All About Ticks — And the Truth About Frontline, Advantix, Etc.

Ticks are extremely difficult to control and prevent, even with the most effective products. Get the info, including the truth versus myths.

By: superfantastic
Ticks carry nasty diseases. By: superfantastic

I hate ticks. I don’t find them disgusting; I have no problem removing them. I just hate that every year, tick populations are worse in endemic areas, spreading to more areas of the country, and carrying more diseases.

Ticks are extremely difficult to control and prevent, even with the most effective products. The diseases they carry are insidious to diagnose and treat.

Ticks SUCK! Literally.

There is too much information on this topic for the space of this article, so here is what I want to accomplish:

  1. Briefly describe “tick-borne diseases.”
  2. Get to the heart of tick prevention.
  3. Enter the quagmire of the efficacy and safety of these products. (Yowza!)

Diseases

  • Lyme disease (the most common)
  • Ehrlichia
  • Anaplasmosis
  • Rocky Mountain spotted fever (and it ain’t only in the Rockies)
  • Babesiosis

Symptoms

Symptoms can vary, but a dog with tick-borne disease is typically lethargic, may be running a fever, has aches and pains, a limp, swollen joints, swollen lymph nodes, all of the above, and more.

There are many other dangers of tick diseases, including changes in the blood (decreased white blood cells, decreased platelets) and kidney disease (lyme nephritis). Additional blood tests, ultrasound and biopsies may be needed.

Definitive diagnosis can be difficult. Severely decreased platelets, brain and ocular involvement, and kidney disease can be life-threatening. These symptoms are uncommon, thankfully.

Nix the Ticks

If you find a tick on your dog, get rid of it! Be as vigilant as you can.

You don’t need anything more “high-tech” than your fingers and a tissue, but use tweezers or hemostats if you prefer.

This was a 4DX SNAP test administered to a 13-year-old dog. The greenish-bluish spot on the left is the control; the middle spot shows positive for anaplasmosis; the lightest spot, on the right, shows positive for Lyme disease.

Testing

Most veterinarians have an in-house test for heartworm, Lyme, ehrlichia and anaplasmosis that takes just a few minutes to run, during your exam, with a few drops of blood. It’s called the 4DX SNAP test. A positive on this test, however, does not mean your pet has active disease. In fact, most of the dogs I test that come up positive have no symptoms.

This test tells you if your dog was bitten by a tick carrying one of the organisms. It does not tell you if your pet acquired actual disease from the tick. So what do you do? Most experts do not recommend treating a perfectly healthy, asymptomatic dog that comes up positive on the 4DX test.

Additional tests can be sent out to a lab to help make a more accurate diagnosis if tick-borne disease is suspected. The results take several days, and the tests are a bit expensive. Experts argue about the reliability of some of the additional testing. Usually, when labs are still developing and introducing new and different tests for a disease, it means the definitive test has not yet been found.

Treatment

Fortunately, if a pet has clinical tick-borne disease, they usually respond quickly to doxycycline, a common antibiotic. I put most of these feverish, painful dogs on “doxy” and a pain reliever/anti-inflammatory. The majority of them are showing improvement in 24 hours or less.

If the dog is showing NO symptoms, evidence-based medicine suggests not to treat with antibiotics. In my area, in the Northeast, many dogs would be on antibiotics for their entire lives if we treated based on a positive 4DX test alone.

Vaccination

There is a Lyme vaccine available, and many experts suggest it be used in endemic areas. The negatives of the vaccine are that it is not 100% protective, it protects for only a short time, probably less than a year, and it is an additional vaccine with the associated risks of any vaccination.

Prevention

Ticks are devious, tenacious little critters! They are harder to prevent than fleas. There are topicals like Advantix and Frontline Plus, and collars such as Preventic and Scalibor. Even if you believe in these products and use them according to the label, you may still find some ticks on your dog.

You say: “This stuff doesn’t work, Doc. And it’s expensive!”

Well, honestly, “this stuff” DOES work. But nothing is 100% effective against ticks. Say you live in a heavily infested area, you’re using one of these products, and you find two ticks on your dog. Without the product, I guarantee you probably would have found 20 ticks. And with your use of the topicals, those two ticks should not have attached yet, lessening the possibility of transmitting disease.

‘But Those Chemicals Are Horrible, Doc!’

If you want to treat your pet totally naturopathically, you will probably not use these products. But your dog will get more ticks. And you are putting your dog at greater risk for developing Lyme or other tick-borne diseases. It’s the plain and simple truth. This is not my opinion. This is a medically proven fact.

If you use citronella, NEEM, feed garlic, and so on, you may deter some ticks, but these products are not very effective. If you are having good luck with a natural preventive, that’s great. If not, consider moving to northern Canada.

I occasionally hear people claim that veterinarians recommend these products only to make a profit, which is an ignorant and ill-informed myth. The products are available over-the-counter now, and some of the major online pharmacies and similar companies have had these products (through corrupt and illicit practices) for a long time.

Vets are not counting on these products as profit-makers. Recommending them actually loses money for veterinarians, in a sick sort of way.

It’s much more lucrative for the vet to have pets sick from fleas or ticks and treat them than it is to recommend prevention. But we want to keep your pets healthy, free of parasites and free of the diseases they cause. It’s our job to recommend a flea and tick prevention program based on risks and the pet’s health.

Evidence-Based Truth About Frontline, Advantix, Etc.

Despite what you have read on the internet, there is no evidence to suggest that Frontline (Fipronil) or Advantix (Imidacloprid/permethrins) cause cancer or other serious diseases. These products have been around for decades.

The ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center does not consider these products dangerous or toxic if used properly. The Preventic collar is dangerous if ingested and should be used with caution around young children. The product is labeled appropriately.

Your dog may have an allergic reaction to these medications, as is true of any medicine. That is a risk you may not want to take, but most of these reactions are mild and don’t require treatment. In thousands of applications, I have had two dogs develop sores at the application site that needed treatment. These owners let the dog scratch at the application area for a week before seeking help.

A higher percentage of dogs have a transient itching sensation that usually goes away in a few minutes. I believe I have had one dog out of thousands that was neurologically impaired for three weeks after the owner put on a product not purchased from a vet. The dog recovered completely in time.

If you have to use a tick preventive, I feel much better about the current generation of products than I did with the older chemicals we used in the 1980s. The old sprays and dips were toxic. The house sprays were toxic. And they weren’t that effective. The poor animals still had fleas and ticks, horrible itching and Lyme disease. People were forced to spray and bomb their homes, exposing them to lingering insecticides in their environment.

Flea and tick control is much safer and more effective today, for you and your pets.

‘This Stuff Will Kill My Dog!’

I know some of you are out there spouting the evils of these “TOXIC, SCARY, CARCINOGENS,” swearing these products are going to kill your pets. There is no proof of this, and there is evidence that they are safe.

Proving that a product causes cancer requires many years of dedicated research. Frontline and Advantage have now been used on dogs since the ’90s with no rise in cancers or syndromes that we can identify in dogs or in humans. Since these products are used on crops, studies have been done on their safety. Some rats fed massive doses have a higher incidence of thyroid cancer. Making the leap from feeding rats huge amounts to placing a small amount on your dog topically are very different scenarios.

Of course, the FDA’s approval does not mean that we will not learn more about potential toxicity or carcinogenic effects in the future. There is a risk with every medication, every vaccination, every supplement, every topical. What we need to do is a make a decision about risk versus benefit, and go from there.

Make the Decision That Feels Right for You

In non-endemic tick areas, if you can control fleas and ticks without the use of these products, that’s wonderful. Your pet is not at great risk.

If you are in a tick endemic area, no matter how carefully you go over your pet with a fine-tooth comb once or twice a day, you will not find all the ticks on your dog, particularly the tiny deer ticks. When I got Lyme disease, I never found the tick, just the rash. We don’t see the rash on dogs. Since dogs can’t tell you when they feel a tick, or eat the tick, or develop the rash, I suggest trying to prevent ticks as best you can.

My best dog, Bruno, a beautiful 80-pound black and white Border Collie mix, died of kidney failure due to Lyme nephritis. He came to me as a stray and had already contracted the disease. Lyme nephritis is not the typical course for most Lyme-positive dogs; it is uncommon. He was unlucky. He responded to treatment somewhat, but irreversible damage had already been done to his kidneys.

Bruno was very special, the human kind of canine. He was brilliant. He liked to stare at me. That’s how he would know what I was thinking. Bruno knew when I was so tired it would only be a short walk that night. He knew when we were driving to the lake for a great stick-throwing marathon.

And when he could no longer run into the lake water, watching sadly as the stick made ripples at a distance he could no longer swim, he told me it was time to leave this earth. I told him I was sorry I wasn’t around earlier in his life… to protect him from dying of Lyme disease.

vet-cross60p

This pet health content was written by a veterinarian.

Dr. Debora Lichtenberg, VMD

View posts by Dr. Debora Lichtenberg, VMD
Dr. Debora Lichtenberg, VMD, is a small animal and exotics veterinarian who has split her time between a veterinary practice in Pelham, Massachusetts, and her studio in New York City. Dr. Lichtenberg is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine with 30 years of experience. Her special interests are soft tissue surgery and oncology.

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43 Comments

  1. Ls
    June 02, 2013

    Look up the material safety data sheet on frontline etc. and decide for yourself if u really want this poison on you’re era, in your home and around your children. We are a world reliant on chemicals. These chemicals are causing cancer and destroying our environment. We need to learn to work with nature. The current solution if poisoning everything is not working

    Reply
    1. Pets Adviser
      July 01, 2013

      Here’s the Material Safety Data Sheet right here:

      http://www.westernu.edu/bin/safety/msds/vmc/Frontline%20spray.pdf

      There is no known cancer risk (“Chemicals known to cause cancer: None of the ingredients listed”).

      Reply
  2. Max's Mother
    July 01, 2013

    I have a follow up question about Frontline Plus. My friend, who raises hounds, explained that Frontline Plus does not prevent ticks, it only kills the ticks once they have bitten the dog. She further explained that it is when the tick bites the dog that the disease is transmitted through the tick’s saliva into the dog. My question remains then, does Frontline actually prevent ticks from biting dogs? If not, it then becomes a tick killer, not a tick preventative and then does not really prevent lymes disease. Is the correct?

    Reply
    1. Pets Adviser
      July 01, 2013

      A tick does not have to BITE the dog for Frontline Plus to kick in and kill the tick. It kills fleas/ticks on contact with the dog’s coat.

      “Does Frontline actually prevent ticks from biting dogs?” Yes, it can. But… Ticks might still attach themselves (bite) the dog, but will quickly die. So it doesn’t prevent ALL ticks from biting.

      So is there still a risk of Lyme disease when using Frontline Plus? Let’s put it this way: Your pet’s risk of getting Lyme disease in an endemic area is a lot greater without the use of a tick preventive.

      Reply
  3. Donna
    July 18, 2013

    My dog licked a drop of frontline about an hour ago it dripped to her side where she could reach it. I am now terrified and washed it all off of her. Would a small drop likely hurt my dog. She is a chi mix about 10lbs
    Thank you

    Reply
    1. Pets Adviser
      July 18, 2013

      A small amount would most likely not be harmful. Eating a whole package or packet might. We would monitor a dog that did this just to be sure. And of course, when in doubt, contact your veterinarian asap.

      Reply
  4. Kelly
    July 28, 2013

    Hi, we do have a Scllibor collar on our dog in Spain, but we found a tick today that had managed to attach. Does this mean our dog is at risk, or will the scalibor collar help prevent the dog catching any diseases even though the tick did attach. Thank you. We are very worried.

    Reply
  5. SadPetOwner
    November 07, 2013

    very informative article. i have a young 4-year-old dog with lyme nephritis, struggling to stay alive. i think 100% differently now about the critical importance of prevention. i too wish i could go back in time and adjust my lyme disease strategy in spite of my aversion to “toxic” prevention products. great article. thanks for sharing your insights.

    Reply
    1. Dae'smom
      November 13, 2013

      So sorry sadpetowner, we just put our pup to sleep last night due to nephritis. we used advatntix plus religiously and did pick ticks off of our girl a few times. she was a lab, age 7 and went fast, we had no clue she had lyme until it was too late….we didnt want her to suffer so put her down after two weeks, we tried fluids etc but she stopped eating and was losing weight. we never got the lyme vaccine, but if we knew labs were more prone to nephritis we would have thought about it even knowing that it may not help. Sorry about Bruno doc, and your post is right on the nose. My doc said to us last night as he was putting our girl to rest that he was sorry he didnt talk to us about the vaccine more, we were too.

      Reply
  6. Debora lichtenberg
    November 09, 2013

    Sorry to hear about your pup with lyme nephritis. My own Bruno, a wonderful Border collie mix, fought the good fight for a few years with the same disease. I do everything I can to keep ticks off my two little guys because I live in the heart of lyme country. Good thoughts to you and your dog.

    Reply
  7. Debora lichtenberg
    November 15, 2013

    Dae’s Mom: Please don’t beat yourself up about the vaccine. It’s a help but is far from perfect. Veterinary researchers and academics are working hard on trying to fight the tick borne diseases. Maybe in the next decade…we will know more.

    Reply
  8. JS
    November 29, 2013

    I understand how scary the diseases from ticks are, but my collie died from what ended up being three different cancers — one of which she was treated for was thyroid cancer. And she was on Frontline Plus for years. This fact sheet on fipronil is pretty darn scary to me: http://www.beyondpesticides.org/pesticides/factsheets/Fipronil.pdf. Our choices are pretty poor — possibly poison our pets with pesticides or take our chances with natural means and get them tested regularly (all the while worrying). Yes, lots of things cause cancer and one might argue there is no proof it was the fipronil. But there isn’t any way to guarantee it wasn’t, either. It seems to take a long time for scientists to decide something is bad, so we just have to make our own decisions, I guess.

    Reply
  9. Skip
    July 21, 2015

    I just found a red bubble on my dog’s leg. I use Frontline Plus, but I forgot this month, so it has been 32 days since I applied it. I just reapplied it (last dose 6/20, current dose 7/21). He seems fine, but hte bubble is obviously tender. I love this dog more than you can imagine, but I am also broke. I could swing $100, but not some massive Vet bill. What do I do? Advice anyone, please?

    Reply
    1. pelhm
      July 22, 2015

      Impossible to say if this is a tick lesion or not. Tick bites can leave a mark or a scab lesion for several weeks. If there is a skin lesion that is not disappearing in a week or two, it should be checked out by your vet

      Reply
    2. Melissa Smith
      July 23, 2015

      I well understand the fear of vet bills — I had a dog who was a beloved walking wallet drainer. The thing is, when you’re not sure, the best thing to do is always go to the vet. My vet was really awesome about working with me financially and doing a payment plan. I think most vets are. I’d give him or her a call, and be honest — tell them you’re not sure what you have here, but you’re worried about not being able to pay the bill, and would they be willing to work with you?

      Let us know what happens!

      Reply
  10. Mingli
    September 30, 2015

    Hi

    Reply
    1. Melissa Smith
      September 30, 2015

      Hi Mingli! The best thing you can do if you are concerned is to call your veterinarian. He or she will be able to advise you whether to bring your dog in or not. Keep us posted as to how she is doing!

      Reply
      1. Mingli
        October 01, 2015

        thanks! i read online that if the pet exhibits lethargy, not eating, or problems with hindlegs, then there is a serious problem. She doesnt have these issues. But she does cough (like choking) sometimes, after food. some websites say it could be due to tick poison and throat paralysis…but after coughing for a moment, shes back to normal. I dont know if it warrants a vet visit. I called the vet, the receptionist told me it would probably cost an onwards of $300 and i dont have that kind of dough to spend now. i guess i will continue to observe her. there are less ticks seen around her area and also not many falling out from her body, combed her and there was some. lesser than before. so i guess, perhaps the tick wash medication is working…or have the bugs gone into hiding! ahhh…

        Reply
        1. Melissa Smith
          October 01, 2015

          Mingli, you’re doing the right things. Do remember that it can take some time for the medication to work completely. While you’re waiting, I would try and take a look around your property and see where your dog might be picking up the ticks. Look around for brush and rock walls (ticks surprisingly love them) and see if you can clear some of that out.

          The coughing probably isn’t a big deal, especially if she inhales her food really fast. But it is something to keep an eye on and definitely call your vet if it gets worse in any way at all.
          Ticks are great at hiding, so keep doing what you’re doing with the combing and checking! Don’t forget to check the ears as well, I used to find them in my dog’s ears all the time (ew).

          Reply
  11. Melissa Smith
    October 07, 2015

    Mingli it does sound like it’s working, the hard part is that it takes so much time! Frontline and other repellents can take a few days to really become effective and sometimes its a tough battle. I definitely recommend calling the vet and just checking to see if there is anything else you can do. Talk to the vet techs too, they see a lot and I bet one or two of them have dealt with the exact same thing. Do you know where the ticks are coming from? I’d be so scared if I saw so many ticks everywhere, Lol!

    Reply
  12. Danny Berliant
    May 01, 2016

    Hi, Our dog recently tested positive for a tick infection, but isn’t showing any signs of being sick. He is energetic and totally normal. The vet said we could get an additional test that will cost $140, but said we “don’t have to…” I obviously don’t want anything to happen to my dog and if there’s any risk in waiting at all I’d rather just get the additional test done, but if we could avoid paying for the additional test without any risk to our dog I would prefer that. What do you recommend?

    Reply
    1. Melissa Smith
      May 02, 2016

      Hi Danny! Unfortunately, you’re probably not going to like my answer, lol. But the fact is I can’t recommend any course of action because I’m not trained as a veterinarian. Your vet will know best what to advise, simply because of his or her training and their hands-on knowledge of your dog. Just out of curiosity, why did he say “you don’t have to”? Is it because treatment is started already?

      Reply
      1. Danny Berliant
        May 02, 2016

        No, there hasn’t been any treatment. I guess she said that it’s possible that the infection is inactive and he could be ok. She said we could wait to see if he has any symptoms. He doesn’t have ANY symptoms at all now, but we don’t know if maybe they could come out eventually and if the infection could be doing damage to his kidney/liver all this time, so maybe we’ll just get the advanced test.

        Reply
        1. Melissa Smith
          May 02, 2016

          It’s such a hard call, Danny, I know. Before my dog was diagnosed with Myasthenia gravis, I had to make the same call about a $200 test — the only one to determine if she actually had the disease. I ended up getting it done because I needed to know. She did in fact have it, which enabled me to treat her better for the last few years of her life. Sometimes just the peace of mind of knowing is worth it. I’ve got my fingers crossed for you!

          Reply
    2. patriotkat
      May 04, 2016

      My vet recommended to definitely get the C6 test done to see what his antibody number is. test again 6 months later to see if it has come down after a month of doxycycline.Also, some breeds like Golden retrievers are more susceptible to kidney damage, so I had my dog tested for that as well.

      Reply
  13. Cort Cort
    May 09, 2016

    Should a dog only see a vet if they are showing symptoms?

    My dog has been on s preventative but I found a tick on her today that was indeed latched on. I tried removing the tick with tweezers but the head is still on her. My understanding is that its ok for thr head to stay on because her body will push it out. Is that correct?

    Ive never NOT been able to get the head off and Ive never had a tic latched on her body despite being on a preventative.

    Reply
    1. Pippa Elliott
      May 11, 2016

      Hi Cort,
      Tricky! The tick kind of ‘staples’ it’s mouthparts into the skin, so that black dot of a head embedded in the skin is really difficult to remove. What often happens is the mouthparts act as a foreign body and irritate the skin, causing it to become red, swollen, and inflamed. This is called a tick granuloma. Sometimes they become infected and the only solution is antibiotics and to surgically remove the lump along with the mouthparts.
      Try bathing the area with salt water to reduce the risk of infection, and monitor for swelling….and if in doubt, see your vet! I certainly wouldn’t go digging around trying to prise the head out 🙁
      Hope that helps.
      Dr Pippa

      Reply
      1. Cort Cort
        May 11, 2016

        Thank you! Ive been applying some hydrogen peroxide but will switch to salt water. Found another tick in the meantime but this came right off, fortunatly.

        Reply
        1. Melissa Smith
          May 11, 2016

          Hi Cort Cort! I feel your pain – I am a pet sitter as well as working here at Petful and so I always have to do tick inspections when my charges and I come back from a walk. Ticks give me the shivers, but it’s so much easier to remove them before they latch on.

          Then I run like mad for the bathroom, throw it in the toilet and flush like 100 times xD

          Reply
          1. Cort Cort
            May 11, 2016

            Ha! I do the same…and I scowl the entire time while thinking, “No one, NO ONE, messes with my pets!”
            My dog has quite a coat of hair though so they seem to burrow and it seems I miss them quite a bit.. Ugh.
            I bought a product online from Vets Best that can be applied anytime and along with the topical so Im hoping it might help. At the moment she has a good 7-8 bite marks from ticks.

            Reply
            1. Melissa Smith
              May 11, 2016

              Poor baby! It’s an awful time of year for ticks, that’s for sure. I actually found one on myself the other day…I won’t tell you how I reacted but I bet you can guess LOL.

    2. adam
      September 16, 2016

      Guys try diatomaceous earth put in dog feed and can be applied to fur though i only use in the food about half teaspoon daily i have never seen a tick on my dog and dont use non of the collars or other products. believe it naturally kills parasites and repels the ticks

      Reply
  14. mommylonglegs
    July 18, 2016

    A well written article with a very impactful end. Thank you so much for sharing your knowledge, doc. I read it from beginning to end and there is some great information here.

    Reply
    1. Melissa Smith
      July 18, 2016

      Thanks for the feedback, mommylonglegs! It always makes us happy when we can help pet parents find useful information!

      Reply
  15. StreetHawk
    September 30, 2016

    I used Fipronil Spot on treatment yesterday, and a few hours after I applied it, my dog started having bouts of coughing, hacking, and gagging. It lasts for a minute and then he’s fine. He’s happy, hyper and eating well. In 24 hours, he’s had 3 cough fits. I know I applied the correct dosage and in the right spots. Could it be related to the Fipronil? Or is this Kennel Cough or something else?

    Reply
    1. Melissa Smith
      October 01, 2016

      Hi StreetHawk! I did some googling as I was curious myself, but unfortunately the results were just too diverse to be able to tell what is causing the coughing. I recommend just giving the vet a buzz to see if this is a normal side effect and if they want to check him out. Do let us know, I am really curious about what it could be!

      Reply
  16. Benny Mat Oke
    March 19, 2017

    dont use on collie thats kind of anti tick product….i dont know why maybe cause allergic to thats breed or what….many sell product may have restriction use on collie breed….

    Reply
    1. Melissa Smith
      March 19, 2017

      Hi Benny! I have never heard that before, do you know why collies shouldn’t have it?

      Reply
      1. Benny Mat Oke
        March 19, 2017

        https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/918a82de3dae539383210325f326bc2bf6a368ca780f9cedec0e5eb0c651592b.png https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/14601890cccf4e34594f82040374908a28cead44b22543761093fc7545ae1831.png because that breed is sensitif….i will attach pic but in indonesian language….but you can see the word “jangan diberikan pada anjing ras collie” mean dont give to collie breed dog

        Reply
        1. Melissa Smith
          March 20, 2017

          Thank you!

          Reply
  17. Benny Mat Oke
    March 19, 2017

    i use frontline on mini pincher and shihtsu they all fine…

    Reply
  18. Darla Bennett
    July 18, 2017

    This made me cry…..im so sorry for your loss.

    Reply
  19. Cebanas Dima
    August 18, 2017

    advantix and frontline sponsored this post?

    Reply

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