The lush green grass is growing, temperatures are perfect for hiking or relaxing in a park, but amidst this idyllic setting you spot your furry friend scratching with discomfort. You investigate, and sure enough, a disgusting tick crawling in the fur or attached to your pooch…gross! While most of us use some sort of tick/flea preventative, the question is what to use, when to use it, and in what amounts. The answers aren’t straightforward or non-controversial.
While some vets will prescribe a chemical tick preventative to any client that asks about ticks, other vets and environmental organizations are advocating a more risk-based approach to controlling pests. The standard monthly treatment year-round is being reconsidered by some vets who now advise treatment only during the most tick-ridden months and only for healthy pets. Yet, social media is inundated with posts such as:
“I give my dog X chemical treatment every month, they are wearing X chemical treatment collar, what other chemical can I use because I still see ticks.”
“My dog is on 2 chemical treatments that I give every 2 weeks instead of monthly because there are ticks everywhere in my state. Can I also spray with a human bug product?”
“I found a tick on my dog, how often can I apply X chemical treatment — every 3 weeks isn’t working.”
“I was hiking in the woods and found a dozen ticks crawling on my dog when we were done our hike…how can I make this stop?”
There is no doubt that ticks are gross!!! The question becomes: are our expectations of tick medications reasonable? And what can we do if we don’t want to (over) chemically treat our pets?
MYTH 1: If my dog is on a chemical tick medication/treatment, I should not see any ticks.
FACT: One of the most popular tick/flea preventatives is Bravecto. From their website: “After you give your dog Bravecto, it quickly reaches tissue fluids just under your dog’s skin. When fleas and ticks feed, they take in Bravecto and die. Bravecto starts to kill fleas after 2 hours and provides effective control within 8 hours for fleas and within 24 hours of attachment for ticks.” This says that control is provided within 24 hours of attachment of ticks! That means the tick must bite your dog before it will die! This means that yes, you may still find ticks on your dog, and yes, they may be attached. Nexgard, another very popular tick/flea prescription preventative works the same, as do many chemical topicals. Seresto, a chemical collar your dog is to wear for up to 8 months, works by releasing chemicals slowly into the dog’s skin through contact and distributing them throughout the body. Bayer, the manufacturer of Seresto, claims that the collar works to repel ticks, and attachment is therefore not required.
Let’s be realistic though: if you hike through long grass or through dense woods, or your dog spends the day sleeping/rolling in the grass, the ticks don’t scurry in the opposite direction just because you’re wearing a repellent. Recall all the times you’ve applied bug spray for a BBQ, yet there you sit, drinking a beer, eating a burger, and you continue to have mosquitos land right on you. Same idea.
MYTH 2: Chemical tick repellents are safe for our dogs.
FACT: This is a more controversial and complicated answer. Many dogs don’t experience any side effects from chemical tick preventatives. But others experience very serious side effects. By Food & Drug Administration requirement, many prescribed pesticides come with warning labels. Bravecto, Nexgard, Simparica and Revolution are isooxazoline compounds which have been linked to a number of adverse events, including muscle tremors, ataxia (loss of control of body movements), seizure, and potentially death. Frontline, Advantix and others use fipronil to control ticks. Adverse events include neurotoxicity, reproductive toxicity, negative liver impacts, as well as negative impacts on the emotional and cognitive behavior of animals. Other potential side effects of each include vomiting, diarrhea, lethargy, decreased appetite, itching, restlessness, anxiety, seizures.
But how frequent are these side effects? Is it really something we need to concern ourselves with? In a study published in 2020 in Veterinary Medicine and Science, of those using a pesticide for tick/flea control, two-thirds had a pet experience an adverse event. This is significant!
While not all the adverse events were life-threatening, the Food and Drug Administration (responsible for tracking reported adverse events) has received 32,374 reports of dogs experiencing adverse events from chemical tick treatments, including 801 deaths and 1728 seizures. Nexgard, 14,116 reports, 341 deaths, 981 seizures; Bravecto 16,896 reports, 416 deaths, 468 seizures; Simparica 1361 reports, 44 deaths, 279 seizures.
A March 2021 USA today article reported almost 1700 deaths attributable to the common Seresto collar, as well as tens of thousands of injured animals, and hundreds of harmed humans. Yet repeatedly, these products are listed as “best tick treatment, according to veterinarians” in the media.
Keep in mind that the reporting of adverse events is likely an underestimation. I used to treat my female Norwegian Elkhound Annie with a chemical topical and she was always lethargic and frequently vomited in the 24 hours following application. I never reported this to the FDA, and honestly saw it (at the time) as a minor side effect in the battle against ticks.
There is additionally increasing evidence that these products are contaminating the environment and waterways.
MYTH 3: Natural repellents are just as effective as chemicals.
FACT: We just don’t know the answer to this question. As mentioned in a recent article in the NY Times regarding ticks in 2021, it was noted that “natural products might be effective, but they have not been well studied.” So, the effectiveness of chemicals can be measured, but so have the adverse events. The effectiveness of natural products have not been subject to as much scientific scrutiny, but the adverse events are significantly lower.
That said, natural methods are not without risks. Essential oils present in many natural tick applications (such as cinnamon oil and clove oil) may cause drooling, gagging, skin irritation, lethargy, or vomiting if licked off the fur by the pet. Back to my pup Annie: I used a well-known natural spray on her that contained cinnamon oil, and licking of the application site resulted in vomiting.
Risks of Tick-borne Diseases
Climate change, deforestation, and migration patterns of animals are some of many factors that impact the geographic distribution of ticks. That said, ticks are found almost everywhere in the United States, both rural and urban areas alike, and pose an increased risk to the health of pets and people. Tick-borne diseases (TBD) occur when an infected tick bites and transmits the disease to either pet or person. The most prevalent TBDs to impact dogs are Lyme disease, ehrlichiosis, anaplasmosis, babesiosis, and Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever. Each of these can have serious health consequences. Some of the signs of TBDs include: poor appetite, fever, lameness, joint pain/swelling, limping, enlarged lymph nodes, fever, and low blood platelets. While many TBDs can be treated with a course of antibiotics if treatment begins when signs first appear, some TBDs can progress to kidney disease and be fatal. If you see any of these signs, consult with your vet!
Parasite prevalence maps revealed in 2020 that of over 8.9 million dogs tested, almost 5% tested positive for Lyme disease, just under 3% for anaplasmosis, and just under 3% for ehrlichiosis. Rates of Lyme disease and anaplasmosis were slightly higher in 2019. While ticks can be found throughout the United States, disease prevalence is most common in the Northeast and the Midwest.
Weighing The Risks
We do know that ticks are a problem…a significant problem! Tick researchers conduct local monitoring projects of the tick population and one researcher found the number of blacklegged nymphs were 85% higher this year than the same time in 2020, and 47% higher than the same timeframe in 2019. There is no doubt that ticks are a problem, and an increasing problem at that.
How to keep ticks off our beloved furry friends is a serious concern, and it’s important to make your decision with as much information as possible in your arsenal. There’s no doubt that chemical treatments can have negative side effects, or that tick-borne diseases can potentially be deadly. So, making a choice that works for you and your pet and balances the negatives of treatment with the negatives of potential disease is imperative. A hybrid approach may be to chemically treat only healthy pets and only during the high-tick season, while using natural deterrents in addition to, and/or in between, chemical treatments. Reducing the chemicals your animal has to detox from their body is a real concern and can be facilitated with natural products such as milk thistle, broccoli sprouts, curcumin, glutathione, or a GABA supplement, to name a few.
When We Know Better, We Do Better
Maya Angelou famously said: when we know better, we do better! This is one of my favorite sentiments!
What I Do
I live in a rural area on 5 acres of woods and long grass, and hike in the woods often with my two dogs (Tennessen 6 years old; Annie 12 years old). I have a number of tick control weapons in my arsenal, and I will tell you honestly that I still occasionally find ticks on the pups (in fact, I found one last night on Tennessen). That said, I lean toward more natural methods of tick control.
I use a natural EM technology collar (full disclosure: I make and sell these collars). EM stands for Effective Microorganisms and refers to a family of microbial-based products using a technology developed by Dr. Teruo Higa. EM ceramics emit infrared waves which are believed to improve and balance the environment in your dog to help keep ticks/fleas from attaching. Scientific research has suggested that “manipulation of the microbiota as a therapeutic tool is a rapidly advancing field in microbiome research.”
This is very promising preliminary research which suggests that microorganisms can work to alter parasite behavior: through manipulating the balance in the environment, effects on the body can be seen.
I also use a natural spray whenever we are hiking or when the dogs are permitted to lounge for any amount of time in the grass. I spray their paws, up their legs, their chest, and their underbelly.
I rub the dogs vigorously before they get into the house, hoping to “shake loose” any ticks crawling on them. I also frequently use a lint roller over their fur to pick up ticks.
I use a garlic supplement as some evidence points to this as a deterrent for ticks. (Please make sure you use an appropriate dog garlic supplement: do NOT feed your dog garlic!)
I treat the lawn with FOOD-GRADE Diatomaceous Earth. This helps to dehydrate pests.
Nothing replaces thorough tick checks though!!! No matter what we try, sometimes a tick finds their way onto your pooch. Before bed, each pup gets a “tick check massage”…which they love! This is a full body check for the nasty critters: be sure to check areas that your pooch can’t reach (head, behind/in the ears, under the legs, around the eyes, and the gums).
You may chemically treat (or over-treat) and still have a dog get a tick-borne disease; you may naturally treat and have a dog get a tick-borne disease. Know the risks (of ticks and of chemicals) and make a multi-pronged strategy to protect you and your pet!
Lisa Anne Zilney, Ph.D. is not a veterinary professional, but a professor and researcher in sociology/criminology. Her research skills are applied to both issues of crime, and the well-being of her two furry companions, Norwegian Elkhound Annie and Border Collie Tennessen. She is also the owner of Natural Dawg, which makes custom natural tick/flea collars made with EM ceramics, as well as dog toys.