May 28, 2009 -- It happens tens of thousands of times a day. People treat their pets with over-the-counter, topical treatments used to kill fleas and ticks. But reports of severe reactions have spiked dramatically in the past year.
Forrest Desmond and his wife own five dogs. They bought a spot-on treatment and used it on all five of the dogs.
"Within a half-hour, all five of them were sick, agitated, throwing up, coughing, wheezing," Desmond said. "These dogs are the most important things in our lives. ...These are our children."
The Center for Public Integrity, a non-profit, investigative journalism organization, has documented these cases and pushed the government to release numbers. In 2008, more than 44,000 severe reactions and 1,200 deaths were reported, a 50 percent increase from the year before, according to the center.
Veterinary experts believe that when used correctly, the majority of the products are safe. They say the risk to pets from fleas and ticks is far greater than a possible reaction to one of these treatments.
Still, the sharp rise prompted an evaluation by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which regulates topical pet treatments and says it is "intensifying" its evaluation of such products.
"Pretty quickly, we decided that it was important for us to inform the public that there was something going on with these products," said Jim Jones of EPA's pesticide program.
EPA posted information for consumers on its Web site, and initiated an internal investigation to determine the cause of the reactions.
Topical treatments have grown in popularity in the past decade. They are convenient to apply and veterinarians prefer them to shampoos and sprays. More than 100 million doses of the store-bought products are administered a year.
The treatments are designed to kill fleas and ticks by attacking their nervous systems. They are meant to stop the spread of diseases that fleas and ticks can carry.
Pet Medicine Industry Reacts
The industry insists its products are safe and believes the majority of the cases result from owners misapplying the treatments.
"The incidence is extremely rare and occurs in a very small number of cases," said Mark Newberg, the director of corporate affairs for Central Life Sciences, which manufactures some of the products.
"When we are able to evaluate cases ... virtually all cases show improper use of the product," he stated.
People will sometimes buy products meant for a dog, but use them on a cat without realizing the mistake. "We're telling consumers it's very important to read the labels of these products," Jones of the EPA said.