Tick Talk: Do All-Natural DIY Tick Repellents Really Work?
We’ve all heard the claims – there are all-natural essential oils that keep ticks off of dogs. But have you ever seen them work? Kevin Roberts takes it upon himself – literally – to test the effectiveness of essential oils and other natural products’ abilities to keep ticks away.
Nobody likes ticks. As a general rule, they are disgusting and awful. Tiny little creatures that cause big problems. The kind that ruins a day for everyone. It’s not just that they’re nasty bloodsuckers that makes them so despised- it’s the fact that they are carriers of many dangerous diseases. Of course, having that in mind, you’d think that most people want to avoid ticks. In general, you’d be right. But, I can tell you I’m not most people. In fact, I’ve recently gone out of my way to find ticks. I guess you could say that I took the whole “Know Your Enemy” thing a little too far. I welcomed these little jerks into my life. I took my time to find a good crop of ticks too. On every shed hunt, hike, scooter, and run, I brought along a jar, and eagerly searched my legs, and the dogs for ticks. I collected over 600 ticks in various places around my home. “But why, Kevin? Have you gone cray-cray?” you may ask. Don’t fear for my mental health. My tick stalking was done all in the name of science! I did it for you (and your dog).
Because it is the season for the little pests, I was inundated by social media posts, recommending recipes for natural anti-tick spray. From holistic solutions to crafty projects, every post claimed to be the most effective option out there and every ‘formula’ appeared to be different. I am all for natural products and totally against ticks, so I thought I would test these DIY claims out for myself. It couldn’t hurt to try, right? After all, it’s important to know when these sorts of recipes are legitimate and when they are merely a trendy trick. A lot of times, these homemade natural solutions can turn out to be total duds, but in the rare instances when they are not, they are amazing. In my book, this made it worth the research!
Just like the experiments we did in high school science class, I’ve outlined my method and testing procedures below. I did this with great care and scientific accuracy. I hope you appreciate the work.
Why Essential Oils?
Why did I even want to try essential oils? Well, let’s just be real. We’re all worried about what goes on our bodies, on our dogs’ bodies, and on our planet, right? With more and more claims of holistic healing and prevention, I figured I’d not be a good human and pet parent if I didn’t even try to see if they’d be both effective and safe for my dogs. The reality is that ticks are a big deal and can make a dog’s (and his human’s) life pretty miserable. Lyme disease in dogs and their humans is no joke and can have some pretty debilitating consequences. Life-long consequences.
The same can be said for other tick-borne diseases like Ehrlichiosis, Anaplasmosis, Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, Babesiosis, Bartonellosis, and Hepatozoonosis. Yikes.
Our vet knows our family well, which means he understands that we spend copious amounts of time tromping around in the bush. What can I say? We’re wilderpeople! That’s why we use a pretty heavy-duty tick repellent, which we are fairly happy with in general. I mean, it works. However, it’s also made from all sorts of unpleasant chemicals I can’t hope to pronounce. So while this stuff works, I don’t like coating my dogs with harsh pesticides. That’s just not nice. If I could find a more natural way to stop ticks from attaching themselves to our pack, I’m all for it. That’s the dream.
Now, just in case you were concerned, don’t worry- my dogs weren’t used as tick bait. The specimens I collected weren’t attached to my dogs, but they were crawling on me, in the grass, or sitting loose on the dogs. Seriously, there are ticks all over these woods. I even found a few ticks that had recently fed on a host and I collected those as well. I put together quite the tick collection. For science, of course!
The Claims Tested
There were quite a few different recipes for anti-tick sprays, all of which are supposed to keep your dog tick-free. Each was based on natural ingredients and each claimed to be the one that will take away all your tick troubles with a few spritzes. They all included different essential oils, including Lavender, Tea Tree, Eucalyptus, Peppermint and Lemon Grass. Much more pleasant than my typical store bought cans of chemical sludge. It would even make my dogs smell like a dream as a side-effect. The only question was, would they work even remotely as well as the gross pesticide stuff?
For the experiment, I separated all my ticks into five groups of 100 (seriously, I collected a lot of ticks!). Each group had a balanced cross section of ticks in order to test each recipe’s effectiveness. Some were in the nymph stage, while others were hungry adults, and each group contained a tick that had recently been fed. I took a lot of time to properly separate all of my ticks into the appropriate groups. I told you I was being scientific about it- and let me tell you, it ain’t easy.
My process was simple (apart from the fact I was handling five hundred ticks, I mean). The ticks were placed in the middle of an even-leveled, open container. My objective was to create a moat, using a controlled measurement teaspoon of different essential oil in each container, and to place the ticks in the middle of the container. From the shallow container, ticks had to climb the 1.5 inch rim to get onto my arm, which was placed right next to the testing dish. The ticks were never placed in or near the essential oils, so if they wanted to get to me, they had to cross a little river of essential oil. They had three choices: ticks could wander around the container; they could come to me through the oil; or they could take off in the other direction away from me and the oil. The only way to get to me was through the oil. It was similar to a tick equivalent of a Jigsaw trap from Saw. However, because they were ticks, I felt no guilt.
All of the recipes call for the essential oils to be diluted in water and sprayed onto the dog. There was no way I was using my dogs as test subjects. That would be cruel. So I used myself as the bait. I was willing to take the risk for the sake of my dogs. Plus, I wanted to see how the ticks would react to the oil, without diluting it. The idea behind diluting the oils is because of their strong smell, so that way would take way some of its potency. If the oils can’t stop the fleas at full strength, at least to some degree, there’s no real point of diluting it and spraying my dogs with it. This was my logic anyways. How did the ticks fare in my all-natural death traps? Let’s find out…
One way to use lavender oil on your dog in an effort to repel ticks is by adding anywhere from 5 to 10 drops of pure, undiluted lavender oil to your pooch’s shampoo. After bathing your dog with this essential oil, it is supposed to soothe your pet’s skin, while also keeping those dastardly ticks at bay.
Plus, it has calming properties that may help your dog if he tends to feel anxious. Many essential oil fans recommend using lavender oil for dogs that experience motion sickness because it can help calm them down in the vehicle (I can’t confirm if that does actually work or not). Other claims that have been made include soothing itchy skin, helping with joint pain, and helping dogs that struggle with insomnia fall asleep. In theory, lavender oil should be wins all around for any pup with a tick problem.
In my experiment, a small majority of the ticks, about 60 percent, left the lavender alone. They crawled around the oil to get to me, but did not try to cross my moat. About twenty percent of the ticks walk right through the lavender and straight onto me without a care in the world! Even worse than that, they were pretty slippery when they got onto my arms, so it was a little tricky to try and pull them off. While the majority didn’t attempt to cross the lavender oil, they didn’t even wander near it or wander much at all. On the plus side, after the ticks bathed me in lavender oil, I smelled lovely. So, this isn’t really an effective tick deterrent after all. Just a delightfully smelling trick!
Tea Tree Oil
Tea tree oil is pretty potent and should be quite diluted before any use on a pet. It might even cause temporary paralysis in a canine. So, right off the bat, not exactly an ideal tick solution for dogs. I went ahead and tried tea tree oil to see if, in its strongest form, it would work on repelling ticks. But you could instead use Rosalina oil (a.k.a. lavender tea tree oil), which is similar to tea tree and eucalyptus, on your dog. It’s basically a gentler version that might still do the trick. Worth a shot.
When I first put the ticks into the container with tea tree oil, none of them moved. Tea tree oil has a strong odor, and while I’m not sure ticks even have a sense of smell, I can say I was affected by the fragrance! The tea tree oil had similar results to the lavender oil: nearly 60 percent of the ticks left it alone, or did not try to cross it, while about 40 percent marched straight through – the tea tree oil didn’t slow them down from their target. So again, not a particularly effective solution. Especially when you consider the horrible side effects that tea tree oil has on dogs!
Eucalyptus isn’t only recommended for repelling fleas and ticks; it can also help keep annoying mosquitoes (which also carry diseases) away. I wanted to see how well it would work on bugs without wings, in particular. I’m talking ticks, here. Just in case you weren’t sure.
All I can say is that I am disappointed in this one! Around 70 percent of the ticks crossed right through the eucalyptus oil – like they didn’t even notice it. It was a straight, oily line from the container to me. Gross! I don’t know who considered Eucalyptus to be a potential tick repellent, but they definitely don’t know what they are talking about- especially considering that they recommend a diluted, less potent version of the original. If anything, the bloodsuckers seem to find the eucalyptus aroma enjoyable.
The eucalyptus plant is listed on the ASPCA list of toxic plants to dogs. That being said, there are natural flea collars and powders being sold that contain eucalyptus. With eucalyptus essential oil being a concentrated version of the plant itself, it’s safe to say that this is probably an oil that is better kept away from our dogs. Better safe than sorry! Especially when it didn’t even work to repel ticks. A hard pass on this one!
You might have seen peppermint oil recommended if you ever looked up solutions for skin inflammation and irritation caused by flea bites. To help your dog’s skin heal, you can simply apply just a small amount of this essential oil to any areas of the skin that have been affected. But I wanted to go further to see if this oil would also be effective at repelling ticks before they got the chance to bite.
Right away the ticks started to move and came towards me. After a few minutes, I had 40 percent of the ticks in the peppermint oil. Half of them weren’t moving anymore (RIP ticks), while the other half became quite confused, wandering around without being able to find me. I have no idea how to check a tick for vital signs, and I am not sure if the peppermint oil killed them or if they just stopped moving. Either way, they died for a good cause – these were my best results yet! Turns out that ticks and peppermint oil don’t mix at all. It was thrilling to have a tick-deterring success after so many disappointments. Still, it’s not a complete success, so I trudge on to see if Mother Nature has something deadlier to offer.
Out of all the oils that I am testing today, peppermint may be the one that triggers the most debate when talking about the use of essential oils on or around dogs. Many dog-friendly treats and products include mint, an ingredient that is popular for giving your dog fresher breath. In reading about the difference between “safe” mint and “unsafe” mint, it appears to be a difference in the type of mint and the strength. For example, most types of mint may upset your dog’s stomach in large quantities but aren’t seen as toxic. But, pennyroyal mint, when ingested, can cause liver failure.
This is a situation where I would recommend talking to your veterinarian. There is too much of a grey area to be able to say that mint is or isn’t safe in one blanket statement. If you are planning on using peppermint for any reason (even if it wasn’t a total success in repelling ticks), reach out to your vet, explain your plans and allow them to assess whether this is a safe choice or not for your dog specifically.
Some people tout lemongrass essential oil as a great natural tool for repelling fleas and ticks, because the odor is so strong that it repels the insects before they can get on your dog and take a bite. To make your own spray at home, you can add anywhere from 5 to 10 drops of lemongrass essential oil to water. Then, it would be a matter of simply spraying this natural solution onto your dog’s coat. The good thing is that you do not need to use a lot of this oil in order for it to be effective at keeping bugs away, so even if you dilute it quite a bit, it should still work.
The bad thing is that your pooch might also be less than enthusiastic about that potent perfume- you know that a dog’s nose is much, much more sensitive and powerful than ours. Also, in larger amounts, lemongrass can upset your dog’s stomach, causing vomiting, diarrhea, and other gastrointestinal issues. But still, gotta try everything for the sake of experiment.
As soon as I put the ticks in the container with the lemongrass, they were active right away – that can’t be a good sign, right? About 20 percent of the ticks turned away as soon as they came into contact with the lemongrass, and nearly 30 percent got in and swam around in the moat (the rest just hung out, enjoying the scenery). The adventurous ticks didn’t stop moving, but at least they didn’t cross the lemongrass moat. So that’s something, I guess?
Other Oils You Might Consider Trying
The essential oils that I tried in my at-home tick experiment aren’t the only ones that you’ll find recommended by holistic-minded individuals online. There are quite a few essential oils that are touted as insect repellents, but those that were mentioned most often (in addition to those I already tested out) were cedarwood and rose geranium oil.
The list of touted benefits for cedarwood essential oil includes anti-fungal properties and a soothing and moisturizing effect on the skin (great for targeting the resulting dandruff) as well as hair growth boosting effect, so it’s often recommended as an ingredient for natural DIY dog shampoos. However, cedarwood also happens to be toxic for ticks- contact with this essential oil disrupts their pheromones, leeches out the moisture from the parasite’s body, etc- effectively, it kills the little buggers, or so they claim.
Similarly, rose geranium oil is also lauded as natural tick repellent- specifically, the oil made from species Pelargonium graveolens. According to the essential oil connoisseurs (or tick connoisseurs?), these parasites happen to despise the rose scent of this oil which is what should keep them at bay. The list of beneficial effects of geranium oils for dogs also includes anti-fungal properties that promise to help with yeast infections of skin and ears.
Some sources recommend creating a blend of tick-repelling oils for a more potent effect, and the formulas vary greatly. Perhaps the idea is to combine the properties for a complete action against ticks, including repelling and killing them if they dare venture on your pet’s body? Either way, it sounds promising but my research doesn’t leave me too hopeful. To sum it all up, there are many options out there, but based on my experiments I’m not confident in many of them.
I liked how the Lavender, Peppermint and Lemon Grass essential oils seemed to confuse the ticks. While many of the ticks were able to cross successfully over my moat, many others became disoriented in the oil, and couldn’t quite find me. So it at least provided some protection, even if it was hardly a perfect solution.
Sadly, none of the oils turned a majority of ticks away, and none of them stopped a majority of ticks dead. I have to say I was hoping for some better results! Most of the ticks marched right through these oils like it was nothing. I have no idea who considered these to be ideal anti-tick solutions, but they need to check themselves.
The peppermint oil seems promising in that when the ticks went in, they didn’t necessarily come out. I was careful to use the same amount of oil for each part of this experiment. The oil was pooled at the bottom of the container, and there is no way I can get that much oil onto my dogs. So, even when the oils did work, it wasn’t exactly a perfect fix.
I am pleased with the lemongrass, and the fact that a number of ticks turned away from it. I think this shows some promise, but again, all the recipes call for diluting the oil with water, and my experiments were conducted using pure oil. I wouldn’t put that much pure oil on my dogs and I wouldn’t trust a tick to be put off by any of these oils in a diluted form.
I also understand that I’m not a “real” scientist and my experiments weren’t conducted in research facility. However, I believe that my tests had a purpose. If nothing else, I was able to test out the recipes myself and see the results, without subjecting my dogs to a tick spray that may or may not work. Just one tick has the power to make your dog sick and I’m not willing to take that chance. None of these solutions were effective enough for me to consider using them on my dogs. It’s just not worth the risk.
The Risks of Essential Oils and Dogs
It’s even worth noting that not all essential oils are safe for use on or around dogs, so be sure to do enough research, and consult with your vet, before you use essential oils to repel ticks from your pet. You’ll want to be sure that an oil is safe and effective when used on canines.
Dogs have much stronger senses of smell than we do. While some essential oils can be used positively as aromatherapy, others are too strong and can cause irritation in their nose and chest from breathing them in. Obviously, using an oil that they can’t safely breathe on a dog isn’t worth the risk to repel ticks when there are safer tick repellents available.
Other oils, while safe to breathe, can cause irritation to your dog’s skin. This can range from minor irritation, itching, or rash to a more serious reaction like a chemical burn.
Using essential oils that are toxic to pets on your dog can cause serious liver damage or failure, respiratory failure, seizures, or even death. These are unsettlingly high risks to take for no other reason than to keep ticks away (and not even to do so effectively based on the findings of my testing). Unfortunately, with the growing trend of essential oils, a lot of dog owners simply don’t realize how serious the risk can be.
The fact that some people would suggest spraying a harmful substance on your dog simply because it’s a mild tick deterrent absolutely baffles me. Further proof that you just can’t trust the internet, I suppose (except for this site, obviously).
If you were wondering, the ticks never bit me. They were removed from my arm before they had the chance! For now, I am going to mix up my own DIY recipe of tick repellant and use it on myself for my next trek through the woods. My dogs, however, will be sticking with their vet-approved and prescribed tick repellent solution. I just can’t trust these other options, no matter how natural they are.
Editor’s Note: These tests are not presented as conclusive fact – they are Kevin’s findings in accordance to his at-home, DIY methods. Results may vary. No Kevins were harmed in the writing of this article. You are responsible for the health of your dog, so be sure to consult with a veterinarian before using any tick repellant, natural or chemical.
Kevin Roberts lives for adventure. Together with his pack of rescue dogs and his husband, he spends as much time outdoors as possible. Kevin lives by the motto: "Get outside and play with your dogs!
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