Protecting Your Dog from Tick Bites and Lyme Disease
You must protect your dog if Lyme-carrying ticks are present in your area.
Given the potential duration and magnitude of a Lyme disease infection in your dog (see “Lyme Disease Symptoms and Treatment for Dogs,” WDJ July 2001), we think it’s pretty important to do something to protect your dog from ticks, especially in areas where cases of Lyme are common. This is one of the instances where you have to weigh all the factors against each other – in this case, your dog’s health and vulnerability, the risk of his exposure to ticks, the prevalence of Lyme in your area, and the tick-repelling and tick-killing products available to you – to decide what you are going to do to protect your dog. It’s not an easy equation; it’s more of a complicated algorithm. Let’s look at each of these areas and how they interact.
Your Dog’s Immune System
Say your dog is vibrantly healthy – no chronic skin problems, no recurrent ear infections, no mysterious digestive ailments, and no chemical sensitivity that you have noticed. He may not have any problems with an occasional treatment with a pesticide.
Unfortunately, a small percentage of dogs (or people in their families) can’t tolerate the use of powerful insecticides. Some respond with nausea, vomiting, tremors, and even seizures when exposed to even low concentrations of tick-killing chemicals. Others suffer skin reactions: hair loss, rashes, and sores. Animals with compromised organ function or a history of chemical sensitivity may suffer a general health setback after treatment.
Risk of Exposure to Ticks
If you live in an area where there are few or no cases of Lyme disease (among people or dogs), or your dog never has the opportunity to come into contact with ticks (this may be true for many city-dwelling dogs), you may be among the lucky few who don’t have to worry about Lyme disease prevention.
But there are many places where, especially in the tick’s most active time of the year (April through October), any dog that leaves the pavement will end up with ticks. And dogs that spend a lot of time afield will come home loaded with the pests. (The ticks that carry the bacteria that cause Lyme disease include the deer tick and the western black-legged tick; however, other ticks can carry and transmit other diseases, including Rocky Mountain spotted fever, babesiosis, and erlichiosis).
Also, some individual dogs seem to be more attractive to ticks than others. Holistic practitioners often regard an animal’s susceptibility to parasites to be a sign of poor or compromised health – a result of a sputtering immune system or, in more esoteric terms, weak life energy or chi. However, anyone who has been the target of more mosquito bites than his campfire companions might beg to differ; maybe some people (or animals) actually do “taste better.”
Whatever the cause, you might find it necessary to do more to repel ticks from one of your dogs than the others. You may not have to dose each of your pets to the same extent to provide a similar level of protection. Instead, treat each dog as an individual. If you have one dog that tends to attract more ticks, use more repellents (and vigilance) with that dog, and, as long as the ticks stay away from your other dogs, less with them.
Prevalence of Lyme Disease
According to the Centers for Disease Control, in the United States Lyme disease is mostly localized in states in the northeastern, mid-Atlantic, and upper north-central regions, and in several counties in Northern California.
In areas where Lyme is common, the risk is greatest in residential areas surrounded by woods and/or overgrown brush. Venturing off paths and into grassy areas increases a person’s or dog’s exposure to ticks, who sit on grass leaves, waiting for any warm, carbon dioxide-exhaling body to approach. They begin waving their arms as soon as they detect such a candidate and grab ahold!
Tick Repellents and Killers
Far be it from us to tell you to put pesticides on your dog. But we’ve never heard of a single nontoxic preparation that was effective at keeping ticks off all dogs – which leaves the owners of dogs who live in areas with a high prevalence of Lyme disease very worried, indeed. For some dogs, only the potent pesticides seem to keep ticks away. However, if you have treated your dog with one pesticide and he still got ticks, try another. Some products seem to be more effective on some dogs than others. Some people swear by one product, and claim that another, similar product absolutely does not work on their dog.
Also, make sure you are using a product with one of the active ingredients seen in the chart below. Some people automatically assume that any product that works against fleas is also effective against ticks; not so. (Advantage, for example, has no effect on ticks.)
There are some nontoxic products – both commercially produced and homemade formulas – that work to repel ticks well enough to consider using them as part of a comprehensive Lyme disease prevention program.
In 1994, botanist Arthur O. Tucker reviewed the scientific literature on herbs that repel mosquitoes, flies, fleas, ticks, and similar pests. He found that opopanax myrrh (Commiphora erythaea), the myrrh of ancient Egypt, has been shown to repel adults of the African brown ear, deer, black-footed, lone star, and American dog tick. Because opopanax myrrh is not widely sold, Tucker speculated that the more readily available common myrrh (C. myrrha) might have similar properties, but herbalists who experiment with live ticks report that of the herbs said to repel them, including myrrh, rosemary, and California laurel, only rose geranium (Pelargonium graveolens), palmarosa (Cymbagopogon martini motia), which has a similar fragrance, and opopanax myrrh truly repel deer and dog ticks.
CJ Puotinen, author of The Encyclopedia of Natural Pet Care and Natural Remedies for Dogs and Cats, describes an all-purpose repellent that will make pets (and people!) less attractive to ticks and other biting insects. She suggests blending 20 drops of rose geranium, palmarosa, or opopanax myrrh essential oil (or any combination) with three drops citronella essential oil (which repels mosquitoes) and enough vodka, neem tincture, or bay rum aftershave to dissolve the essential oils. Start with two tablespoons alcohol or tincture and add more as needed to make the oils dissolve completely. Do not use isopropyl (rubbing) alcohol. When there is no longer a thin film of oil on the surface, add one cup water, herbal tea, or aloe vera juice or gel. Apply frequently, avoiding the eyes.
There are also a number of commercially produced herbal preparations that some owners swear keep ticks off their dogs.
Puotinen says she alternates between a topical repellent made by Heart Foods called Tickweed Plus, and a neem-based repellent called NeemAura Naturals Herbal Outdoor Spray made by NeemAura. Tickweed Plus contains tickweed, neem, pennyroyal, lavender, and other herbs; NeemAura’s product contains neem, myrrh, lemongrass, orange, citronella, and other oils.
Dietary Supplements as Tick Repellent
Some holistic practitioners say that adding bitter herbs to a dog’s diet can actually make him less attractive to ticks. Juliette de Bairacli Levy, author of The Complete Herbal Handbook for the Dog and Cat, developed a supplement for this purpose that is now manufactured by Natural Rearing; the herbal antiseptic tablets contain garlic, rue, sage, thyme, eucalyptus, and wormwood.
While neem is most frequently seen as a topical agent used as an insect repellent, first-aid therapy, and to treat a variety of health problems, neem also improves digestion and helps make animals less attractive to fleas, ticks, mosquitoes, and intestinal parasites. Puotinen recommends giving dogs one 500-mg. capsule per 10 pounds of body weight daily.
Beverly Cappel, DVM, of Chestnut Ridge, New York (heart of Lyme country), makes a nutritional supplement called Fleas Flee that contains brewer’s yeast, liver, and oyster shells. Dr. Cappel regards the supplement as very helpful for making dogs less attractive to fleas and ticks, but reminds clients that a supplement should not be regarded as a sole line of protection. (Fleas Flee can be purchased from Dr. Cappel by calling 845-356-3838.)
Other Tick Prevention Measures
The war on ticks can’t take place on just one front; you have to devote time and constant vigilance to prevent sneak attacks on your dog. Practice these anti-enemy missions on a regular basis:
• Check for ticks during and after every outdoor venture. Especially examine your dog’s legs, armpits, belly, neck, and face. Ticks naturally travel toward dark and/or warm, blood-rich areas of the dog. Remember: The goal is to find the ticks when they are still tiny, before they are engorged with blood. The transmission of the Lyme-causing spirochete does not happen until 24 hours after the tick begins feeding.
• Take extra time to examine your dog for the presence of ticks when the pests are at their most active. Ticks increase their movements in mid-morning, from about 8am until about 11am; the largest number of ticks emerge on sunny days. Ticks are also most active from April through October.
• Using a flea comb helps detect and remove tiny ticks. Drop the ticks you find into a container of tick-killing solution. Do not squish them or toss them away; the tiny creatures can survive this treatment.