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Summer Focus: How Some Flea Products Can Harm Our Cats


By Simon Kirk, DVM

One of the most common summertime cat toxicities is due to exposure to Pyrethrins or Permethrins.

What are pyrethrin and permethrins and what are they used for? Pyrethrins are approved for use on both dogs and cats and can be found in many flea shampoos, sprays, powders, dips, spot-on flea and tick products and household insecticides.

Permethrin is a synthetic insecticide similar to pyrethrin. It is a manufactured chemical that is more toxic to insects and mammals, and lasts longer in the environment. While pyrethrins are safe to use in cats with the correct dosage, permethrins are not safe due to the low tolerance cats have toward them. 

How do cats become poisoned? 
Poisoning is usually the result of application of a spot-on product containing pyrethrin or permethrin. Pyrethrin poisoning usually occurs when the cat is given a dose greater than the recommended amount. 

Permethrin-based topical flea products have a much greater potential for toxicity and are usually labeled "for use in dogs only."  Severe illness and fatalities can occur in cats when their owners apply these products. Use extreme caution: Dogs use a concentration of permethrin that ranges from 45 to 64 percent. However, this can be lethal to a cat, which can tolerate only concentrations of two percent. 

Cat owners should read labels carefully before purchasing any flea or tick product. If a product says it is for use only on dogs, then it should NEVER be used on cats - even in small amounts. Just a few drops can result in severe illness or death. If you also own a dog, your cat can become ill just by being close to your permethrin-treated dog. 

What are the effects of pyrethrin/permethrin poisoning in cats? Application of permethrin-based insecticide to a cat will usually result in toxic signs within six hours. If your cat exhibits these symptoms, quickly bathe your pet in mild dishwashing detergent and call your veterinarian.What to watch for:  

  • Excessive salivation (drooling)
  • Ear flicking 
  • Ataxia (acting like they are drunk) 
  • Depression 
  • Lethargy 
  • Muscle tremors 
  • Seizures (can cause brain damage if prolonged) 
  • Hyperthermia (increased body temperature)
  • Vomiting
  • Death 

How is pyrethrin/permethrin poisoning diagnosed? 
The diagnosis of permethrin or pyrethrin toxicity is based on physical exam findings, as well as a recent history of topical flea product application. Although skin and hair tests can be done to confirm the presence of insecticide, those results may take several days.

How is pyrethrin/permethrin poisoning treated? 
Treatment involves eliminating any existing product from the body and controlling seizures and muscle tremors. Expect your veterinarian to recommend hospitalization with continuous intravenous fluids. Additional recommendations for treatment may include: Bathing in lukewarm water with mild dish soap to remove additional flea product from the pet's skin and reduce the amount absorbed, administering medications for seizure control and administering medications to treat muscle tremors. These may be given multiple times throughout the hospital stay. 

If treated early, the majority of pets suffering from permethrin/pyrethrin toxicity recover enough to go home within 24 to 48 hours, although fine muscle tremors may continue for several days. 

What can I do at home to help with or to prevent pyrethrin/permethrin poisoning? If you suspect your cat may have permethrin/pyrethrin toxicity, the most important part of home care is to bathe the pet in lukewarm water using mild dish soap. This removes the flea product from your pet's skin, thereby reducing the amount absorbed. Do not use flea shampoo and avoid hot water since that will dilate blood vessels in the skin and increase the absorption of the flea product. 

Once the cat is bathed, contact your veterinarian or local veterinary emergency facility immediately. Additional treatment is probably required.

How can pyrethrin/pyrethroid poisoning be avoided? 
The best way to prevent toxicity to flea products is to read the labels and follow the directions. If a product is labeled "for use in dogs only," DO NOT USE IT ON YOUR CAT. Cats have different metabolisms from dogs and are much more sensitive to certain medications, drugs and toxins. Here are a few more points to consider: 

  • Follow the manufacturer's instructions to the letter. Never give more than the dosage stated on the packaging. 
  • Avoid using over-the-counter flea or tick products. Veterinarian prescribed flea treatments are generally more effective and safer to use on pets. 
  • Speak to your veterinarian and follow his or her recommendations for flea and tick medications. 
  • Carefully monitor your cat after giving any flea or tick medications. 
  • Do not use any flea or tick products on young, pregnant, lactating, old or sick cats without veterinary advice. 
  • If your cat displays any symptoms of poisoning, seek veterinary attention immediately.

Dr. Kirk is both an attending emergency clinician and hospital director of Veterinary Specialists and Emergency Services of Rochester. He earned his Doctorate in Veterinary Medicine from the Atlantic Veterinary College. During his leisure time, he enjoys kayaking, hiking, cross-country skiing, scuba diving, and traveling. 

Summer Focus: How Some Flea Products Can Harm Our Cats

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