The phrase “flea and tick” strikes an itchy chord among many dog parents. These pesky parasites are a nuisance for both pets and people. They don’t just cause itching and scratching—fleas and ticks can spread a range of illnesses and infections that can make dogs and other family members sick.
The good news is that there are plenty of flea and tick control products for dogs out there to combat these parasites and even prevent infestations. That being said, it’s not uncommon for dog parents to express concerns about the types of chemicals used in these products and potential side effects they may cause.
This has led some pet parents to search for natural flea and tick prevention for dogs. The question is, do natural remedies work when it comes to external parasites? Well, let’s take a look.
Flea and Tick Prevention for Dogs: Why It’s Important
Before we get into natural flea and tick treatment for dogs, let’s take a brief look at where dogs pick up these parasites and why it’s so vital to keep fleas and ticks at bay.
Fleas and ticks like to hang out in shady, moist areas, such as tall grass, shrubs, weeds, and wood and leaf piles. Inside the home, fleas can lurk in carpet, furniture, and cracks and crevices. Dogs can pick up fleas and ticks simply by getting close to these parasites, whether in the house, in the yard, at the park, or from other animals who already have them.
Once these parasites find a host, they feed on the animal’s blood. In doing so, they can transmit dangerous diseases. Ticks can carry Lyme disease, anaplasmosis, ehrlichiosis, and Rocky Mountain spotted fever, and dogs can get tapeworms from ingesting an infected flea.
If not properly addressed, fleas on dogs can jump onto other family pets and even people, putting them at risk for illness too.
Are Conventional Flea and Tick Products Safe?
Keeping dogs away from grassy and wooded areas where fleas and ticks live is one way to avoid interacting with these parasites. There are also natural ways to discourage fleas and ticks from finding your yard or home habitable (more on this to come). But dogs are gonna dog—sniff around, dig stuff up, play in the weeds, meet other animals—so this plan isn’t foolproof.
A more practical way to protect your pet is to use products that kill or repel fleas and ticks. The American Animal Hospital Association and the American Veterinary Medical Association recommend year-round prevention. Flea and tick control products for dogs come in a variety of forms, including oral medications, topicals, collars, and shampoos. Some require a prescription, while others are available over the counter.
- Oral products, like the prescription-only chewable Bravecto, enter a dog’s bloodstream and are rapidly distributed to tissue fluids under the skin. When a parasite tries to take a blood meal, they take in Bravecto’s active ingredient, fluralaner, and die rapidly.
- Topical solutions work in two main ways: 1) They get absorbed into the bloodstream and redistributed to the tissue fluids under the skin, or 2) They spread via the body’s natural oils.
- Flea and tick collars for dogs, such as Seresto, slowly distribute active ingredients (like imidacloprid and flumethrin) across the pet’s body.
While these products may effectively kill or repel fleas and ticks, some dog parents worry about whether the chemicals they contain are harmful to their dog, other household pets, or children.
According to the FDA, there have been a limited number of reports of flea and tick products in the isoxazoline class of parasiticides being associated with neurological side effects, such as muscle tremors and seizures, in dogs and cats (1). Overall, the FDA still considers these products to be safe for use in most dogs.
Seresto collars made news in 2021 after the federal government examined reports from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regarding potential adverse reactions to the collars. Veterinary experts mostly agree that the collars are safe when used appropriately. Similarly, while some dog parents might blanch at giving their pups a chewable containing an insecticide like fluralaner, the general consensus among veterinarians is that these chewables can be safely used in most pets.
Dr. M. Blake Murray, assistant professor in primary care at the Oklahoma State University College of Veterinary Medicine and chief of staff at Banfield Pet Hospital in North Oklahoma City, says he is “very comfortable with the safety of our currently available prescription medications,” especially given the consequences of the diseases that flea and tick control products aim to curb.
That doesn’t mean there is zero risk—it means the benefits outweigh the potential risks. “It would be irresponsible to say that every prescription medication will be 100 percent risk-free for use in every patient,” Dr. Murray says. “Often in medicine we are making recommendations based on management of risks.”
Dr. Clay Bernard, a holistic vet in Austin, Texas, says he isn’t against using conventional flea and tick products, he just prefers not to use them regularly. “I’d rather use these medications if needed and only a month at a time, since some pet guardians ultimately do a great job with environmental management and diligently keeping fleas off their pet,” Dr. Bernard says.
Does Natural Flea and Tick Prevention for Dogs Exist?
With prevention being the best medicine, it’s no surprise that there are plenty of DIY recipes and products for pets on the market that claim to naturally combat fleas and ticks. You’ll find collars, sprays, wipes, and shampoos that tout natural ingredients like essential oils, neem oil, vinegar, and citrus. However, while essential oils and neem oil may help, they can’t solve flea and tick problems. In other words, they help repel pests, not kill them.
Veterinarians mostly advise against using natural flea and tick repellents made from essential oils or neem as the only means of protection for pets. The effectiveness of these products has not been established, Dr. Murray adds.
“There certainly are lots of natural flea and tick repellents on the market,” he says. “I make recommendations for my patients based on peer reviewed studies that evaluate the safety and efficacy of products. Currently, I am unable to find any such studies that support the efficacy of natural flea/tick repellents. As such, I cannot make a recommendation for a natural repellent and trust that it will work.”
Before you decide to purchase a natural flea and tick collar or whip up a natural flea and tick spray for dogs, it’s best to talk to your vet first. With all that in mind, here is a closer look at some commonly used natural remedies for fleas and ticks on dogs.
Essential oils, like citronella and peppermint, are a mainstay of natural dog flea and tick collars and natural flea and tick sprays for dogs. These types of oils may act as repellants by blocking odors that attract insects like fleas and ticks, making it harder for them to find their host (2).
There is some science to back up the idea that essential oils can work as flea and tick repellents. A 2017 study comparing the effectiveness of certain essential oils to that of DEET and permethrin found that “all oils were found to be more repellent than DEET and permethrin,” with thyme and myrtle oils being the most effective (3). However, it’s important to point out that this study was performed on humans, not dogs. It is also important to note that while thyme is safe for dogs, myrtle is not.
A number of essential oils like tea tree oil can be toxic to dogs and/or cats when inhaled or ingested, especially if they are not diluted properly. “There are studies that demonstrate adverse reactions to pets exposed to essential oils,” Dr. Murray says. He points to one study in particular that found that “dogs and cats can experience significant adverse effects when exposed to plant-derived flea preventatives.” (4)
If you’re considering purchasing a flea and tick product with essential oils, make sure the company is reputable. Pet parents should not apply essential oils to their pet unless they are working in partnership with a veterinarian.
Perhaps the most talked-about natural pest repellent for dogs is neem oil, also known as Margosa oil. It is a vegetable oil, not an essential oil. Neem oil is prized for its pest-repelling qualities in agriculture. People use it as a skin lotion, and natural-minded pet parents have turned to neem oil to help keep fleas and mosquitoes away.
Aside from repelling fleas, neem can affect the feeding behavior of fleas and disrupt their growth and development (5).
As with essential oils, neem oil must be diluted before application, so consult with your veterinarian first. When used properly, neem oil can be helpful as a natural alternative to conventional products, but it is best when used alongside products that treat the environment (more on this next).
Cedarwood and Diatomaceous Earth
To help keep fleas and ticks at bay, it’s important to treat your pet and their indoor and outdoor environment. Natural pest control products for the yard and home include cedarwood and diatomaceous earth.
According to the USDA, cedarwood can be as effective as DEET in repelling fleas and ticks, without being derived from petroleum (6). Fleas and ticks dislike the smell of cedarwood, and it’s non-toxic to dogs and cats. This makes cedarwood chips around the yard especially attractive as a repellent.
Food-grade diatomaceous earth is another popular option for dog parents seeking natural pest control methods for their homes and yards. It is essentially the powdered remains of fossilized, single-cell algae. It’s a common all-natural repellent that most insects—especially fleas and roaches—prefer to stay clear of. It works by caking onto the bodies of insects and essentially suffocating them.
Dr. Bernard says diatomaceous earth and beneficial nematodes are good natural preventatives that are especially troublesome for fleas in their development phase. “Since managing the egg and larval stages in the environment is 95 percent of any flea control regimen in high-burden areas of the country, diatomaceous earth and beneficial nematodes are key,” he says. “Diatomaceous earth can be likened to shards of glass that lyse (break down) the eggs and larva as they hatch. Nematodes [used as pest control] are microscopic organisms that live naturally in the soil and feed on the larval and nymph stages of fleas.”
However, there is no reliable data showing diatomaceous earth is useful for flea control inside the home. And when applied outdoors, diatomaceous earth (remember, it’s a powder) can easily be blown or washed away. There’s also the potential for respiratory trouble in pets.
“Diatomaceous earth itself is not apparently toxic to dogs when ingested,” Dr. Murray says. “However, it has the potential to cause ocular or respiratory irritation if applied directly to a pet. If you are going to use it, I would recommend reserving the use of diatomaceous earth to the environment when pets aren’t present.”
Safety and Things to Consider
While there is a bevy of natural alternatives to traditional flea and tick control products for dogs, the effectiveness of these products is questionable and, if misused, these products can be harmful to your dog. Essential oils can irritate your dog’s skin and some oils can be toxic if ingested when your dog is grooming themselves.
Veterinarians generally recommend that natural flea and tick alternatives for dogs be used in conjunction with conventional methods of parasite control. Always talk to your veterinarian before applying anything new to your dog’s skin or fur.
One safe and effective method to check for fleas and ticks is a flea comb. Flea combs will catch on ticks and scoop up flea eggs in your dog’s fur. Dr. Bernard recommends using a flea comb two or three times a week.
As with anything related to your dog’s health, talking to a vet first is always good practice before you decide on a course of action.