Eg.: the heart, liver and gastrointestinal system.
As mentioned in our previous articles, the liver is the cleaning factory of the body. So when it is overloaded by poisons and toxins that have been absorbed into the system, and it starts receiving incorrect messages from the spinal nerves because they too are 'toxic' – it cannot function at its optimum potential so therefore the toxin build-up increases to such a point that the only way out is through the skin. A skin reaction of some sort transpires and before you know it, you have dogs and cats itching, scratching, hair falling out, abscess forming, wounds not healing and even hotspots.
Of course not forgetting the effects on the other areas of the body that the spinal nerves extend to – possibly causing a weak heart, paralysis of limbs, and I have also encountered conditions of pets suffering from seizure and epileptic types conditions.

Bare in mind that the pesticides may also be spread over the skin and ingested by the animals grooming process.
Many vets have even recommended the use of oral pills to avoid the spot-on treatments. This route also has potential side effects and has been known to cause significant gastrointestinal irritation. Again – not to mention the effect on the liver.

If you feel you must use chemical tick and flea treatments on your pets – here are a few tips to reduce the risk to your pet:

Look for low risk products that do not contain high risk chemicals – and visit for a comprehensive list of products and chemical ingredients along with health risks.
Carefully follow the dosage directions on the label – and do not under any circumstances apply dog products to your cat.
Do not depend exclusively on chemical treatments – but rotate with natural preventatives.
Only consider using chemical treatments if you are in a high risk environment – then discontinue.
Monitor your pet for any adverse reactions after application of chemical treatments.
Your pets liver will have the task of processing the chemicals that make it to the bloodstream – therefore consider a supplement that will help detoxify and regenerate liver cells e.g.: Milk Thistle or Tissue salts
Consult a Holistic Vet about natural therapies to help alleviate toxic build-up.


A thought to leave you with – Fleas, ticks, mosquitoes and other parasites feed on unhealthy animals. So the goal of preventative pest control is to bring your dog and cat to optimal health by building their immune system, which will make them naturally more resilient and less attractive to parasites.


Health risks flea and tick chemical treatments to humans

According to the National Resources Defence Council (NRDC) there are two particular chemicals found in tick and flea treatments, namely Tetrachlorvinphos and Propoxur, which are potentially harmful to pets and humans at the levels found in todays flea collars.
The humans which are considered at greatest risk are toddlers and young children. The reason for this is because they spend a lot of time hugging, stroking and sleeping with their pets.......well that’s not simply reserved to toddlers in our household. ;) Another reason is because children spend a lot of time playing on floors and putting their hands in their mouth.

These chemicals jam communications between nerve cells resulting in your pets experiencing a range of symptoms like nausea, diarrhoea, wheezing, vomiting, sweating and eye tearing. More severe cases of poisoning included muscle twitching, drooling, seizures and even death.

Although the amounts in the residue left by flea collars are smaller than the doses that cause acute human symptoms, both TCVP and Propoxur may cause long-term health consequences like cancer as they at known to be possible carcinogens.

TCVP and other organohosphates also suspected of being linked to neurodevelpomental problems including impulsitivity, hyperactivity and learning disabilities in children. Children also have developing neurological systems that may be more vulnerable to toxic chemicals.

Through pet collars, children are been exposed to levels of TCVP and Propoxur that exceed the EPA acceptable levels. It was found that after three days there was enough chemicals on the fur to exceed the EPA's acceptable level for toddlers.
The EPA's acceptable dose is based on the toxicity of the chemical and safety of the use of a particular product is determined by comparing the expected amount of exposure to the acceptable dose. In the case of flea collars, the EPA assumes that the child spends about two ours a day with his or her pet. But many children can spend up to eight hours a day with his or her pet, and many children have more than one pet so the exposure can be higher than the EPA models predict.

Many consumers assume that whatever is on store shelves must be 100% safe for use around children and pets. But both these chemicals have significant health risks. Though still allowed in flea collars, Propoxur has been banned for use in homes for other pests, citing unacceptable risks to children.

(**Please note that while the EPA and NRDC are both American agencies, they set the standard for all products world wide and therefore their findings do pertain to products available here in South Africa.)