Best tick prevention is to avoid tick territory during the tick season.
However, this is quite different depending on whether you live in a temperate region (Northern USA or Canada, most of Europe, etc.) or in a tropical or subtropical region (Southerm USA, Australia, South Africa, etc.).
In temperate regions ticks that may bite pets are abundant mainly in and around woods during spring, summer and early fall, particularly if wildlife that supports them (e.g. deer) is abundant. As a general rule, ticks are found in the vegetation, not along roads, tracks or paths. However, it is difficult to keep a dog away from the vegetation during a walk in such places.
In tropical and subtropical regions ticks can be found almost everywhere outdoors during most of the year, but more during the rainy season. They can be particularly abundant in catte farms, especially where livestock tends to congregate (shadow trees in paddocks, around drinking troughs, etc). A dog visiting such places may catch dozens or even hundreds of ticks.
Finding ticks on dogs or cats and removing them
Once a tick has found a host, it does not bite and attach immediately but will crawl around the hair coat searching a adequate place to bite, e.g. where the skin is softer, or warmer, etc. Ticks crawl around for up to several hours until they find a suitable place. Many tick species have preferential sites for biting: in or around the face, between the legs, in the ears, on the neck, below the tail, in skin folds, etc. This means that when a pet has got ticks during a walk outdoors and comes home, some ticks may still be crawling around, while other ticks have already attached and started their blood meal.
It is important to know that tick bites are usually neithert itchy, nor painful, i.e. if your pet does not unusually scratch or lick itself, it does not mean that it is free of ticks. If it scratches intensively, it is more likely to have fleas, mites or lice.
How to inspect a pet for ticks
To remove ticks that have not yet attached, the best is to use a fine flea comb and comb the whole haircoat repeatedly. However, such combs will remove only hungry adult ticks and perhaps nymphs or certain large species. Other nymphs and larvae are just too small for the comb. Whatever ticks are removed they must be immediately killed, because they can easily infest and bite someone else, including humans. They will not spontaneously change the host by their own initiative, but if you remove them from the pet and dump them in the backyard, they will remain there waiting for a host to pass by, and they can survive for months! Best for killing them is to put them in alcohol, petrol or another organic solvent, burning them, or piercing them with a pin. Squeezing is usually not effective because ticks are very tough and flexible, like leather. Dumping them in the toilet or in a garbage bin won't kill them.
To inspect a pet for already attached ticks you have to open the hair coat and patiently look for ticks and/or thoroughly feel the body surface for any lumps under the hair, better against the nap. Pay close attention to the ears, around face and the eyes, on the legs, between the toes, etc. However, most likely you will not find those ticks that have attached shortly before, but only those that have already engorged a little bit, i.e. that have been sucking blood for a few hours.
If you find 2 to 3 attached ticks, you can try removing them by hand. If you find dozens of ticks, it's better to treat the pet with a tickicide, because the more ticks you find on your pet, the more ticks you will miss that will remain attached.
Removing ticks one by one
There are conflicting opinions regarding the easiest and safest way of removing ticks from pets (or humans). Some people recommend to spread oil, butter, petrol, alcohol, nail polish, terpentine, etc. over the tick and wait until it detaches. Others may even approach a burning cigarette to the ticks to frighten them off. The risk of this approach is that the tick may remain attached too long before detaching, or it can be irritated and inject more saliva, or it may die but remain attached.
Others recommend to spread nothing over the tick, but to grasp it directly (perhaps with thin gloves if your are or could be allergic to ticks) as close to the mouthparts (i.e. to the pet's skin) as possible. Then pull very firmly, because the tick mouthparts are often very strongly anchored in the pet's skin. You may use a specific tool such as tick tweezers, scoops, hooks, loops, etc. One risk of this operation is that while firmly grasping the tick, part of its gut content may be injected into the pet. To avoid it pull firmly but gently and straight, without twisting or squeezing the tick. Another risk is that the tick "head" breaks, the mouthparts remain embedded in the skin, and the injury becomes infected. In most cases this is not a problem: the mouthparts will be eventually sloughed like a splinter. After removal the attachment site should be disinfected.
Removed ticks should be brought to a veterinarian for determining the species, either preserved (and killed) in an organic solvent (e.g. alcohol) or in an airtight container. Remember that engorged adult females, if alive, will start laying thousands of eggs a few days later. If you dump the ticks in the backyard, these eggs will produce thousands of infective larvae! If they belong to the brown dog tick (Rhipicephalus sanguineus) they can become an indoor pest too!
There is very little risk of direct harm to the person that removes the ticks, unless he/she is allergic to ticks, which can happen after repeated contact with them. This is why using gloves is advisable, especially for nurses or veterinarians that come often in contact with ticks in endemic regions. Otherwise attached ticks that are removed won't bite back or be otherwise poisonous or contagious.
Natural tickicides & repellents for dogs and cats?
Unfortunately natural tickicides (e.g. essential oils from certain plants, numerous products with natural tickicides) can repel or kill some ticks, but they will not be sufficient to keep a pet free of ticks in highly infested environments.
Repellents do not kill the parasites but keep them away from their hosts. Most commercial repellents against insects and/or ticks are for human use. Besides those repellents based on synthetic chemicals (e.g. DEET) with repellent effect, other contain so-called natural products (e.g. pyrethrins, essential oils, plant extracts, etc.). There are such products for pets too. But the repellent effect of most of these products targets mosquitoes and to some extent certain fly species, but are rather weak against ticks.
Some chemical parasiticides that kill ticks have also a certain repelling effect, e.g. synthetic pyrethroids (cypermethrin, deltamethrin, permethrin) and amitraz. They are often used in spot-ons, collars, soaps, shampoos, etc. However, the repellent effect of such chemicals is usually insufficient to protect pets against ticks.
- Click here to learn more about natural tickides (azadirachtin, d-limonene, geraniol, linalool, pyrethrins, etc.) in this site.
- Click here to learn more about chemical repellents in this site.
Homemade traditional remedies against ticks on dog and cat
There are numerous homemade remedies against ticks, most of them based on traditional recipes using locally available herbs or other natural products. They are the result of centuries of efforts for finding relief against ticks when modern insecticides were not available.
The bottom line is that no such remedies are as effective as modern synthetic pesticides. They may bring partial relief for a few hours, maybe a few days, but certainly not week or month-long protection. Such products are usually substantially less effective against ticks than synthetic tickicides. Besides being less effective, many of them have a very short residual effect, i.e. they protect no more than a few hours to a few days against re-infestation. The reason is that they are easily washed away by water (rain, washing, swimming, etc.) or broken down by sunlight, or they simply evaporate very quickly.
There are numerous Internet sites with a lot of homemade remedies and recommendations, but almost none of them are supported by reliable investigations. Nevertheless, it may be worth trying them: usually they are not expensive and the risk of serious side effects is usually not too high. Many such remedies are based on do-it-yourself recipes based on plant extracts or products (citronella oil, neem, rosemary, lavender, lemon balm, etc.). Try them. If they work, fine. If they don't, you will never know whether the recipe is useless or whether you did something wrong. But it doesn't matter: just try another one.
It is good to know that in most countries products containing such "natural parasiticides" (e.g. plant extracts) are submitted to much less stringent regulations than veterinary parasiticides. This means that they don't need to proof their efficacy against parasites, or their safety for the pets, users and the environment through such strict and thorough investigations as the products containing synthetic parasiticides. Many regulatory authorities seem to simply assume that being natural they are "safe enough", or at least not harmful, and that users will find out themselves whether they are effective or not... Obviously, the cost and the know-how to develop and market such "natural products" are substantially lower than for veterinary medicines containing synthetic parasiticides. This low cost explains their proliferation. It is not possible to deal with such products here in detail.
BUT: when dealing with plant remedies, especially self-made ones, it is good to know that the active components in herbs are also chemicals, i.e. specific molecules that have a biological effect, in this case a tick killing or repelling effect. They have been naturally synthesized in the plants. But this says nothing about the safety of such chemicals. It is wrong and dangerous to believe that something is safe because it is natural! The most potent poisons known are often natural, i.e. of plant or animal origin. And by the way, many such "natural chemicals" are also manufactured industrially and used in numberless so-called "natural" or "biological" products".
In the following a selection of medicinal plants with some reported efficacy against ticks is listed:
- Allium sativum (Garlic). Onions and leaves contain alliin and allicin. In some regions it is used against lice. It is also recommended as a pet food capable of repelling ticks. It also shows efficacy against Ascarid roundworms and certain lungworms, but only as a preventative, because it does not prevent egg production by the worms in the intestine of the host, but only egg hatching in the host's feces. The anthelmintic effect seems to be due to its high sulfur content. It is used locally, mixed with other herbs. It can be mixed with food as fresh garlic or powdered. There are also garlic pills: 2 to 4 can be enough for lambs. For dairy animals it is recommended to administer it after milking, otherwise the milk will get garlic taste.
- Azadirachta indica (Neem, Nimm, Bevu, etc.) is a tree native to the Indian subcontinent. Nowadays it is found worldwide in tropical and sub-tropical regions. It contains azadirachtin, a vastly used biopesticide. Water and alcoholic extracts have shown promising efficacy against various ticks (e.g. Boophilus, Amblyomma, and Rhipicephalus) in field trials. In certain countries there are already commercial neem products for use on livestock. For domestic use, neem oil has a repellent effect against flies and other insects. It seems that it also works against mange mites. To get the oil, barked seeds are grinded to obtain a brown and sticky powder. This powder is mixed with water and the resulting paste is pressed to slowly obtain the oil. The leaves (preferably adult ones after fruiting) can also be left to soak in water for a few days. Efficacy of neem against parasitic worms is controversial: some reports confirm it; most studies do not.
- Chrysanthemum cinerariaefolium (Daisies, Mums, Chrysants, Xants) is a perennial flowering plant native to Asia and Southeast Europe, nowadays cultivated worldwide. They are vastly used as ornamentals and for the production of natural pyrethrins, the most widely used natural insecticides. Pyrethrins are effective against numerous insects, ticks and mites.
- Citrus maxima (Pomelo) and Citrus reticulata (Mandarine) are citrus trees native to Asia nowadays grown worldwide in regions with tropical or moderate climate. The peel is very rich in D-limonene. In laboratory studies peel extracts showed promising efficacy against adult Boophilus ticks. D-limonene is widely used as insect repellent in numerous OTC pet products.
- Cymbopogon nardus and Cymbopogon winterianus (Barbed Wire Grass, Citronella Grass, Lemon Grass, etc.) are perennial grasses native to Asia, nowadays found worldwide in regions with tropical and temperate climate. The oil contains citronellal, geraniol, D-limonene, camphene, etc. The oil or single chemicals are widely used as insect repellents in numerous OTC products (shampoos, sprays, lotions, dusts, etc.) for pets.
- Gynandropsis (=Cleome) gynandra (Spider Flower, Apoi-Apoian, etc.) is an annual herbaceous plant. The seeds seem to have insecticidal properties against myiases, ticks, lice and mites. Alcoholic extracts of stems and leaves showed efficacy against flukes (Fasciola hepatica) and tapeworms (Taenia solium).
- Juglans nigra (Eastern Black Walnut) is a large tree native to Eastern USA, nowadays also cultivated in Europe and elsewhere. Contains juglone, which can be toxic to other plants and some animals. The water extract (soak leaves for a few hours in water and then boil them) applied topically to animals is said to repel flies. Grinded leaves scattered on the ground are said to keep ticks, lice, and mites off stables, kennels, piggeries, poultry houses, etc.
- Mammea americana (Mamey, Mammee, Mammee Apple, etc.) is a perennial tree native to tropical America, now cultivated in tropical Africa and Asia as well. Shavings or slices of half ripe fruits soaked in water allow pressing a greenish gummy fluid which seems to kill fleas, ticks, and lice. Seed powder topically applied to animals is said to have the same effect.
- Mentha pulegium (Pennyroyal, Mosquito Plant, Pudding Grass, Squaw Mint, etc.) is a perennial grass native to Europe now widespread in the whole world. Grinded dried leaves seem to work against fleas and ticks on domestic animals. The powder can be used for dusting the animals' hair coat or the resting places of pets or birds. The water extract can also be used for bathing pets. The essential oil was effective against red poultry mites (Dermanyssus gallinae) in laboratory trials. However, the essential oil should never be used on humans or pets because it is very toxic, even at very low levels.
- Origanum minutiflorum (Wild Origanum) is a perennial herb native to the Mediterranean and Eastern Asia, nowadays cultivated worldwide. The essential oil contains thymol and carvacrol, both chemicals with insecticidal properties. In laboratory studies it showed efficacy against ticks.
- Pimenta dioica (Jamaica Pepper, Myrtle Pepper, Newspice, Pimienta, etc.) is a perennial tree native to Central America and the Caribbean now grown in many tropical and subtropical regions. The fruits contain eugenol and caryophyllene, both with insecticidal activity against fleas, flies, ticks and mites.
- Rosmarinus officinalis (Rosemary) is a perennial herb native to the Mediterranean now cultivated worldwide. The essential oil contains several chemicals with insecticidal properties, e.g. camphor, eucalyptol and pinenes. Grinded leaves are said to repel fleas and ticks.
Tick vaccines for dogs and cats?
It has become quite usual among pet owners to talk about "tick vaccines" (and also flea vaccines...). Most people mean those products that are administered to pets at monthly or longer intervals to keep them free of ticks. These products are mostly spot-ons (also called pipettes, drops-ons, squeeze-ons, etc.) or tablets that provide such a protection.
Strictly speaking, such products are not vaccines but classic chemical pesticides. Vaccines contain antigens of specific pathogen organisms (viruses, bacteria, etc.) that activate the immune system of the vaccinated animal or person in order to produce antibodies against the pathogen organism. This means that vaccines stimulate the own defenses of the vaccinated organisms against pathogens. A few vaccines contain specific antibodies against specific pathogens, instead of antigens. What all current tick products do is simply killing the ticks through simple chemical "poisoning", not through natural antibodies, neither produced by the pet's own immune system, nor administered with a vaccine.
Summarizing, there are no true vaccines against ticks of dogs and cats. There are a few tick vaccines against cattle ticks, but they are useless against pet or human ticks. And it is unlikely that this changes in the near future.
Click here to learn more about true vaccines against veterinary parasites.
Biological control of ticks?
Biological control means controlling parasites using their natural enemies. There are no biological methods to control ticks on a pet other than picking them off by hand, if you consider humans as natural enemies of ticks.
In some countries entomopathogenic fungi have been tried for controlling ticks in parks and recreational areas highly infested with ticks because they are visited by wildlife (deer, foxes, rodents, etc.). Practical results have been rather modest so far.
Learn more about biological control of ticks and mites.
- Click here to view the article on CHEMICAL CONTROL of ticks in dogs and cats (spot-ons, collars, pills & chewables, injectables, shampoos, soaps, sprays, baths, powders, etc).
- Click here to learn the basics of tick biology in order to have a better chance to get rid of them. Knowing how ticks make their living (where they live, how they reproduce, how they behave, etc) will help you to choose the right tick control measures among the many options available.