30 March 2011

Unwelcome visitors - ticks & fleas!

Dare I say it but for the past few days it has really felt like Spring has arrived, and whilst the dogs have been lazily soaking up the rays, the garden creep-crawlies have been quietly shaking off their winter sleep and going about their business in the sunshine – certainly here we have an abundance of ladybirds already, along with bumblebees and yellow butterflies.  But the warmer weather heralds the emergence of the not-so-pretty spring visitors too – ticks!   

Ticks are blood-sucking arachnids (spider family) and can be found in gardens, parks, woods and other rural and grassy environments.  Ticks are very active during the spring and autumn, but can remain a problem throughout the summer if weather conditions are favourable.  If you have never seen a tick, this is what one looks like in close-up:

Scary!  Thank goodness they’re not really that big.  Ticks attach to dogs (and other warm-blooded animals) and engorge with blood, increasing their weight by up to 100 times before dropping off after 5 to 10 days.  In their non-engorged form, ticks are tiny – just a millimetre or so long – and they are flat too, not plump with blood like the one in the above picture.  They become noticeable to us only once their bodies have started to swell in size and usually by touch as we stroke our pets and feel that tell-tale lump amidst the hair – our dogs having already played host for a couple of days.  

The most common attachment sites for ticks are around the dog’s head and particularly on the ears.  This happens as the dog investigates undergrowth, burrows and hedgerows.  Ticks will often climb up to the tips of grass blades and wait there to be picked up by a passing host.  I found one on Tilly’s left ear just a couple of evenings ago.  She had been wandering through some long grass that morning. 

In the UK, the main diseases that ticks are responsible for transmitting are Lyme disease (which can also affect humans) and Anaplasmosis. Although treatable, these diseases can cause serious illness and occasionally death if left undiagnosed.

So what to do about these little suckers?

Contrary to popular belief, chemical ‘preventative’ flea and tick products do not prevent ticks from attaching to your dog. What happens is that once attached and sucking, the tick is slowly poisoned by the dog’s blood, dies, and then drops off in a couple of days (same with fleas). Read that again. Topical, chemical ‘preventative’ treatments DO NOT prevent ticks from attaching to your dog. The tick is slowly poisoned by your dog’s blood. That’s right, chemical ‘preventative’ treatments turn your dog’s blood toxic, and if it’s toxic to the tick, what’s it doing to the dog?

The most popular topical treatment for fleas and ticks in the UK, Frontline, contains the chemical 'fipronil'.  Fipronil is an insecticide and a neuro-toxin that disrupts the nervous system functions of insects.  According to the Journal of Pesticide Reform, "In tests with laboratory animals, fipronil caused aggressive behavior, damaged kidneys, and ‘drastic alterations in thyroid function.’ The fipronil-containing product Frontline caused changes in the levels of sex hormones."    The article also states that commercial fipronil products also contain five so-called 'inert' ingredients, all of which have been found to be harmful to health in laboratory tests, giving rise to cancer, genetic damage, tumours and reduced fertility.  You can read the full article on fipronil from the Journal of Pesticide Reform here:  http://www.pesticide.org/get-the-facts/pesticide-factsheets/factsheets/fipronil

There are two more toxins in Frontline – methoprene, which can cause liver enlargements, headaches, throat irritation and nausea, and ethanol, which can cause fatigue, lethargy, dizziness and nervous system disruption.  You can read more here: http://www.care2.com/greenliving/tick-and-flea-products-toxic-to-pets-and-humans.html#ixzz1GsWmSSqw

Exposure to sunlight causes fipronil to break down into a substance that is nine to ten times as potent as fipronil itself.  Fipronil is also a carcinogen.  Classified as such by the Environmental Protection Agency, exposure to fipronil has been found to cause benign and malignant thyroid tumours in laboratory animals.   The statistics on canine cancer are alarming anyway, but there are two stats in particular that stand out for me.   According to recent statistics from VPI Pet Insurance, dogs are twice as likely to develop leukemia (blood cancer) as are humans, and a staggering 35 times more  likely than humans to develop skin cancer.  If we put known carcinogens directly onto our dogs' skin, which then get absorbed into their blood ... it doesn't take a genius to work out that there may be a link between these stats and something like fipronil.  You can read more about canine cancer here: http://dogs.lovetoknow.com/wiki/Cancer_in_Dogs

I never use chemicals on my dogs. I never have done. My dogs are not infested with fleas or ticks and neither is my home. I have yet to find a flea or a tick on Beau, and in the past three years I have found the grand total of just one flea and one tick on Tilly - each dealt with easily and swiftly, the flea received the good old 'squish between the fingernails' treatment, and the tick was safely removed using a 'tick twister':

You can learn more about this natty little tool here:  http://www.ticktwister.com/info.html

Safe flea and tick prevention during the active flea and tick season (in the UK, mid-March to mid-September):

  1. Wash all pet bedding in hot, soapy water once a week.
  2. Vacuum floors, skirting boards, crevices, carpets, rugs and upholstery at least once a week, disposing of the vacuum bag and its contents straight after.  If your vacuum cleaner is bagless, empty the chamber straight into your main, outside bin.
  3. Brush your dog daily and use a fine-toothed flea comb once a week.  If you do find a flea, it can be drowned in soapy water.  If you find a tick, remove it with a ‘tick twister’ and then drown it in soapy water.
  4. Bathing your dog is an excellent way of getting rid of fleas if you suspect that your pet may be infested.  Any soap will get rid of fleas, but choosing a shampoo that contains any of the following essential oils (below) will also act as a repellent.
  5. Look for repellent sprays and shampoos that include the safer essential oils of lemongrass, cedarwood, peppermint, rosemary or thyme.
  6. Maintain outdoor areas, keeping grass and shrubbery short in your dog's favourite spots.  This will increase sunlight and dryness in those areas, making it less habitable for fleas and ticks.  Plant lemongrass, peppermint, rosemary and thyme in your borders.  Nematodes (available at some garden centres) can be used as a nonchemical, biological aid to help control fleas in outdoor areas too.
  7. Once or twice a year sprinkle natural, unrefined 'diatomaceous earth' along skirting boards, under furniture, and in cracks where you cannot vacuum.  Diatomaceous earth is a naturally occuring silicon-based, powdered rock compound that on contact with the waxy outer layer of insects' exoskeletons absorbs lipids, causing the insect to dehydrate and die.  You can also sprinkle a little diatomaceous earth into your bin and vacuum bags.  If you have respiratory problems, take care not to breath in the fine dust. 
  8. For actual infestation problems that are severe and do require chemical intervetion, look for lower risk products such as those containing Pyriproxyfen, Nitenpyram, Spinosad, S-Methoprene or Lufenuron as the active ingredient.
You can find a comprehensive flea and tick product directory here: http://www.simplesteps.org/greenpaws-products so before you buy and use a product on your pet, you can check the risk factors first.  The directory has been compiled by the Natural Resources Defense Council who have checked the listed ingredients of over 100 flea and tick products and catergorised them according to risk factor.

And in case you’ve never seen one, this is what a flea looks like (greatly magnified of course):

The actual size of fleas varies greatly.  In the UK, the flea most commonly found on cats and dogs is the cat flea (Ctenocephalides felis), which measures approximately 2.5mm.     

Feeling a bit itchy now …


  1. Excellent article, Lizi! Will share.


  2. Excellent article, 'spot-on' with the info and informative too - thankyou, will share.

  3. Thank you for sharing, I live in Florida in the country, we have lots of fleas & ticks..... I normally use Advantix once or twice during the warmer months (never monthly) & it seems to keep them under control. However, I agree that if it's toxic for me to touch... what's it doing to my dog? It's about that time again but I think I will try some of your remedies first..........
    will share.....
    Thanks again

  4. Thanks for your comments everyone, and for spreading the word around.

    Martha, I think that if ticks in particular are so prevelant in your area then the risks of chemical treatments versus tick-borne disease has to weighed up, and using a chemical treatment occasionally may be the best option, however, on the whole, an infected tick will not begin to transmit disease until a couple of days into its feed, so as long as you are vigilent and check your dogs over after a walk in a high-risk area and remove any ticks early, the risk of the dog becoming infected is similar to that of a dog applied with a topical product.

  5. Thanks for that Lizi, very well written informative piece.

    Was only thinking about Fleas and Ticks the other day. Last year I didn't use anything at all, as most of the "preventative" chemicals require that your dog stay dry for at least 48 hours....they obviously have never had a labrador. We did o.k with a tick twister and the odd bath and will continue in this vain.

    Here's to the spring, and roll on the summer.

  6. great info Lizi thx for that, will certainly be thinking more imaginatively this year

  7. Hi, i am writing from Hungary. I haven't used chemical repellent products on my dog either. Last year i mixed coconut oil with Geraniol essential oil - this year i added also neem oil to it. So far so good.

    Recently she had some skin problem, and i used this ayurvedic product called Zerokeet on her. Does anyone else have any experience with that? It is also good to "kill" ticks and flees, and based on the package its fully herbal.

    this summer we ll be flying with her - and the entry to a country requires treatment against ticks and flees - certified by a doctor. I guess he would want to put frontline on her....what brand do you suggest which is less toxic?

  8. Hi Forbi, thanks for telling us about your natural oils repellent - neem is also an effective internal parasite repellent too.

    With regards to a safer, chemical alternative to Frontline, click on the last link in the post (http://www.simplesteps.org/greenpaws-products) which will take you to the Natural Resources Defence Council's directory of flea/tick products, and look for those products containing Pyriproxyfen, Nitenpyram, Spinosad, S-Methoprene or Lufenuron as the active ingredient. These are considered to be the lower risk chemicals.

  9. Great blog post, very helpful! Angela, whose name on Twitter is MinnieMooTheLab, posted a link to your post, because we've been discussing topical flea treatments. I'm curious to learn your thoughts on the new options like Trifexis and Sentienel, which are oral meds. These meds contain a combination of heartworm, flea, and parasite preventatives. The main ingredients in Trifexis are spinosad and milbemycin oxime.

    Thanks for your time and attention!

  10. Hey Lizi, just found this study done by the AVMA, which results state:
    "Results — After adjustment for host factors, Scottish Terriers treated with topical spot-on flea and tick products containing fipronil or imidacloprid did not have an increased risk of TCC, compared with Scottish Terriers that had never been exposed to any flea and tick products."


    After digging around there are a lot of studies that have been done, which don't show a link between the topical flea treatments and cancer in dogs. Do you think that maybe the studies didn't look at long-term use?

    I just want to find the truth!

  11. Hi Julia,

    Thanks for your comments. To be honest, I don't have any thoughts on the oral meds you have mentioned other than they are not something that I would give to my dogs - there is no justifiable need here in the UK. I don't give my dogs anything that is unnecessary, preferring to take the route of maintaining their health and immune systems naturally, rather than subjecting their bodies to regular, chemical 'preventative' treatments.

    In response to your second comment, if the studies did not look into long-term use of fipronil, then it would appear that a very significant factor has indeed been overlooked. Unfortunately, I cannot access the article link you posted in order to read it - it is too large to translate. As I have mentioned in my article, the Environmental Protection Agency has classified fipronil is a carcinogen, and exposure to fipronil has been found to cause benign and malignant thyroid tumours in laboratory animals. So fipronil does cause cancer. As such, I'm sticking with my own thoughts and feeling about this, that there may be a link between the topical application of fipronil and some forms of canine cancer. And if even it can be conclusively proven otherwise, by independently researched and funded, controlled studies (i.e. not by veterinary bodies or drugs companies) I still wouldn't use it - there is simply no need when there are so many other, less harmful and non-toxic options.

    That's my truth anyway, for what it's worth!

  12. Lizi thank you so much for your help and insight! I went to my pet store today and purchased non-toxic, organic products for flea and tick prevention from Mad About Organics. I won't use Frontline anymore. Your knowledge and ability to explain your findings has helped me immensely. Thank you!!

  13. Julia, that's so good to hear, I'm really happy that you found some non-toxic and organic alternatives. Wishing you and your woofs a tick and flea free summer!

  14. Have just used Frontline on one of our dogs,as recommended by the Vet. It's always so confusing when the Vet says 'it's ok' and then I read your very informative article. I was actually just out the door to buy some more for our other dog. Now i'll try an alternative. Thank you very much on behalf our Mini Schnauzers Charlie and Lucy.

    Studies, tests and statistics have a way of proving all things depending on how you conduct and interpret them.

    Thanks again for a very helpful article

  15. Thanks for your comment Lee, I'm glad that the article has been helpful to you. I think that it's so important when we are considering putting anything on or in our pets, that all risks and necessity are carefully considered.


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