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5 important health factors to know before putting your pet on flea and tick meds

Fleas and ticks can lead to itching, discomfort, and skin infections for the entire family. But as frustrating as bites can be, these minuscule pests can also cause serious illnesses, or worse. Both Lyme Disease and Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever can be spread via the bite of an infected tick. If left untreated, Lyme Disease can cause symptoms that run the gamut from a bullseye-shaped rash to facial paralysis, nerve pain, and arthritis. Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, on the other hand, is even more dangerous. If the infection progresses without proper treatment, it may cause severe headaches, a high fever, and potentially death. It goes without saying that flea and tick meds are essential, but medications aren’t a one-size-fits-all solution. Here’s what you need to know about flea and tick safety.

Two women, mostly off-screen, hold a chihuahua and a Siamese cat in frame.

How to prevent fleas and ticks the safe way

Did you know there are over 800 tick species worldwide? Fortunately, you’ll only find four different species in the US. (And we happen to think that’s four too many.) While fleas and ticks are most active throughout summer and early fall (and their patterns can vary from state to state), flea and tick prevention is a year-round battle. Prevention should start with your lawn, but that doesn’t mean you should leave your fur babies unprotected. However, not all flea and tick medications are safe for every pet. These are the five most important questions you should ask your veterinarian before you start your pet on a flea and tick prevention regimen. 

1. Is my pet healthy enough for flea and tick medication?

Some pets, particularly those with a history of seizures and neurological symptoms, and those who are pregnant or nursing may not be the best candidate for flea and tick medication. Your vet knows your pet’s medical history, so you should always request a consultation before medicating your dog. 

2. Is my pet too young or too old for flea and tick medication?

“As soon as they’re old enough, place them on a veterinarian-recommended topical or oral flea and tick product, and never take them off,” says Kansas State University veterinary parasitologist Michael “Dr. Flea” Dryden, DVM, Ph.D. How old is old enough? According to the experts, your puppy (or kitten) should be at least eight weeks old before you start them off on a flea and tick preventative. Will you need to discontinue use when your pet is a senior? Maybe. Your pet’s immune system gradually weakens with age, and harsh medications can make matters worse. Always speak to your vet before discontinuing any medication. 

A kitten with a pink nose sprawls on her back with her paws over her head.

3. Can I use the same medication on my dog and cat?

Dogs are much larger than cats, so the dosage for your dog’s flea and tick medication will be much too potent for your tiny cat. Most importantly, medications that are well-tolerated by dogs can be fatal to your feline fur baby. If you have cats and dogs, make sure to keep them separated after applying a topical flea and tick preventative. Your cat will become seriously – or even fatally – ill if she ingests or otherwise comes into contact with your dog’s flea and tick medication while it’s still wet

4. Is it safer to use an over-the-counter or a prescription formula?

While over-the-counter (OTC) flea and tick preventatives are available online and in supermarkets, many veterinarians recommend opting for prescription-only flea and tick medications. OTC products are typically regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPC), while prescription medications are regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Unlike EPA-regulated flea and tick preventatives (which are considered pesticides, not medications), FDA-regulated prescription drugs have to be approved by licensed medical professionals. Ultimately, we recommend consulting your vet before you make any decisions regarding your pet’s health. After all, the most effective flea and tick medication is the one you’ll actually use. 

5. Can flea and tick medications cause adverse reactions?

Like all medications, flea and tick preventatives have the potential to cause side effects. In many cases, adverse reactions are mild, often limited to mild skin irritation. However, some dogs and cats have more severe reactions. Please contact your vet immediately if you notice any of the following symptoms:

  • skin reactions, such as itching, swelling, or redness
  • gastrointestinal issues like nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea
  • neurological symptoms like seizures, spasms, or trembling

You should take your dog or cat to the vet right away if your pet suffers from seizures, extreme vomiting or diarrhea, or difficulty breathing. Although it’s uncommon, some pets may develop an allergy to their flea and tick medication. In very severe cases, this can lead to a dangerous reaction called anaphylactic shock. 

A shallow focus shot of a smiling black and white Border Collie.

For the most part, cats and dogs tolerate flea and tick medication without having any issues, but no two pets respond to any treatment exactly the same way. Keep your home and yard treated to keep out fleas and ticks, and always consult your veterinarian before you use any pesticides around your pets. When it comes to your fur baby’s health, it’s always better to be safe than sorry. 

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