This step-by-step guide can help keep your furry friends free of tick-borne disease
For many of us, summertime means spending happy hours outdoors: hiking, running, walking in the woods. But even if you remember to wear insect repellent and regularly check yourself for ticks, it’s easy to forget that your pets are vulnerable to these sneaky critters, too.
Ticks prefer moist, wooded, and shady hiding places such as tall grass, brush, and shrubs, and they can lurk in decidedly non-wild places too, like your backyard. In order to survive, they feed off the blood of humans and animals.
After a tick bite, your cat or dog could develop a serious illness such as Lyme disease (which can cause symptoms such as an abnormal gait or stance, fever, lethargy, and enlarged lymph nodes); Cytauxzoonosis (a parasitic infection specific to cats which can cause difficulty breathing, fever, loss of appetite, jaundice, coma and death); skin irritation or infection at the site of the wound; and other complications, according to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA).
There isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach to protecting your pets from ticks, but there are ways to minimize their chances of picking one up. (If your pet does get Lyme, treatment usually involves several weeks of antibiotics.)
Here are three strategies to help keep your dog or cat tick-free.
Check Your Pet Daily
If you live in or are visiting an area that’s particularly vulnerable to ticks (check the CDC’s website if you’re not sure), one of your best defenses is to inspect your pet daily, says Lori Bierbrier, D.V.M., a veterinarian and medical director of the Community Medicine program at the ASPCA.
“Just having the tick walking on your pet is not dangerous,” she says, “it's when the tick attaches and feeds for a long period of time, over a day or two—that's when parasites can be transmitted.”
Pets with longer hair or fur may be particularly likely to pick up a tick, says Martine Hartogensis, D.V.M., deputy director of the Office of Surveillance and Compliance in the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) Center for Veterinary Medicine, because it provides the critters with more surface area to latch onto and more places to hide.
If you have a dog, dedicate a few minutes each day to brushing or combing, and run your hands through his or her fur.
Cats are vulnerable too, though typically less so than dogs, says Hartogensis, since they are regular groomers. But you should still give yours a daily once-over, especially if he/she like to play outdoors. Starting at the head, run your fingers like a comb over the cat's entire body.
Ticks prefer dark, moist places, so for both cats and dogs, make sure to inspect under their tail and around the anus, belly, face, ears, groin, “armpits,” and between the toes. If your pet is particularly squirmy, you may need a partner to help hold your pet steady.
Tickproof Your Yard
“If your only method of tick prevention is just checking the dog,” says Hartogensis, that's not enough. You’ll need a multi-pronged approach.
Minor adjustments to your yard, such as keeping tall grass and weeds trimmed, clearing leaf piles, and making a tick trap by using a “bait box” can make a big difference in keeping tick populations down. You can try tickproofing your yard without chemicals, and there are also several approved pesticides that you can spray—but those come with risks. (For more on the pros and cons of spraying your yard, see our past coverage here.)
A fence around your yard that effectively keeps out wildlife that can spread ticks, such as deer, may also help.
There are several Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)- and FDA-approved products, such as pesticides (which kill ticks), tick repellents (which keep ticks away), and a Lyme vaccine for dogs—but there are pros and cons associated with each. (Consumer Reports has not tested these products.)
Pesticides (such as fipronil, pyrethroids, and amitraz) come in the form of medicated dusts, collars, sprays, shampoos, and other topical or oral treatments. They kill ticks either via direct contact with the animal’s fur or skin, or in the case of oral medications, via contact with your pet’s blood. “The tick is still going to bite,” says Bierbrier, and that bite could lead to a skin infection, “but [the tick] will be killed before it can transmit any of the disease-causing organisms.”
Several decades ago, Consumer Reports urged the FDA to remove DDVP, a pesticide found in some flea collars and no-pest strips, from the market entirely, says Consumer Reports’ senior scientist Michael Hansen, Ph.D. But you can still find it in many products. While it’s not an ingredient in many of the more popular tick medications for pets, such as Advantage II, Frontline Plus, K9 Advantix II, and Revolution, you should make sure to read labels carefully if you want to avoid it.
With some of these pesticides, Hansen warns, “there could be some transfer to kids who have a lot of contact with their pets.”
According to a 2012 statement from the American Academy of Pediatrics, the evidence of whether childhood exposures to low levels of pesticides can be harmful is still emerging, but some data suggest these exposures may be associated with cognitive and behavioral problems, as well as with pediatric cancers.
Repellent products, such as those made with permethrin, are designed to discourage ticks from hopping onto your pet to begin with. But since they don’t actually kill any pests, they won’t do anything to reduce the number of ticks in and around your house.
Permethrin can be toxic, however, so while small quantities are considered safe for dogs, it should never be used on cats—it can be very harmful to them.
The Lyme vaccine for dogs appears to be safe, but experts aren’t yet sold on its effectiveness—and it's best when paired with a repellent or a pesticide, says Thomas Mather, Ph.D., of the University of Rhode Island.
Part of the problem is that many dogs, especially in high-tick areas, have already been exposed to Lyme—often without showing any symptoms—and data suggest that the vaccine works best on dogs who have not been exposed yet. Your dog should be tested for Lyme disease before receiving the vaccine.
Reactions to the shot can include hives, itchiness, and facial and injection site swelling. Vets typically only administer it to dogs in high-risk areas, or if their owners specifically ask for it.