You want to be the best-ever guardian and friend to your pets, and are careful to provide the best nutrition and vet care. You make sure your home, no matter what size, is safe and comfy. You make sure to provide plenty of enrichment and an interesting life for your beloved beast. You are a good human after all, and want nothing but the best for your pets.
Good grooming and flea and tick control are a large part of responsible pet care, yet this is an area where a lot of good humans become confused – and struggle with making the best choice for their pets. We know there are dangers associated with some products, but we also want to keep our pets safe. Also depending on where you live, the same treatment is not going to be the best choice for every pet.
Dangers posed by fleas and ticks
Fleas can – and do – reproduce fast! A female can lay up to 100 eggs at a time, so your pet can go from having just one to having hundreds of fleas in a very short time. Even more troublesome than infestation is the problem caused by flea bites. Flea bites cause itching, and with itching comes scratching. Scratching can cause any number of painful rashes which can become infected. Pets can also pick up parasites like tapeworm, develop flea allergy dermatitis, become anemic, or contract serious diseases. Depending on the type of fleas in your area these diseases can include flea-borne typhus or yes, even the dreaded bubonic plague.
Ticks are known for spreading Lyme Disease, but in the US they have also been known to bear other unwanted and life-threatening gifts. These include babesiosis, Rocky Mountain spotted fever, Colorado tick fever, tularemia, Q fever, and tick paralysis. Serious stuff indeed.
Balancing the severity of potential problems caused by these plentiful pests with the dangers associated with many common flea and tick remedies is important, and the decision may differ from person to person. What we want to do here is to give you an overview of what to look for so you can make an informed decision for your beloveds. As always, if something you read doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t right for you… so listen to your gut.
Like I always say: You are your pet’s best defense and you know her (or him) better than anyone, so educating yourself about the options you have available is one of the best things you can do – for the both of you.
Good nutrition is absolutely the place to start. Animals with properly functioning immune systems are less attractive to pests and resist many diseases carried by fleas and ticks. While it may be necessary to address the fleas and ticks themselves as well, please don’t forget to take care of your pet’s nutritional needs. This means feeding a wholesome diet free of nutritionally empty fillers, dyes and by-products. That’s a column in itself, and we’ll just leave it at that for now, but remember to care for that immune system while your pets are healthy. We give our pets Immune Support every day and have seen a halt to ear infections and skin allergies. And so far, we haven’t seen one flea. Then again, I must remind you that we live in Colorado and not Pennsylvania or Florida.
Types of flea and tick control – and what to watch out for
Organophosphate Insecticides & Carbamates
Found in most OTC (over the counter) flea and tick sprays on grocery and chain store shelves, the organophosphate insecticide tetrachlorvinphos (TCVP) is extremely toxic to the nervous system. TCVP is the culprit in the many cases where Hartz brand flea and tick products have been linked to poisonings and deaths of so many companion animals. On their own website, Hartz supplies the following warnings:
“Contains an organophosphate that inhibits cholinesterase.“
“NOTE TO PHYSICIANS AND VETERINARIANS: This product contains an organophosphate and may cause cholinesterase inhibition. Cholinergic symptoms may include salivation, miosis, incoordination, muscle fasciculation and/or weakness, vomiting and diarrhea. Atropine is antidotal. 2-PAM may be effective as an adjunct to atropine. Call your local Poison Control Center for further information.”
Carbamates are listed on ingredient labels as carbaryl or propoxur. In September 2010, carbaryl was banned from inclusion in any flea or tick products, but products already on store shelves are still permitted to be sold.
Pyrethroid Spot-On Treatments
Permethrin is a pyrethoid insecticide. Just as it is on OPs and carbamates, the EPA risk assigned to permethrin is that it is “likely to be carcinogenic to humans.” Of course this leads me to believe that translates to our sensitive furry family members too, yet permethrin and pyrethroid insecticides are approved for use on pets’ skin.
While EPA approved, over-the counter pyrethroid spot-on treatments are consistently reported to the EPA to be the cause of deaths, seizures, brain and heart damage, the EPA continues to grant approval. This is partly because they contend that many reports come from pet guardians, not trained toxicologists, so proof is not solid. Hmmm…
For a deeper look at these risks, including why the EPA continues to approve the dips, powders, sprays, collars etc. which use permethrin as flea and tick control and why we find the facts so concerning, the NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council) filed a report over ten years ago which is particularly readable and informative. You can read it here: http://www.nrdc.org/health/effects/pets/execsum.asp
The danger signs to watch for in pets who have been overexposed to poisons found in flea and tick treatments include skin rashes, hiding (avoiding people and other animals), shivering or tremors, excess salivating, dilated pupils and vomiting. A trip to your veterinarian is in order immediately. Also, when your pet has been treated for any emergency associated with these products, please call the EPA’s National Pesticide Telecommunications Network at 800-858-7378.
The NRDC’s Green Paws page has an excellent list of many OTC flea and tick control products along with their ingredients and a risk assessment. Here’s the link: http://www.simplesteps.org/greenpaws-products
My take on this is that if it’s cheap and you found it at your local big-box-mart or at the grocery store, you are likely going to find these pesticides in your flea and tick control product.
Prescription Oral Flea and Tick control Products
These are safer, since they do not need to be applied directly to your pet’s skin. They do contain pesticides though, and in some cases can cause significant danger and allergic reaction in pets. If you live in an area where infestations are unbearable, your veterinarian may advise using one of these safer once-a-month oral medications.
Topical Sprays Made With Essential Oils
While pesticide-free and much safer than chemical pest control, care still needs to be taken when using essential oil preparations to combat fleas and ticks. Always use a formula designed specifically for pets, and make sure the oils are natural and organic, not synthetic. Cats, in particular, are highly sensitive to essential oils – so make sure the formulation you choose is safe for cats before using. Some people advise not to use essential oils with cats EVER: this is because over time, accumulation can become toxic. We have seen a few carefully formulated and diluted sprays which can be used safely. In fact, we work with a holistic veterinarian who makes one for our company. But even with these safe and natural sprays, care must be taken. Remember that although herbs are “natural”, they can be potent antagonists also! It is also important that you never spray essential oil flea and tick preparations in the eyes, face or on genitals of your pet. Never EVER use pennyroyal oil on pets, as it can cause serious neurological damage. Oils like peppermint, cedar, clove, and lemongrass are safest but still need to be used wisely. Lemon eucalyptus oil does a tremendous job of killing fungus and repelling mosquitoes, but as with all essential oils, should only be used on pets if formulated specifically for them.
Bonus: Herbal sprays can be used with oral flea and tick control methods quite nicely for extra protection. More often than not, they can also be used for humans. Sharing is caring, after all.
Food Grade Diatomaceous Earth
Food grade diatomaceous earth (that’s a mouthful. let’s just call it DE, shall we?) works by dehydrating fleas and ticks that come in contact with it, usually in anywhere from one to 72 hours. It is not poisonous to pets. It is important that you choose food-grade for pets. DE can be sprinkled in your home and on your pets. Don’t forget to sprinkle on their beds, too. It can be used outside in any area where fleas frequent. The catch is that if the area treated (and this includes your pet) gets wet, the area needs to be retreated.
Yes. Parasitic nematodes. Steinernema carpocapse nematodes to be exact. These are not the same nematodes which wreak havoc on plants and can attach themselves to people and pets. Parasitic nematodes’ destructive ways are limited to only certain insects and have been reported to be incredibly effective in controlling fleas in soil and lawns which regularly get wet. Unlike DE, they will survive wet conditions. They are easy to apply (most can be sprayed with a garden sprayer) and are affordable.
Nutritional Yeast and Garlic
Nutritional (or Brewer’s) yeast and garlic work by making pets’ blood taste awful to fleas. Many companies offer pet-safe formulations in tablet form, or you can add them yourself. I buy nutritional yeast in the bulk foods section of my local natural grocer. Take special care with garlic and pets, especially in cats, as it can be toxic. I would avoid adding it unless fleas are unresponsive to yeast, and only then after discussing garlic safety with an animal health professional. If you want to try using nutritional or brewer’s yeast, start by adding about a teaspoon of brewer’s yeast to food for cats and small dogs, and about a tablespoon for large dogs. Watch for an allergic reaction and stomach upset before adding anything else. Most pets actually like the way it tastes.
So What’s Best For My Pet?
I won’t sit here in relatively benign Colorado and tell you that what works here for my furry family will be the same solution for your furry family in Florida, California or wherever you may live. What I hope you gained from this article is a better understanding of the need for flea control and also the very real risks associated with the treatment options most readily available. I hope that you will take a good look at your pet’s nutrition and that you will consider using natural alternatives to chemicals first. Keep in mind that the risks and discomfort associated with fleas and ticks are greater than not treating for them at all, so learn what you can – and ask a lot of questions. Your pets will thank you!