Topical Flea and Tick Treatments

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[Updated March 3, 2016]

Traveling over the holiday weekend, I spent a night at a friend’s house. I brought my foster dog (and her crate); she isn’t civilized enough yet to be entrusted to the only part-time supervision of my regular pet sitter. I woke up earlier than anyone else in the household, and took the foster dog for a walk. Several times along our walk, she stopped suddenly to scratch. I thought, “That’s weird. I wonder if she ate something that she’s allergic to?”

Have you heard the expression, “If you hear hoofbeats, think horses, not zebras”? Fleas did NOT occur to me, although it should have been the very first think I thought of as an explanation to this little foster dog’s sudden need to scratch herself silly. But it’s been years since I’ve had a dog with fleas! Literally, more than four years! They just haven’t presented themselves where I live now. In the Bay Area (where I was visiting over the weekend), though, they are common. I just forgot, somehow. But it all came back to me in a rush when the foster dog rolled over for a tummy rub and I saw several of the hated bloodsuckers scurry across her belly.

I worry about using the topical flea and tick treatments. I hate the idea of applying a deadly pesticide to a dog’s skin – a substance so toxic that it can kill fleas for a month. And yet, the bites of fleas and ticks are awful. The itching caused by a flea bite can cause a dog to literally tear her skin open and infections can set in. Tick bites can transit all sorts of deadly tick-borne diseases. Faced with a potential threat of a reaction to a pesticide and the here-and-now presence of fleas, I drove straight to a pet supply store for a topical flea treatment. I didn’t want to give a living flea population a ride home, or anywhere else.

I think these topical treatments can be overused, and I know that they can cause deadly reactions in some sensitive dogs. I am concerned about the fact that much of the substance that we drip onto our dogs’ skin needs not be identified by the makers of the pesticide; Federal law permits the maker to hide the so-called “inert” ingredients in the preparations, even though they may themselves be quite toxic. (For more about this, see “Are Spot-On Flea Killers Safe?” WDJ February 2002 and “Eliminate Fleas Without Poisons,” March 2002.) And yet, in certain situations, such as an acute exposure to fleas – and one that I hope won’t recur – the substances can be a fast, effective solution, one that puts an almost-immediate end to the torture of flea bites. I wouldn’t put them on a dog every month, and I wouldn’t put them on every dog I own, but they do have a place, at least in my dog-care kit.

How about you? Have you experienced trouble with spot-ons? Or do you rely on them for flea- and tick-preventives?

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