Cheaper rub: Why Tess was hospitalized

The Hartz Mountain Corporation bills itself as "Every Pet's Best Friend," but Joyce Hillstrom's tortoise-shell kitten, Tess, might quibble with that.

Hillstrom adopted Tess last May, and, over the summer, used Hartz Advanced Care Brand Once-a-Month Flea and Tick Drops on the cat twice with no problems.

Then, on September 2, she took Tess to be spayed by her veterinarian, Dr. Raymond Doss. The next day, she applied the drops and left for work. When she returned around 3pm, Tess appeared to be having convulsions. Hillstrom rushed her to Doss' office, where she was told that he was out of town and that Charlottesville Animal Hospital was taking his patients.

There, Dr. Cheryl Thorpe began treatment immediately, but explained that because the facility would be closing at 6pm, Tess would have to be transferred to the Veterinary Emergency Treatment Service (VETS) for overnight care. The situation was not life-threatening (although, Thorpe says, it could have been if Tess hadn't gotten to a vet), but still, Tess was very ill.

At VETS, Dr. Sara Salmon continued supportive treatment: IV muscle relaxers and lots of fluids to flush out the phenothrin, which is Advanced Care's active ingredient. By morning the cat had recovered and was discharged. Hillstrom was grateful and relieved, but– with all that treatment– $363 poorer.

Hillstrom claims she asked an employee at her regular vet's if it would be all right for her to give Tess her monthly flea treatment so soon after the spaying. She says she was told that it would be, and that the employee did not ask which product Hillstrom would be using. The product may matter.

Last November, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced that because of "thousands of adverse-effects incidents" with two Hartz Advanced Care Flea and Tick products for cats and kittens– including the one in question here– the company would have to repackage and relabel its products. The new packaging must, the EPA says, include "stronger precautionary statements and use directions."

Now, instead of applying the product in a stripe down the cat's back, users are instructed to squeeze a single spot at the base of the head to lessen the likelihood the cat will ingest any of the pesticide. Dr. Thorpe said it was her impression that Tess had managed this feat.

If so, that was the first of two likely reasons for Tess' bad reaction to a compound that hadn't bothered her before. The other, of course, is that she'd been spayed two days earlier.

The label says not to use the product "on debilitated, aged, medicated, pregnant, or nursing animals"– but does that include a healthy cat that's just been spayed? Dr. Albert Ahn, Hartz corporate vice president and chief scientific officer– who is also a veterinarian– says that yes, recent spaying would rule out use of the product.

Ahn also pointed out that the instructions state that "animals should be observed after application for any sign of sensitivity." Hillstrom, however, assumed that because Tess had tolerated the product twice before, she would have no reaction this time.

Finally, Ahn stated that only Hartz flea and tick products protect against mosquitoes– an important consideration in these days of West Nile virus.

When I told Thorpe that the employee in Doss' office said it would be okay to treat Tess for fleas, she wondered whether the employee might not have assumed that Hillstrom would be using either Frontline or Advantage, which contain fipronil instead of phenothrin– and which, on healthy animals, can be applied even while the animal is still anesthetized.

Two suggestions: Consult your veterinarian before using any product for the first time or if conditions have changed since the last time you used it. And don't assume that a cheaper product (approximately $2 per dose for Advanced Care Once-a-Month vs. $10 for Frontline) is, in the end, going to be the wiser choice.

Do you have a consumer problem or question? Email the Fearless Consumer, write her at 100 Second Street NW, 22902, or call 295-8700 ext. 406.