Should You Fear the Flea?

August 12, 2019

a dog barking at a cartoon flea

There are so many flea and tick products out there to keep your pets comfortable and healthy, that it can be difficult to keep them all straight! There are all-natural products, sprays, powders, topical treatments and chewable products that can be given like a treat. 

On top of the range of products, it can also be difficult to keep track of any potential side-effects you may read or hear about, and how well these products even work. Below, the ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center (APCC) breaks down common confusions concerning flea and tick medications and sets the record straight on those pesky fleas and ticks.

Natural Products

Many of the natural products available for flea and tick prevention contain essential oils. Unfortunately, these products tend not to be very effective. When applied topically, essential oils can potentially cause serious irritation to your pet’s skin. Red and/or itchy, painful areas can develop. 

Applying anything to an animal’s skin without a recommendation from your veterinarian is not recommended. Pets can also be very sensitive to the smell of essential oils, and if essential oils are ingested, pets may have stomach upset signs like vomiting or diarrhea. They may foam at the mouth or become agitated, or even suffer from neurologic signs such as uncoordinated balance or becoming depressed. 

Topical Products

Most popular, topical products for flea and tick prevention are quite effective at helping with fleas. The most common reactions to these types of products include mild irritation at the application site, and stomach upset if your pet licks the product off themselves. In addition, some pets don’t like how the product feels, so they may scratch, sit down or roll over, or try to look at their own back repeatedly.

CAUTION: There is one ingredient used for dog flea preventatives that should NEVER be used on cats: permethrin.  Cats are very sensitive to permethrin and if they come into contact with this ingredient, they can show symptoms such as lack of coordination, impaired walking, muscle tremors and even seizures. Unfortunately, these situations are life-threatening and require immediate care. Ensure that you are always using the proper products for your pets and that you consult with your veterinarian before trying any new medications or preventative products. 

Oral Products

Oral products are also very effective at controlling fleas and ticks. There are sometimes concerns about the safety of oral flea and tick products. However, in general, there’s no truth behind these concerns.  

Most of these medications are very safe at therapeutic doses. They can potentially cause some mild stomach upset and your pet might be sleepier than normal after they receive the medication. In overdose situations, APCC typically sees stomach upset and lethargy, and on rare occasions we see neurologic signs such as wobbly-walking, muscle tremors and seizures. If these more severe signs are seen, please call APCC or your veterinarian right away.


There are many types of flea sprays on the market. Most of these sprays have active ingredients in very low concentrations but can still cause some mild irritation to the skin. The bigger concern in these products is the alcohol they contain. If a pet is soaked with one of these products, they can actually become intoxicated, and this requires immediate veterinary care. Symptoms of intoxication include: unsteady walking, stomach upset like vomiting and diarrhea, sleepiness and even seizures. In serious cases, death has occurred, so it’s important to seek medical treatment as soon as symptoms begin. 

Keep Pests at Bay

Fleas and ticks can bring about a myriad of stresses and concerns for pet owners including disease and severe skin irritation for you and your pets, so it’s always best to ensure that you’re using some sort of preventative measure to keep these pests at bay. The best way to keep your pets happy, comfortable and healthy is to consult with your veterinarian about which products are best for your pet’s individual needs. 

Once you’ve gotten the proper product picked out for your furry friend, be sure to follow the instructions on dosage. After applying a topical product or spray, be sure to monitor your pet to ensure that they aren’t attempting to lick off the product. Also, watch your pet for any adverse side effects after trying a new product. 

Be sure to keep all your pet’s supplies and medications up and out of paws’ reach to avoid any curious noses getting into things they shouldn’t!

If your pet is showing any adverse reactions after receiving their flea and tick product, or if they get into more of it than they should, contact your regular veterinarian or the ASPCA Poison Control Center at 888-426-4435 immediately.