Fleas and ticks. The names alone cause a reflexive shudder, but it's important to know the basics about these pests, their risks, and treatment options before you bug out and over- or under-treat your pup.
First, get to know the enemies: The flea is a fair-weather foe, thriving during temperatures of 70 to 90 degrees (aka summer). Fleas themselves are not inherently harmful—their threat comes from the intestinal parasites' eggs they tend to carry, namely tapeworms, which can cause gastrointestinal problems.
Now meet the deer tick—not to be confused with the dog tick that is relatively common and for the most part poses no risk, unless it is the black-legged tick found west of the Rocky Mountains. The deer tick is notorious for spreading Lyme disease, a debilitating and potentially fatal illness for dogs. They live in the central and eastern part of the country, wherever deer are.
The risk of fleas and ticks is a continuum, and determining roughly where your dog falls on it can help you make the best choices when it comes to prevention. Sound overwhelming? We've done the work to help you determine your dog's level of risk as well as the best options out there. Specifically, if...
...your dog barely leaves the comfort of your air conditioned apartment. Dogs who spend all day inside with the AC on and only venture outdoors to attend brunch inside your bag generally are not at risk for fleas and ticks and therefore don't need to be treated because of the cool temperature and the lack of exposure.
...your dog is constantly romping around in tick territory. How do you know? If there are deer around. Dogs who frequent the same outdoor areas are at significant risk, since ticks move from deer to branches/leaves/grass to dogs. Always check them after they've been outside and consider treating them with a preventive topical treatment such as Advantage II or Frontline Plus. The insecticides in these treatments work systematically to kill fleas, flea eggs, and ticks. They're generally very effective and easy to use. The potential downside is that there are no long-term studies on the impact insecticides can have on our pets' health.
...your dog is only in tick-ridden areas a few times during peak season For dogs who are occasionally at risk, collars are a good option, since they can be taken on and off depending on where you are. The most common active ingredient is Amitraz, which affects the central nervous system of fleas and ticks and keeps them from burrowing and thereby infecting dogs. The disadvantage in this case? Amitraz is toxic to cats, so these collars aren't a good fit in dog/cat households. There are also potentially harmful drug interactions with Amitraz, so consult with your vet first. Tags like this are another good option—they clip onto your dog's regular collar and utilize your dog's bioenergy to emit a protective shield to repel biting insects like fleas, ticks and even mosquitos.
...you're pregnant or have small children Tags and collars are also a good fit if you want to avoid exposure to topical chemicals.
...your dog has a ton of canine friends and acquaintances. Fleas are most often picked up courtesy of another furry creature—not only your dog's pals at the dog park, but also feral animals like cats, squirrels and raccoons. Fleas enjoy hop-on-hop-off transportation all summer long, so owners of dogs who meet and greet a lot of other animals during the warm weather should consider parasite dust, a powder that is brushed into the dog's hair, along the length of the spine. The active ingredient is neem, a highly effective natural insecticide that lasts for a very long time, basically until it's washed away, and protects against ticks too. Bonus: it's safe to sprinkle on bedding, carpets, outdoor furniture, etcetera, to protect your home as well.
...you want to avoid chemicals at all costs.
Essential oils such as rose geranium, lavender, neem, citronella, lemongrass, and cedar can be used in combination to repel fleas and ticks in the form of a topical treatment (usually one drop in between the shoulder blades), a diluted spray, or even a shampoo. The oils spread in your dog's fur and give off a scent that is pleasant for dogs and humans, but terrifying for fleas and ticks. Depending on the concentration of the oil, these treatments last up to a week at a time. Or, turn a simple bandana into an effective flea collar with a few drops of those magical essential oils, some water, and a solid knot.
...you want to experiment with natural options in your kitchen.
There's some debate as to whether garlic is safe for dogs to consume, but some sources say it's great for naturally repelling fleas and ticks—the smell and taste is a total turn-off for these pests. Putting a clove of crushed garlic in your dog's food once a day can boast other health benefits too, like supporting heart health. Adjust the dosage up or down a half clove depending on the size of your pup. Some people also report success with a daily dose of apple cider vinegar to supplement other natural repellents. The vinegar makes them taste terrible to the fleas, so one bite deters the next.
...you still aren't sure.
Protecting your dog from fleas and ticks is something that no pet parent takes lightly. If you're not sure about your own dog's level of risk or the best prevention options for your specific pet, don't hesitate to call or visit your vet.