A person walks a dog in the woods.

Although fall is well underway, wooded and grassy areas are still teeming with ticks—and so your pets are still at risk of picking them up. Some ticks, such as the blacklegged variety, which can transmit Lyme disease, can remain active into winter as long as the temperature is above freezing, according to the University of Rhode Island’s TickEncounter Resource Center.

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Tick-borne illnesses can affect dogs and cats, and have the potential to make them seriously ill. And pets can pass ticks on to their owners: A 2017 study in the journal Zoonoses and Public Health found that people who owned cats or dogs had a greater chance of a family member being bitten by a tick than people without pets.

Plenty of anti-tick treatments for pets are on the market, but if you’re wary of using those that contain chemicals on your dog or cat, 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, V.M.D., associate professor of toxicology at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine. And, she adds, “All-natural does not equal safe.”

We reached out to several veterinarians to find out more about natural anti-tick treatments for pets and the right way to protect your pets from biting bugs.

The Problem With Natural Tick Prevention

Conventional products for preventing tick bites in pets generally fall into one of two categories. The first are 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, and the topical ones are regulated 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 the 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, whether from commercial products or do-it-yourself recipes you may find online.

In fact, 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, D.V.M., the center’s medical director.

2012 study in the Journal of Veterinary Emergency and Critical Care, which analyzed two years of calls to the center, found dozens of reports of health problems in dogs and cats exposed to commercial essential-oil-based flea products. Several ingredients in those, such as cinnamon oil and clove oil, are also often in “natural” anti-tick products for pets.

Pets may ingest the oil by licking their coats, or even absorb them through their skin. This can cause gagging, drooling, or foaming at the mouth, and “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.

And cats are more likely than dogs to have a negative reaction to essential oils, says Paul DeMars, D.V.M., associate clinical professor at the Oklahoma State University Center for Veterinary Health Sciences.

Potential risks aside, there’s also no guarantee that the unregulated natural remedies work as claimed. With essential oils and essential oil blends, 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 U.K. 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, when mixed into their food or water, or sprayed on their coats—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, D.V.M., clinical assistant professor of internal medicine and small animal medicine at Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University. 

How to Protect Your Pets Safely

The experts we consulted 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 FDA-approved or EPA-registered. (Check the label—an FDA-approved product will usually say “Approved by the FDA,” and an EPA-registered product 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. For example, the pesticide permethrin, a common ingredient in some tick-prevention products for dogs, is highly toxic to cats. If you have a dog and a cat, and the cat regularly licks or grooms the dog, avoid using permethrin on your dog, says Lori Bierbrier, D.V.M., medical director for the community medicine program at the ASPCA.

  • 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 worrying reaction. If they do, call your vet right away. (Note that the FDA recently issued a warning to pet owners about flea and tick control drugs Bravecto, Credelio, Nexgard, and Simparica. The agency says that most pets won’t experience problems but that some have had health problems such as seizures.)

  • If you think the method you’re using isn’t working, talk with your vet, Bierbrier says. 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 Ways to Protect Your Pets

A few additional measures will also help keep ticks from biting your pets. Maintaining your yard so that it isn’t friendly to ticks is one key strategy. Keep your grass mowed, remove piles of leaves, and clean up any brush. 

Finally, 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.

Be aware that because even highly effective products won’t stop or kill 100 percent of the ticks your pets encounter, DeMars says, you may still need to remove a few of the bugs.

And do a thorough tick check—beyond the surface of your pet’s fur. “Part the hair and look down at their skin,” Bierbrier says. Be sure to look in places ticks are likely to hide, such as under the tail, between the back legs, under the front legs, and between the toes. Also check around the face and inside the ears.