Beware this tiny terror

2009-04-23 00:00

As a veterinarian who has read some of the articles published recently about flea products, in which their possible toxic effects on dogs were discussed, (see The Witness February 18 and April 2), I would like to express some concerns about these cases.

In writing this, I am not trying to undermine anything that has happened to cause the death of anyone’s precious pet. I would, however, like to try to help avoid a similar situation re-occurring if possible.

Flea products are not all equal

My concern about the flea products is that not all flea products are the same. There is great variation in toxicity. As veterinarians, we are concerned about drug reactions. It is the first thing we suspect when an unexpected treatment response is achieved. Certain symptoms are likely to be drug related, while others are not. There are channels through which to report potential adverse reactions. These channels will objectively scrutinise complaints and place them into an order of importance based on the value of the evidence and the severity of the reaction. This is how a drug eventually gets removed from the market. I am sure this is not a foolproof system, therefore I think reporting potential problems in the press is important.

I also think it is time that people with concerns speak to their veterinarian and actively ask about potential side effects of drugs and products. We are instructed to do a clinical examination before vaccinating an animal. Perhaps it would be prudent to do the same before applying flea-control products. This is especially important for heavily infested animals. My concern is that not all cases are objectively reported and often no attempt is made to show that these reactions may in fact be from incorrect application, disease progression and undiagnosed underlying diseases in some cases.

Fleas Affect humans and animals

One of my other concerns is the current lack of flea control among pets and the ill health that it causes pets. Fleas are responsible for severe allergies affecting skin and in some cases lung tissue. They are responsible for the spread of harmful bacteria and mycoplasma organisms (a bacterial-type organism) to dogs, cats and humans. While these infections are rare, they do happen. Fleas also transmit tapeworm to animals, often exacerbating intestinal and itching problems. Rather than put people off flea control, I would again encourage people to seek help from their veterinarian in this regard. Some of the flea products have helplines that people can phone for advice to aid in this regard. If there are reactions, they need to be reported to the relevant authority by their veterinarians after assessment of the circumstances.

The accusations made about veterinary companies not accepting responsibility are not entirely substantiated. You need to look no further than the recent food crisis to find a company that put up their hand and brought a problem to our attention. I think the companies need to be able to investigate the circumstances involved in order to give us an objective assessment of the situation. I do not believe they will ignore problems because it will come out in the wash if they do.

Treatment for flea infestation

The correct product and/or group of products, as well as the correct application of the product, is essential for effective and safe flea control. Once again, I would encourage people to seek the help of the veterinarian in this regard.

I have often heard that a flea product has stopped working. On closer examination of the problem it is often revealed that incorrect application, or unrealistic expectation of the product, are to blame. The reduced toxicity of some of the flea products available means that they lose their knock-down effect. This means that they take one to two days to kill fleas.

Ninety-five percent of the flea population actually exists in the environment. This means that for up to year a flea can hatch from its pupal stage to reinfest an animal. Virtually no known products are effective for long enough to prevent this from

happening. Therefore a pet may receive new doses of fleas on a daily basis from some 2 000 eggs laid per adult female in her lifetime. Once the flea control is

instituted, and provided no outsiders are adding to the egg pile, the environmental immature flea load starts to reduce. Flea products are often not applied in winter which dramatically increases the egg pile for the next summer. It is not easy, but by the evidence of many cases, flea control is achievable.

Some cases of flea-bite dermatitis require symptomatic treatment to help the animals through a very difficult initial period before flea numbers reduce. This should never replace flea control.

There are many natural products which claim efficacy against fleas. Unfortunately little evidence is ever presented to show that these products work. We also do not know the safety of these products.

* Name withheld for professional reasons.


• Treat all dogs and cats.

• Spend some time speaking to your vet about the product and application.

• Treat the environment (the places where most of the eggs lie are called hot spots). Again take safety into regard. Vacuuming up the eggs and larvae is particularly effective and safe.

• Seek the advice of your vet if your dog has a flea allergy to allow for adjunctive symptomatic treatment. Animals are likely to scratch once fleas start dying on them.

• Seek the advice of your vet if the flea control appears to be not working.

• There are safety concerns with many drugs and products. Make sure you discuss these issues for that particular product with your veterinarian.

• If an animal is ill after a product is applied, please seek the help of your vet. Some diseases are common to certain breeds, such as heart disease in boxers. It would be prudent to investigate diseases associated with classic symptoms fully before assuming toxicity in these cases. Where toxicity is suspected we (the vets) should involve the relevant company and ensure adequate investigation.

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