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Featuring Demian Dressler, DVM and Sue Ettinger, DVM, Dip. ACVIM (Oncology), authors of The Dog Cancer Survival Guide

Safer Flea and Tick Treatments for Dogs

Updated: May 9th, 2022


What’s the best way to protect your dog with cancer from fleas and ticks? Susan Harper explores safer flea and tick treatments in detail.

With the seasons changing for most of us, and warmer weather ahead, many are asking “can the traditional flea and tick treatments harm my dog, and if so, what can I do?” So, let’s take a look at safer flea and tick treatments from a Full Spectrum perspective.

Editorial Note: at the bottom of this article you will find two podcast episodes where you’ll get more useful information about flea and tick medications from our resident expert veterinarians.

Pests are a Problem!

A necessary part of having a companion pet is protecting them from fleas and ticks. When our dogs run and play outside, these pests wait for just the right moment and jump on for a free ride. Their purpose in life is to feed and breed, and they need our pets to do it. We may think it’s random chance that our dog brings home an unwanted pest, but actually, fleas and ticks are programmed to survive by detecting animals who will host them and planning a cunning launch.

A couple of the creatures can be a pain, but when they really take over it can become a real threat to health. We also want to protect our homes and our human family.

Fleas can harbor and spread tapeworms, flea allergy dermatitis, flea-borne typhus and a host of other problems.

Ticks can cause serious illnesses such as Lyme disease, Ehrlichiosis, Anaplasmosis, Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, and others.

Let’s not forget mosquitos, which can spread heartworms and West Nile Encephalitis.

You may not even know that your dog has been infected until a disease gets established and diagnosed by your vet. Some of these diseases are transmittable to humans. So the need to prevent these pests from endangering our pets and us is very real.

Traditional Pest Treatments

For many years the traditional methods of treatment have been flea and tick collars, shampoos and topical drops on the dog. Is this a problem? Well, sometimes, yes.

The treatments we’ve grown up with are basically pesticides and insecticides; chemicals meant to be toxic to the ‘pest’. We ‘treat’ our dogs with a low dose of pesticide (poison) with topical application to their skin to kill off any pests and to prevent others from taking up residence.

Unfortunately, these pesticides can also be toxic to our dogs … and a dog dealing with a cancer diagnosis already has a weakened immune system.

Ingredients to Avoid

The main ingredient used in most traditional flea and tick products is pyrethrin or pyrethroids, which is also the ingredient in most bug sprays intended for pests in the home. You know the ones, they usually warn “keep pets away from the area”.

According to an EPA report, they work by altering nerve function, which causes paralysis in target insect, eventually resulting in death. Unfortunately, there is really no way to guarantee that the companion animal who is treated with these chemicals is not also in danger. There have been an increasing number of reports of illness, ranging from being a little off color to twitching, hives, excessive salivation, vomiting, diarrhea, loss of coordination, convulsions, seizures, and death.

Certainly, caution is always advised when applying any product. Whether obtained from your vet’s office or purchased over the counter, there is really no way to guarantee that your pet will not have an adverse reaction to the ingredients in any products, and if they do, the damage may be irreversible.

Add to this the practice that many products are used on a monthly basis, which means a monthly application of a neurotoxin to your dog. Using a flea collar basically means strapping an insecticide around your dog’s neck for weeks at a time. And all of these products are required to carry a safety warning to the effect of “keep away from children”.

Well if it’s not safe for my child, it’s not safe for my dog.

The question could be “do I want to take a chance that my dog will contract a serious illness, or take a chance that she will get sick from the prevention”? But it doesn’t have to be an either/or situation.

Specific Cancer Risk for Pest Treatments 🙁

As Dr. Dressler explains in The Dog Cancer Survival Guide, the development of Transitional Cell Carcinoma (TCC) is particularly linked to exposure to insecticides, including some of the traditional pest remedies. Of all the options, the spot-on treatments are generally safer with fewer reports of toxic side-effects. But note that I didn’t say “no reports” … only fewer.

It’s a tough position to be in because we must protect our pets from the dangers of pest-borne illness, but we also want to protect them from hazardous chemicals.

For more helpful tools and information, get a copy of the Dog Cancer Survival Guide!

Good News: There are Safer Flea and Pest Treatments

So the challenge has been to find non-toxic products to help our pets with this problem, and fortunately, some great companies have been doing just that.

Mercola has launched a range of all natural products to protect our dogs. They’re made up of Brazilian oils from certified forests, which work synergistically against fleas, ticks, and mosquitos. They work by confusing the senses of the pests, making your dog unidentifiable to them. Basically, they don’t get the signals telling them that a tasty host is passing by, so they don’t launch.

Triple Sure and Vet’s Best have a range of safe, non-toxic products which avoid pyrethrins and use cedar oil and/or peppermint oil as their main ingredients. Both of these companies rely on natural ingredients which are safe for both dogs and humans. Feedback indicates that they are effective, and much more pleasant to use.

Other Inexpensive Home Treatments

In addition, there are many safe and natural products which you can include in your home routine to deter pests. Diatomaceous Earth (DE) is a white talc-like powder. It’s actually the fossilized remains of marine phytoplankton. On a microscopic level, DE is very sharp, so it is harmful to insects which have an exoskeleton (like fleas!), yet it’s not harmful to mammals. (Be sure to use food-grade DE, not the kind used in swimming pools!)

DE can be used on the coat but is actually much more effective to sprinkle around baseboards, in carpet, etc. so that when flea eggs hatch the larvae die. Some holistic veterinarians also use it to deworm dogs!

Garlic, unprocessed brewer’s yeast, and apple cider vinegar are often recommended as part of a diet to make the skin and blood of the animal distasteful to pests but these last two are not part of the recommended dog cancer diet so I’m going to ask you to stay away from them, and only to use garlic as advised in the diet.

Remember though, even a product labeled natural and safe must be used responsibly and according to directions. Don’t let your dog eat a bucket of DE, for example, and remember that it is very fine in texture and when sprayed in the air, can be breathed in.

A Pest-Free Regime

The best way to keep your dogs free of unwanted pests includes

  • Providing a balanced diet with real food to keep the immune system vital and strong.
  • Bathing and brushing your dog regularly and doing nose-to-tail body checks when you come in from outside. At the same time, check your dog for any signs of new bumps, lumps or other tender spots.
  • Steer clear of old, stagnant water and areas treated with chemicals of any sort.
  • Using some of the natural pest deterrents described above.
  • Possess both the tools and the knowledge of how to safely remove a tick if you do find one. The traditional way is still the best, using tweezers or a tick remover tool. Some methods you will find online, including using a match, petroleum jelly or swivel methods of making the tick ‘dizzy’ are not as reliable. In fact, they may actually cause the tick to burrow deeper or leave parts still attached. As always, if in doubt, consult your vet.

Of course, we want a happy, relaxed dog. So please make every step enjoyable. Check your dog regularly and apply natural products for prevention. Even tick removal can be a ‘no-problem’ task if you approach it with respect, a good attitude, and praise. Oh, and a healthy treat at the end wouldn’t hurt.

Happy Tails!

Susan Harper

Here Are Two Great Podcasts on Flea & Ticks from Dr. Nancy Reese and Dr. Nick Thompson

Leave a Comment

  1. Diane Butterworth on May 23, 2023 at 1:10 pm

    What can I use for a flea treatment for my dog that has cancer? I am not doing chemo or radiation. I am giving her several supplements and herbs to help build up her immune system. I have tried the sprays that have oils in them such as lemongrass, cedar, cinnamon, etc. When I spray them on her she starts salivating and foaming at the mouth. I end up bathing the oils off of her. It is ok to use the seresto collar or NexGard? I don’t overuse any of these. The reason I am asking is because she has been scratching a lot and even though I cannot find any fleas on her I did find them on one of my other dogs. If I do have to use a flea treatment for my dogs I usually only use it once and that takes care of the fleas. I did check with my veterinary oncologists office and they told me the drs. usually tell their clients to continue to use what they have been using.

  2. Delphine from Australia on November 10, 2022 at 6:58 pm

    There is a product for ticks and fleas that is natural – its called Dr Ben’s Flea and Tick treatment. Its made of Cedar Oil and the cedar oil suffocates the ticks Im informed. No chance for tick to inject its poison. I have a chi who has had a spot on treatment sparingly applied to his neck over the years, very sparingly I might add, as I hate using poisons, we are in a serious tick area, he now has a tumour on his bladder, which we are treating with some of Dr Dressler’s recommended remedies, and cancer cells have been reducing in his urine tests. Just ordered Dr Ben’s spray from a vet who practices natural therapies, she highly recommends it and uses on her dogs. You have to apply it a lot more often than the popular toxic tick tablets that protect for 1-3 months, but better than placing poison on, or in your dogs, as there are side effects, seizures, even death from them. Hope this info helpful.

  3. Kelly Broussard on February 28, 2021 at 5:12 am

    I used Vet’s Best flea and tick spray in one bedroom back in October, it’s now almost March, my husband is ripping up floors because we can not get the smell of the product out of the room. After I sprayed the room, I closed it off and did not let anyone or any animals in the room until the fleas were dead and the room was dry. I only used a light spray of the product. I went back in it the next day, it did not kill the fleas but the smell seemed stronger. I had to vacuum everyday and mop and it still did not remove the smell. I did not spray anything else in the room, I used Dawn dish liquid in my mop water and vacuumed everyday, which I wish I would have done in the first place, but I thought I would try this because it’s all natural!!!! We tried airing it out with open windows and fans. We closed off the room to see if the smell would eventually go away, it did not. I had also used their dog shampoo only on one dog, it was so strong that I quickly washed him off, he was 10 years old, I had to put him down in Jan at the age of 11 due to a quick growing cancer. I do believe “you” need to look into the ingredients of their products. Why, if this is all natural, would we not be able to remove the smell without ripping up the floor “ceramic tile”? After I sprayed the product I became nauseated and weak, then I had anxiety for 2 months. Then my precious Great Pyrenees has to be put down in Jan. I’m not saying, nor do I have any proof that it was the product that hurt him. I do not want to make such claims, but you need to make sure these so called “all natural” products are safe for dogs as well as humans! I have the room closed off and every time I even pass near the room I can still smell it and the next day I lose my appetite and become anxious. Now my husband has the daunting task of ripping up tiles and painting the room to see if that gets rid of the horrendous smell!!!!

  4. Carol Shannon on January 14, 2021 at 12:41 pm

    We just lost our dog to level III Mast Cell Cancer on January 4th 2021. We have another dog, an 8 year old Terrier mix in good health and my concern is regarding topical flea preventive’s namely Frontline Plus. After going through this horrible disease with our beloved Lucky, I’m scared to give Hachi, our other dog the Frontline Plus knowing that the Mast Cell Tumors originate in the skin. Could anyone give me some guidance regarding Flea preventive’s. Thanks you.

    • Molly Jacobson on January 15, 2021 at 11:33 am

      Hi Carol! I totally get your concern. It’s such a big concern. Here’s a very recent episode of Dog Cancer Answers that you should listen to where our Dr. Nancy talks about safety around fleas and ticks:

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