There’s no such thing as a free lunch—and in the world of flea and tick control products for pets, that phrase has never been more true. Fleas and ticks, and the diseases they carry, are the bane of our companion pets. One in 12 dogs tested positive for Lyme disease (carried by ticks) in our area last year, with actual cases thought to be much higher. Ticks and fleas transmit additional diseases, and fleas can cause horrific skin conditions and allergic reactions. But is administering poisons to your pet every month the right solution?
In order to make informed decisions, pet owners need to understand the life cycle of these pests and adopt a multifaceted approach. All pesticides have unwanted side effects, and if owners choose to use them, they should minimize their application and use other more natural products when possible.
Let’s begin with fleas. The adults that plague pets—and owners—represent only five percent of the flea population in the environment. Eighty-five percent of the fleas are in the egg and larvae stages, mostly in homes and outdoor spaces. It makes sense to target this broad segment of the population first. Outside, owners can use widely available sprays containing beneficial nematodes on the lawn and in areas pets like to frequent, such as under bushes and in protected areas. These nematodes work within 24 hours to eliminate almost ninety percent of flea larvae. They need to be re-applied per label instructions and generally work best if the soil has been moistened.
Indoors, owners should frequently wash pet bedding in hot water and use high heat for drying, vacuum floors and carpets repeatedly, and clean the vacuum canister or dispose of the bag. Boric acid powders are good for indoor carpeting and cracks in floors. Masks should be used, and pets should be kept out of the room when applying these products so the dust is not inhaled. The product should be applied until there is a noticeable coating, then worked into the carpet with a broom and then vacuumed. Borates kill flea larvae and help to create a lasting inhospitable environment for this large segment of the flea population.
Adult fleas and ticks can be manually removed from pets. Ideally, a flea comb should be run through pets’ fur daily, drowning any removed fleas in a soapy water dunk. Embedded ticks release quickly with the help of a “tick twister” tool. Regular bathing with gentle shampoo kills adult fleas without the need for harsh flea dips or shampoo, and this process also rids pets of flea feces and juvenile stages.
Gentler flea and tick pet products generally rely on essential oils to repel these pests, when either sprayed on pets every two to three days, applied in a “spot-on” treatment or embedded in a collar. Wondercide manufactures both pet and environment solutions that are largely based on cedar oil obtained sustainably from sources in the United States. Only Natural Pet offers a variety of choices from various manufacturers. Even “natural” products can cause unwanted reactions in pets, and cats in particular can be sensitive. Owners should test any product on a small area of skin and watch for localized inflammation or systemic signs, such as lethargy or vomiting.
Optimal overall health minimizes pets’ susceptibility to pest-borne diseases, but healthy pets still get fleas and ticks. There is some evidence that targeted supplements containing safe levels of garlic and brewer’s yeast make pets less attractive to parasites, but owners should not rely on these as their sole means of control.
If these options sound like a lot of work, consider the alternatives. Parasites often develop resistance to pesticides, and the pharmaceutical industry must continue to develop new alternatives. Older formulations of pest preventives were associated with liver and kidney disease, cancers, topical reactions, respiratory disease and disorders of the nervous system. Spot-on products considered safer than older topicals still can cause neurological impairment, vomiting and diarrhea, skin rashes and extreme lethargy.
And don’t forget, humans are advised not to come into contact with these products deemed safe for our pets. Even the newest generation of controls—oral chew products that last for one to three months—have hundreds of adverse event reports, most centered on vomiting and diarrhea, but many other reports identify tremors and convulsions. Finally, one of the most frequent complaints even with the newest flea and tick products is lack of efficacy. As tempting as the easy route of toxic chemicals may appear, pest control can be accomplished without compromising a pet’s health.
Dr. Laura Weis and her husband, Dr. Ransome Weis, own and operate Doylestown Veterinary Hospital & Holistic Pet Care, and Holiday House Pet Resort & Training Center, in Doylestown. She focuses on homeopathy and nutrition counseling for her clients within the full-service veterinary practice. Call 215-345-6000 to request an appointment. June 2018