Cats and Pyrethroids

By Jo Marshall, CVT, NREMT
Senior Veterinary Information Specialist at Pet Poison Helpline®

British kitten rare color (lilac) and puppy red dachshund

We are in the heart of the 2015 flea and tick product exposure season and these are very common scenarios that we get on the phone. While on phones last evening, I received 4 calls involving cats and pyrethroids.   While it is still fresh in my mind, let me share the basics of these calls with you.

Caller #1: “I put this product on my cat once a month for the last 3 months. The first month she just acted weird afterwards, the second month she had a lot of shaking and a seizure. Now I applied it a couple of hours ago and the cat won’t stop having seizures and I am getting worried. I bought this dog product because it is cheaper to buy a single tube of the dog product and split it on my 2 cats. The other cat seems to be fine but now I think she is starting to shake. What can I do for my cats?”

Caller #2: “I was applying flea and tick products to my 3 dogs and 4 cats and I accidentally grabbed the tube of the dog product and put it on my cat. Just as the last drop of the product left the tube and went on the cat’s back, I realized that I had the wrong tube in my hand. Will this kill my cat and what do I do?”

Caller #3: “My cat woke me up having a seizure. She isn’t seizing any longer but she can’t walk and is twitching. I cannot figure out what she got into. She slept on the dog all night like she always does. The only thing different is the flea and tick medicine that I put on the dog last night.”

Caller #4: “I put a new flea and tick product on my cat a few hours ago and now she cannot walk and is shaking. I bought the product at the big box store and it says that it is a dog product but the lady at the store said it was the same as the cat product and there was no problem with using this on my cat.”

So what is the common denominator in all of these calls –PYRETHROIDS!  Cats do not tolerate concentrated pyrethrins, permethrins, cypermethrins and all the other insecticides in this class! This is the second most common call that we take on cats at Pet Poison Helpline®, which makes it a topic that we kind of get on our soapbox about because this is so easily prevented.

So let’s talk about prevention.  First and foremost, do not seek advice on flea and tick products from the clerk at the big box store or even from a pet store for that matter. You are best seeking that advice from your veterinarian. Better yet, purchase the product that your veterinarian recommends from your veterinarian. Then you can be assured that it is for the correct species and for the appropriate size as dose is also very important with these products. I know, I can hear it now, the outcry that your veterinarian is too expensive, and I do understand that sometimes you need to save a dollar or two here and there.  But when you pay the bill for the cat that has been hospitalized for 72 hours at the local emergency clinic because you accidentally applied the wrong product to your cat, you will have spent enough money to buy flea control products for your cat for every month of his life for the next 20 years from your veterinarian.  So in the long run, I would call that a huge savings!

Second, if it says DO NOT APPLY TO CATS or a symbol for no cats, they really mean it! Do not apply that product to your cat. These insecticidal products have very strict labeling that is controlled by the Environment Protection Agency (EPA). These products cannot have labeling for cats unless they are thoroughly tested on cats. If a product has not been test on cats, they cannot be use on cats because there is no data saying that it is safe.

Third, keep your animals separated after all flea and tick applications. We have seen cats exposed to these pyrethroid products by their best dog buddy. Many cats will groom the dog in the household or sleep with or on them, all part of peaceful cohabitation. But on those days when you apply any type of insecticidal product to either animal, they need to be completely separated until all the products have dried. Same thing goes for the dog licking the cat. We don’t see quite the severity of clinical signs with dogs exposed to cat products, but they can have drooling, vomiting and diarrhea with ingestion.

Lastly, this is probably one of the most easily prevented toxicities that we get calls on everyday! Take that extra moment to make sure you have the correct product for your cat, the correct dose and the animals all separated for their respective applications. Accidental exposures happen so quickly and most people are not even aware of the risks until they have a cat that is having a seizure.  So keep your pets healthy and flea free with these helpful tips! This year is proving to quite flea-full, already!