Right up front I’ll say it: I detest flea collars. I think I’d rather have fleas on my person than risk my dogs’ health with flea collars.


I’ll probably get in hot water for saying it (I’m sure to get at least one terse email from an industry spokesperson). I know from experience: When I filled out a survey for Hartz last January at a vet conference, I was met with a [polite] dressing-down when I ticked off the box that indicated I had a sub-one out of ten level of respect for their products. They are, after all, the number-one, flea-product offenders in the industry.


For starters, they don’t do what they’re supposed to. Sure, they kill fleas remarkably well up front (in the first few days), but leave the sucker on for more than a week and the product’s efficacy diminishes rapidly.


As if that wasn’t problematic enough (its action’s poor longevity drives the daily expense of a flea collar up well beyond the so-called, “veterinary” products and gives owners a false sense of security), flea collars don’t release well on cats at risk for getting hung up on fences and, what’s worse, they can be toxic.


Today I met with a new client who wanted a complete neurological exam for her dog. After finding no obvious problem, she explained that her dog had suddenly gone deaf. I had met her dog, Killer (a malapropism for a relatively easy-going Yorkie if I ever heard one), at her second-hand shop a few times in the past and the warning barks announcing my arrival had always seemed appropriately timed to the ringing of the door’s bell. So why the sudden deafness?


She explained that the only new item had been the flea collar. As Killer had “never, ever” had fleas before, she was unacquainted with the veterinary products and had taken the old-school, supermarket flea collar approach.


Her claim was that Killer had gone deaf very suddenly, over a period of days, after the flea collar had been applied. She noted that the large amount of powder on the collar had worried her but that she had trusted in the safety of such a popular mode of parasite control. Do you blame her? (Not everyone is super-savvy about flea control, not even in the year-round flea-heaven that is South Florida.)


A couple of months had already transpired by the time she came to see me. Her original vet had already signed off on Killer’s malady and she was frustrated at the outcome. Too bad I couldn’t offer her more help. A visit with the audio-oriented neurologist in Palm Beach? An MRI? Short of that, we weren’t about to get anywhere. The big expense was not in her budget.


On Monday I plan to call the company but I don’t expect any financial satisfaction for the owner. After all, Killer is over ten years-old and deafness is relatively common at his age. But sudden deafness? That’s her take on it. Having had no clinical testing prior to the episode means there’s precious little evidence to support her claim.


And, to be fair, owners often do note deafness in dogs suddenly: “Omigod, why did he just jump when he saw me? Could it be he’s losing his hearing?” And the recognition of symptoms in some owners may come months after the initial problem manifests.


Nonetheless, I believe it’s quite possible that Killer’s hearing loss could be a result of the collar. When a creature weighs less than ten pounds, it’s not unusual to assume the worst when acute neurological changes come about after the use of organophosphate-based products. In fact, that’s how these products kill fleas—by affecting their neurologic systems. Moreover, the effects we see in our patients almost always involve neurotoxicity. Seizures are most common, but subtle changes in more localized neural networks aren’t always easy to see immediately.


Older pets and our youngest are most at risk (due to the susceptibility of maturing or degenerating neurons to chemical insult). Even tick collars and the pyrethrins-containing Advantix, stronger medicine than any of the other “vet-only” products we carry, give me pause. I only use these in non-cat households where inter-dog play (when the collar or freshly-applied liquid product may be ingested) is not an issue, and when pets are of sound health and appropriate ages.


And pets are not the only ones at risk. Households with young children, pregnant or nursing moms and the elderly should be careful as well. Personally, I strongly advise against any pesticide collars if kids are around. Ever had a toddler? Everything goes in their mouths.


Maybe I worry unduly, but Killer’s issue does strike a chord with me. I don’t like to take unnecessary risks, especially when other products exist to help decrease external parasite loads. Consider Frontline, Advantage and Revolution. I feel far safer with these products.


One thing that always concerns me, though: I hate to feel like a used car salesman. Consequently, I’m always aware of the possibility that a pet-owner might think I just want their money for myself by selling the higher-priced products we vets carry.


Not so—I’m one of those vets who recommends online purchases. I’m no pharmacy. I’m in this business to offer my services and if I make extra when I sell products [for your convenience] then sure, I’ll take it. But it won’t make or break me. What’s more, I’m pleased to retain my reputation as an independent adviser when people ask for a script or an online referral. You won’t get an argument from me.


But the OTC supermarket stuff? No way. If you say you don’t have the cash then consider: safer, more effective products are the frugal pet owner’s true ally, not the mislabeled crap they sell at the big-box superstores.




Image: Volga / Shutterstock