Those spot-on flea and tick preventatives available for a few bucks at the grocery store are not what the doctor ordered, and federal regulators are warning consumers to take care when using them on pets.
The pesticides are being evaluated by the Environmental Protection Agency following an increase in complaints of bad reactions.
The problem isn't new, said veterinarian Andrew Armani of North Bay Animal & Bird Hospital in Tampa.
"It's been happening for years and years," he said. "I've seen burns that look like chemical burns all the way to seizures and death. People try to save money by buying a cheaper alternative [to vet-recommended treatments] at the grocery store."
The review includes all over-the-counter spot-on treatments, the type squeezed from a vial onto an animal's skin, usually at the base of the neck or along the back. They're usually used once a month to keep fleas and ticks away.
The EPA logged 44,000 complaints about them last year.
Adverse reactions are a bigger problem among cats than dogs, Armani said.
Sometimes, the animal just doesn't respond well. But other times, it's poisoned after the product is applied incorrectly. The pesticides aren't meant to be eaten and are supposed to be applied where a pet can't reach to lick them off.
"But people don't see fleas there and they say, 'I'm going to put it where I see the fleas.' So they put it on the tail and at the base of the tail," Armani said. "You know a cat; a cat is going to do everything to get it off. The poor cat will ingest it all and develop serious seizures."
In late April, the EPA announced it was reviewing products that accounted for about 80 percent of the complaints. But it recently expanded the scope to all spot-on products sold over-the-counter. Most are low-cost treatments available in discount stores.
Products purchased at vets' offices can cost five times more. But Armani said there are almost never problems associated with those.
"We scrutinize anything we use or recommend," he said.
The top brand in retail stores is Hartz, which ran into problems with the EPA in 2002 over some of its spot-on products for cats and kittens. The company agreed to discontinue four of those in 2005.
Only 2 percent of the current complaints involve Hartz products, said Melinda Fernyhough, the company's manager of scientific affairs.
"I think it is important to stress all topical drops are regulated in the same manner ... and are held to the same standards of efficacy and safety, whether sold through vets or at retail," she said.
Spot-on products have become the most popular way to control fleas, preferred by 74 percent of cat owners, according to a 2008 survey by the American Pet Products Association.
Information from the Sun-Sentinel was used in this report.
PROTECT YOUR PETS
• Consult your veterinarian before using any flea and tick treatment.
• Do not use products meant for dogs on cats, and vice versa.
• Avoid products with these names in the active ingredients: chlorpyrifos, dichlorvos, phosmet, naled, tetrachlorvinphos, diazinon, malathion, carbaryl and propoxur.
• Carefully follow application instructions, and note weight or age guidelines.
• If your pet has an adverse reaction, bathe it immediately and call your vet.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
To report a reaction to a flea and tick product go to www.pesticides.custhelp.com, call 800-858-7378, or tell your vet.
For information on flea control without pesticides, go to: www.greenpaws.org.
For updates on the Environmental Protection Agency's review of spot-on flea and tick products, go to www.epa.gov/pesticides/health/flea-tick-control.html.