Flea Collars--Why They Should Be a Last Resort

Let’s be honest. Fleas are not our favorite topic for dinner conversation. However, for those of us who own a cat or dog – or perhaps both – it’s important that we talk about these little critters, since they can create big problems for our beloved pets.

Fleas, of course, are best known for making a pet’s life miserable with persistent scratching; but they can also transmit disease and tapeworms, and severe infestations can lead to life-threatening anemia in your pet.

So why not just buckle a flea collar around your pet’s neck, or squeeze a tiny tube of spot-on treatment between their shoulder blades, and call it a day?

Good question!

The answer is this: While these pesky little guys themselves can pose significant health risks to pets and owners alike, the chemicals in conventional preventives and treatments are equally risky, to both pets and people. Think of a flea collar as a necklace infused with insecticides, and you may think twice before buckling one around your beloved pet’s neck.

What’s a pet parent to do?

Thankfully, there are safe alternatives to flea prevention. We will discuss several options in our next blog. For the moment, let’s look at conventional flea prevention products and see what makes them so toxic.

“The worst environmental pollutants that threaten pets are surely the poisons that well-meaning owners regularly dip, spray, collar, and shampoo directly onto and into their flea-bitten companions.” Dr. Richard Pitcairn, Dr. Pitcairn’s New Complete Guide to Natural Health for Dogs and Cats

Sadly, chemical flea control isn’t limited to flea collars. It also includes spot-on treatments, powders, shampoos, sprays, bombs, and dips. It’s important to know why all of these put your entire family at risk.

Wading through the immense amount of information on this topic is a challenge; but we will simplify things by highlighting the three prime culprits found in products marketed to both cats and dogs:

  • Tetrachlorvinphos, or TCVP, is an organophosphate, a class of synthetic chemicals considered the most toxic insecticides in use today. They are toxic to humans, bees and animals, even at low exposure. TCVP is used in flea and tick collars, powders, and sprays.
  • Propoxur is found only in collars. Like TCVP, it kills fleas by interfering with the transmission of nerve signals. Pets have nerve signals, too, of course, so it just makes sense that these chemicals can cause nerve damage in pets as well as fleas.
  • Permethrim is used in collars, spot-on treatments, dips, sprays and shampoos. It belongs to a class of synthetic chemicals called pyrethroids which are known to be toxic to humans and dogs and especially lethal to cats, bees and fish. It is no surprise that they have been linked to thousands of pet poisonings.

The National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) says that hundreds and even thousands of pets have been injured or killed through exposure to these pet pesticides.

For the Children’s Sake

The dangers to pets are disturbing enough; but it isn’t only pets that are at risk. Children, and toddlers in particular, are especially vulnerable for three reasons.

  • First, children’s bodies and organs are still developing, and thus are more vulnerable to lasting damage from toxins.
  • Second, flea and tick collars can leave a high level of pesticide residue on a pet's fur. Because children love to hug, pet, snuggle and even sleep with their pets, they come in close contact with these poisons. When children put their hands in their mouths, they may even be ingesting toxins. Permethrin in particular is highly toxic to infants when ingested orally.
  • Third, children, like pets, are built lower to the ground than adults and thus are exposed to toxins that accumulate in carpeting and even in household dust.

The National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) named tetrachlorvinphos and propoxur as “among the most dangerous pesticides still legally on the market.” This should send shock waves through any parent or grandparent.

An NRDC study found that high levels of pesticide residue remain on a dog’s or cat’s fur for weeks after the collar is removed, and at levels high enough to pose a risk of cancer and neurological damage to children – as much as 1,000 times higher than EPA-acceptable levels. Since 2007, the NRDC has repeatedly petitioned the EPA to ban these chemicals for use in flea treatments. In March 2014, the EPA reached an agreement with Sergeant's Pet Care Products, Inc. and Wellmark International to cancel the use of propoxur in flea collars (trade names include Bansect, Sentry, Zodiac and Biospot). This is good news; but the terms of the agreement allowpropoxur-laden flea collars to remain on store shelves for several more years. As for TCVP, the EPA once again refused to ban it from pet products in November 2014.

Once again, the question is: What’s a pet parent to do?

We will present lots of alternatives to chemical flea preventives in our next blog. In the meantime, if you are already using a chemical flea preventive on your pet, check it out on NRDC’s GreenPaws Flea and Tick Products Directory which rates the toxicity of hundreds of products.

If you discover you're using a toxic product, I strongly suggest you find a way to get rid of it – safely! You don’t want to contaminate the environment in the process of protecting your pet.

Check back for our next blog for safe, natural alternatives to toxic flea preventives. In the meantime, let us know if you're dealing with fleas and if you're ready to ditch toxic flea collars!

What has been your experience with fleas and flea collars? Do you think these cautions are justified? Let's start a conversation!

SOURCES for this article:

The Humane Society of the United States.  "Flea and Tick Product Ingredients: What You Should Know." January 23, 2012. http://www.humanesociety.org/animals/resources/tips/flea_tick_OTC_pet_products.html

National Resources Defense Council. "Chemical Culprits: Flea-Control Chemicals. Last revised April 26, 2011. http://www.nrdc.org/living/pets/flea-control-chemicals.asp

United States Environmental Protection Agency.  "EPA, Sergeant’s Pet Care and Wellmark International Reach Agreement to Cancel Potentially Harmful Insecticide Products." March 14, 2014.  http://yosemite.epa.gov/opa/admpress.nsf/6427a6b7538955c585257359003f0230/04d96e6211e3c9cf85257c9b005950c9!OpenDocument