Tuesday, April 24, 2012

A Comprehensive (and Natural) Approach to Controlling Ticks

"Toughie" loves to romp in the woodland garden, a perfect haven for ticks.
It's that time again. Grass is growing, the sun is glowing, gentle breezes are blowing, and in the gardens, we are hoeing and sowing.  Then you feel something ticklish on your neck and .... brush off a tick.

Controlling ticks is a top priority for us in the early spring.  Whether you're talking about the tiny black deer ticks, Ixodes scapularis, or the larger brown wood or dog ticks, Dermacentor variabilis, ticks are more than just a gardening nuisance.  They are carriers of tick born illnesses such as Lyme Disease, several relapsing fevers, ehrlichiosis, and tularemia to name but a few and they are a significant health hazard to both people and pets.

Where we live in coastal Massachusetts, ticks are a particularly serious problem and that raises many concerns for us.  Even though the diseases caused by ticks can be severe and debilitating, toxic effects associated with tick repellants are equally problematic, never mind the fact that they aren't completely effective.

Emily Rose was successfully treated for Lyme Disease as a puppy.
Since one of our dogs has already required treatment for Lyme and the Lyme vaccines are likewise not 100% effective in any event, we are very aggressive in our efforts to control our dogs' and our own exposure to ticks.

Our "Tick Protocol" is an integrated approach that combines actions we can take to make our yard less hospitable to ticks along with topical applications and holistic preventives for the dogs.

We take a two-pronged approach with our yard.  First, we try to keep the areas that would be attractive to ticks to a minimum - not an easy task since we abut a meadow that is a formidable tick and mosquito breeding area.   For us that means keeping the grass near the fence trimmed and treated, keeping our small area of lawn mowed, and staying ahead of leaf litter in the flower beds and tree grove.

Toughie keeps a sharp eye out for small animals sneaking into the garden.
The dogs often haunt the fence line, watching for wild animals on the other side of the fence who want to burrow their way into our garden.

Toughie is especially diligent about patrolling for woodchucks and rabbits, but ticks from the tall grass on the other side of the fence often jump onto his head and ears.

Katie's favorite pastime:  rolling around in the grass.
Katie, on the other hand, loves to roll around in the grass, an open invitation to ticks to hop on to her thick, silky fur.  Even though the small amount of actual "lawn" we have is minimal - most of our yard has been converted to garden beds - there is just enough grass for the dogs to play and nap in the sun, and plenty for her to roll in.

Treating the yard to repel and kill ticks has been very effective in dramatically reducing the number of ticks we find on the dogs. In that regard, both oil of rose geranium and diatomaceous earth have found valued places in our protocol.

When the temperature spiked in early March, we immediately began finding large numbers of ticks on each of our four dogs. It was not uncommon to remove as many as 4-6 ticks from each dog daily, and we were finding them on the furniture and walking around on the floor as well, likely brought in by the dogs where they subsequently fell off and went in search of another warm-blooded host.

Oil of Rose Geranium

Because of our concern for our koi as well as for the environment, we use no toxic chemicals in controlling any insect pests in our gardens, ticks included.  An effective yet entirely safe tick repellant is the essential oil of rose geranium which we spray throughout our entire yard and include in a topical spray for the dogs. 

Within days of spraying the yard with a solution of oil of rose geranium, and likewise spraying the dogs with an all-natural home-made tick repellant (instructions for both are included below), the number of ticks we found in daily "tick checks" dropped to less than 1-2 weekly among all of the dogs.

I try to spray the yard for ticks at least monthly from April through September.  Whereas the winter was so mild and spring came so early, a bumper crop of ticks has plagued this area. I sprayed for the first time in mid-March and I've increased the frequency to every 2-3 weeks at least until we get them under control.  As for the dogs, we try to spray them every couple of days with my homemade topical along with applications of a "spot on" product.

Diatomaceous Earth

Another inexpensive, easy, effective, and environmentally friendly approach is to dust the tall grass and underbrush - areas where ticks breed and thrive - with diatomaceous earth.  It's important to use the agricultural or food grade preparations, not the preparations for swimming pool filters, which contain toxic chemical additives.

Toughie often nibbles on lavender.
The fossilized remains of diatoms, a type of hard-shelled algae, DE is a fine powder with microscopically sharp edges that works in two different ways to control garden pests.  DE absorbs lipids from the waxy exoskeletons of insects and in so doing, it helps to desiccate them.  Used properly, it can help to significantly reduce the population of adult ticks and fleas as well.  A side benefit is that the sharp edged abrasive action of it will slice the underbellies of slugs and snails leading to their eventual demise as well.

However, if your dog likes to nibble on grass or lavender as ours do, the DE will not harm them and in fact, might even help. Food grade DE has been used for over a century as a de-wormer for people, dogs, and livestock.

DE is particularly useful after a period of damp whether, which is a prime breeding time for ticks. DE loses its effectiveness in damp conditions and needs to be applied after the ground has dried out and reapplied after each rain.  With all of the rain we're having this week, I'll wait until we are going to have 24 - 48 hours of warm dry weather and then dust the grass along the fence and the underbrush throughout our little wood grove, and spread it liberally under the wild ginger and other low growing plants that the slugs seem to favor.

Because extended contact with DE can be very drying to the hands, I avoid spreading it with my bare hands and wear gardening gloves when I handle it.  I have eyeglasses, but for those who don't have prescription eye protection like I do, goggles are a good idea.  DE is a fine abrasive powder and you don't want it to blow into your eyes.  Wearing a workshop mask or a simple bandana tied over your mouth and nose will also help keep you from breathing it in. Of course, avoid spreading it on a breezy day.

As far as the mechanics of spreading it, either shaking it from a wire mesh kitchen strainer or a flour sifter are two easy methods that utilize recycled, outdated kitchen gadgets (that should not find their way back into the kitchen after you've used them in the garden).

Repellants and "Spot On" Treatments

Toughie patiently waits for Katie to return his ball.
Most chemical tick control agents (such as Bio-spot and Frontline, both of which we've used in the past), do little or nothing to actually repel a tick from climbing onto your dog in the first place.

They are designed primarily to kill ticks that climb onto your dog and remain there, especially if they latch onto them to feed, but that can take up to 48 hours.  And there seems to be some evidence that ticks may be developing a tolerance to some of the popular tick repellants, reducing their overall effectiveness.

Taking all of this into consideration, our vet, Dr. Regina Downey, DVM, of Exeter, NH, has recommended that we switch to Vectra 3D this year.  There are two preparations available, one that targets just ticks, and one that targets ticks, fleas, and mites.  Since fleas are never a problem for us, we chose the least chemically complex preparation to use for our dogs.

Because every situation and every dog is different, it's important to have a dialog with your vet about the risks and benefits to using topical "spot on" type treatments for tick control that can have serious side effects for many dogs.   The prevalence of ticks varies greatly in different parts of the country as well as between country and city environments, and teacup and miniature breeds are far more prone to significant toxic effects from these kinds of applications than much larger dogs.

While "spot on" treatments are not without their potential for side effects, Lyme Disease can be just as debilitating and deadly, especially if it is not diagnosed early in the course of the illness.  Your vet can help you weigh the relative pros and cons between the possible side effects from preventives and the risk of acquiring Lyme Disease in your area.

Homeopathic Veterinary Approaches

Dr. Downey also has some homeopathic tools to add to the tick-fighting arsenal.   One product she offers is her specially prepared Bicom solution that is added to our dogs' water bowls with every water change.  BICOM (short for BIological COMputer) utilizes bio-resonance vibration therapy as a method of modulating electromagnetic vibrations or frequency patterns that impair health.  In more advanced applications, it can be used to counteract negative influences on the body and the immune system.

I wonder if there is a Bicom application for dogs and furniture!
While this is a very simplistic explanation of a complex process that incorporates quantum physics and quantum biology, in a practical application for tick control, Dr. Downy utilizes native tick species from the general area to establish a standardized electromagnetic wave pattern and then uses the BICOM process to create a solution with the opposite or negative wave pattern, essentially creating a negative energy that theoretically will repel ticks.

The negative wave pattern is imprinted into a solution of water that can be administered in the dogs' drinking water or your morning orange juice and bedtime tea.  (Yes, people can use it too.  It is, after all, basically water that has been programmed to vibrate to a modified electromagnetic frequency.)

While it can be hard to know which methods are effective and to what degree, my personal experience with Dr. Downey's BICOM tick drops has been overwhelmingly positive.  While my husband is the first to point out that an "n of 1 is meaningless", being the "n" involved gives me a unique perspective.  I added BICOM drops to my liquid intake twice daily last year and despite extensive time spent gardening and playing in the yard with the dogs, not a single tick climbed on my clothing, into my hair, or onto my skin while I was outdoors.  In fact, the only ticks that I had personal contact with found me in my bed, where they tumbled off either one of the dogs or crawled off Steve's gardening clothing, which he often laid on the bed when he came in from working in the yard.

I am adding BICOM drops to my diet this spring and summer as well.  Recently a friend helped me to reinforce part of our fence with chicken wire before we sprayed for the first time this season.  She later related to me that she found multiple ticks in her hair while I had not a single tick find it's way onto me or my clothing.  Since I don't routinely spray myself nor do I use any kind of "spot on" preparations personally, I have no competing therapies to confuse the issue. BICOM drops have earned a permanent place in our repertoire.

Oil of Rose Geranium:  A Safe but Effective Topical Repellant

Elizabeth Rebecca and Mister Toughie (Spencer)
Unlike "spot on" chemical treatments that are applied monthly to kill ticks and in some cases, fleas and other parasites as well, topical repellant applications are applied to the dog's coat in order to discourage a tick from climbing onto your dog in the first place.

If used regularly, this can significantly reduce the number of ticks that will eventually attach to your pet even in the face of a "spot on" product, as well as minimize the number of ticks that will hitchhike into your home in your pet's fur.

Most "natural" repellants that are commercially available consist of a blend of essential oils in an oily or watery base that must be reapplied every few days.  They are effective repellants but usually pricy, considering how often you need to apply them and how much you need to use with each application.

A homemade version is easy to mix and just as effective at a fraction of the cost. My recipe is simple to make and just as effective as a comparable product that is available at our local natural pet supply shop, yet costs me about one-sixth the price of the commercially produced product if I make it myself.

In a clean spray bottle (you can buy spritzer or spray bottles at the "dollar store" and most general merchandise stores), combine one bottle (16 ounces) of witch hazel and a tablespoon (15 ml) of each of the following essential oils: oil of eucalyptus, oil of lemon grass, and oil of rose geranium. The oils will float on top of the witch hazel so you need to shake the bottle gently to mix before and during spraying.

I find that witch hazel makes a very nice base for these kinds of mixtures; there is no oil to stain clothing or furniture after the dog races off from a spray session and it dries nicely on the dogs as well as on us. This mixture is safe (non-toxic) for use on dogs and keeps indefinitely.

Our dogs are low to the ground with long, thick feathers and slippers on their lower legs and feet.  I spray the dogs with special attention to their legs, tails, bellies, chest, and under their chin at least every 2-3 days. You don't need to saturate the fur, but spray it liberally and rub their fur to spread it through to the under-layers. Reapply every two-three days (when the fragrance begins to fade) and after a bath.

The late Mister Dudley, with Spencer (AKA Toughie) and Emily Rose.
While our big old German Shepherd always stood at attention to be sprayed, three of four of our little Cavaliers hide when they see me approach them with the spritz bottle in hand.  The spray does have an herbal aroma to it, one that our dogs aren't necessarily fond of, but it goes a long way toward preventing ticks from climbing on them in the first place.

A simple way to treat a small dog is to hold her on a towel in your lap in typical "belly rub" fashion.  Rub her belly and help rub the spray into the fur at the same time. With the dog lying in your lap on her back, cuddled in a towel, two people can treat her thoroughly in less than three minutes.

We still check our dogs carefully for ticks at least daily, but the number of ticks we find even just crawling in their feathers, slippers, and tail has been reduced by as much as 90% in the very early spring when this topical spray is the only method of control we might be using. 

I have seen it suggested that applying oil of rose geranium to the dog's collar is an effective tick repellant.  I have not tried this method but in my experience, the blend of oils that I use in the repellant spray is much more effective than any single oil used alone.  Also, it is very important not to apply essential oils directly to the dog's skin undiluted.  Essential oils are very concentrated and undiluted, can be very irritating to human and canine skin alike.  If you decide to try applying the oils to the dog's collar, remove the collar to apply the oil and be sure that it is completely dry before putting it back around your dog's neck.

Rose Geranium Oil Spray for Tick Control in the Yard

For ongoing tick control, we add oil of rose geranium to our general garden spray at least once a month. That, along with home made garlic oil, effectively controls the number of ticks and fleas in the environment. I mix essential oil of rose geranium in water or natural garden spray concentrate to spray in the yard at a rate of one ounce (30 ml) of essential oil per gallon of solution.  You can find our entire protocol here.  A revised and updated recipe will be posted on this blog shortly as well, so be sure to sign up to receive new posts.

A dog tick in its adhesive prison.
Despite our best efforts, the occasional tick still manages  to find its way into the house.  We check the dogs daily (often twice daily) for stowaways and we check ourselves when we come in from gardening.   Wearing light colored clothing makes this task easier, but more often than not I am more apt to find ticks on my husband's gardening clothes than I am on the dogs.

For ticks that stow away in the long fur of our dogs' tails, legs and bellies or on Steve's gardening togs and then drop onto floors or furnishings, adhesive tape makes a quick and easy method of catching and disposing of the offending and unwelcome gatecrashers.  Simply place a piece of transparent tape over the tick and then fold the tape back over on itself, forming a permanent prison. Dispose of it in the trash.

In my experience, effective control of ticks requires a comprehensive, multifaceted, integrated approach. Each method we use adds a layer of protection that is cumulative and helps us to dramatically reduce the risk of a tick borne illness for ourselves and our dogs.


For more information about tick borne illnesses and tick control, visit the Massachusetts Department of Public Health Tick-borne Diseases page. 

Dr. Regina Downey, DVM, owns the  Holistic Animal Healing Clinic in Exeter, NH.
Visit her at www.holisticanimalhealingclinic.org.

Note:  Not all treatments that are safe and effective for dogs are equally safe for cats and other small mammals.  Always review the use of any products with your vet for safety around all of your family's fur-members.


  1. Great advice for those of us who like to remain 100% organic; we're lucky not to have a tick problem where we are [we have the Blandford fly instead which can also lead to nasty long term problems]. I believe you can also introduce nematodes into the soil which will parasitise and kill the larvae of the ticks - I know there's a parasite for most nasties in the world!

    1. Sarah, tick species vary greatly geographically, but I am not aware of any significant success using nematodes to control ticks in this region.

      Studies conducted at the University of Rhode Island several years ago by Zhouia et al showed that the greatest pathogenicity of nematodes involved engorged adults. Unfed females and immature ticks were essentially unaffected.

      I know that research is ongoing, but I have not personally located any information that would look promising for our area, but if anyone else has, I'd love to hear about it.

  2. This is an excellent article! We often get a few ticks crawling on us and the cats in the spring, so we are constantly checking for them. I have not known of anything other than diatomaceous earth to control them. You have given me some excellent ideas. The oil of geranium sounds like an excellent product to use. I often use Ledum homeopathic remedy after a tick bite, topically and internally. It has always helped.

    1. Michelle, I would check with your vet before using essential oils with a cat.

      I believe that some EO's may be safe to use when diluted, but I am aware of reports of serious adverse reactions in cats. I don't know any of the specifics, but it is best to discuss it with your vet when there is any question of safety whatsoever.

      If your cats are outdoor cats who like to eat grass, I would also check with the vet about the safety of spraying the yard as well.

  3. What a wonderful informative posting Cathy. It is good to know that there are alternatives that can be used. With our mild winter I am afraid there will be even more of the pests this year. A couple of my blogging buddies had gotten Lyme Disease and it can really be debilitating. Your doggies are so sweet.

    1. Thanks Lona! While we are continuing to have tremendous success with our various efforts, I have to say, I have never seen a year quite like this for ticks. While we are seeing significant reductions in the numbers from week to week, so far, we have already seen more ticks this year than we saw in all of last year. Amazing how a difference in the winter weather can make such a difference in the insect population!

  4. Fab post and lots to use to help this very serious problem especially this year with the increase in numbers of ticks...thx

    1. Donna, glad you found something helpful here! This is definitely turning into the year of the tick!

  5. The scotch tape tick prison is brilliant and much less gross than crushing them with your fingers. haha.

    1. My goal is never to touch them! I discovered the tape trick by accident when I was changing a bandage and saw a rascal scurrying by on the floor. I was holding a piece of adhesive tape in my hand and our usual tick kit (a jar of olive oil with a pair of tweezers) was nowhere close.

      Necessity is the mother of invention: using the tape seemed like the fastest way to stop it in its tracks and from that, a new method of tick control was born! Thanks for stopping by/

  6. Very good information. I had not heard of the oil of rose geranium used to repel ticks, and have never heard of Bicom drops. I'm afraid the ticks will be very bad this year as it never got cold enough to really kill them off. Your dogs are adorable, and I appreciate you telling us about alternatives instead of chemical controls. Thanks, too, for the advice on my tent caterpillars!

    1. Good luck with your tent caterpillars - hope the Bt helps. The ticks are already bad, and staying ahead of them has become a daily effort. A much colder, snowier winter would have helped enormously!

  7. Thanks for such wonderful advice. I spray our yard monthly to keep fleas and ticks away. I will try the oil and garlic solution for sure.

  8. Paula, we'll be posting an updated recipe for our gardening spray (which includes homemade garlic oil) in the next several days, so stay tuned! And you're most welcome!

  9. Thank you for posting this important information, I've been using DE for some time now on our dogs and know that it works perfectly and was interested in rose geranium spray. Thank you for sharing

    1. You're very welcome.... thanks for dropping by!

  10. Hi Cathy... I sent my e-mail as requested to your e-mail address on your profile. Since the spelling of your name is different, I am concerned that I had the correct address so let me know via my site if you don't get the info... Thanks much, Larry. Your dogs are so sweet... we have one across the street of the same breed.

    1. Thanks Larry, and I emailed you privately about the lamp!

  11. Excellent article full of interesting advice. I am going to forward it to my husband so we can think about implementing some of your procedures.

  12. This was an excellent post. We haven't had much trouble with ticks yet this year, but I am going to try your recipe for tick control using the oil of rose geranium. We have five dogs, and rarely do they get any ticks, but it's better to be safe than sorry. Love the pics of your dogs by the way, and I adore their names!


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