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Here's how to keep the nasty bloodsuckers at bay with the least possible risk to you and your pets

Q. Is there any product that can be put on lawns to kill ticks? I am against chemicals, because we have a cat, a golden retriever and a koi pond. But I am very afraid of ticks and will not even go on my grass because I don't want to risk getting Lyme disease. (Our dog gets a Lyme vaccination every year.) I know you have stated that ticks are not found on lawns, but my dog had surgery, and I found a tick on the sticky tape holding the plastic bag on her paw. I did read your tick advice from last year,and found a garlic-based mosquito repelling lawn spray at a local feed store. But the man there recommended Zodiac yard spray instead. Is this safe for a dog and cat that play on the grass?

---D. N. in NJ

A.    Don't feel bad, D.N.; many people greatly fear ticks. But it sounds like at least some of your fears are misdirected. I urge you to read up on the habits of these nasty little blood suckers; the knowledge you gain may or may not help you get over a little of your fear, but it will certainly help you better know when to be afraid.

For instance, ticks do not hunt on groomed lawns; they climb plants afoot or two high and wait for a mammal to come along they can attach themselves to. The rare tick on a lawn could have just fallen off a pet, wild animal, human or other victim; or (folks with parasitosis may want to skip to the next paragraph here) dropped down off a tree branch, which ticks frequently do in search of prey. People pick up the vast majority of ticks walking through woods, weeds or brush; well-kept lawns are pretty safe.

Last year's Question of the Week on ticks went into a lot of detail on personal protection; click here to read that archived advice, and then you can come back and continue reading this year's follow up.

Oh, and I hope you're aware that your dog's vaccine doesn't do a thing to prevent him from being bitten by ticks or bringing them into the house; only a specific flea and tick product can do that. Bill Quarles,director of the Bio Integral Research Center (BIRC in Berkeley,California—specialists in 'least toxic' controls for noxious pests—and Dr. Lisa Murphy, assistant professor of toxicology at the University of Pennsylvania Veterinary School's New Bolton Center, both recommend"Frontline", one of those newer-style 'spot on' flea and tick repellants.

Dr. Murphy explains that Frontline's active ingredient, fipronil, binds GABA receptors, whose shape in mammals is vastly different from those of fleas and ticks, making it safe for us but toxic to those—are you ready?—"ectoparasites".
(WHO you gonna call?! TICK—Busters!" Sorry.)  

Anyway, both Dr. Murphy and Bill Quarles assure me that, right now, it is the product that most reliably kills fleas and ticks with the most minimal risk to you and your pets. (Both also add that they are only speaking of Frontline—which is only available by prescription from aveterinarian—and share serious concerns about the active ingredients in some of the other 'spot on' type flea and tick treatments out there.)

Yes, it is HIGHLY unusual for me to recommend ANY synthetic chemical.But ticks pose real health problems, and no good organic controls yet exist. So, to borrow a favorite phrase from my good buddy Bill Quarles,this is the 'least toxic' method we know of right now.

That Zodiac yard spray is not. Its active ingredient is permethrin, a synthetic chemical I do recommend in two very different ways to control ticks, but NOT in a lawn spray, where it poses a serious risk to your cat, a huge one to your fish, and an unknown but very real one to you.It would be much wiser to treat some clothes with one of the .5% permethrin sprays we recommend in last year's Question and wear them when you go outdoors. Ticks will not come near you; you only spray your clothing, not your skin or your environment; and one treatment lasts two weeks, even when the clothes are washed.  

Q. Hi Mike: I read your Question of the Week  recommending the use of "tick tubes" and am considering purchasing some. However, I have read that their active ingredient,permethrin, is extremely toxic to cats. I have two indoor/outdoor cats that often hunt mice. If a cat eats a mouse that has been in contact with one of the treated cotton balls, will they be affected?

---Kathy in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia

Thank you, Kath. I'll be perfectly honest here—I know about the potential for permethrin to cause problems for cats, have of ten wondered about this myself, but have kind of avoided dealing with it.However, you've now shamed me into seeking out an answer, which the a fore mentioned Dr. Murphy has been kind enough to provide.

Damminix Tick Tubes are little cardboard tubes filled with cotton balls that have been soaked with a 7.4% concentration of permethrin. Field mice—the most reliable source of the ticks that carry Lyme disease—take the cotton back to their nests to use as bedding, where the permethrin kills any ticks that come into that nest. Sold in sets of 24, the tubes are available at some retail outlets, and you can order them on the web. You'll find lots more info at

Yes, there have been reports of cats having very bad reactions to permethrin. Luckily, Dr. Murphy explains that these have caused by highly concentrated permethrin products (a whopping 45 to 65%!) meant to only be applied to dogs, like 'Hartz Control One Spot' and 'Zodiac Fleatrol Spot On'. But because they are the same kind of 'spot on' product as Frontline, and because the warnings on those tiny little packages can be hard to read, people have mistakenly used them on felines. "And just one drop is enough to cause serious problems for a cat", warns Dr. Murphy. In fact, she advises cat owners not to even use them on their dogs.  "A cat could be badly injured just rubbing against a dog that's been treated with a 45% permethrin product", she warns.

But she doesn't feel the tick tube cotton balls will cause cats any such problem; the dose of permethrin is much lower, and it isn't actually applied to the mouse. Likewise, she has no problem with the home-made 'tick-proofing mouse runs' we described last year,where you line the inside of a pipe with fabric treated with a .5%clothing spray (or Garden's Alive "Pyola",which is also a .5% concentration of permethrin when mixed with water at the recommend level) to give any mice that hide inside a de-ticking."That low a dose is very safe", she says.

But she adds that she also simply prefers fipronil to permethrin as a flea and tick controller. In fact, were it not a violation of Federal law to recommend any non-labeled use of a pesticide, we might even suggest using a drop of fipronil on cotton balls or pipe lining instead of permetrhin. Unfortunately, that Federal law prevents us from making such a suggestion. Ahem.

You Bet Your Garden   Question of the Week  ©2005Mike McGrath.



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