Natural Insect Control: Flea and Tick Treatments for Pets

WebMD discusses natural options for controlling fleas and ticks on pets.

Medically Reviewed by Audrey Cook, BVM&S on September 25, 2009
3 min read

When it comes to keeping fleas and ticks off your pets, you’re faced with the same old problem. How can you balance the risks posed by insects with the risks of the repellents? When you treat your animals for fleas and ticks, they may not be the only ones affected. If your dog rubs his brand new flea collar all over your couch, the whole family could wind up exposed.

A report by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), "Poison on Pets II: Toxic Chemicals in Flea and Tick Collars," found that many over-the-counter insect control products for pets, even when used as instructed, can cause "serious health consequences to pets and humans." Many of these products include organophosphate (OP) compounds, which have been used for insect control for decades and are known to have toxic effects. Most immediate health problems come from not using these products properly, but there is some evidence that more insidious health problems may arise from chronic exposure. Many pet store flea and tick products contain more than one active ingredient and some of these products cause problems when used together.

In its review, the NRDC found that dangerously high levels of pesticide residue can remain on a dog or cat's fur for weeks after a flea collar is put on the animal. The NRDC also found that residues from two pesticides used in flea collars – tetrachlorvinphos and propoxur – were high enough to pose a risk to children and adults who play with their pets.

So what can you do? First, talk to your vet before you make any decisions about flea and tick control for your pet. He or she can help you make the best selection for your family. Share your concerns and be sure to tell your vet about any small children or pregnant women in the household. Your vet should be able to clearly explain the toxicities of various treatments -- whether available at pet stores or only through your vet -- and which products can be safely used in combination. Ask about trying the least toxic options first. Ask how you can minimize the risks to your family and your pets.

Be wary of natural insect control treatments for pets. Some -- like geranium, lavender, and eucalyptus -- can cause severe allergic reactions in pets and people. Pennyroyal oil has been associated with seizures and death in some animals.

The NRDC offers these suggestions in its Green Paws Pocket Guide:

  • Avoid all organophosphates, including amitraz, fenoxycarb, permethrin, propoxur, tetrachlorvinphos (TCVP)
  • Use other topical products sparingly, particularly on pets that are around pregnant women or small children. These include fipronil (Frontline), imidacloprid (Advantage), metaflumizone (ProMeris), pyrethroids (pyrethroids are found in many insect control products; they are toxic to cats and should be used on dogs only), selamectin (Revolution)
  • Consider orally administered products, as exposure to other pets and children is minimal. These include lufenuron (Program), nitenpyram (CAPSTAR), spinosad (Comfortis, for dogs only)
  • Use natural insect control methods:
    • Use a flea comb regularly to catch fleas – and then drown them in water
    • Wash pet bedding regularly
    • Vacuum regularly
    • Bathe your pet