If you’ve ever had to pull a fully engorged tick out of the folds of skin behind your dog’s ear, you know that keeping the tiny pests at bay is a battle, even in the best of times. Tick season used to be a spring and summer thing, and depending where you live, you’d get a break come late fall. But now it’s year-round as warmer winters haven’t killed ticks off and have led to an increase in the deer, mice, and other rodents that ticks love to bury their Lyme disease–carrying heads in. If unprotected and bitten by a tick, dogs can contract lots of nasty illnesses, like canine ehrlichiosis, canine anaplasmosis, and Rocky Mountain spotted fever. And just because a tick starts off on your dog doesn’t mean it won’t end up catching a ride into your living room and burrowing its way into your thigh while you rewatch Schitt’s Creek on the couch. So protecting your dog from ticks also protects you and your family.
But what are the most effective kinds of tick prevention and how do you know what’s right for your dog? We asked five veterinarians and an entomologist for answers. They all stressed the importance of regular tick checks, especially if you take your dog hiking, play in areas with a lot of tall grass, or live in the prime tick country of the Northeast. Veterinarian Dr. Jennifer Coates, who serves on the advisory board for Pup Life Today, says, “Run your hands through your dog’s fur against the direction it normally lays. This allows you to see down to the skin, even on very furry dogs.” Veterinarian, and co-founder of the dog-food brand Sundays, Dr. Tory Waxman, says daily tick checks will also help you get to know the normal feel of your dog’s skin, making you more likely to notice any abnormal lumps or bumps that might be ticks. Dr. Leslie Brooks, vet advisor for Better Pet, recommends paying close attention to your pet’s face, ears, belly, groin, and feet. If you find any ticks, she says, remove them right away.
If, after a tick bite, your dog displays any of the following warning symptoms: joint pain, limping or lameness, swollen lymph nodes, fever, lethargy, or decreased appetite, then Potzler says to speak to your vet as soon as possible, as tick-borne illnesses can be fatal. Although checking for ticks and removing them within 48 hours of a bite is essential, ticks can be tiny and easy to miss. (Deer ticks that carry Lyme disease are often as small as a poppy seed.) That’s why most veterinarians, including the five we spoke to, recommend treating your dog with tick prevention medication, either as a chewable pill, topical medication, or wearable collar.
Best Oral Tick Preventatives
Tick prevention medications are poisonous to insects but not harmful to mammals. They absorb into a dog’s bloodstream and then the tissue fluids just under their skin, where it’s transferred to any biting ticks, which then become dead ticks.
One benefit of oral options is that they prevent future infestations. They’re also cleaner: “There’s no greasy feel or ‘Don’t pet your dog for a few days’ because there’s no topical material on your dog,” says Waxman. All of our experts agree that you should stick to newer classes medication, since ticks can become resistant to certain chemicals over time. According to Dr. Jamie Richardson of Small Door Veterinary in NYC, “Frontline has been around for 25 years now, and it’s not as effective as it was when it first hit the market. It definitely works for some, but not for all.” Because they are prescription medication, finding the best one for your dog should always start with a conversation with your vet about your dog’s lifestyle and medical history. (For instance, some oral tick preventatives, including the ones mentioned below, are not recommended for dogs with a history of uncontrolled seizures.)
Bravecto was mentioned by all of the vets we talked to (including Waxman, who uses Bravecto chewables on her own dog) because it comes as both a topical and an oral medication and protects dogs from ticks and fleas for three months at a time, as opposed to one month at a time. Bravecto starts killing embedded ticks in as little as 12 hours and fleas in as little as 2 hours. The chewable tablets are meat flavored, so you won’t have to hide any pills in peanut butter or cheese, and it’s available in different sizes for dogs from 4.4 to 123 pounds. Most clinics will carry Bravecto, but you can also order it online with a prescription from a veterinarian.
Nexgard was also recommended by all of the vets we spoke to, including Sakura Davis, a veterinary technician and consultant who prefers it over other oral preventatives and calls it “the most effective prescription medication for ticks.” Nexgard claims to kill or control black-legged ticks, American dog ticks, Lone Star ticks, and brown dog ticks, which accounts for the majority of ticks that dogs in the U.S. will encounter. Each dose lasts for one month (as opposed to Bravecto’s three), which could be useful for mostly indoor dogs and their owners planning to spend a limited amount of time vacationing in the great outdoors.
Simparica Trio kills the same ticks Nexgard protects against and also protects your dog from heartworms, hookworms, and roundworms. Waxman and Brooks both recommend it. Like Nexgard, Simparica needs to be given to your dog every month. It’s available for dogs from 2.8 pounds all the way up to 132 pounds.
[Editor’s note: After hearing from a concerned reader, we reached out to Richardson for more information about potential side effects of Bravecto, NexGard, and Simparica Trio. Richardson, whose own dog takes NexGard, says that these oral medications can carry a risk of seizures — but it is rare, and the risk is greater in dogs with a previous history of seizures. In her view, the benefits of these medications far outweigh the risks: “In my 11 years as a vet, I have treated probably thousands of dogs with severe and sometimes life threatening tick-borne diseases, but I have never treated any dogs with the side effects known to these medications.”]
Best Topical Tick Preventative
Richardson recommends topical treatments for dogs with gastrointestinal issues: “If, when they eat anything out of the ordinary, they have a tendency to vomit, then the oral is probably not the best product for them.” Another reason to reach for a topical treatment is that they tend to repel ticks better than the oral medications. According to Waxman, “The ticks jump on, the dog has this stuff they don’t like all over their skin, and the tick jumps off,” she says. The dog doesn’t actually get bitten, and those ticks and fleas don’t get brought into your house.
There are a ton of topical tick repellents on the market, many of which are sold over the counter. But while you may save some money (or think the all natural spray you saw at the pet store looks safer), you should always discuss the ingredients with your vet beforehand. Richardson says “some over-the-counter products have been associated with pretty nasty side effects.” And when it comes to natural alternatives to flea and tick prevention, both Richardson and Waxman are wary: “A lot of people use tea tree oil, but it actually can be pretty poisonous to dogs,” says Waxman, noting that essential oil and OTC products are not as well regulated as prescription products.
K9 Advantix can actually kill insects on contact. Waxman recommends it because it repels ticks and fleas, along with mosquitos, biting flies, and lice. It uses a different class of drug than Bravecto and the other oral preventatives, so it’s a good choice for dogs with a history of uncontrolled seizures. It’s available for dogs who weigh as little as 4 pounds.
Like the oral version, Bravecto topical treatment uses the same active ingredient and protects your dog for three months at a time.
Best Tick Collar
For some pet owners, especially those who live in particularly dense tick areas, the vets we talked to recommended adding a tick collar to their dog’s treatment, though you should always consult with your veterinarian before doubling up on tick preventatives.
Davis likes Seresto because it’s a cost-effective OTC option that kills fleas and ticks for up to eight months, which, as Coates points out, makes it a great option for owners who have trouble remembering to give monthly treatments. Plus, it’s water resistant and comes in two sizes. Waxman calls the Seresto collar “awesome” and says that it’s nothing like old collars, which were “greasy and disgusting.”
How to get rid of ticks on your property
If you live somewhere with a backyard, you will also want to reduce the number of ticks (and mice) on your property. Marc Potzler, entomologist and technical services manager for Ehrlich Pest Control, advises hiring a pest management company to treat your lawn and target all of the tick’s favorite spots. “Keeping your property tidy will help too,” he says. “Ticks are frequently found on the ends of branches and overgrown vegetation, waiting for the next host to walk by.” So clear away any dead branches, grass clippings, or piles of leaves, and keep your lawn cut short.
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