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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. Caryl on November 17, 2019 at 1:46 pm

    Where can we buy these non-toxic products?

  2. Katrina on June 22, 2019 at 3:29 am

    Hi Susan!
    Thank you for this thoughtful piece. My dog is a healthy pup (knock on wood,) at 1.5 years old. He’s a Yorkiepoo weighing 8 pounds. I don’t like any of these OTC flea and tick brands, but worry about my pup getting ticks and also getting sick in the long run. During the summer we’ll be traveling to really woodsy areas in Massachusetts and Vermont and Otis LOVES being up there and running wild! We live in DC in the city so we don’t use a flea and tick year round, just summer months of May/June- August to limit toxic exposure. We’ve seen ticks almost immediately in Vermont and don’t want to risk it. Out of the top flea and tick preventative brands, is there one that is preferable in your opinion based on the ingredients? We don’t have cats at all so the K9 advantix II is one option for us and Frontline plus probably the other. Could you share some insight on the two brands and help us decide which might be best? Thank you so much!!

  3. Deborah Montour on April 9, 2019 at 12:18 pm

    What about proheart 6 shots for dogs with mast cell tumor cancer on Palladia? I am torn about how to protect my dog from heartworm while she is on chemo.

    • Molly Jacobson on April 9, 2019 at 2:40 pm

      Hi Deborah, this is always a tricky balance, right? We want to avoid any toxin that might give our dog’s immune system more to deal with … and pesticides certainly are those toxins. At the same time, you want to protect from terrible diseases and pests, like heartworm. Here in the tropics, heartworm is a year-round concern, so my answer for my dog might be different than for someone who lives in a more temperate climate and only has to worry about heartworm during one season. Heartworm can be devastating to a dog’s health, and can kill a dog, and so can cancers like mast cell tumors. That’s why the best thing to do is consult with your vet about your dog’s specific case. If your dog doesn’t spend that much time outside, or if the cancer prognosis is shorter than the possible development of heartworm would be (it takes a while to mature and wreak havoc) than maybe you can skip the protection without worrying too much that you’ll regret it. But if your dog’s prognosis is very good in the long run, and you live in a place where heartworm is epidemic, your vet might say “better safe than sorry.” Here’s an article that helps walk you through this sort of analysis:

  4. Esther Flores on March 6, 2019 at 5:06 pm

    Hi Susan, please help me. My dog Lee-V was diagnosed with squamous cell cancer in the nasal pharyngeal area. I purchased Dr. Dressler book, and Apocaps, immediately started giving them to my pet, she was dx’d Oct.2018. at time the oncologist ordered Piroxicam, and decided that when giving my pet Piroxicam I could not give her the apocaps, at that time her nose bleeds were infrequent, after about 2 months her nose bleeds were occurring 2x a week the Piroxicam was discontinued and Prednisone was started I have seen my pet deteriorate. She seems to hurt when swallowing, Tramadol 25 mg was started but I noticed she would not eat when taking the pain med. I stopped giving it to her and she again started eating. She has an appt this coming Fri for a recheck of her blood work. I feel that my pet is not getting better, when she was dx’d with the cancer any oncology meds and radiation, were not recommended due to the advance stage of the cancer, my pet is 11 yrs. very small she is a shih Tzu. I don’t want to give up on her, I love my pet and can’t come to grips with the fact that she is dying. I am a registered nurse and worked with pediatric pts that had cancer and saw many of them lost their battle to cancer, perhaps I am grasping at straws. If anyone has cried an ocean I have, I love my pets and yes I have a human child whom I love but my pets are also my children, who give you so much and don’t ask for much. Susan what should I ask the oncologist. I noticed last week that my pet’s voice is changing hoarse, and her nose bleeds are more often and larger amts. How do I know when to let her go, she still follows me around wherever I go while I am home, she still sits close to me and puts her head on my lap, loves to run after squirrels, I can also see a sadness in her eyes as though she knows she is going to leave me. Thank you in advance wish there were more people in the world like you. Sincerely Esther Flores

    • Molly Jacobson on March 8, 2019 at 6:15 pm

      Dear Esther, I know that Susan might not see this right away so I thought I would jump in. There is an article that might be helpful for you to read about how to know how close you might be to little Lee-V’s last days:

      Sometimes when our dogs are suffering it’s just too overwhelming, our grief is too big to THINK. It sounds to me like you probably know what you need to ask your oncologist, you just need to hear it said back to you. The questions you hint at are things like “Is there something else I can give her for pain, since the Piroxicam, pred, and tramadol don’t work or have intolerable side effects” “Is there anything else that you can offer for comfort, or possibly treatment?” Also it sounds like you are really trying to figure out how close she is to dying, particularly since you have watched children die of cancer, which must be very traumatizing. No wonder you are so distraught — this isn’t only unbearable for you as a dog mom, it may also be triggering some hard memories or fears for you. It might be helpful to ask your oncologist if she/he can give you an idea of what to look for with this particular cancer. Will the nosebleeds get even worse? Will breathing be affected? Will you start to see discharge? How will you know that the situation is really dire? What does it look like when the cancer is “winning.” If you think back to how your clients needed this information, it might help you to ask your oncologist for yourself. Sometimes parents just need to know what to “look for” so they can come to grips with the reality of the situation. I have a friend whose daughter (sixteen now!) had a brain tumor when she was a four. She was given certain “point of no return” markers because she asked for them. She watched her daughter like a hawk, and when she didn’t see those specific symptoms, she knew they were still OK for a while. Your oncologist may be able to give you some idea of what the tipping point is. As a nurse, you can handle the information intellectually, if not emotionally 🙁 And it may help you to “come to grips” with where your sweet girl is, or isn’t.

      Sometimes I think medical training can feel like a curse when it comes to tough medical situations in our dogs. All of our knowledge can be more of a burden, trigger our fears on more than one level. It’s hard not to think of all the tragedy we’ve seen, and lump it all in with what is happening for our dog. Try to be easy on yourself, Esther, and take good care of yourself. Sending strength and love.
      Molly, editor

      • Esther Flores on March 14, 2019 at 4:26 pm

        Dear Molly, thank you so much for your advice and compassion they are both priceless. During this terrible journey I have felt as though you have been with those of us that need someone to help us and understands our desperate call for help. It’s so true that when we have the knowledge and know what is happening to our pets in my case Lee V it was devastating because I didn’t want to accept the fact that she was going to leave me . Lee V lost her battle Tues. 3/12/19, my sweet baby is now at peace, no more poking for blood work, forcing her to take meds. and to eat, there is an emptiness in our home now her other 2 friends ( Maggie , and Ksea) also shihtzus miss her and look for her I know they miss her just as much as I do.Maggie the who is 15 yrs. old is blind now sleeps in LeeV’s bed which probably gives her comfort, Ksea looks for her, I will have to keep a close eye on the 2 of them and make sure they continue to eat and comfort them . Molly thank you so much I am so glad that you were there, I will forever be grateful and I will pass on the book The Cancer Guide which did help me tremendously. God bless you thank you so much. Esther Flores

  5. Cheri Aristo-Frey on August 14, 2017 at 11:30 am

    I started using Spot On tropical herbal treatment via Mercola…It does work, smells a lot better and my fur kid’s skin does not get irritated.

  6. Susan Kazara Harper on March 15, 2015 at 9:54 pm

    Hello Mabel,
    Thanks for sharing this. I had to take out the link because over time they often cause hiccups in the blog, but if anyone is interested they can certainly search the product. It’s always wise to research and get the most natural products possible for our pets, and to weigh the threat of the pest against the threat of the cure. Take care.

  7. Mabel on February 20, 2015 at 1:46 am

    Thanks for sharing this useful information for us. in last summer my dog named Sam was also suffered from flea tick problem. That time i have tried many flea control techniques like natural remedy, home remedy but didn’t get 100% result. Then I have tried “Fiprofort for Medium Dog ” for my Dog. This is generic flea product, got 100% result within 24hrs. I would like say thanks to Fiprofort also.

  8. Susan Kazara Harper on May 29, 2014 at 12:27 pm

    Hi Maddy,
    I’m sorry it took so long to respond to this for you. Thanks for your patience!
    The problem with Apple Cider Vinegar is that acid is favorable for the growth of the majority of cancer cells. The body responds by increasing alkalinity but that is only a response to the initial acidity. Because of this Dr. Dressler recommends it not be ingested by our dogs. Now don’t freak out on me :-). The small amounts you may have been giving would not be making a huge difference, and will not have caused the condition. That being said, now that we have this explanation it would be a good idea to stop. Some people use topical application of ACV for things like flea and tick control, and as long as the dog doesn’t lick the coat there should be no problem with this. I hope this helps.

    • Maddy on May 31, 2014 at 7:15 pm

      This does help a great deal and thank you for your response Susan – which I found very quick and not long at all! It’s most appreciated. 🙂

      • Susan Kazara Harper on June 1, 2014 at 10:00 am

        Very happy to help. 😉

  9. Maddy on May 23, 2014 at 6:08 pm

    Hi, can I ask why Apple Cider Vinegar can’t be used? I’ve read the Cancer Survival Guide and the Dog Cancer Diet and in the guide Dr Dressler explains why some things are not useful which is helpful, and I understand he can’t list and explain everything. But I’ve always used a very small amount of ACV mixed with food and am worried now! Thanks, Maddy

  10. Cris L on May 20, 2014 at 2:45 am

    I see this statement in the article:

    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.

    I read the Dog Cancer Diet again, but can find no reference to apple cider vinegar. I have used apple cider vinegar (mixed with water) to spray on my dogs’ coats to prevent ticks and fleas. Is this OK to do with a cancer dog? Please, please advise!! Thanks.

    • Susan Kazara Harper on May 20, 2014 at 4:58 am

      Hi Chris,
      Bless you, I can hear the worry in your words. Take a breath, it’s OK. The Dog Cancer Diet discusses foods taken internally. If Dr. Dressler does NOT recommended something, it won’t always be listed, because, well, can you imagine the list would go on and on and on. So the Diet focuses on what to feed, and mentions some of the usual foods to avoid (like corn, peas etc.) Topical application of vinegar is absolutely OK, and bless you for using a natural way to repel fleas and ticks. So don’t worry, you’re doing great.

      • Cris on May 20, 2014 at 3:16 pm

        Great to hear!

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