Article at a Glance…
- Personally I do not recommend flea collars as they may release toxic chemicals into your home. Instead try Capstar (tablets) and Vet’s Best (spray for the home).
- If your cat has an infestation, you may notice increased scratching and licking, restlessness and redness and bumps on the skin.
- Fleas can pass other infections via blood to your pet, so it’s important to treat them as soon as you realize.
Learning that your pet has fleas is a stressful revelation for the whole household. Not least the kitty himself! Even thinking about the topic makes my skin crawl. The first thing you’ll want is to get your hands on a treatment that works – fast. In America, we spend $1 billion a year on products that kill fleas and ticks on our pets (source).
Many of us are reluctant to give our pets strong medication. Side effects can be off-putting, and that’s if we can even manage to get our furball to swallow a pill! So it’s no surprise that lots of pet owners think a medicated collar is a safer solution.
However, just because something is used on the skin rather than taken via a tablet, doesn’t mean there aren’t side effects. During my research into the best cat flea collar, I found some pretty scary facts. I’ll explain everything in this article, and look at some alternatives to get rid of infestations in your pet too.
How to tell if your cat has fleas
Fleas are tiny insects that bite feed on the blood of your pet. Little vampires, essentially. They’re most active during warm weather so Summer is when your feline is most at risk (source). Not only are the bites uncomfortable for your pet, these pests can pass serious diseases to your pet via blood (source).
If your cat’s infestation has progressed to a late stage, you will be able to see fleas moving around in his fur. They are usually dark brown in color but can be lighter if they haven’t fed recently. Prior to this stage you may notice the following symptoms:
- Excessive scratching, especially around the ears
- Excessive licking
- Redness and bumps on the skin
How do flea collars work?
Different brands work in different ways, however most commonly they contain insecticides which are absorbed into the layer under your pet’s skin. The insecticide spreads from the neck region to the whole body. When a flea bites any part of the skin, it ingests the insecticide and is killed immediately.
Undoubtedly, this is a very effective technique. Several varieties of insecticide are used in collars to kill fleas. Some are also effective against ticks – another parasite which carries disease and poses a health risk to your pet and family.
Are flea collars safe?
This all sounds pretty great so far, eh? A collar can completely eliminate infestation without the need to give your pet a drug orally. There’s no doubt that it’s effective, so why all the controversy? A quick look into some reviews reveals horror stories of pet poisoning. Although anecdotes like this can be terrifying, I’ve tried to look at the hard evidence so you can come to your own conclusions. Let’s see what’s out there
The Dangers of Organophosphates
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 to “safeguard the earth—its people, its plants and animals, and the natural systems on which all life depends”.
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 collar to treat your cat. I’ll summarize some of their most worrying findings:
Some flea collars…
- …contain high levels of organophosphate chemicals which are dangerous to both animals and humans, e.g. tetrachlorvinphos and propoxur
- …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.
- …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. You should definitely avoid anything containing these ingredients. These conclusions can’t be extended to other types of collar. However, it does place some doubt on the regulatory standards for these types of products (more on that later). You can find the NRDC’s assessments of other pet treatments on greenpaws.org.
Regulation of pesticides
I’ve already touched on the fact that many pet owners worry about the side effects of oral drugs on animals. Many of us falsely assume that something administered via the skin is safer. However, at least in the States, the truth is that regulation of oral medicines is much more stringent than that of those considered “pesticides” to be used on the animal’s skin. Flea and tick products like collars, sprays and dusts are regulated as pesticides by the EPA, whereas pills and others considered as medicines come under the FDA (Food and Drug Administration).
When it comes to flea collar vs drops for your cat, both are regulated by the EPA. I’d always choose an oral treatment over both of these options for my pets.
Even though a collar is not an oral treatment, it’s still possible for your pet to 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. In fact, I’d avoid using them in these age groups altogether.
Something which perhaps isn’t so obvious is the species for which the collar is intended. Dog products usually contain doses too high for cats. They often contain ingredients which are toxic to cats such as permethrin and pyrethrins (source).
Pets, just like humans, can be allergic to almost anything. If you notice a rash on your cat after applying a flea collar, it could very well be an allergic reaction. This can happen with even the “safest” products so it doesn’t necessarily mean the collar is generally unsafe. Allergic reactions aren’t common, but they certainly affect a percentage of felines. If you notice a skin reaction or other unusual symptoms in your pet, remove the collar immediately and bring him to the vet.
What About “Natural” Flea Collars?
So-called “natural” flea treating collars are a double-edged sword. Either they have no proven effects or they can be just as dangerous as chemical treatments. Pet can just as easily be allergic to an essential oil as any other substance. Many of them are also unsafe around children and pregnant women so proceed with caution.
Our cats don’t always do what we want them to do. The same applies to using a collar. If they’re not fitted correctly or if your kitty is especially mischievous, you may find he bites or tears the collar. If you have more than one cat, they can be inclined to 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, if you leave the collar on longer than intended, that increases the risk of unwanted side effects too.
Alternatives to flea collars
There are plenty of other effective solutions to eliminate infestations in your pet. Below are a few of my top choices.
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 this product 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. This also applies if you find your flea collar not working.
As I was saying, you’ll need to treat your carpets and soft furnishings along with your pet. The home spray by Vet’s Best is a popular option. The active ingredients are essential oils which kill fleas, eggs and ticks on contact – clove and peppermint to be precise. So you don’t have to worry about dangerous insecticides.
That said, humans and animals can be allergic to essential oils, so use a small amount first to make sure nobody has a reaction. Always use according to the package directions and bring your pet to the vet if he has a reaction.
The NRDC recommends using non-chemical techniques to try and remove fleas before resorting to chemicals. That said, if you want the problem sorted quickly, you should use an oral tablet. However, 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.
If your cat has fleas, you should be bathing her at least once a week. The good news is, you don’t need to use a special shampoo. In fact, many of them contain similar chemicals to those I’ve discussed above – and so should be avoided. We like the range from Earthbound. You can read more on washing your kitty in my previous article.
If You Do Want to Use a Flea Collar…
It seems like the best cat flea & tick collar is from Seresto. When your cat is allergic to oral pills or you live in an area at risk for tick bites, a collar could be the only solution. Bayer, the manufacturer of the “Seresto” cat flea collar, have 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. This means that if your pet gets the collar caught on something, he will be able to pull and break free instead of injuring himself. The active insecticides are imidacloprid and flumethrin. Doses are so low that side effects are unlikely (source). However you should always adhere to the package instructions and only use as directed.
It’s generally a good idea to wash your cat’s bed occasionally to eliminate dirt and odors. However, this becomes even more important when your pet has a flea infestation. In addition, you should clean all surfaces with which your pet comes into contact daily. This includes carpets and furniture which can be vacuumed.
If you do use any medical treatment on your pet, pay close attention to your pet after the first application. Check his skin for rashes or evidence of excessive scratching. If you notice unusual symptoms, stop treatment immediately and seek advice from your vet.
If you or your cat has an adverse reaction to an insecticide or other treatment, seek professional help immediately. Never use these types of products around pregnant women and always stick to the package instructions.
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, perhaps using a medicated collar is the right choice for your situation. If not, I have provided lots of great alternatives. If you’re not sure what’s best for your family and your pet, always ask your vet. He or she will be able to provide expert, unbiased advice.