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Flea and Tick Control: Safe Solutions!

by Katie McKay | May 08, 2020

What did one flea say to the other? Shall we jump or take the dog? Parasites like fleas and ticks are creepy crawly, carry disease and pose a health risk to both our pets and to people. Keeping them from grabbing a doggie uber ride is paramount but negotiating the world of antiparasitics is daunting. Products with the same ingredients, but different names or similarly named products with different ingredients, its enough to make your head spin. To stop the exorcism of this task, let’s go over a few things that we can empower ourselves with to make sure what we choose is safe and effective.

Somehow in the year 2020, the formations of products used to treat flea and tick infestations has grown from powders, shampoo and collars to oral tablets, topical solutions and back again. They are available at the store, from our vet and even online, but how do we know which products are safe? There is good news. Companies marketing products approved by the FDA (oral preventions) or registered with the EPA (topical) are meeting safety testing requirements for people and animals that the product will contact. They must follow strict guidelines requiring specific and clear labeling and once the product is approved and available to the consumer, they must continue to report any adverse events and additional safety data to these regulatory agencies. For FDA approved products, look for the NADA (New Animal Drug Application) or ANADA on the packaging. For topical products, look for an EPA registration number.

NADA-EPA approval numbers

Here is an example of these safety measures in action. In 2009, there was an increase in reported adverse events in topical flea/tick prevention. The EPA launched an investigation and found that the reasons for these reactions were tied to misuse of the products (wrong dose, used on a cat when it was meant for a dog, etc). In response to this finding, the EPA came out with a new set of requirements to make package labeling clearer and to prevent misuse. You can see the full report here. In late 2019, the FDA also released a warning statement, that although products containing isoxazoline are safe to use in the majority of pets, they have the potential to cause neurologic side effects and your dog's medical history should be carefully reviewed before using them. For our rescue, we have had good success with these products without adverse side effects, but as an abundance of caution under the advisement of our vet partners, we do not administer this class of prevention to dogs with known neurological history (i.e. seizures, wobbler's, cerebellar hypoplasia, etc.) You can read the full FDA report to get more information about which products contain isoxazoline here.

Ordering online? That has become more consumer friendly too. Online pharmacies, for pets and for people, that meet safety and regulatory guidelines are approved by the NABP or the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy. You can follow this link, or even easier, look for the .pharmacy logo on the company’s website. It looks like this:

pharmacy safe logo

It would be virtually impossible for me to begin to discuss the many different products available to you and because of that I highly recommend avoiding Dr. Google on this one. Holy flea circus there are a lot of preventions out there! Apparently not only are there 10 different ways to say, “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter” (now this you can Google……hilarious), a product may have a similar name but a totally different use! Buying Advantage? It has been around for a while and covers fleas and ticks for both cats and dogs, but do not mistakenly buy Advecta because although it is cheaper (this gets me every time), it only covers fleas and not ticks! Sneaky.

The best thing to do is to chat with your vet about a few options and then do a little research of your own from reputable sources. Your vet knows your dog’s history, medications and general lifestyle, so why wouldn’t you ask them? Start with three options that they recommend. Then be sure to ask questions too, like, what is the difference between these products and what do they cover? Why is that important for my dog? How often is this given? What are the risks and side effects to look for? What do I do if I see a reaction? Does this cover heartworm? If not, is it safe to give with my current heartworm prevention? What is the difference in cost for these? Armed with this information, do a little research of your own. I stumbled across this pretty awesome share from our friends to the North. The Ontario Animal Health Network (OAHN) put together this beautiful chart of popular preventions (2018). It includes cute little pictographs that make it super easy to read. This table represents claims and labeling per Canadian standards so they might be slightly different in the USA because of regulatory requirements, but this is a good jumping off point if you don't know where to start. You can access the chart here:

Now that you know how to safely search online, compare costs and see what your vet is willing to match or if its a better deal to buy directly from them. And last but not least, consider what type of prevention you want to use. A collar? Topical? Oral?

For many years topicals were the gold standard, but recently more and more oral products (chewable) are available. Topical products are those that you apply to your dog’s skin between the fur and create what we affectionately refer to as the oil slick. Truth be told, these can be messy and ensuring it dries before pets go swimming, bathing or rubbing it all over your couch can be a pain. Oral prevention suddenly seems appealing because they are ingested which makes them super easy to administer, not messy and waterproof, instantly. There are plenty of studies demonstrating the ability of the oral prevention (99.9% effective) to out-perform their topical counterparts (88.4%),1 well that sounds like a no brainer! Not so fast. Be cautious when researching these. Many times, as is the case above, they are funded or performed by the manufacturer and therefore subject to bias. Here are some things you might want to consider before deciding on one or the other. Oral preventions are ingested and that means that it is distributed to your dog systemically, or in the bloodstream. This can present a two-fold problem. 1. Given that the active ingredient is in the bloodstream, that means that fleas and ticks will have to bite your dog to get exposed. On the surface, this isn’t a serious problem considering I get about 1000 mosquito bites every summer, but if your dog is particularly sensitive or allergic to flea bites, you may want to consider a topical, more on that in a minute. 2. Oral preventions are readily absorbed because they are chewable, that means if your dog has a reaction to one of these preventions, it is going to likely require waiting out the reaction or a visit to the vet for supportive care. Topical prevention has a leg up here in that many of them are made of active ingredients that can not only kill biting insects, but also repel them. Topical prevention is distributed on the skin and through the fur of your dog. This feature gives them the unique ability to stop ticks and fleas just like our human version of bug spray. One of its drawbacks is waiting 24-48 hours for it to dry so that you can go swimming or bathe your dog, but this also serves as a safety net for dogs that may experience reactions, which coincidentally also tend to happen in that time frame. These reactions can be managed by giving your dog a bath, often times with Dawn dish soap, and getting rid of most of the product from their skin and hair. What you choose is all about what works for you and your dog. Underlying medical issues or just every day genetics can play a role. Not every prevention is right for every dog. 

Let’s summarize our take home messages here:

  1. Follow you vet’s advice. Using something without medical oversight can lead to flea resistance and ineffective treatments that ultimately cost more time, money and comfort and we all know how much our dogs value their comfort.
  2. There are many products to choose from tablets, to sprays, to powders, collars and more. Always talk to your vet before losing your mind if you see a flea. Most reactions happen because the products are not used properly, not because they are not safe for our pets.
  3. Prevention is the best medicine. I know, I know its cliché, but its true! I have written about the issues that fleas and ticks have caused before and believe me when I say keeping them off in the first place is the easiest thing to do! Check out the links below for more information!
Tick, Talk Time of Year 

Canine Erlichiosis, the tick strikes back

Lyme Disease, when ticks attack

Fleas and Tapeworms, like peas and carrots

Flea and Tick Preventions-The Itchy Truth (2013)

And more!

Happy Researching!

1. Michael W.Dryden, William G.Ryan, Margie Bell Anthony, J.Rumschlagd Lisa M.Young, Daniel E.Snyderd. Veterinary Parasitology. Volume 191, Issues 3–4, 31 January 2013, Pages 340-346.

2, Protecting Pets from Fleas and Ticks. Controlling Fleas and Ticks.


4. Dryden, Michael W. Flea Allergy Dermatitis-Integumentary System-Merck Veterinary Manual. Topic Resources, Dec. 2014.

5. Ectoparasiticides Used in Small Animals-Pharmacology-Merck Veterinary Manual. Accessed May2020, last edited May 2020.

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