When Sherri Poulin couldn’t get to her veterinarian to pick up her dogs’ regular flea and tick medication, she didn’t think twice about grabbing a similar product at a local grocery store.

Three days later, one of her dogs was dead, euthanized after suffering from severe chemical burns that Poulin’s vet said came from Sergeant’s Silver Flea and Tick Squeeze-On for Dogs.

Ten days later, Poulin’s three other Lhasa apso-poodle mixes – Fanny, Tazzi and Birdie – are on antibiotics and steroids. They’re still in pain.

“Fanny lays on her back and just whines,” said Poulin, who lives in Lewiston.

It’s the kind of situation that concerns the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which announced in April that it’s intensifying its evaluation of all registered spot-on pesticides, including Frontline, K9 Advantix and Sergeant’s products.

The reason? A growing number of pets are getting sick or dying.

Sergeant’s said it welcomes the scrutiny from the EPA. A company spokeswoman said most adverse reactions are reported by pet owners who used too high a dose, who put the dog product on a cat or who otherwise misused it. “It’s imperative that people follow the directions,” Jennifer Windrum said.

But Poulin’s vet, Robert Clark of the Lisbon Road Animal Hospital in Lewiston, said Poulin used the correct dosage, and did everything right.

He said he sees reactions to topical flea and tick products every other week, including from pets whose owners followed the directions exactly.

“It’s tough stuff,” Clark said. “It is a chemical.”

Topical flea and tick medications are generally placed on the back of a dog or cat. As pesticides, the products are designed to kill fleas and ticks. Different companies use different chemicals.

Frontline, which is usually sold through vets’ offices, is one of the best-known products. Poulin used it for years without a problem and Clark, her vet, said he finds it to be safer than those sold in stores.

Still, he said, “Any chemical can have a reaction.”

Frontline is on the EPA’s list of pesticides under scrutiny. So is Sergeant’s.

In 2008, the EPA recorded about 1,300 major incidents associated with spot-on pet products. About 1 percent resulted in death.

Poulin noticed a problem with her dogs within an hour of using Sergeant’s. They started scratching, rolling around on the ground and whining. Her oldest, 17-year-old Chippy, was walking into the wall.

Poulin called her vet’s office. The people there advised her to bathe the dogs using Dawn dish-washing liquid.

It didn’t help.

“They were still acting peculiar, crying, going crazy,” Poulin said.

Poulin called her vet again, then Sergeant’s hot line. Then her vet. Then Sergeant’s. She tried everything they recommended, she said, including cold compresses and Neosporin. Nothing seemed to help. The dogs cried all night.

“I was up at 2 in the morning giving them cold baths again trying to calm this down,” Poulin said. “The next day I saw the wounds on Fanny and Birdie. And Chippy’s whole back, the fur was gone. She was the oldest. She never stood up again.”

Chippy wouldn’t eat, wouldn’t lift her head, Poulin said. She continued to cry.

Soon after, the elderly dog was euthanized. Poulin’s other three dogs were treated for chemical burns and infections.

Clark said their reaction to the pesticide was “definitely pretty severe.” He’s seen reactions range from scratching to full-blown seizures.

He saw a lot of reactions last year because the fleas were bad, he said, and the products were used more.

“We’re just kicking back in again, so you’re seeing a lot of them all at once,” he said.

He advises owners to tell the maker of their product when they have a problem. Some people do; some don’t. To be sure the companies know what’s going on, Clark has called manufacturers, including Sergeant’s. He said he’s told doctors on staff about his clients.

“Basically, they all say the same thing, that they’re not seeing a lot of reactions and just to wash them off,” Clark said.

Windrum, the Sergeant’s spokeswoman, confirmed that Poulin and her husband called with problems with their dogs. She said a transcript of the conversation showed the dogs’ reactions didn’t seem to be severe at the time.

In a written statement, Windrum called the loss of Chippy “unfortunate” and “devastating.”

But without an investigation, she said, the company couldn’t tell whether its product was at fault or not. She said Chippy could have had an underlying medical condition, which is why the product’s packaging tells owners to consult a vet before using it on aged pets. She also said Poulin could have used the product wrong, despite the vet’s assurance that she did everything right.

Windrum said Sergeant’s would like Poulin and her vet to contact the company so it can start an investigation.

“One pet having any reaction is one too many,” Windrum said.

If the investigation shows Sergeant’s product made Poulin’s animals sick, Windrum said, the company will pay the vet bills.

Poulin said she is considering her legal options. She wants something more than money.

“My mission is to get this off the shelf,” she said.

Experts’ advice:

• Consult your vet before using any flea and tick product, even those sold in stores.

• Consult your vet before using a flea and tick product on an older or pregnant pet, even if you’ve used that product before.

• Follow the dosing directions on the package.

• Don’t use a dog product on a cat, even if their weights are the same. Dog products can kill cats because they have different metabolisms.

• Don’t try to save money by buying a product meant for a larger animal and then splitting the dose among several smaller animals.

• Call your vet, the hot line number on the back of the package or the ASPCA Poison Control Center (1-888-426-4435) if your pet has a reaction to a product.

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