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Ask the Pet Vet: What type of insect repellent is safe for my pets?

Dear Dr. Karel, 
What is the safest way to repel mosquitoes from dogs? Not heartworm concern, we use preventives for that. But just from biting and causing itching. —Carrisa M.

Dr. Karel’s response for all pet owners

Even though the summer is winding down and mosquitoes are less of a problem, Carrisa asks a great question. Kudos to you for protecting your dog from heartworm and looking for ways to keep your dog more comfortable!

As humans, effective insect repellents typically contain DEET, a chemical that effectively “hides” your skin from mosquitoes. This chemical, N, N-diethyl-meta-toluamide, interferes with the mosquito’s ability to sense heat, carbon dioxide and other tasty elements of your skin.

However, DEET is very toxic to dogs and cats and is the cause of high numbers of visits to the emergency clinic each year.

Does flea, tick or heartworm preventive repel biting insects?

Your monthly multi flea-tick-heartworm preventive does NOT repel the insects; it only kills them when they bite and prevents transmission of disease. So what do you do?

You should cover your dog from head to toe with mosquito netting (just kidding!). There are numerous products that are advertised as “safe” repellents for pets. These often contain diluted “natural” oils that may or may not be effective. For example: in Burt’s Bees Insect Repellent active ingredients are: lemongrass oil 3.2%, citronella oil .40%, rosemary oil .40%. Other products may include soy oil, eucalyptus oil, aloe vera, lavender oil, peppermint oil, and … wait for it … CATNIP!

In fact, there have been studies that have shown the essence of catnip to be a good insect repellent for your dog. In other studies, fatty acids from coconut oil (not plain coconut oil) may become the next big breakthrough for human and pet insect repellent.

Are all essential oils safe for my pet?

Many essential oils can be toxic in the right concentration. For instance, tea tree oil is extremely toxic in any concentration. Citronella is only mildly toxic and is used in many products. That being said, Canada banned citronella-based repellents due to potential liver cancer risks.

In addition, many of the repellents simply do not last very long. A hike in the Great Smoky National Park would be interrupted by stopping every few hours to slather yourself with DEET and your dog with aloe vera and peppermint oil. Fortunately, the coconut fatty acids are showing incredible promise with efficacy lasting for days, not hours. Catnip is quite safe but I have not found any studies that determine how long it lasts.

It’s important to note that many of the natural oils mentioned above are much more toxic to cats than dogs. I do not recommend using them on cats. This does not apply to the catnip, of course.

Natural oils as insect repellent for pets

In these products containing natural oils, the keyword here is “diluted.” If the dog is exposed to small amounts, the risk is low. However, how effective is it in small amounts? Good question. Personally, I like the idea of a tincture of catnip.

Here is a link to recipes for homemade catnip insect repellent for pets.

For those of you that don’t like the idea of using any oils or chemicals on your dog, I recommend keeping them inside at dusk and dawn … or covering them head to toe with netting.

What do you use to protect your dog from mosquitoes? Do you think the product you use is effective?

##RVT1018

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Leslie Berg
1 month ago

So glad to see veterinary advice in RV Travel. A great addition! I thought you might want to check out OutFox, which is a sturdy net that envelops the face and ears, protecting a dog from foxtails in the ear and nose during off leash hiking. If you hike off leash with active dogs, it saves you and dog from expensive emergency vet visits for foxtail removal from ear canal. Plus it could double as mosquito netting for face😏.