Topical flea treatment vs. oral: What's the best way to protect your pooch?

Topical flea treatment vs. oral - dog scratching
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Topical flea treatment vs. oral - it's the question on every pet parent's lips! We all want the best for our pets and that means keeping them protected from annoying pests like fleas and the diseases they can carry!  So it’s no surprise that pet owners are searching for the best flea treatment for dogs.

Many pet owners have wondered which is better: a topical or oral flea treatment.  It may surprise you to learn that neither one is necessarily better than the other! Both products can be safe and effective for your pet, but they each have their own advantages and disadvantages.  

Choosing between the best flea medication for dogs and topical treatments can be confusing at first, especially if you don’t know exactly what to look for.  In this article, we’ll tackle some of the differences in topical vs. oral flea treatments so you can make informed choices for your pet’s care.

Topical flea treatment vs. oral: How to choose a flea treatment

There are so many different flea treatment products on the market today, including some of the best flea collars for dogs, so it can be tough to know what’s best for your pooch.  Before you decide which product to purchase, you may want to consider some factors about your dog’s lifestyle, such as:

  • Does my dog currently have fleas or am I simply looking for a preventive treatment?
  • Will my dog be swimming or bathing while using this product?
  • Is my dog exposed to areas with ticks?
  • Are tick-borne diseases such as Lyme disease common in my area?
  • Does my dog have a history of reactions to any type of flea treatment?
  • Does my dog have a history of skin problems or sensitivities to topical products?
  • Can my dog safely wear a flea collar?
  • Will I remember to use a monthly product or would a longer-acting product be better?
  • Which products does my veterinarian recommend?

These questions can help you narrow down the vast array of products and choose a flea treatment that is best suited to your dog’s unique lifestyle and individual needs.

It is also very important to consult your veterinarian to find out which products he or she recommends for your pet and to make sure you are purchasing your flea treatment products from a reputable retailer.  Many over-the-counter flea treatment products are ineffective or even unsafe for your dog, so be sure to consult your veterinarian before using any of these products.  

Similarly, the flea treatment products sold by many online retailers may be counterfeit or improperly stored and may not work as well as they should.  Purchasing products directly from your veterinarian or from companies recommended by your veterinarian ensures that you are getting a flea treatment product that is both safe and effective.

Benefits of topical flea treatment vs. oral

One of the major benefits of topical flea treatments is that many products are not absorbed systemically, meaning they do not cross the skin barrier or get absorbed into your pet’s blood stream.  This can be an advantage for animals who have a history of reactions to certain medications or those who have not tolerated oral flea treatments well in the past.  

Some pet owners also find it very difficult to give pills to their pets, so a topical flea treatment may be a much easier option compared to an oral flea treatment.  Some topical flea treatments also contain a repellent medication that keeps fleas and/or ticks away from your pet, which can be an added benefit.

Disadvantages of topical flea treatment vs. oral

Topical flea treatment vs. oral - dog getting checked by vet

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The biggest drawback of a topical flea treatment is that it can be washed away if your pet swims or bathes frequently.  Some products are waterproof once they have fully dried, while others may not stay on if your pet goes swimming.  Most products will not withstand shampooing.  Be sure to read the manufacturer’s directions before applying the product, and consider an oral product instead if your pet is frequently around water.  Some pet owners may also find topical flea treatments messy and more difficult to apply than simply giving a pill, so you may wish to consider giving an oral flea treatment if you find this to be the case.

Is topical flea treatment safer than oral?

The safest flea treatment for your pet depends on your pet’s age, health status, and medication history.  If your pet has had reactions to certain types of medication in the past, then it may be best to avoid that class of drugs in the future.  For example, topical flea treatments can sometimes cause localized skin reactions such as hair loss and redness at the site of application.  If your pet has experienced this with topical medications in the past, an oral flea treatment may be a safer option.  

Similarly, if your pet has reacted badly to oral flea treatments, then a topical flea treatment may be a safer option.  Some topical flea treatments do not cross the skin barrier and are not absorbed systemically, so this can be a safer option for pets who are sensitive to medications.  However, there are many safe and effective drugs within both types of flea treatment medications.

Is topical flea treatment better than oral?

Ultimately, there is no one “best” flea treatment product that works for all pets.  There are many safe and effective topical and oral products available.  The best product for your pet will depend on your pet’s health and lifestyle, your budget, and your own preferences.  

Choosing a flea treatment product can be tough, but with so many topical and oral flea treatment products available on the market, you are certain to find something that works well for both you and your pets. The most important thing is that you learn how to prevent fleas so that your pet stays happy and healthy, and a form of year-round flea prevention, whether oral or topical, is the most effective way to do that.

Your veterinarian can guide you and offer recommendations on the best products for your pet’s needs, as well as the best places to purchase them to ensure the flea treatment you choose is safe and effective for your pet.

Elizabeth Racine, DVM

Dr. Elizabeth Racine is a small animal general practice vet covering all things pet health and wellness.  Her special interests include veterinary behavior, nutrition, and internal medicine.  As a freelance writer, Dr. Racine has written content for major companies in the industry such as the American Kennel Club, Merck Animal Health, Bayer PetBasics, Elanco, and CareCredit.  In her free time, Dr. Racine enjoys playing trampoline dodgeball, hiking with her beagle Dasher, and spending time with her three mischievous cats.