Flea and Tick Pill vs. Topical Treatment: Which is Best?

White Shih Tzu puppy

Your pup has been restless, scratching and licking himself all day. It breaks your heart to see him in pain, and you need a quick solution.

Head to the pet store, grab some topical treatment, slather it on your pup, and you’re good to go. Sounds simple, right?

It isn’t. Getting rid of fleas and ticks is much harder than most pet parents know.


  • Female fleas lay thousands of eggs in their lifespan.
  • Signs of tick-borne illnesses appear 7-21 days after a bite.
  • By the time your dog shows signs of discomfort, you might have a full-blown infestation. 
  • Most pet owners make mistakes while using topical treatments.

Luckily for you and your dog — there’s hope. Several effective treatment options are available for getting rid of pesky crawlers and maintaining a healthy coat.

Precisely, we’re looking at topical treatments and tablets for dogs. If you’re wondering which of the two is best for you, here is what you need to know. 

Flea and Tick Pills for Dogs

While there is no single right or wrong answer for which treatment is best, some work better than others. Pills are the latest addition to treatment options because they offer convenience in application. 

Types of Oral Flea Treatment and How They Work

Oral medication may be in the form of a pill or a chewable tablet. It’s ingested and transmitted into pests when they bite your dog. Most oral medications are given monthly except Bravecto, which is given every 12 weeks.

The active ingredients in oral treatments vary. How long the products are effective depends on which active ingredient they contain. 

Isoxazoline Class

The isoxazoline class of pills is a game-changer in flea and tick elimination. Unlike active ingredients in other tablets, isoxazolines eliminate both adult fleas and ticks. As such, drugs with this ingredient are highly effective as a first response immediately after you discover parasites on your dog.

Isoxazolines work on the nervous system of adult parasites to kill them when they bite your pup. The U.S Food and Drug Administration (FDA) considers products in this class safe and effective for dogs. However, the organization warns of adverse neurologic reactions in some pets, especially those with a history of seizures.

Common products for dogs in the Isoxazoline Class include:

  • Bravecto (fluralaner)
  • NexGard (afoxolaner)
  • Simparica (sarolaner)
  • Credelio (lotilaner)


Spinosad is an insecticide that kills fleas in the adult stage of the life cycle. It works by attacking their nervous system. Spinosad is considered safe and is used in products such as Trifexis and Comfortis (chewable tablets).

Sentinel (Lufenuron)

Sentinel is an insect growth regulator that targets only fleas. It does not kill fleas; rather, it prevents their eggs from hatching. It’s effective for controlling an infestation but may not offer immediate relief from bites.

If your dog is already scratching, you should use Sentinel alongside a fast-acting product that can kill adult fleas.

Sentinel does not work on ticks.

Remember: before using a combination of treatments, ask your vet about potential side effects.

CBD pet treats
Source: Unsplash

Pros of Oral Flea Treatments

Relative Ease of Administration

Use a pill dispenser, mix it with your pup’s food, or give it as a treat, especially if it tastes nice. 

Administering tablets is easy compared to topicals that require application directly on the skin. For example, if you have a thick furred dog, you’ll spend quite a bit of time getting a topical onto their skin. 

Minimal Contact with Active Ingredients

Your only point of contact with a pill is when you’re administering it. You don’t have to touch active ingredients or worry about them rubbing off on surfaces, kids, and pets, as is the case with topical treatments. 

No Water Restrictions

If your dog loves to swim, they can keep doing so while getting treated. Unlike topical treatments, pills do not wash off. Once ingested, they work continuously to get rid of the pesky parasites. 

No Risk of Cross-Contamination

If you have dogs and cats, bear in mind that some dogs’ treatments are toxic to cats. So, if you let your pets hang out together after applying a topical treatment, your cats might be at risk of poisoning.

Keeping your dog separate until the therapy dries is an option but giving a pill is much easier. 

Cons of Oral Flea Treatments

Might Trigger Gastrointestinal Upset in Some Dogs

Pills and chewable tablets for dogs can cause vomiting or diarrhea in pets with a sensitive stomach. They might also cause gastrointestinal upset in dogs that have allergies. If your pup is a picky eater, they might also react poorly to such medication. 

Does Not Target All Stages of Parasites’ Life Cycle

Most oral medications target adult fleas. So, if your pup has an active infection, pills can’t eliminate it. They might offer temporary relief only for the condition to worsen when the flea eggs hatch. 

Requires a Prescription

Oral medication is usually prescription-only. Because the consequences of incorrect dosage can be severe, it’s advisable to receive professional guidance before use. Although there are some over-the-counter pills, they are for instant relief and not long-term use. 

Topical Flea and Tick Treatment for Dogs

Topical or Spot-on treatments have been around for ages. They come in various forms, such as:

  • Topical drops - applied between the shoulders and last for 30 days. 
  • Powders and sprays - massaged into the fur on the entire body and can be used freely. 
  • Shampoos - massaged into wet fur and rinsed off. You should repeat the process weekly. 

Types of Topical Treatments and How They Work

Topical treatments are classified according to which active ingredient they contain. 


Fipronil attacks the nervous system of fleas and ticks to paralyze and ultimately kill them. It is the main ingredient in topical drops. When the product is applied, it spreads over your pup’s body in a day.

However, it releases Fipronil gradually over three weeks to one month.  


This ingredient attacks the nervous system of adult fleas and kills them. It also eliminates larvae that come in contact with the pet. 


Pyrethroids are organic compounds derived from flowers. Therefore, they are the preferred active ingredient by pet parents who are keen on all-natural products.

However, there are synthetic pyrethroids that are more stable and long-lasting.

Pyrethroids should not be used in households with cats as they are toxic to felines. They’re also potentially harmful to small dogs. Products with this active ingredient kill fleas, ticks, and other parasites such as mites.

Dog wash tub
Source: Pixabay

Pros of Spot-On Treatments

Spot-on products have been around for years and with good reason. They have several benefits.

Easy to Obtain

Unlike pills, you can buy topicals over the counter. You do not need to book a vet’s appointment when the creepy crawlers strike. Simply go to your local pet store and ask for medication. 

Work for Pups With Sensitive Stomachs

Picky eaters may turn their nose at pills but readily accept a shampoo or spray. Because topicals are not ingested, they don’t cause gastrointestinal issues. They are also less likely to trigger allergies. 

Work on All Stages of the Flea Life Cycle

Topicals eliminate eggs, larvae, and adult parasites. When applied correctly and consistently, they can effectively combat infection. On the other hand, one must use pills alongside other measures to eliminate parasites in all life stages. 

Cons of Spot-On Treatments

There are several reasons why topicals are not the best choice for some dogs:


Because some topicals have been around for years, parasites are resistant to them. Flea populations in the southeastern United States are robust; they cannot be controlled using products that have been around for decades, such as pyrethroids.

The same problem is apparent in tropical and humid areas where parasites are active all year round.  

Messy Application

Although pesticides used in spot-on medications are safe, the thought of touching them is not appealing to some pet parents. If your dog has long fur, the application is messy as you have to get the pesticides directly on their skin.

Compared to putting a tablet in the pup’s dinner, applying drops, powders, or sprays is hectic. 

Water Restrictions

Spot-on treatments wash off and become ineffective if your dog gets wet before they’re absorbed. You should wait several days after applying a spot-on treatment to bathe your dog.

Swimming is certainly out of the question; your pup has to stay dry for as long as it takes the medication to take root. 

High Risk of Cross-Contamination

If you cannot keep your dog away from children and other pets before the medication dries, spot-on treatments may not be for you.

Children may come into contact with the chemicals and experience adverse reactions. Topicals with pyrethrin, for example, are toxic to cats. If you have cats, you should consult your vet before choosing a topical medication for your dog. 

Mistakes During Application

Store-bought treatments have a large margin of error.

  • Incorrectly guessing your dog’s weight can result in an overdose. 
  • Using the wrong product can result in fur loss. 
  • Applying it to the wrong area allows your dog to reach around and lick it. 
  • Combining products hoping that “more is better”  can harm your dog due to contraindication.

Mistakes made during application render treatment ineffective. 

Consider These Factors When Choosing Treatments for Your Dog

All flea and tick treatments are effective when administered correctly. However, some are more appropriate depending on several factors. Consider this when deciding between pills and topicals. 


Some flea treatments are not appropriate for puppies. It’s especially true for pyrethroids that can be toxic for puppies. Most brands have flea and tick pills for dogs with the right amount of active ingredients.

Before purchasing, look at the product’s label to make sure you can use it on your dog. 


It may be challenging to use topicals on dogs with thick coats. Small breeds are also vulnerable because incorrect administration may result in an overdose.

You might use a small amount from a tube meant for large dogs, but the strength can still be harmful to a small dog. 

Your Dog’s Health History

Supplements and other medications that you’re giving your dog may not interact well with pills. You should also consider previous and concurrent health conditions.

For example, dogs with a history of seizures may experience adverse neurologic reactions to certain oral medications. 

Your Dog’s Lifestyle

If your dog spends a lot of time outdoors, you may want to avoid topical creams. It’s especially true if your dog swims a lot or goes out in the rain. Additionally, a dog that runs in shrubs may require ongoing treatment so that they do not get reinfected.

In this case, you should choose a treatment plan that you can adhere to all year round. 

Where You Live

Tropical regions are likely to have parasites all year round. The parasites may have developed resistance to old medications. You should go for newer interventions and a treatment plan that covers your dog all year. 

Flea and Tick Prevention

Fleas reproduce so quickly that by the time you treat your dog, you may have an infestation. Spotting pests on your pup’s fur means there might be larvae and pupae in your household. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), it can take months to get rid of a tick or flea infestation.

The solution? Prevent flea and tick infestation all year round. Here’s how:

Treat All Year Round

“But fleas and ticks only attack in the summer.”


In warm regions, flea populations can stay active all year long. Plus, in other areas, they lay dormant in winter only to reappear when it gets warmer. If you don’t treat your pup all year round, you’ll get frustrated by the persistent infections.

Set a reminder for a monthly preventative pill. Some pet parents love the 3-month flea and tick pill because it means fewer reminders. Others prefer once a month flea and tick pills for dogs.

The best flea and tick prevention strategy is easy to implement.

Are you worried about long-term exposure to synthetic ingredients in flea pills for dogs? Choose a product that has natural plant substances and high-quality insect protein.

Nutrani’s Anti Tick Snack is an excellent option because it’s natural, grain-free, and tasty. The gentle formulation makes these treats well tolerated by dogs. 

Clean Low-Traffic Areas In Your Home

When you vacuum, don’t just cover the center of the room. Parasites avoid high-traffic areas and hide in poorly lit areas near your dog’s favorite spots.

Pay extra attention to baseboards, under furniture, under cushions, and anywhere else that your dog loves to hang out. Use a flea collar in the vacuum bag to kill fleas.

Wash your dog’s bedding and toys weekly to kill eggs and larvae. You can use hot water to cut down on expenses — it’s as effective for getting rid of parasites on fabric as using store-bought cleaners. 

Do Not Forget Your Yard

Your yard can undo all your hard work by harboring flea populations and causing new outbreaks.

  • Trim shrubs and mow grass to leave no room for parasites to hide. 
  • Keep wild animals out by sealing off openings to crawl spaces. 
  • Possums and raccoons can bring in fleas and ticks and reinfect your dog. 

The Bottom Line 

Flea and tick pills for dogs offer hassle-free treatment for parasites all year round. They’re easy to administer, and with a consistent treatment plan, they are effective.

Some, like Nutrani Anti-Tick Treats for Dogs, are also tasty and gentle on your pup's stomach.

Occasionally, topical treatments are preferable because they can be bought without a prescription. Regardless of which medication you choose, read the label and follow the instructions to the letter.

Featured Image: Pexels by Dominic Buccilli

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