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Frontline worse than fleas? (a Friday cat-blog warning)

Okay, Googlers of the world, we're gonna make it easy for you: Frontline, cats, skin irritation. The popular and heavily advertised "spot-on" flea killer for cats and dogs warns on its label that it can cause "irritation" at the sight of application. "Irritation" can apparently mean "instant half-inch chemical burn with fur loss." Or at least it did for Lexi the Gorgeous Ragdoll (below).


lexiheadshot.jpg It's been years since the cats of the Crazy Stable have had fleas...we've had a few isolated plagues over the years, including a race of superfleas that were impervious to all known interventions. But no sign of any this summer. Last night, however, Lexi leaped up with un-Ragdoll-like celerity as if nipped from below, Spouse and I panicked a bit (even though I couldn't find any evidence of infestation), and just "to be on the safe side," we applied an ampule of the Frontline we bought (and used with no problems) a few years ago.  Minutes later, poor Lex had a raw chemical burn on the back of the neck. (The stuff is applied in a single spot between the shoulder blades, where it ostensibly gets distributed through the animal's coat via the sebaceous glands.)

The damn stuff is waterproof, but it still made sense to wash her immediately and at least remove some of the oily spot; turns out the most benefit was in washing away some of her skin's own oils, which disperse it. I was afraid her entire skin might get irritated. Fortunately, no sign of that yet--but a quick Internet search on Frontline made me very angry about not being a smarter, more skeptical cat mommy.

The active ingredient in Frontline is fipronil, a relatively new insecticide developed by Rhone-Poulenc, which turns out to be the same neurotoxin agent used in Combat. The Net pet boards turn up plenty of reports, not just of irritation and outright burns and fur loss in both cats and dogs, but of even scarier systemic adverse events like convulsions and other neurological problems, and even some animals' deaths. Used monthly year-round on a pet in my household (as if!), the stuff would also worry me for its association with cancer and reproductive problems in test animals.  It's notable that all these anecdotes and warnings were reported by pet owners, not by vets (who make a good deal selling this and other such products and are undoubtedly the heaviest targets of promotion by companies).

But honestly, despite the company's safety claims, does it make sense that a potent insecticide, applied directly to an animal's delicate skin, where it can be licked and ingested, would be "safe"? After all the work I've done for the pharmaceutical industry's promotional tentacles, I was sort of flabbergasted at my level of trust.

Poor Lexi has dried off after her bath; the Frontline has left an oily mini-Mohawk around the bald raw spot, but removing more of it would require alcohol, which would sting like mad, so I'm going to leave her alone. No convulsions, thank God, unless you count her gymnastics trying to escape from the bathtub. (This was her first immersion bath--as we wrestled 16 lbs. of chubby frantic feline, she kept looking at us with those huge blue eyes, like, "Are you out of  your freaking humanoid MINDS?")

 Sorry to present a downer for Catblogging Friday, but I'm peeved that I unwittingly hurt my girl without fair warning that it could happen. I'm gonna call Merial today and blast them. Meanwhile, this article (from a hyper-"green" magazine called Whole Dog Journal, yet seemingly well-researched)  gives more details.  The Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Committee in 2003 reconsidered its approval of fipronil, as a possible "undue hazard" to animals and humans.  (Hope those links work okay.)

I guess all this proves the point of a recent Pew survey on the blogosphere, which showed that  "people are talking about the subjects that matter in their personal lives," according to Chris Anderson, the editor-in-chief of Wired and presumably a man who Knows Such Things. Anderson,  a marketing oracle, observes in the New York Times, "It's narrow, niche subjects. It's a granularity of media that we in the commercial media could not scale down to."

And I say: Hey, granulate this.

Posted on Friday, August 4, 2006 at 09:40AM by Registered CommenterBrenda from Brooklyn | Comments37 Comments

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Reader Comments (37)

I hope the same isn't true for Advantage! We've been using it for years (but only periodically), and so far haven't had any problems.
August 12, 2006 at 09:29PM | Unregistered CommenterLenise
My quickie research showed problems with all the "spot-on" topical products, don't recall seeing much about Advantage in particular. (The worst offender seems to be a Hartz product.) We used Frontline with no problem several years ago on several cats, which is what made me so chipper about using it on this one. They should require an allergy or sensitivity test for every animal before application, the way they do for drugstore-brand hair coloring products! (Of course, I ignore those warnings, too.)
Thanks for commenting.
August 12, 2006 at 11:35PM | Registered CommenterBrenda from Brooklyn
All flea products are formulated to kill and the only difference in what it takes to kill a flea and what it takes to kill your pet is the size of the dose. Anything that is rubbed, sprayed or dusted on a pet becomes part of the pet's diet (even natural things) because all pets lick themselves. In the least, the odd thing can give your pet gastric distress, and you would probablly not be able to tell. Read my article, GOT FLEAS?. It is free to publish. Find it here: www.liquorman.net/gotfleas
August 23, 2006 at 06:50AM | Unregistered CommenterNell Liquorman
The "booklet" describing Nell's bathing flea-proofing program above is $15--but at least she's not pushing a product, so FWIW I'll leave her link for anyone who wishes to investigate (although I won't be paying for the booklet). Any program based on frequent cat bathing will be problematic around here due to our chronic Failure of Will.
August 24, 2006 at 05:05PM | Registered CommenterBrenda from Brooklyn
I had to make a crash decision this morning about whether or not to let our vet use Frontline on our cat and dog. I let her. They were getting to bad shape despite all our efforts to control without chemically engineered insecticides, then by just allowing the exterminator to use Talstar in the yard. We have 3 young children; I'm worried about them as well as the pets. I thought what I discovered might be of some benefit.

Frontline (fipronil) is a neurotoxin (as is Advantage [imidacloprid] but the vet is not using that so I didn't research it) but, significantly, it is toxic to the insect nervous system, not so much to the human. "It exhibits little mammalian non-target toxicity due to its rapid degradation by the cytochrome P450 MFO system." [http://www.biol.sc.edu/~coull_lab/staton/ab17.html] This means, more or less, that we have something in our physiology that insects lack, a system that breaks down the neurotoxic agent before it can do any harm. Indeed all mammals have this physiology. So Nell's statement that the only difference between killing an insect and killing a pet is dose is only slightly correct in that I'm sure a large enough dose of fipronil could kill a cat, or a human, but that dose doesn't correlate in any direct relation with the dose that will kill a flea. Because of the species-specific agents at work the dose doesn't scale. (This is to say nothing of non-target non-mammal species, with which the paper I quote above is rightly concerned.) Eating enough chocolate to kill a person would probably be an interesting exercise but a relatively small amount of chocolate will quite easily kill a dog, and that's all amongst us mammals. Or we can say that a massive dose of Scotch will kill you but a somewhat more conservative indulgence is merely a nice way to unwind at the end of a long day. The upshot is that fipronil was designed to be safe for mammals -- where as organophosphates were not -- and for the most part it is safe, for mammals.

That adverse dermal reaction in your cat, that's not so surprising, as sensitivity to almost anything is possible, and to something like fipronil is, well, I don't have any direct evidence but I think that much more likely.

Risk/benefit ratios are very often situational and certainly so in the case of using something like Frontline. Part of the problem is that "fipronil is toxic to the insect nervous system" gets transcribed to the Internet as "fipronil NEUROTOXIC!!!!". But anyone with a flea problem causing serious discomfort or even disease for the pet, or heading to a residential infestation, may want to seriously consider better living through chemistry. Then step up the more ecologically friendly flea-ridding tactics so they won't come back.
August 25, 2006 at 03:54PM | Unregistered Commentersan
You make some excellent points, San; thanks for a rational and reasoned response. I told my vet today about Lexi's response, and she said that in all the years that Frontline's top-spot formulation has been available, she's only heard 1 or 2 adverse events reported back. But that's the problem with smaller sample sizes (as we've seen in many human drug examples)...a relatively rare side effect may need surveillance of big numbers to detect it. Even then, yeah, benefit may outweigh risk. But I'd like to see this product at least recommend what the drugstore hair lightening products do: a patch test the day before to test for sensitivity/allergenicity. The patch would have to be very tiny, a logistical impediment--but a tiny chemical burn beats one the size of a quarter.
August 26, 2006 at 12:58AM | Registered CommenterBrenda from Brooklyn
My 14 yr old cat, Money-Cat, has recently been diagnosed with hyperthyroidism.<:-(

She became very skinny and her coat thinned and took on a "greasy" look. Her personality also changed--becoming standoffish and vaguely "demented"--sometimes leaping up suddenly and seemingly trying to run away from herself.

I have always felt intuitively uncomfortable with using Frontline (or any other chemical flea product)--but could find nothing natural that works. Now I read on the internet that hyperthyroidism in older cats has become epidemic--and I am wondering if Frontline could be the culprit.

They certainly are spatially related--the Frontline being applied to the back of the neck, and the thyroid gland being an inch or two away on the front of the neck. And they are temporally related too, the rise in use of Frontline since 1996 paralleling the rise in feline hyperthyroidism.

Money-Cat has a few small adenomas on her thyroid--about the size and feel of medium-sized wart. And also one where I applied the Frontline. It is the adenomas that cause the increase out put of thyroid hormone. They can die of this if not treated--(with more side-effect laden chemicals)--they say. I am trying some herbs and homeoathic remedies. One I started yesterday, Glonoinum, is showing early slight promise.

Does anyone have any info on this possible connection? Or natural remedies?
December 8, 2006 at 12:11PM | Unregistered CommenterBrenda from Bath
I just applied Frontline to my cat last night, and within a few minutes he wasn't acting right. I held him on my lap to calm him, and then I saw the burn mark where I had applied the Frontline. I called Merial and they offered a refund if I send the rest back. Now I see there are many cats that have the same reaction. I wished I had known this before. My poor kitty suffered because I believed all the advertising.
May 5, 2009 at 02:28PM | Unregistered CommenterMaria
Frontline made my cat foam at the mouth and I rushed her to the vet and they said foaming is a normal reaction! No thanks.
September 28, 2009 at 05:34PM | Unregistered CommenterKirk Patrick
I used frontline on my two year old cat Pascha a month ago, placing the dose as directed on the nape of the neck. He has since lose almost all the fur on his back legs and from his chest to the base of his tail on his underbelly.

I have also noticed small and medium sized scabs on his back and around his head.

I would never use frontline again as having researched it i realise it contains a strong insecticide that just cant be safe in my opinion. I too feel upset and angry that i have administered a harmful substance to my trusting little companion without realising the dangerous side effects it can cause. As the active ingredient infrontline is a relatively new insecticide i feel we can not fully know its potential harmful effects on pets. I will in future try alternative remedies for my cat.The big lesson here i realise is NEVER TRUST MULTI NATIONALS!
December 20, 2009 at 10:23AM | Unregistered CommenterNina
This is too funny, I just searched for 'frontline cat skin irritation' because I found a dime-size chemical burn on my cat after using frontline. But, frontline was the ONLY thing that worked for fleas. After torturing her with powders, flea baths, etc. The chemical burn was disturbing, but combing fleas, flea dirt and larvae out of her fur was even worse. If we ever have an infestation again (we will now spray the house every year so I don't see it happening), I will use frontline, but only a tiny fraction of the dose.
March 7, 2010 at 04:22PM | Unregistered CommenterKitty Mama
Our friends treated their 40-lb. dog with frontline, then they left on vacation. We dog sat, and discovered that the dog developed a chemical burn the size of a grapefruit! This dog had been on frontline for years. The vet trimmed the hair from the burn, and the skin turned into "tar paper."
Haven't contacted the manufacturer yet, but will be trying to recover the cost of 4 vets visits.
April 5, 2010 at 09:57PM | Unregistered CommenterNevis Rik
Ihave a 7 year old 7pound chihuahua that I recently found a flea on and I couldn't catch it I bathed her and she was still scratching and I found flea dust on her when a friend asked me if I had ever used Frontline on her and that all I had to do is go to the vet and get some.I did and put it on her in a week her skin was blood red and hot it was like a bad sunburn.I quickly bathed her with her oatmeal shampoo but it didn't help another 2 days we were at the vet because she had sores that started to scab and then her hair started to fall out as the skin peeled off it took the hair my beautiful long haired chihuahua is almost bald and taking prednisone and antibiotics.I feel so bad because I did it to her.This has traumatised my baby Cindy and my family.
November 9, 2011 at 09:47PM | Unregistered Commentercindy lou
I see it has been awhile since this thread has been updated a so thought I'd add my comment. Used the recommended dose of Frontline on my cat and she now has a bald spot and small scabs. Luckily she was not able to lick the medication so did not get ill.
April 13, 2012 at 04:13AM | Unregistered Commenterkk
I've used Frontline on pets for a long time without problem and then a cat that had no problem, started clawing at her skin where I put it on and pulling out fur there. I put it on yesterday. She's about 15 so perhaps she her skin cannot take it any longer and some animals may be sensitive to it from the get-go, just like some people sensitive to milk and others aren't. I hate using insecticide but a flea infestation and lost my extra plush carpet to fleas..I refused to use insecticide all over the house, and got bitten by a deer tick myself so if I want to keep my pet, I have to use what works. On that front, Frontline is working less and less well. I think fleas around my house are getting used to it. Anyway, lots of vacuuming is the best way, ev day. I also let pets out less frequently, on bright sunny days once a week or twice a week at best. I heard bugs hide when it's hot and come out more at night and on cool days.
April 16, 2012 at 11:17AM | Unregistered CommenterBarb
My cat has lost hair twice now where I applied Frontline. It grew back the 1st time. Will ask the vet about it tomorrow.

My dog had horrible seizure type nervousness after Advantix II so will never use that product again.
July 7, 2012 at 12:46PM | Unregistered CommenterKimInCa
I applied frontline on my cat a few weeks ago and he now has a serious patch of burned skin ,loss of fur. Took him to vet ,they cleaned it and gave me cream to put on it. He is still scratching it and fur is falling out. This wouldnt be tolerated in humans so why is this ok for our animals. Product should not be sold.
August 2, 2012 at 06:43PM | Unregistered Commentersheila
I have two cats, both 6 yrs old: a Russian Blue male and a bronze Tabby female. We've used Frontline for years with no fur loss, scabbing, burning or foaming at the mouth. When we pick them up for the application it's like they can "sense it" though and freak. At the very worse I think it stings for 1/2 an hr on our female.
August 22, 2012 at 02:22PM | Unregistered CommenterJill
We live in a heavily wooded area with lots of wildlife and have been using Frontline on our 2 cats for several years, though not nearly as often as it recommends. They've never had a flea problem, but they both enjoy going outside and do get an occasional tick.

As others have reported, they would lose the fur at the site on their neck where the med was applied- I always feel badly- but figured they needed the protection. About 3 months ago they both began to lose the fur on the inside of their legs and now their bellies. One of them seems to scratch all the time, frequently around his mouth.

We'd recently began moving them to a grain free diet, so I thought it might be the Innova. I stopped all of the new food and put them back on the Purina they'd been on for years.

I gave it 4 weeks and it was plain to see that the condition was definitely not improving, if anything still getting worse.
I've been wracking my brain trying to figure it out. I ran a search today to see if others had experienced this with Frontline and found this blog.

It's probably been cover 2 months since either of them had Frontline applied. For those of you whose cats had this problem with Frontline, how long did it take after the application - for the symptoms to stop and the fur to begin coming back in?
October 10, 2012 at 03:54PM | Unregistered CommenterJackie
We have 5 cats. Three have always tolerated Frontline (cats age 10, 6 and 2 years). One (age 5) has always reacted badly to it and gets a burn (hair loss, bleeding skin that looks like a graze then scabbing-over and eventual hair re-growth) at the application site. It took me a few applications to realise that it was the Frontline causing the problem, poor kitty. We swapped him to Advocate on the advice of our vet, and he seems fine with that. Our old lady cat, aged 15, had Frontline for years (at least 12) with no problems, then suddenly started getting burns at the application site too, for no obvious reason - she just suddenly started reacting to it. We have now swapped her to Advocate too. So far, so good. Seems a bit like people to me - some people/cats are simply allergic to some products, but not others. It has taught me to read the side-effects section of the leaflets in the packets though, so that I know what to look out for.
December 28, 2012 at 05:26PM | Unregistered CommenterLexi

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