A Labrador frolics in tall grass, an area that can harbor ticks. Even in wintertime, your pets can get them. There is no guarantee that unregulated natural remedies against ticks work as claimed. (iStock)

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Although this is winter, your pets are still at risk of picking up ticks. Some varieties can remain active into winter as long as the temperature is above freezing, according to the University of Rhode Island’s TickEncounter Resource Center.

Tick-borne illnesses have the potential to make dogs and cats seriously ill. And pets can pass ticks on to their owners.

Plenty of anti-tick treatments for pets are on the market, but if you’re wary of using those that contain chemicals, you may be tempted to try a natural-sounding remedy, such as a spritz of apple cider vinegar or a product with essential oils.

These strategies aren’t necessarily effective, says Lisa Murphy, associate professor of toxicology at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine. “All-natural does not equal safe,” she says.

Several veterinarians explained to us the right ways to protect your pets from biting bugs.

'Natural' products

Conventional products for preventing tick bites in pets generally fall into one of two categories. The first consists of edible medications that poison any ticks that bite your pet, and may contain pesticides such as afoxolaner. The second type is used on the surface of your pet’s fur or skin and includes topical treatments, dusts, shampoos, sprays and collars. These are designed to keep ticks from biting and may have pesticides such as permethrin.

The edible treatments are usually regulated by the Food and Drug Administration; the topical ones by the Environmental Protection Agency. Both agencies require manufacturers to demonstrate that their products are safe when used properly — not just for pets but also for people who might come into contact with animals.

The treatments must be shown to be safe for the environment. Companies also have to provide evidence that the products work when used as directed.

But some products on the market aren’t regulated by the FDA or the EPA because they’re made with ingredients considered by the EPA to be of “minimal risk” to human health. Many essential oils fall into this category. But several experts told us they have concerns about using essential oils on animals. Essential oils are a top reason for calls to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals’ Animal Poison Control Center for tick-product-related concerns, says Tina Wismer, the center’s medical director.

Pets may ingest the oils by licking their coats, or even absorb them through their skin. This can cause gagging, drooling or foaming at the mouth. “We can end up with problems like skin irritation, lethargy and, with some essential oils, we can even see things like liver problems,” Wismer says.

Potential risks aside, there’s also no guarantee that the unregulated natural remedies work as claimed. Some evidence suggests that certain plant-based oils have tick-repellent properties. In one study published in March in the journal Ticks and Tick-borne Diseases, for example, researchers in the United Kingdom asked dog owners to treat their dogs’ coats with either a turmeric oil solution, an orange oil solution or nothing at the beginning of every walk. After keeping tick diaries for a month, the dog owners who sprayed their pooches with the turmeric oil solution were slightly less likely to have found ticks on their pets after walks than those who used orange oil or nothing.

But apple cider vinegar — recommended on a number of pet advice websites as a tick repellent for dogs — hasn’t been proved to work at all, according to several vets. “I’m completely unaware of any potential benefit of that,” says Michael Stone, clinical assistant professor of internal medicine and small animal medicine at Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University.

Protecting your pets safely

The experts recommended asking your veterinarian before using any tick-prevention product on your pet, whether it’s natural, homemade or conventional.

You’ll probably see the most benefit from products that are approved by the FDA or registered by the EPA. (Check the label. FDA-approved products will usually say “Approved by the FDA,” and EPA-registered products will have an EPA registration number, sometimes abbreviated to “EPA Reg. No.”)

Still, even an approved product has the potential to cause harm, especially if used improperly. What to do:

●Read labels carefully, and ensure that you’re using something approved for the age and weight of your pet. Some items that can be used on grown dogs, for instance, shouldn’t be used on puppies.

●Never use something meant for a dog on a cat and vice versa. The pesticide permethrin, for example, a common ingredient in some tick-prevention products for dogs, is highly toxic to cats.

●Watch pets closely the first time you use any new tick-prevention method, to make sure they don’t experience skin irritation, excessive salivating, tremors or another reaction. If they do, call your vet right away.

●If you think the method you’re using isn’t working, talk with your vet. You may need to switch to a different kind of tick-prevention product.

●Never use products meant for humans, such as insect repellents that contain DEET, on your pets.

Other treatments

Some other measures will also help keep ticks from biting your pets. Maintaining your yard is one key strategy. Keep your grass mowed, remove piles of leaves and clean up any brush.

And even if you’re using an anti-tick product on your pets, you should still check them for ticks on a regular basis. “Just like you would check yourself for ticks after a hike, even if you applied DEET, check your dog,” Murphy says. And do a thorough job — beyond the surface of your pet’s fur.

 Copyright 2018, Consumer Reports Inc.

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