Flea and Tick Prevention for Dogs - Evidence-based OverviewOwners have been trying for years to find the best flea and tick prevention for dogs and cats.

Unsurprisingly, an abundance of studies have shown how fleas and ticks on dogs are vectors for a multitude of dangerous diseases.

All experts agree that a healthy wellness program will undoubtedly include some flea and tick prevention for dogs as one of the first priorities.

Data discussed below has demonstrated that modern methods of flea and tick prevention for dogs are very effective when used correctly.

However, because there are so many dog flea treatment products to choose from, the decision can be overwhelming.

It’s important to understand the difference in the way tick and flea preventatives work and the limitations some pose in order to pick the best tick and flea medicine for your pet.

Distinguishing between false claims and proven methods, and learning about the life cycle of fleas and ticks are the first steps in making an informed selection on the best flea treatment for dogs.

There has been a lot of research and clinical trials related to tick prevention and flea treatment for dogs and cats. In this article, we’ve collected and analyzed the data to find the best flea and tick solutions that have been proven to work.

What Are Fleas and Ticks?

Fleas and ticks are the most common type of parasites that feed on dogs’ and cats’ blood, with cats being at a higher risk of infestation than dogs [1, 2].

Ticks and fleas are not exclusive to pets, and will also bite humans and other warm-blooded animals.

There’s a number of diseases and allergies dogs can develop from flea and tick bites, and transport those onto humans [3, 4, 5, 6].

If an owner has a pet with a flea or tick problem, there’s a risk of them being bitten and contracting a variety of diseases, some of which can be fatal [7, 8, 9].

Fortunately, powerful treatments are available for people, too [10, 11, 12].

Difference between fleas and ticks

Fleas and ticks are two different types of parasites. Aside from diseases they transport, the biggest difference is that fleas usually stay with one host while ticks like to consistently move from one source of blood to another.

Regardless of the disparity between these two parasites, it’s imperative to prevent your dog from being bitten by either one.

If no preventative measures have been taken and the bite does occur, it has to be taken seriously. There’s a number of effective dog flea and tick treatments available (discussed below) that should be applied immediately.

Fleas

Fleas on dogsFleas are the most famous and common parasite in the world infesting dogs with a wide range of diseases [13, 14, 15, 16, 17].

Most fleas prefer to establish themselves on pet’s head or neck, and very few take a liking to other parts of the body [18].

Interestingly, studies show that dogs can often serve as guardians for humans against certain types of illnesses carried by fleas, such as Bartonella bacteria [3].

Dogs at multi-pet households where owners also have cats are at a higher risk since felines are more likely to catch fleas and can quickly transfer those onto dogs and, less likely, humans [19].

Ticks

Ticks on dogsTicks are more difficult to study and research than fleas, which is why there’s a much smaller body of research available on all types of ticks.

Nonetheless, this is yet another very common parasite with both domesticated and urban dogs being at a high risk for tick bites [2021, 22]

Just as fleas, ticks pose a risk of a multitude of diseases, some of which can be fatal [23, 24, 25, 26, 27]

The biology of ticks is far more complex when compared to fleas, mostly because there are nine varieties of ticks and only one type of common fleas [28].

Why is Flea and Tick Prevention for Dogs Important?

There are many reasons why flea and tick prevention for dogs (and cats, if you have any) should be taken extremely seriously.

Aside from the dangerous diseases mentioned in the studies above, owners must remember that since fleas feed on the pet’s blood, heavy infestations can cause anemia or low levels of red blood cells, especially in puppies.

Flea bites can cause intense itching, leading to secondary bacterial skin infections, hair loss and discomfort [29].

Diseases such as Cat Scratch Fever (Bartonella) and the Plaque (Yersenia) can be transmitted by fleas [30].

Fleas may also become intermediate hosts and cause of tapeworms in dogs. Although some studies tried to dispute this [31], further research have found a definite correlation between tapeworms and fleas in dogs and cats [32, 33, 34].

Ticks are vectors for such diseases as Lyme Disease, Ehrlichia, and Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, just to name a few, which can be difficult to diagnose and serious if left untreated [3-6, 13-17, 23-27].

Humans can be susceptible to tick borne diseases as well [10-12].

Life Cycles of Fleas and Ticks

Fleas life cycleIt is imperative to understand how these parasites reproduce in order to effectively control them.

Adult fleas live their entire lives on the dog, and has a lifespan of about 100 days.

The female can lay up to 50 eggs per day after feeding a blood meal. The eggs fall off the dog and live in the environment until they hatch in 2 to 10 days.

There are three larval stages. In ideal conditions such as carpets and bedding, the larvae can pupate in a little over a week. The larvae spins a cocoon and the pre-emergent adult can stay inside for 5 days and up to 6 months.

When it senses the presence of the dog, the fleas emerge and begin the cycle over again.

The adult flea may only be 5% of the total population. Therefore, controlling only the adults, for example with dog flea shampoos, will undoubtedly fail as a long term flea control method.

On the other hand, ticks have four distinct life stages: eggs, larvae, nymph and adult. All stages except the egg require a blood for development. The female tick can lay up to 18,000 eggs in her lifetime and thus is a very prolific parasite.

Most ticks require more than one host to replicate, meaning they live on more than one mammal.

Unlike the flea, the adult tick can spend most of its time off the dog and in the environment. This has important consequences for prevention, making environmental control paramount.

Another difference between fleas and ticks is that ticks can take one to three years to mature.

What is the Best Approach to Parasite Control?

An integrated approach to parasite control will provide the best results [35, 36, 37]. This means treating the adult fleas on the dog and all other pets in the house, as well as the immature life stages of the flea.

Many dog owners still avoid preventative measures and sometimes even treatments for their pets, which is a mistake since flea and tick control should be one of the first priorities for new pet owners.

A multitude of studies have shown that flea and tick medicine for dogs, as well as a variety of alternative treatments discussed below, can be extremely effective [2, 28, 38, 39].

Certain brands of flea and tick prevention products (discussed below) are better than others, and higher dosage has been shown to be definitely more effective [40].

Environmental control is critical when dealing with ticks and fleas, especially in heavily infested conditions [41].

Carpets and bedding must be properly treated, and mulch and fallen leaves should be cleared from the yard. Insecticides such as permethrins may be considered as well. A professional exterminator service could become necessary in heavy infestations.

Types of Prevention Products

Best Flea and Tick Prevention for Dogs and Cats - Systematic Review

Since flea and tick bites on dogs and cats is one of the most common causes for spreading diseases, more companies are investing into R&D to find the best flea and tick prevention for dogs and cats, be it collars, medicine, shampoos, topical products or anything else.

The general consensus on these dog flea and tick solutions is that they are very effective, and this has been supported by a growing body of research.

Topical products against fleas and ticks

Topically applied flea and tick prevention products are some of the most commonly used and effective parasite control methods [42, 43, 44, 45, 46].

These products are generally applied once a month and act as insecticides for dogs, therefore killing adult fleas.

Some topically applied products are actually medications that are absorbed through the skin to work systemically. These are all prescription only products.

Other topical products are dog insecticides dosed to an amount safe to be applied on the pet. Many of these are over the counter.

The active ingredients normally include permethrin (very toxic to cats), fipronil, selamectin, imidacloprid, pyriproxyfen and metaflumizone.

Popular name brands that control fleas and ticks include:

  • Revolution
  • Frontline Plus
  • K9 Advantix
  • Vectra 3D

Some of the ingredients in the above brands have been shown to be extremely toxic to cats but not dogs, so carefully reading the label is important.

Tick and flea shampoo for dogs

Dog flea and tick shampoos typically work by killing any parasite already on the pet, although there may be some residual activity, meaning it may prevent some re-infestation.

Research has shown clear evidence that dog flea shampoo can help in the fight against these parasites [47].

Many of these products are toxic to cats and should be used with caution in small dogs.

Using tick and flea shampoos for dogs is not an effective means of parasite control and most veterinarians will not recommend this as a sole treatment [36].

Tick and flea collars for dogs

Flea and tick collars for dogs generally contain permethrins, organophosphates or some other repellent.

The evidence on these products varies. Some brands, when tested with cats, have shown to fail to completely control fleas. It’s presumed that the issue is due to lack of control of other life stages of the flea thus allowing re-infestation [33, 36].

Other studies with canines have demonstrated that using flea and tick collars for dogs can be an effective method to fight and prevent fleas as well as a number of diseases these parasites transmit [4849, 50].

A few of the studies were funded by the manufacturer, thus certain biases are possible but do not necessarily discredit the outcome.

Furthermore, some studies have found dog tick and flea collars to be effective in fighting tapeworms that were caused by fleas in pets [51].

Popular name brands of tick and flea collars include:

  • Seresto
  • Scalibor
  • Preventic

The above tick collars with Deltamethrin or Amitraz are often a nice adjunct to oral or topical tick medications for dogs that are exposed to heavily tick infested areas.

These products can be toxic to cats if swallowed. There are some drug interactions associated with Amitraz use and consulting with a veterinarian before using a flea or tick collar is a good idea, especially for pet owners in multi-pet households.

Tick and flea medicine for dogs

Tick and flea medicine for dogs are universally prescription only products with plenty of studies backing their efficacy [52, 53, 54, 55].

Some flea medicine brands are adulticides, like Capstar (Nitenpyram) or Comfortis (Spinosad), which will kill fleas very quickly in most cases according to several clinical trials.

Capstar is a one time kill and will not prevent re-infestation. Comfortis can be used monthly to prevent fleas and has been shown to help control ticks as well.

Others, such as Bravecto (Fluralaner) will prevent fleas and ticks in dogs with one oral pill every three months. Program (Lufenuron) is another oral flea preventative that inhibits the hatching of flea eggs, but won’t kill adults.

Popular name brands of flea and tick medicine:

  • Comfortis
  • Capstar
  • Bravecto
  • Program

There have been suggestions to use brewer’s yeast and/or garlic to prevent and repel fleas in dogs as “alternative medicine” method. A study has demonstrated this to be completely ineffective [63].

Side Effects of Dog Flea and Tick Prevention Products

Many pet owners will be concerned about the side effects and safety of flea and tick prevention products mentioned above.

Some online resources have suggested that certain flea and tick treatments for dogs may cause clinical illnesses among pets.

Research on this points to the contrary, with most evidence leaning far towards these products being completely safe for pets [55, 56, 57, 58].

However, the ever changing environment of manufacturing medicine should keep owners on their toes and careful about the products they administer to their pets. Consulting with a vet beforehand is highly advisable.

One study has shown that commercial flea and tick products may indeed cause short-term depression in animals which goes away after the treatment has been stopped [59].

Another one has shown very rare and minor side effects of vomiting and nausea from plant-derived flea preventatives [60].

What’s the Best Flea and Tick Prevention for Dogs?

What's the best flea and tick prevention for dogs

This is a difficult question to answer because all pets have different needs. In addition, different areas of the nation have different parasite loads depending on the climate.

Finding the best flea and tick prevention for dogs or cats will depend on many different variables, but the above list of studies can help owners to come to a more definite conclusion.

In general, science points to the fact that prescription products are going to work best [61].

If ticks are a concern, then using a product with efficacy against both ticks and fleas, for example Bravecto or Revolution, will be important.

When medicating your dog orally is tricky for a pet owner, then a topical product like Revolution might be the best solution. If you are prone to forgetting monthly doses, a more long acting drug such as Bravecto will be a better option.

Pairing several tick and flea prevention products that have been proven to work to some extent may not be a bad idea, as long as you discuss this with a veterinarian beforehand.

My Dog Has Fleas and Ticks still. Did the Product Fail?

In many cases, the product didn’t fail even if you see a flea or tick on your dog. Products aimed at controlling ticks do not work as quickly as many of the flea products do.

It may take up to 24 hours for the tick to die and fall off the dog. Without the product your pet would have had undoubtedly even more ticks. Manual removal of many will still be necessary.

If a flea is seen, this often means that a more integrated approach to prevention is necessary. Focusing on riding the environment may be the key to a more successful flea treatment outcome.

There has been some discussion about dogs developing resistance to commercial flea and tick treatments [62]. However, vets and scientists argue that resistance to these chemicals among dogs is very unlikely.

When such cases of “resistance” occur, it’s important to first rule out all common causes of insecticide’s lack of efficacy in dogs before concluding that the animal has indeed developed resistance to pesticide treatments.

Further research shows that resistance is either rare or doesn’t exist at all [62]. The primary cause, as concluded by several studies, is most likely due to treatment deficiency.

Changing the brand, upping the dosage and/or continuing the treatment for a longer period of time after discussing this with a vet will most likely produce the desired results.

Take Home Message

Fleas and ticks are dangerous to dogs, cats and their humans. They carry a variety of diseases, some of which can be deadly.

Safe flea treatments for dogs are available and easily accessible. Most commercial products of flea and tick prevention for dogs have been shown as very effective with rare, minor or no side effects at all.

Finding the best flea and tick prevention for dogs will depend on several variables, such as the environment and pets themselves.

Trying a combination of treatments can produce the best results, but remember to discuss this with a veterinarian beforehand.

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