When you find out your cat has fleas, you’ll want a treatment that works fast. However, a lot of people are reluctant to give their pets strong medication; side effects can be scary and getting animals to swallow pills is a stressful experience for pet and human alike.
Medicated flea collars seem like a safer and easier solution – but are they? The truth is that flea collars can be worse than pills for your cat and your household. I’ll explain everything in this article and look at some alternatives to flea collars for cats.
Symptoms of cat flea infestation
Fleas are tiny insects that bite and feed on your pet’s blood. Not only are the bites uncomfortable, fleas can pass serious diseases into the blood (source). If your cat has had fleas for a long time, you’ll be able to see fleas moving around in his fur. They’re usually dark brown but can be lighter if they haven’t fed recently. Before this you might notice:
- Excessive scratching, especially around the ears
- Excessive licking
- Redness and bumps on the skin
How do flea collars work?
Flea collars usually contain insecticide drugs which are absorbed through your pet’s skin. The insecticide spreads from the cat’s neck right through his body. When a flea bites, it’s poisoned by the insecticide and dies. When they work right, flea collars should completely get rid of the infestation.
Different brands of flea collars use different types of insecticide. Some are also effective against ticks – another parasite which carries disease and can make pets and humans sick.
This flea collar comes to us from pharmaceutical company Bayer. Many of the other flea collars available online seem to be produced by anonymous companies – they simply say “made in China” and the brand names don’t even have a website. Bayer is a company with a 150-year history of producing human medicine and it’s a name I personally trust.
The Seresto flea and tick collar contains two insectisides: imidacloprid and fluemthrin. These are potent chemicals, however Bayer has taken numerous precautions to make sure their product is as safe as can be.
The insecticides are locked inside the collar rather than being on the surface; the dose is very low and released slowly, Bayer have conducted their own studies to verify this. They have even tested it to ensure safety if your cat bites or even eats part of the collar. Due to the way the ingredients are embedded in the material, the only side effect was mild stomach upset for 24 hours (source).
It remains effective for 8 months and has a breakaway design for safety. Doses are so low that side effects are unlikely (source), however you should always adhere to the package instructions and only use as directed. As with all medicines and flea collars in particular, some cats are allergic. If you notice a rash, fur loss or other unusual symptoms, remove the collar immediately and bring the cat to the vet.
|Bayer is a company with a good reputation||Expensive|
|No organophosphates||Some cats have a severe reaction to the insecticides|
|Reflective, quick release safety mechanism|
|Extensive safety data from Bayer|
|8 months protection|
|Kills fleas and ticks|
BioSpot is a company focussing on fighting fleas and ticks both on your pet and in your home and garden. Their flea collar for cats contains two insecticides: tetrachlorvinphos and s-methprene. There is some controversy around the use of organophosphates (tetrachlorvinphos) and their effect on human health. I go into this further down in the section on safety.
Again, as these are potent drugs, the risk for sensitivity exists. Keep a close eye on your cat in the first few days of applying the collar and remove it if you notice any symptoms.
Some cat owners noticed more fleas after using the BioSpot collar but this is because the insecticides “make the fleas hyper-excited, drawing them to the top of the hair coat before dying”. This should resolve within 24 hours.
|Contains 2 strong insecticides||Controversy around organophosphates (tetrachlorvinphos)|
|7 months protection||Some cats have a severe reaction to the insecticides|
|Kills fleas and ticks||Not reflective|
|Breakaway collar for safety||Some reports of the buckle breaking|
A collar which is very different to the two above, for better or for worse, is Dr Mercola’s herbal repellent collar. Dr Mercola is a well known name in the complementary and alternative medicine world. The company produces a wide range of health products for both animals and humans.
This collar contains no conventional insecticides, instead it uses Geraniol from geranium essential oil as it’s active ingredient. There is ample evidence supporting geraniol’s insecticidal and repellent properties and it’s commonly used as a natural pest control agent.
Although essential oils are broadly safer than chemical insecticides, there is some risk for animals associated with wintergreen oil which is listed as an inactive component of the collar (source). It’s unlikely to be present in high enough quantities to pose a real threat in this collar but do watch out for unexpected symptoms and skin reactions and remove the collar if something goes wrong.
|Repels fleas, ticks and mosquitos|| Limited efficacy as it contains no insecticides
| No organophosphates or other insecticides
|| Wintergreen content
|Vet recommended|| Allergic reactions still possible with “natural” product
| Only 4 months protection
|Not breakaway or reflective|
Flea collar safety concerns
There’s no doubt that flea collars are effective, but are they safe? The Natural Resources Defense Council is a nonprofit international environmental advocacy group. They are most definitely a reliable source as they have access to the expertise of scientists and lawyers around the globe.
In 2009, they released a paper called “Poison on Pets II: Toxic Chemicals in Flea and Tick Collars“. It’s a 19 page study which is well worth the read if you’re considering using a medicated flea collar to treat your cat.
Their most worrying findings were:
- Some flea collars contain high levels of organophosphate chemicals which are dangerous to both animals and humans, e.g. tetrachlorvinphos and propoxur
- Some flea collars leave a chemical residue exceeding “acceptable levels” on the pet’s fur for weeks after use. This can be dangerous to children if they touch the animal and then put their fingers in their mouths.
- Some flea collars contaminated the household’s air with these chemicals
Bear in mind that this report only focused on collars where tetrachlorvinphos or propoxur were active ingredients; however, it does place some doubt on the regulatory standards for these types of products.
As I’ve already mentioned, many of us falsely assume that something administered via the skin is safer than an oral medicine. However in the States, regulation of oral medicines is much more stringent than for pesticides used on the animal’s skin. Flea and tick products like collars, drop, sprays and dusts are regulated as pesticides by the EPA, whereas pills and other medicines come under the FDA (Food and Drug Administration).
At the end of the day, there is an element of risk associated with everything in life. This is especially true with medicines. Leaving your cat with fleas is not an option as it will make his life miserable and can lead to serious disease. Once you’ve looked at the evidence and informed yourself, you can make your own mind up as to what’s right for your pet and your family.
Precautions when using flea collars for cats
Even though a collar is not an oral treatment, your pet can still overdose. The product should specify a weight or age for safe use; never use a medicated collar on a kitten if it’s intended for an adult cat. The same goes for elderly pets who are more sensitive to low doses.
You must also consider the species for which the collar is intended. Dog products contain too high doses and ingredients which are toxic to cats such as permethrin and pyrethrins (source).
Animals, just like humans, can have allergic reactions. Pay close attention to your pet after you first put on the flea collar. Check his skin for rashes or evidence of excessive scratching and if you notice unusual symptoms, remove the collar immediately and seek advice from your vet. This can happen with even the “safest” products so it doesn’t mean the collar is unsafe.
Never use anti-flea and tick products around pregnant women and always stick to the package instructions.
If the flea collar is not fitted correctly or if your kitty is especially mischievous, he may bite or tears the collar. If you have more than one cat, they may bite each other’s collars during play. Of course, flea collars aren’t meant to be eaten so there is a much higher risk of side effects with some brands when used this way. In addition, leaving the flea collar on for longer than intended increases the risk of unwanted side effects too.
To completely eliminate fleas from your cat and your home you’ll need more than just a collar. You’ll need to wash your cat at least once a week along with any surfaces he comes into contact with including his bed. You should also vacuum and treat your carpets and soft furnishings with something like this home spray by Vet’s Best. The active ingredients are essential oils which kill fleas, eggs and ticks on contact.
Alternatives to flea collars
As I’ve mentioned, oral flea treatments for animals are regulated by the FDA rather than the EPA. This, in my humble opinion, instills more of a sense of confidence. The FDA also regulates human medicines so their standards are pretty high.
Most oral pills need to be prescribed by a vet, but Capstar Flea Tablets from pharmaceutical company Novartis is available over-the-counter. It’s listed in the safest category on the NDRC’s greenpaws page, they say “Veterinary reports do not indicate cause for concern for animals…very low risk to humans”.
It’s super-effective, killing most fleas within six hours; you only need to give a single dose. However it must be used in conjunction with other methods to eliminate the bugs from the environment. If your home or garden are infested, they will reattach to your pet.
The NRDC recommends using non-chemical techniques to try and remove fleas before resorting to medications. That said, if you want the problem sorted quickly, you should use an oral tablet. That said, using a comb is the best way to check if the pests are really gone.
Grooming your cat with a specially designed flea comb once a day will help remove the insects and detect any still remain after treatment. Once you’ve caught a flea on the comb, wash the comb in soapy water to kill it.