Science

Should You Get an Amber Collar for Your Pet? Probably Not.

They’re advertised as a natural way to protect against fleas and ticks, but the evidence seems sparse.

A dog wearing a collar.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Thinkstock.

Amber—the fossilized tree resin prized for its beauty, fabled healing properties, and ancient plant and animal inclusions—has long intrigued and delighted humans. Likewise, our millennia-long adoration of and working relationship with our pets shows no signs of slowing. We spent over $69 billion on our furry friends in the U.S. in 2017, and that’s a number that’s projected to grow yearly. Enter an eye-catching and purportedly functional product that combines our adoration of our pets with the surge in demand for all things natural: a dog or cat collar that claims to use “natural” amber to stave off the ticks and fleas we don’t want our critters to carry.

“Protecting your pet from parasites is an important part of responsible care but millions of people are doing it wrong and unknowingly harm their pets’ health using chemical collars, spot-on pesticide products and medicine,” the company Amber Crown says on its website. Amber Crown and Ambertick are the two leading sellers of these collars, both sourcing their raw, unpolished gems from Lithuania, in the heart of the Baltic region where the largest known deposit of the fossilized tree resin is found. According to an Amber Crown representative, its collars are on shelves in around 200 stores and are also popular online. Amazon lists over 20 Prime-eligible amber collar options. Etsy and other online sellers are also littered with amber collars. The question is: Do they live up to the big claims they make about protecting our pets?

The companies claim that amber collars can be used as a preventive measure, repelling fleas and ticks in two ways. First, there’s amber’s natural electrostatic properties, a phenomenon thought to have first been recorded by Greek philosopher Thales of Miletus in the sixth century B.C. “Static electricity generated when amber rubs against the pet’s fur makes parasites uncomfortable and unable to cling to hairs,” explains Amber Crown’s FAQ page. “Naturally a cat or a dog doesn’t feel it but every tick that comes in contact with the electrically charged fur gets an electric shock and just falls off,” claims Ambertick.

The second way these collars supposedly work is that when amber is warmed via the friction and body heat that comes with wear, a “resinous aroma” is created that repels fleas and ticks from settling into the wearer’s fur. Sellers of amber teething necklaces for infants—popular among the natural parenting crowd and also sold by some of these same companies—claim that they work in a similar way: A baby’s body heat supposedly releases a painkilling substance from the beads into the bloodstream. The American Academy of Pediatrics issued a warning in 2015 to state that there’s no evidence that amber teething necklaces work (for one, body temperature is too low to facilitate the release of any significant amount of chemicals from amber) and cautioned that they pose a strangulation hazard.

Ambertick says on its website that its collars are 95 percent effective, adding that “we have received over a hundred positive responses from our customers. So now we can strongly reassure you - Yes, it does work.”

But experts are hesitant. “Nothing in these makes me think they would work,” says Jake Bova, an entomologist and graduate teaching assistant at Virginia Tech who runs the Relax, I’m an Entomologist Facebook page. Michael Potter, an urban entomologist and extension professor of entomology at the University of Kentucky, tells Slate that these collars’ purported modes of action “really [sound] incredibly farfetched.” Amber collar makers seem proud of their overwhelming customer satisfaction, but “it’s very difficult to prove prevention without doing a controlled research study,” Potter says. For one, a hefty portion of the pets in glowing testimonials may never have ended up with a flea or tick problem in the first place.

“An active dog will produce a slight static charge, and fleas can get around this pretty easily because they’re well adapted to parasitizing hairy animals,” entomologist Joe Ballenger, who helps run the Ask an Entomologist website, explains.

The problem is that demand for this kind of product is understandably high; traditional flea and tick medications come with serious risks, especially when used incorrectly. For example, in 2009, the Environmental Protection Agency received an influx of reports of adverse reactions in dogs and cats after using liquid spot-on pesticide products, which are applied topically between the shoulder blades. It was found that most of these bad reactions, which included digestive and nervous system problems and even death, were due to cat products being used on dogs and vice versa, user error in dosage, administering the treatments to puppies and kittens too young to receive them, and manufacturers not incrementally varying weight-based dosages sufficiently. Notably, this spike coincided with a number of formerly prescription-only products becoming available online and in stores over the counter. Veterinarians took notice, making sure to provide clearer guidance to pet owners, and the EPA ultimately implemented tighter regulations associated with flea and tick treatments, including improved labeling and more stringent testing and evaluation requirements. It’s also worth noting that spot-on treatments and collars are considered safe for people who come in contact with pets, but households with infants and young kids need to be cautious when using them.

For pet owners, part of the appeal of amber collars comes from the fact that they don’t contain active ingredients that seem like they could harm your pet. As one user wrote in a review, “I tried everything - including one of those dangerous spot on flea & tick remedies - ONCE - & I felt so guilty knowing I was applying a carcinogen on my beloved dogs.” It’s understandable for pet owners to be reluctant to use the stronger chemicals, but it’s worth noting that for those concerned about topically applied pesticides, there are oral tablets that kill fleas and ticks and don’t expose your loved ones to pesticides on fur. “There are some terrific newer chemistries that have come out in the last two to three years” in spot-on, collar, and oral form, Potter says. “These products are so effective, so fast-acting [that] within 24 hours of a flea getting on a pet, it’s toast.” He points out that many of these products have been registered with the EPA and in recent years have gone through extensive testing by their makers with guidance from the EPA, including demonstrating efficacy for specific claims (like “kills on contact”).

Should amber collars be subject to regulation, even though their purported mode of action is static, rather than through a chemical pesticide? The EPA doesn’t regulate them now, but its website says that pesticide devices that work by physical means and do not “contain a substance or mixture of substances to perform its intended pesticidal purpose” should not make “false or misleading claims” and “should have scientific data” to back up claims.

After answering questions via email about its sales, Amber Crown did not reply to a subsequent request for data to back up the claims made about its flea and tick products. Ambertick explained that its testing methodologies involve “trial and error” and are “a little secretive,” noting the complex biological and environmental factors involved in this type of scientific research. A company spokesperson wrote in an email that “no private company would ever fund such research since the results couldn’t lead to profitable outcome - amber stone as a resource can’t be patented.”

One thing’s clear: If your pet is likely to encounter fleas or ticks—especially if it spends time outdoors and interacts with other animals—trying an amber collar in lieu of vet-recommended preventive measures is probably not worth the gamble. Tick-borne disease can be severe and even deadly, flea bites can cause dermatitis, and once a flea lays eggs, “you could have thousands of developing fleas in your home,” where they can bite your family members, Potter cautions. There’s no 100 percent effective preventive measure; flea and tick prevention isn’t one-size-fits-all. Your best bet is talking to your veterinarian about what’s best for your furry friend, depending on factors including its age and health status, size and breed, and your unique lifestyle and needs.