Least-Toxic Control of Ticks Choose a different pests

Factsheet: Least-toxic Control of Ticks


Pest type: Insects

There are hundreds of tick species, however there are relatively few ticks that interact with humans and domestic animals causing harm. Generally, before they have engorged with blood ticks are small, eight-legged insects that are relatively slow and lumbering, unlike spiders. When engorged with blood the body will change both size and color substantially.

One of the most frequently encountered ticks is the American dog tick, also sometimes known as the wood tick, which can transmit such diseases as Rocky Mountain spotted fever. Unfed males and females are reddish-brown and about 3/16-inch long. Females have a large silver-colored spot behind the head and after feeding will become ½-inch long or about the size of a small grape. Males have fine silver lines on the back and do not get much larger after feeding. Males are sometimes mistaken for other species of ticks because they appear so different from the female. The adult lone star tick, which can also transmit Rocky Mountain spotted fever, are1/8-inch long and brown. The adult female has a white spot in the middle of her back.

The blacklegged tick, also known as the Deer Tick, are reddish-brown and about 1/8-inch long (or about one-half the size of the more familiar female American dog tick). These ticks are found in wooded areas along trails. The larvae and nymphs are active in the spring and early summer; adults may be active in both the spring and fall. The blacklegged/deer tick can transmit Lyme disease and possibly ehrlichiosis to humans.

The brown dog tick (also known as the kennel tick) is found through most of the United States. This tick feeds on dogs, but rarely bites people. Unlike the other species of ticks, its life cycle allows it to survive and develop indoors. The adult is reddish-brown and about 1/8-inch long and usually attaches around the ears or between the toes of a dog to feed. After feeding, a female may engorge to ½-inch long. The brown dog tick is not an important carrier of human disease.

Is it a problem?

There is no way to completely rid an outdoor area of ticks. Conventional pesticides have been ineffective and create risks for people and the environment. For a pesticide to work, it must come in with or be consumed by the pest. Ticks do not eat vegetation and are likely to spend most of their lives in sheltered areas, like mouse burrows, where pesticides will not come in contact with them.

That said, indoor ticks can indeed become a problem and should be dealt with due to concerns over Lyme disease. The disease is caused by the bacteria Borrelia Burgdorferi and is spread by a number of different ticks, but the deer tick is the most common vector. The white footed mouse usually carries the bacteria. Ticks often reside in the den of the mouse, feed on the mouse’s blood in the early stages of their life and pick up the bacteria. During later feeding on humans, they can pass on the bacteria.

Symptoms of Lyme disease can vary from person to person, but in most cases a bump that looks like a bulls-eye develops along with a possible rash at the site of the bite or elsewhere on the body. The bump will be red on light skin and look like a bruise on dark skin, and will usually occur within 30 days of a bite. In that time, the person may also develop flu-like symptoms: fatigue, chills, headache, muscle and joint aches, and a low fever. In about 25% of cases no rash or bump will develop at all. Anyone bitten by a tick in an area with a high rate of Lyme disease should contact their doctor.

Pest prevention practices

Place trash in sealed containers
Remove clutter

Do not let your pet go into tick infested areas, especially in the summer.

If your pet goes outside, keep it out of known tick-infested areas.

Confine your pet to certain areas for sleeping, and wash bedding regularly to remove ticks.

Reduce tick populations by discouraging mice.

Remove piles of leaves or other debris that may provide shelter for mice.

Clean around bushes and under trees.

Store wood piles away from the home and elevate them.

Keep metal trash containers with tightly closed lids. 

Wear light-colored clothing that covers your body, especially your legs. It is easiest to spot ticks on light clothing, and they can be removed before they bite.

Tuck your pants into your socks.

Wear a hat.

Use only unscented deodorant, soap and shampoo. Packers Tar Soap seems to keep ticks from biting once they have been picked up.

Use an herbal repellent that is effective against ticks.


Monitoring and record-keeping

  • Regularly check your pet for ticks using a flea/tick comb, available at most pet stores. Check your pet each time they have been outdoors, or at least twice a week. Pay special attention to the areas behind the ears and between toes. Be careful not to break off any embedded ticks, and remove any found ticks in the same way described for humans. Clean the wound with soap and water and apply antiseptic. The tick can be killed by placing it in soapy water or alcohol.
  • Rub a masking-tape lint roller over the trunk and heads of small cats or dogs to capture ticks.
  • Frequently check the areas where your pet sleeps.
  • Check your entire body for ticks if you have been in an area where ticks are present, soliciting help or using a mirror for hard-to-see areas. Pay special attention to behind the ears, the back of the neck, between toes, and the groin.
  • Take a shower to wash off any ticks that have not yet become embedded.
  • Check anything you were carrying and wash clothing in soapy water to kill any unnoticed ticks.

Non-chemical and mechanical controls

If you find an embedded tick, remove it carefully. Protect your hands with gloves or a tissue. Use blunt, curved tweezers, not your bare fingers, and exert pressure on the head of the tick and gently pulling the tick straight out very slowly. Do not twist and do not crush the tick. The body fluids can cause infection if exposed to even unbroken skin. Do not kill the tick while still embedded. Kill the tick in soapy water or alcohol, clean the wound with antiseptic, and monitor carefully for any signs of infection.

Use a tick drag to reduce tick populations in an area. The idea is to drag a piece of light-colored flannel cloth across vegetation where ticks may be waiting for a host. Ticks will attach themselves to the cloth and then can be killed by placing the cloth in soapy water. It is best to drag any areas where you or your pets may be walking – along a path or where your pet rests. Use caution when doing a tick drag, as the person doing the drag is at risk for being bitten by a tick.

Carbon dioxide traps also effectively reduce tick populations, as ticks are attracted by the carbon dioxide emitted by their hosts. Dry ice is placed in a trap where it will emit carbon dioxide and attract ticks. Place 2 lbs. dry ice in a bucket and punch inch holes near the bottom. Place the bucket on a piece of plywood or flannel material with a strip of masking tape around the edge, sticky side up. The tape can be secured with tacks or staples. The trap will last about 3 hours. Check the trap frequently, removing any ticks found with tweezers. After the dry ice is gone, check again for any ticks, and soak the cloth in soapy water to kill any ticks found.


Biological controls

There has been some research into biological controls for ticks, however, they are not yet commonly used. The most promising control appears to be Beauveria bassiana and Metarhizium anisopliae which are fungal strains already commercially available for control of other pests. However, effective formulations for tick management have yet to be made.


Least-toxic chemical options as a last resort

Lemongrass and cedarwood essential oils can be use to effectively repel ticks.

Cedarwood Oil

Oil of Lemon Eucalyptus


Soybean oil

Chemicals to Avoid

Look at your product labels and try to avoid products containing those chemicals listed below:

(A = acute health effects, C = chronic health effects, SW = surface water contaminant, GW = ground water contaminant, W = wildlife poison, B = bee poison, LT = long-range transport)

Bifenthrin (A, C, SW, W, B)

Carbaryl (A, C, SW, GW, W, B)

Chlorpyrifos (A, C, SW, GW, W, B, LT)

Cyfluthrin (A, C, W, B)


Deltamethrin (A, C, W, B)

Diazinon (A, C, SW, GW, W, B, LT)

Etofenprox (C, W, B)

Lambda-cyhalothrin (A, C, W, B)

Permethrin (A, C, GW, W, B)

Prallethrin (A, C, W, B)

Pyrethrins (C, W, B)

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