Behind the Label: Flea Powder

Spot-on treatments and flea powders can make your pets ill
Flea powder probably isn't something you think often about. But with some frighteningly toxic ingredients you should: they can be deadly for you and your pets

The pet care industry is big business. In Europe pet owners spend around £10 billion ($18 billion) on products for their animal companions while in the US it’s around £8.8 billion ($16 billion) a year. Pet food accounts for about 80 per cent of this spend, but sales of a whole range of pet care items including cat litters, flea and tick products, dietary supplements, toys, pet homes (from cages to kennels to fish tanks), baskets, feeding bowls, collars, leads, clothing, brushes and shampoos are all increasing. Clearly, as a nation of ‘animal lovers’ we are willing to spend a lot of money on our pets, but are we really making their lives better?

Surveys show that overall pet health is declining almost as rapidly as human health. As with humans this is a relatively recent phenomenon that began shortly after World War II. The question now being asked is: could regular exposure to pesticides - for instance through tick and flea treatments - be part of the problem? According to the Humane Society of America, the answer is yes.

Killer pet care

Fleas and ticks are a profitable market for the chemical/pesticide industry, responsible for billions in sales every year. Pet owners are continually reassured that the products they use to take care of their animals’ health are safe and effective, but ‘convenient’ spot-on flea and tick treatments, in particular have come under fire recently. They may be an easy, no-mess way for owners to deal with pet pests, but a growing amount of evidence shows that they cause widespread harm to pet health.

Last year the US Environmental Protection Agency weighed in on the debate about flea and tick products saying that products intended to treat cats and dogs for fleas and ticks kill hundreds of pets and injure tens of thousands more each year.  The Agency said it would be reviewing labels of these products to decide which ones needed stronger warnings, as well as outlining plans to make flea and tick products safer for animals.

As with small children, pets cannot report when they’re being poisoned at low doses. It is up to owners to monitor and understand their pet’s health and behaviour and report adverse effects of the products they use. And owners have been doing just that. The EPA says its move followed increasing complaints from pet owners that the ‘spot-on’ products have triggered reactions in dogs and cats, ranging from skin irritation to neurological problems to deaths. The agency noted that cats and small dogs appeared to be particularly vulnerable, especially when given products intended for larger animals.

The problem is that ‘spot-on’ products may not harm or kill pets or humans with the initial exposure, or even after several exposures. Exposed in this way it takes longer for the negative effects – often due to and continual assault on a animal’s immune system  - to reveal themselves. Vigilance is required because the health issues for flea and tick treatments are the same as with pesticide exposure to those living close to farmland, or those who use pesticides in their homes: small chronic exposures add up.

But because low dose exposures act like slow motion poison, the pesticide industry continues to mislead the public, and the government regulatory agencies, by insisting that there is no scientific proof showing a definite cause and effect link between pesticide exposure and illness in either pets or humans.

This in spite of a November 2000 report, Poisons on Pets, issued by the Natural Resources Defense Council in the US, which found that pest-control products can expose adults and children to toxic pesticides at concentrations that exceed the safe levels established by US EPA by as much as 500 times. The result said the report was potential acute poisoning of pets and humans - and possible long-term problems for children. The health risks include acute poisoning as well as longer-term problems like brain dysfunction or cancer.

The NRDC report found that the riskiest pet products contain a family of pesticides known as organophosphates (OPs) and carbamates. OP pesticides, which are derived from nerve gas, interfere with nerve signal transmission. Since the neurological process they attack is common to insects, humans, dogs, and cats, these pesticides can harm more than fleas and ticks. Carbamates disrupt the same neurological processes as OPs so are potentially just as harmful.

Toxic ingredients

Common OP ingredients in pet products include chlorpyrifos, dichlorvos, phosmet, naled, tetrachlorvinphos, diazinon, or malathion. Common carbamates include: carbaryl or propoxur.

Use of these types of pesticides is being phased out but newer ingredients can be just as toxic. Fipronyl – a phenylpyrazole pesticide – has been found to be harmful to human and animals. Most recently, its widespread use has been implicated in colony collapse disorder in bees. It is now banned in France. The same is true or another type of ingredient, Imidacloprid, a member of the neonicotinoid which is also linked to bee deaths.
Millions of dollars spent on toxic flea control have not bought consumer satisfaction, or indeed healthy pest-free pets. This is because fleas and ticks can develop a resistance to pesticides in the same way that bacteria can become resistant to antibiotics. Survival of the fittest, short life span, and rapid replication have created a new breed of superpests. Fleas and lice now have a longer life cycle than they did fifty years ago; they breed more easily and even survive bouts of cold weather. As a result it has become necessary to use stronger pesticides, in higher doses to try and eradicate them. This in turn creates an even greater risk for the pets that are the end users of these products.

To keep your pets and your family safe remember that you should avoid all organophosphate-based products. This is particularly important for pregnant women and families with children. Don’t let children ‘help’ apply spot-on products or others that contain pesticides.

In many cases, fleas and ticks can be controlled with simple physical measures, such as brushing pets regularly with a flea comb while inspecting for fleas, vacuuming and mowing frequently in areas where pets spend the most time outdoors.

You can also try these other non-toxic alternatives:

•    Bathe and comb your pet regularly. Use natural vegetable based soap or shampoo, not insecticides. If you find fleas on your pets’ brush or comb, dip it in a glass of soapy water to remove them.

•    Frequent vacuuming of floors, carpets, furniture, crevices and cracks in the area where pets sleep and spend time is advised along with weekly washing of pet bedding. During heavy infestation daily vacuuming may be necessary. Dispose of the sealed bag properly outside the home or by incinerating it.

•    Cedar shampoo, cedar oil and cedar-filled sleeping mats are commercially available. Cedar repels many insects including fleas. Adding a few drops of neem or tea- tree to mild dog shampoos may also be effective.

NOTE: essential oils are toxic to cats, especially tea tree, which their livers can not process

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