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 but instead 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 protects you and your family from them, too.
But what are the most effective kinds of tick prevention and how do you know what’s right for your dog? We asked seven veterinarians and an entomologist for answers. Because ticks can be tiny and easy to miss — deer ticks that carry Lyme disease are often as small as poppy seed s— they all stressed the importance of performing regular tick checks in addition to whatever preventative treatments you might use, 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 the best way to check for ticks is to “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 Dr. Tory Waxman, the co-founder of dog-food brand Sundays, 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, a vet advisor for Better Pet, recommends paying close attention to your dog’s face, ears, belly, groin, and feet. If you find any ticks, she says to remove them right away. And if you live somewhere with a backyard, entomologist Marc Potzler, a technical services manager for Ehrlich Pest Control, suggests looking at ways to reduce the number of ticks (and mice) on your property. As he explains, “ticks are frequently found on the ends of branches and overgrown vegetation, waiting for the next host to walk by,” so clearing away any dead branches, grass clippings, or piles of leaves, and keeping your grass cut short, can help reduce their presence.
But as our experts admit, taking better care of your backyard and performing regular tick checks probably won’t prevent all bites, which is why they recommend any dog owner concerned about ticks also consider a preventative treatment. Their favorites take different forms — from pills to topical treatments that include wearable collars — and we’ve organized them by those forms to help you find the right treatment for you. We’ve also included a few tools they suggest for removing any ticks you may find on Fido. If, after a tick bite, your dog displays any warning symptoms — which include 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.
Best oral tick-prevention treatments
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 they’re 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,” explains Waxman. All of our experts agree that you should stick to newer classes of medication, since ticks can become resistant to certain chemicals over time. According to Dr. Jamie Richardson of New York City’s Small Door Veterinary, “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 oral treatments are prescription medications, 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. But Richardson, whose own dog takes one treatment below (NexGard), told us that the risk of seizures from taking any of the medications is rare and that their benefits far outweigh this risk, in her opinion. “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,” she explains.
Bravecto was mentioned by all of the vets we talked to, with Waxman telling us her own dog takes the chewable oral treatment (which is also available in a topical form). According to the vets, a main appeal of this over other oral treatments is because it 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 two hours. The chewable tablets are meat flavored, so you won’t have to hide any pills in peanut butter or cheese, and are available in different sizes for dogs from (roughly) 4–123 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 together account 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 roughly three pounds all the way up to 132 pounds.
Best topical tick-prevention treatments
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,” she says. 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. Still, while you may find some for less money or see an all-natural spray that sounds safe to use at the pet store, you should always discuss the ingredients of any topical with your vet before you buy it. As Richardson explains, “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 oils and other OTC treatments 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 better choice for dogs with a history of uncontrolled seizures. The topical is available for dogs who weigh as little as four pounds and an application is effective for one month.
Davis, who gives her dog Bravecto’s oral treatment, is also a fan of the brand’s topical solution. It uses the same active ingredient that is found in the brand’s chewables, which means the topical will also protect your dog for three months at a time.
For some pet owners, especially those who live in particularly dense tick areas, the vets recommend adding a tick collar as part of your dog’s treatment. (Though, again, they all say to consult your veterinarian before combining any treatments.) “In highly endemic areas, sometimes we need to double up on protection,” explains Dr. Stephanie Liff of Pure Paws Veterinary Care, who recommends the Seresto collar. Davis also 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.”
Best tools for removing ticks from dogs
If you still find a tick latched onto your dog after taking all the recommended precautions above, the experts say you should not not try to pry it off with your fingers. Veterinarian Dr. Rachel Barrack, the founder of New York City’s Animal Acupuncture clinic, says to instead “use fine-point tweezers” like these — not flat-edged ones — “to avoid tearing the tick and spreading possible infections to the area.” She adds: “Don’t twist the tick upon removal as that can leave behind a body for infection.”
After removing a tick, Barrack says to clean the area with rubbing alcohol and to put the insect’s body inside a plastic bag so you can show it to your vet in case your dog starts showing any symptoms. “They can identify the type of tick and what diseases it can potentially transmit, so you know what you should be on the lookout for,” she explains.
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