With the warmer months approaching, flea and tick season will soon be upon us, calling for preventative measures to hopefully protect your canine friend from becoming prey to these parasites. Fleas can cause dozens of health issues, ranging from severe allergies, injured skin, skin infections, anemia, and tapeworms. Choosing a flea and tick product to use is often overwhelming and confusing. There is a wide variety of different options, from standard spot-on or oral flea treatments, such as Frontline, Revolution, Advantage, Adventix, Sentinel, Program, Bravetco, Nexgard Capstar to a variety of natural topical remedies and supplements.
Preventative Measures For Fleas and Ticks
Although flea and tick infections are not entirely possible to prevent, it is certainly practical to use preventative treatment options to keep your dog’s immune system as healthy as can be.
— Improving Your Pet’s Health
Improving and strengthening your pet’s overall health is a preventative option for any type of disease. In some households with multiple dogs or cats, it’s not uncommon for one dog/cat to be ravaged by fleas while another is flea-free. Flea problems can stem from the mere presence of fleas, but sometimes health and environmental factors allow opportunistic parasites to feed on weakened animals.
Diet plays a major role in your dog or cat’s health. In some cases, upgrading their diet may help strengthen their immune system and help them prevent these opportunistic parasites from invading them and your house. See our previous blogs on raw diets, home-made diets and commercial kibbles/cans.
Proper grooming and daily body exams for fleas and ticks is part of the recommended guidelines for any pets during the summer months. Groomers can help identify and find fleas on your pet, so regular visits to them may help prevent issues.
— Supplements and Herbal Remedies
Supplements can also be helpful in repelling fleas and ticks; however their effectiveness varies on the individual’s body chemistry and makeup. An essential fatty-acid supplement (Omega 3) is important, as essential fatty acids play critical roles in how your dog’s immune system responds to threats of infection, including parasites. Essential fatty acids are also beneficial in creating healthy skin and a shiny coat. Not all Omega 3’s are created equal and the brand I currently recommend and trust is the Ascenta Dog/Cat fish oil. Make sure to store the product in the fridge once it is open as rancidity is a problem with all omega 3 supplements.
Probiotics may also be a good supplement, as they assist with the transport of nutrients throughout the body and aid in the breakdown and removal of waste and toxins. Purina Fortiflora, Rx Vitamins Biotics, Rx Vitamins Nutrigest, Animal Essentials Plant Enzymes and Probiotics are all good options. Consult with your veterinarian about which pet specific probiotic would be best. I do not recommend using human probiotics since the bacteria found in animal flora is different. Pet specific probiotics are usually ideal. Here is a link to Dr Dodds point of view on probiotics for those interested in reading more about them.
As far as herbal support, some holistic veterinarians recommend garlic for flea issues but I do no agree with them. Garlic is helpful as it supports the immune system, liver, and the skin but it does nothing to directly prevent or treat fleas and ticks. No study has ever been able to support its usage for fleas/ticks versus other natural less toxic products. Natural does not mean safe! Some owners use fresh garlic, garlic powder, or garlic oil which can be very dangerous! It is important to talk to your veterinarian before starting your pet on a garlic supplement, as garlic can be toxic at certain doses, causing anemia and possible hospitalization. CATS ARE VERY SENSITIVE TO IT! Usually I do NOT recommend its usage in cats and I would not recommended it for fleas in dogs since there are more safer and more efficient products available.
I am not a fan of over-the-counter products containing garlic since it is very hard to know the exact dose of garlic in these products and therefore there is a risk to pets consuming these. I would highly recommend you consult with a veterinarian before using any garlic containing products. A lot of people think garlic actually kill or repels fleas and IT DOES NOT ! There has never been anything published supporting this belief but there is a lot published about the benefit of garlic on the immune system. A lot of people will use that as proof and mis-represent garlic as a flea repellent product when it is more of a immune system supporter. The link between giving garlic to pets and preventing fleas has never been directly established. If you give garlic, you may help the immune system, which may then help prevent against opportunistic external parasites (like fleas) from infesting your pet. But, garlic has been linked toxicity and poses a risk at certain doses.
There is no scientific study supporting the use for garlic, brewer’s yeast or vitamin B as being able to control fleas. Client often buy these products at pet stores and they believe these work because they have yet to see fleas on their pets. The main reason they are probably not seeing fleas on their pets is because either their pets were not exposed to fleas or they are healthy enough to not allow fleas to invade them. We must not forget that fleas are opportunistic and will invade weak animals more often then strong ones.
For ticks, there are several types of natural spray/shampoo products that may be effective in discouraging ticks from infesting on your dog. If you are unsure of which type works in your area, contact your local holistic veterinarian for guidance. I personally do not use any of these products on my pets. They need to be applied often and if you forget and miss a few applications you are putting your pet at risk. A lot of them have a lemon smell and I am not a fan.
If your pet is having problems with itchy skin, talk to your veterinarian about other skin support supplements. Licorice root (Glycyrrhiza glabra) is a good herb to give to your dog if the itching is severe and the skin is inflamed. It also acts as an internal anti-inflammatory. Nettles is another great anti-itch herb. Some probiotics like Rx Vitamins Nutrigest contain garlic (low dose) and licorice so these types of product may benefit dogs with allergies during flea season.
Borax, Borates and Borax powder can be toxic (irritants) to cats and dogs. They can kill fleas but these products are not safe for pets. Electronic flea collars not really effective while electric flea trap do work but I personally would not bother using them. Products with citrus extract like limonene will repel fleas but should not be used on kittens and puppies. Flea and tick collars may help reduce fleas, but I have seen so many pets loaded with fleas come into my office wearing those collars and scratching that I usually do not recommend them.
Pyrethrum (natural form) or permethrin (synthetic) based products can be found in topical flea and tick powder at your veterinarian’s office. Permethrin or pyrethrin products are considered SAFE INSECTICIDES FOR DOGS ONLY. DO NOT USE THESE PRODUCTS IN CATS! Pyrethrum is derived from chrysanthemum flower. Be careful with organophosphates based products in cats.
Essential Oils Blends FOR DOGS ONLY (I do not recommend the topical use of essential oils on cats for flea prevention). Cats are very sensitive to essential oils like tea tree, cedar, peppermint, lavender and many more and this can be very toxic for them if ingested. Cats like to groom themselves and therefore the risk of exposure is high. In regards to dogs, the same can apply, specially if you are making bandanas and collars out of essential oils mixes. Make sure you dog does not chew them as they are potentially toxic.
Essential oils repel but do not kill fleas. Because of this, they are not recommended for pets with allergies to fleas or when you are dealing in a major flea infestation.
I would not recommend this to my clients, but these examples have been recommended by some holistic vet and I am making the information available to my clients. If you want to know what I do for my own pets for flea prevention, read this blog.
a) This formula was taken from page 46 of Dogs naturally magazine March-April 2014 issue.
1/2 oz base oil (hazelnut or sweet almond), 4 drops of clary sage, 1 drop citronella, 7 drops peppermint, 3 drops lemon
Apply 2-4 drops topically to the neck, chest legs and base of the tail. You can also add the drops to a bandana or cotton collar.
b) The book The Pet Lover’s Guide to Natural Healing for Dogs and cats (well worth the 15$) gives other mixes for essential oil blends at p. 556-557. Again, I am not a fan of using essential oils for flea and tick prevention. Dr Barbara Fougere, will also sometimes recommend using Revolution and supplementing with herbs like milk thistle, omegas and other natural supplements to support the immune system and detoxify topical flea products. She co-authored the textbook Veterinary Herbal Medicine with Dr Susan Wynn. Both of these books are great references.
Example of how to make a natural DOG flea-free collar(not for cats) found in book the The Pet Lover’s Guide to Natural Healing for Dogs and cats .
Buy a soft cloth collar. Mix vodka 2 tsp, lavender 2 drops, citronella 1 drop, cedar 1 drop, rose geranium 1 drop, garlic capsule 2 capsules
Double this formula for pets over 15kg and under 30kg. Triple this formula for dogs over 30 kg. You need to soak collar with mix and allow to dry. Repeat each month as the smell wears off.
Essential oils used for flea sprays should always be diluted to about 15 drops per 500ml of water. If you prefer to dilute with almond oil, then use about 10 drops per 20ml of almond oil and then massage onto your dog’s fur twice a week at about 1 drop per kg.
—- Repellent Herbs
Dr Barbara Fougere, in her book suggests to plant Fennel, Sage or Wormwood near the kennel or cattery. These are meant to environment outdoor flea repellents, not to be ingested by your pet. Lavender can also be sprinkled around the bedding.
— Outdoor Environment
Controlling the outdoor flea population can be difficult, especially since you can’t control how your neighbours keep their yard. Keep your grass short, especially where your dog spends a lot of time, as this will help reduce habitat for fleas. Flea eggs, larvae, and pupae live in long grass and piles of leaves.
Unfortunately, it is not as easy to control the tick population with simple measures such as grass clipping. Ticks do like to live in organic matter, so keeping the leaf or pine needle litter to a minimum in your yard may help prevent ticks.
You can also use food grade diatomaceous earth, which is a calcium dust ground from single-cell, ocean organisms (fossilized remains of hard shell algae). Diatomaceous earth acts as an abrasive and a desiccant, drying out and destroying adult fleas and killing larvae. This is a relatively easy and inexpensive product to use with positive results. Food grade diatomaceous earth is the only recommended kind (do not use the industrial type) and in some case it may lead to lung irritation in people. Also, water and rain will wash it off and you will need to re-apply it as needed.
I personally do not recommend using food grade diatomaceous earth anywhere near myself nor on my pets. I would use it strictly outdoors. It is basically fossilized remains in a dust form and I personally do not want to be breathing calcium deposits (dusts) into my lungs nor do I want my pets to breath that in either. It is a known lung irritant and some people may be more sensitive to it. I constantly have direct contact with my pets and their fur so I do not want to have them full of a potential lung irritating powder. Chronic lung irritation in people and pets can lead to long term health issues and I am not willing to risk that at this time.
Beneficial nematodes can also have a good effect on flea-infested areas. Nematodes are small worms that kill flea larvae and pupae by feeding on them. They can be purchased at some garden supply stores or online.
Products containing Insect Growth Regulators (chemicals/insect hormones) do work. They are still not considered natural, but they do seem safe and effective for long term use. I call these products the birth control for fleas! The veterinary products Sentinel (Lufenuron) and Program are considered Insect Growth Regulators versus Revolution (Selamectin) and Advantage (Imidacloprid) which are considered insecticides. The Insect Growth Regulators do not kill the fleas like insecticides but they stop them from developing. The fleas will eventually die off. They are considered a more biological way to control infestation than the use of insecticides and do remain a valid options for clients.
— Indoor Environment
When controlling your indoor environment, it’s important to target the highest part of the flea population — the non-adult stages. Over 90% of the flea population is in your house is in the form of egg, larvae and pupae. It does not reside on your pet, but in your actual home environment. Less than 10% of the fleas will be found on your pet. I often hear clients saying that they do not have a flea problem because they only saw 1-2 fleas on their pets. In my brain, this actually translates to: these people actually have millions of fleas in their house that they are not aware of!
Good housekeeping is essential when preventing flea growth. Wash your floors frequently, vacuum carpeting, and remove any rugs. Wash your dog’s bedding at least once per week in hot water and mild detergent or vinegar. If you own a steam cleaner or can borrow one, this is a great tool to use as the steam kills adults and larvae. The steam stimulates the eggs to hatch as well, so it is important to follow up with a vacuum after a day or two to capture the newly hatched fleas. Otherwise, you can simply vacuum weekly any carpets, but also on and under furniture. Make sure you seal your vacuum cleaner in an airtight bag before disposing or put in the freezer overnight. In some cases, where people have central vac, they will put flea collars in their vacuum containers to help. Vacuum will kill fleas in all life stages and at a rate of about 96% for adult fleas and 100% of younger fleas! So, people looking for a great chemical-free option to get rid of flea infestations in their houses can start by buying and using a vacuum routinely! This is a great article that talks about a study done on vacuuming and fleas.
Ticks do not thrive in houses, so the issue of larvae nesting in your sofa is thankfully not an issue!
Flea and Tick Control Products
Unfortunately, as much as we may try to prevent them, fleas and ticks may still invade our dogs and our home. Luckily, there are multiple treatment options. As a general rule of thumb, in treating any disease, choose the lesser of the two evils — many flea and tick products arguably contain some ingredients that may not be the safest, yet in some severe cases, may be deemed necessary for the overall health of the dog. Generally, choose the least toxic product that is effective in your dog’s individual case.
Check to see if your product is targeting multiple parasites — some products target both fleas and ticks. Others also offer protection for heartworm and intestinal worms. Don’t subject your dog to these additional ingredients if the targeted parasite isn’t an issue in your area or at a certain time of year.
Cats are very sensitive to chemicals, so only use flea and tick products labeled for cats.
Also, use these products only as needed or as directed by your veterinarian. Many manufacturers recommend administering tick and flea repellent monthly, year-round. But, for most people, flea and tick season is not a year-round threat and this is completely unnecessary. If fleas is the major concerns, then some people prefer waiting till their pets actually get fleas before using veterinary products like Revolution or Advantage. At one point, it becomes more a personal choice. Other owners never use conventional flea and tick prevention and their dogs never have issues with parasites. It truly depends on the environment and the animal’s overall health.
Some dogs and cats suffer from flea allergies, resulting in severe itching to the point of skin damage and infection. This is caused by an allergic reaction to flea saliva which contains an anticoagulant substance that prevents the blood in the wound from clotting, thus allowing the flea to suck additional blood. Flea saliva also contains other substances that can irritate the pet’s skin. In cases of flea allergies, I always recommend using an insecticide to kill the actual fleas. So products like Avantage and Revolution are used instead of Program and Sentinel. Only a couple of fleas are required to send your pet into a scratching fit, so you need to get rid of the fleas ASAP.
Some areas of the world may experience a higher number of Lyme disease cases, while in others the probability of your dog contracting it is rare. According to the Centers for Disease Control, Lyme disease is most commonly found in the United States northeastern, mid-Atlantic, and upper north-central regions. In these areas, the risk is greatest in residential areas surrounded by woods.
Unfortunately, the natural options for tick prevention aren’t really effective, especially when the risk of Lyme disease is high and you feel that your dog needs to be protected. In the end, it ultimately depends on the individual dog’s body makeup and chemistry, determining if the product works.
As far as preventative measures, check for ticks every time your dog has been outside, particularly around the legs, belly, neck, and armpits. Ticks can transmit lyme disease in about 2 days, so even if you only check your pet once a day at night for ticks, removing what you find can prevent the transmission of lyme. Ticks travel towards dark and warm areas of the body. Ticks are most active mid-morning, so try to limit your dog’s exposure during this time.
Fleas and ticks are frustrating to deal with, however with patience you can usually find a safe product that works effectively for your dog or cat. As always, prevention is key, and concerning fleas, there are quite a few options for controlling both indoor and outdoor populations. With the high of flea and tick season approaching in many areas, we wish you the best of luck in protecting your pets from these parasites!
Written by Dr Cindy Lizotte, DVM, MBA, CVFT (CHI institute), CVA (IVAS), Grad Dip Vet Western Herb Med (CIVT) Grad Dip Vet Chinese Herb Med CVHM (IVAS/CIVT)