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Is your dog's flea medication toxic?

Maria Mora is a freelance writer and single mom fueled by coffee, questionable time management skills, toaster oven waffles and the color orange. She lives in Florida with her two young sons. If you see her on Twitter, tell her to stop p...

Learn how to medicate your dog safely

Some dogs experience reactions to popular flea and heartworm medications. Learn the warning signs of a reaction and find out how to give your dog his medication safely.
Flea medication

Learn how to medicate your dog safely

Some dogs experience reactions to popular flea and heartworm medications. Learn the warning signs of a reaction and find out how to give your dog his medication safely.

Flea, tick and heartworm medications protect dogs from serious illnesses. With budget-friendly options available as topical applications and as pills, these potentially lifesaving medications are a no-brainer. But are these medications really safe? We talked to Dr. Tina Wismer, medical director at the ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center, to learn how to make medication as safe as possible for your dog.

Why do we protect dogs from fleas, ticks and heartworm?

"For most dogs, flea and heartworm medications are perfectly safe," Dr. Wismer. "The fact that you can give a pill or put this little oil between the shoulder blades and it works for a month — that’s fabulous." What do these medications really protect dogs from? "When we think about fleas, certainly dogs can get enough that they can become anemic. Tick-borne disease can affect your joints, your kidneys," says Dr. Wismer, who points out that when it comes to heartworm, prevention is much cheaper than treatment. Dogs in every region of the United States should be on heartworm prevention medication.

Safe medication tips

Take responsibility for your dog's health by giving medication appropriately. These tips will help you avoid reactions.

  • Never give dog medication to a cat. Even if the weight is the same, the formula is not safe for felines.
  • Read the label carefully. Find out if any oral medication should be given on an empty stomach or with food.
  • Know your dog's exact weight. If he hasn't been weighed in a while, drop by your vet's office or local pet supply store to use the scale.
  • Use exact doses. Don't double or halve a dose.
  • Follow spot-on treatment directions precisely. Re-read directions to make sure you're applying it correctly.
  • Keep an eye on your dog after medication is given. Go for a leisurely walk to distract your dog from licking and to monitor his behavior.

itchy dogWhat are signs of a topical reaction?

Dogs who have been given a topical medication may react with twitching or lots of itching. Some dogs may vomit. If your dog reacts to topical medication, take action. "The first thing you want to do is bathe the dog," says Dr. Wismer. "You want to bathe the entire body. Use what you hand-wash your dishes with. You want to remove all the oils." Call your vet to check in and call the manufacturer of the medication to let them know your dog had a reaction.

What are the signs of an oral reaction?

"Vomiting is the most common adverse effect that we see," says Dr. Wismer. "There have also been reports of animals acting wobbly, as if they're drunk. That would warrant a call to the vet." If your dog has a reaction, write down the active ingredients in the medication and avoid using it in the future. Your vet can recommend alternatives that do not contain the same ingredients.

Are there natural alternatives to flea meds?

Natural doesn't mean nontoxic. "I think that if we're talking about flea control that's going to be given to the animal or it's going to be put on the animal, I'd prefer something that’s been tested or proven safe," says Dr. Wismer. "Soap will kill fleas, but once they're out, fleas are going to hop back on." Some owners prefer to use flea control made up of essential oils. Instead of making your own blend, look for essential oil flea products that have been tested and approved.

Should some dogs avoid medication?

Check the age restrictions on every product you use with your dog. Some medications are not appropriate for puppies. If your dog is elderly, pregnant or nursing, talk to your vet before administering any medication. "If your dog has a kidney problem or liver problem, I would want to discuss flea control with your vet before you use something," says Dr. Wismer. "Typically with those dogs we are going to use a spot-on instead of orally."

More dog health tips

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10 Healthy tricks for your dog's body and mind
Toys that boost your dog's health

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