by Dr. Jean Hofve, DVM
Fleas! Everyone hates these blood-sucking parasites. Our war against fleas is epic and ongoing, but each of us must fight our own individual battles. At Only Natural Pet Store, we want to give you the best weapons: only what works, and only what is safe for you, your pets, and the environment.
There are three fronts in every battle against fleas: the pet(s), the home, and the outdoor environment. But before we sound the battle cry, we need to know our enemy.
Why the Flea is Such a Fierce Enemy
Fleas have a number of strategic advantages in this war:
1. Masters of Maneuvers – Fleas are tiny, hard-shelled insects with incredible muscle power in their hind legs; they can jump 4-5 feet horizontally (or nearly a foot straight up). They’re fast. They’re adaptable. And they’re hard to kill.
2. Stormtrooper Mentality – Fleas come with three basic marching orders, or biological imperatives: to survive, to eat, and to reproduce. They are entirely devoted to these orders. And they are very, very good at all of them. They are especially good at reproducing; an adult female lays about 20 eggs at a time. In her lifetime (depending on conditions, up to 1-1/2 years), she may produce hundreds, even thousands of eggs.
3. Effective Recruitment – The female flea typically lays her tiny white eggs in dark, damp places. If she lays any eggs on your pet, they will fall off…but they could travel all around the house or yard first. Within their hiding places, the eggs will hatch in about a week (although they can delay hatching until conditions are ideal) into larvae. The larvae then pupate by spinning cocoons, in which they can finish their development in a week, but they can survive in their cocoons for up to 6 months.
4. Subterfuge Specialists – For every single adult flea you see, there are about 10 cocoons, 35 larvae and 50 eggs hiding in carpets, pet beds, cracks, corners, and furniture.
5. Weapons of Mass Annoyance – Flea bites are itchy because, when fleas bite to feed, they inject blood thinning compounds to prevent clotting during dinner. Not only do these anti-clotting proteins cause itching, but they can also cause the immune system to mount an allergic reaction. Flea-allergic dermatitis is one of the most common skin complaints in pets. For an allergic animal, just one flea bite can cause a massive and prolonged reaction. Fleas can also transmit diseases such as bubonic plague, typhus, Lyme disease, and Rocky Mountain spotted fever, as well as tapeworms.
6. Efficient Defenses – Most chemicals, including bombs and sprays, kill only adult fleas or adults and larvae. That leaves thousands of tough little eggs and cocoons just waiting for the proper conditions, when they’ll renew their assault once more. Fleas are also well defended against famine conditions—one blood meal can keep an adult flea alive up to two months.
Natural Defensive Strategies for Pets
Like other parasites, fleas target less healthy hosts, as well as puppies and kittens with undeveloped immune systems. Therefore, the first defense for our pets is to optimize their health and immunity.
If you’ve read any of the other articles on our site, you’ve heard this before: Diet is the foundation of health. After years of experience and research, we have come to believe that the best diet for most dogs and cats is a biologically appropriate raw food (“BARF”) diet. However, not everyone is comfortable with or can manage to feed a raw diet; but it is important to feed the very best diet you can. This means top quality commercial pet foods that contain NO by-products, meat and bone meal, chemical preservatives, or other artificial additives. Meat should be the primary protein. Dogs can be fed a mix of canned and dry foods, but cats need moisture in their diets, and should be fed mostly or only canned foods, or reconstituted dehydrated or freeze-dried foods. Avoid carbohydrates, especially corn and wheat, as much as possible for cats. For more information, see our article, “What You Need to Know About Your Pet’s Food.”
Garlic and B-vitamins seem to make blood less attractive to fleas, so many guardians supplement with garlic & brewers yeast during flea season. Sensitive animals can develop an allergy to brewer’s yeast, so monitor your pet to guard against worsening itchiness (pruritis).
The ultimate weapon in the battle with fleas is the Flea Comb. It is the best method to discover whether fleas are present. Comb through your pet’s fur and gather a bit of hair and dirt. Then put this between two damp white paper towels and press them together – if the “dirt” creates rusty reddish spots on the paper towel, then a flea has been there (the dirt is actually flea feces). If you keep combing (especially around the tummy and tail), you will likely trap some of them in the comb. Drown them in SOAPY water – fleas have been known to jump out of plain water. Daily flea combing may sound tedious, but it is very helpful while you are working on your companion’s health and taking environmental action.
Many topical sprays and shampoos claim to repel or kill fleas. However, many of them contain chemicals and pesticides with serious toxic potential. Cats are particularly susceptible to such products, because they are constantly grooming themselves and ingesting whatever is on their fur. Even sprays or chemicals from the dog can transfer to furniture or rugs, and from there to the cat. So, be extremely cautious with chemicals.
Safe flea-repellents for dogs – We recommend essential oil-based, non-chemical products to help keep fleas away from your dog. Spray and shampoo which contain essential oils not only help repel fleas, they can also help soothe and heal irritated skin. Herbal Defense Oil Blend is another good repellent for use on dogs. You can put a drop on the collar, and dilute it into a spray to mist your dog. Combining a little essential oil repellent spray with your flea combing is a great way to both spread the essential oils throughout the coat and give you extra help with catching the fleas. Pay particular attention to the base of the tail, and under the legs and belly on dogs. When using any strong-smelling product, keep in mind that your dog or cat has a much stronger sense of smell than you do, so don’t overdo it.
Safe flea repellent for cats – Neem products are also good for cats; comb in especially around the neck, chest, and belly. Or, spray a small amount of Only Natural Pet Herbal Defense Spray onto a cloth and wipe it on lightly. Follow all directions carefully for best results. Never use full-strength essential oils directly on cats (spray products are already diluted to safe levels).
For killing fleas once they are on your pet, we recommend natural flea powders. Only Natural Pet All-in-One Flea Remedy is a powder made from diatomaceous earth that is safe for use on dogs and cats as well as around the home. It kills fleas in all life stages by dehydrating them, a method that is not only non-toxic to pets, humans and the environment, also a method that fleas cannot develop an immunity to, as they do with all other pesticides over time. There are many varieties of diatomaceous earth available. Some have impurities or contaminants that make them less safe than the type in the All-in-One Flea Remedy. The All-in-One Flea Remedy is safe if ingested, so your cat can groom herself all she wants and it will not hurt her. It is a very fine powder and a little goes a long way. Suggested use is approximately 1 teaspoon per 10 lbs. of body weight. Work it in well with your fingers, or use a flea comb to distribute it. It needs to be on the skin for it to affect the fleas.
Bathing your companion is an excellent way to kill fleas. Use an essential-oil based repellent shampoo like Only Natural Pet Herbal Defense Shampoo or a soothing shampoo such as oatmeal-based varieties. You can add a drop or two of flea repelling essential oils to oatmeal shampoo to make it more “flea unfriendly.” Lather the neck first, so fleas can’t run up onto the head. Leave the lather on your pet for a few minutes to help smother any persistent fleas, and then RINSE WELL. Soap residue can dry the skin and make the itchiness worse. You can follow with Only Natural Herbal Defense Conditioner or Grooming Conditioner to help prevent dry skin.
Why not use flea collars?
Most flea collars are treated with chemical pesticides that you do NOT want your pet wearing around their neck all the time! There are some natural flea collars available that will help in environments where fleas are not severe, or perhaps on an indoor cat, but you generally don’t want to rely on them as your sole line of defense if you live an area with a large flea population.
Flea Tags – Definitely worth a try!
There are some amazing new products that use tags that hang from your pet’s collar and that repel fleas based on energy fields. It sounds very “out there”, but they work really well for many animals and are far and away the easiest way to keep fleas off your pet. It is definitely worth trying a flea tag, because they work for most pets, and some for as long as two years!
What about “spot-on” flea products?
Chemical spot-on flea products contain powerful and potentially dangerous pesticides, and should be considered a last resort for animals with severe flea allergies. An excellent review of these products was featured in the Whole Dog Journal, “Are ‘Spot-On’ Flea Killers Safe?” in the February 2002 issue (click here to read the article); despite its age, the article remains relevant. “All pesticides pose some degree of health risk to humans and animals. Despite advertising claims to the contrary, both over-the-counter and veterinarian-prescribed flea-killing topical treatments are pesticides that enter our companions’ internal organs (livers, kidneys), move into their intestinal tracts, and are eventually eliminated in their feces and urine.”
Even worse, these chemicals will readily transfer to human skin when the animal is handled. This can be particularly dangerous to children.
Chemical spot-ons can induce severe adverse reactions, including excessive salivation, skin rashes, tremors, hyperactivity, stiffened limbs, seizures, and death. Consider that to be deemed safe for use on our companions, these products only need be tested for 3-, 13- or 52-week intervals. Higher doses are used to compensate for the shorter testing periods. NO STUDIES have been done on the LONG TERM effects of applying these pesticides to animals repeatedly over long periods. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) received so many adverse event reports (more than 44,000 in 2008 alone) that they have opened an investigation into the safety of all registered spot-on products. Illness and death in dogs and cats were reported for every one of them. The EPA is currently reviewing labels and other data and will be issuing restrictions and requirements shortly.
Defending the Home Environment
Remember that most of the flea population lives and develops in your house and yard, not on your pet. Treating the environment is essential if you want to win this war. However, flea “bombs” and other products do not kill all life stages of the flea, and are generally made with chemical pesticides, which are NOT something you want to spread over every nook and cranny of your house.
Carpets, Flooring, Bedding, and Furniture
Vacuuming and washing hard-surfaced floors often – daily during the height of flea season – is the least toxic way to control fleas. This will remove most of the adults, and some eggs and larvae. Keep in mind the larvae don’t like light, so vacuum under furniture and around baseboards, anywhere near your pet’s favorite places to hang out. Remember to either vacuum some Only Natural Pet All-in-One Flea Remedy or an herbal flea powder into the vacuum bag to kill any fleas in the bag, or immediately remove the bag and discard it in a sealed plastic bag after use. Otherwise, they will just jump out of the bag and back into your home.
Vacuuming alone can’t control severe infestations, and not everyone has the time to clean all the floors daily. That’s when we recommend using one or more of the natural “powders” available for ridding your home of fleas. The least toxic products are diatomaceous earth and boric acid products, which both work by dessicating (drying out) the fleas, larvae, pupae, and eggs, which kills them.
Only Natural Pet All-in-One Flea Remedy can be used on carpeting, on pet bedding, on furniture and on hard floors (and on your pets – see above). It is a very fine powder, so it gets into cracks and crevices on hardwood, tile, and linoleum floors easily. You can work it in with a broom or carpet rake so it creates less dust when walked on. It acts more quickly than boric acid products, and a difference in the flea population can be noticeable in 24–48 hours. Diatomaceous earth, however, does not last as long as the boric acid products, and is ineffective when wet. Monthly applications are recommended in areas with heavy flea populations, especially during the height of flea season.
Boric acid products, such as Fleabusters and Fleago, work in a similar fashion. When applied correctly, they offer protection for up to a year or more, as they remain deep in the carpet and furniture fibers. Fleabusters may also be used on hard floors, as the powder is fine enough to reach into cracks and crevices well. All visible powder must be worked into the carpet, floor or furniture well with a broom or carpet rake, and any remaining visible powder should be vacuumed up. Boric acid kills flea larvae, but is not as effective at killing the adults, so visible results may take 2-6 weeks, as the adult population dies off. During the initial weeks after application, it is helpful to vacuum frequently to remove adult fleas. Boric acid products are more toxic than diatomaceous earth products as well, so you should not use them directly on dogs or cats, or in areas where small children play.
With all flea powder products, follow package directions carefully. Natural flea control powders are drying agents, and their dust can irritate nasal passages and lungs if inhaled directly. Avoid overzealous shaking of the container while spreading the powder onto the floor so you don’t create clouds of dust. If you have any questions about the application process with any of our products, please call or email and we will be happy to help.
Pet beds are a favorite flea hang-out. Wash your pet’s bedding in hot, soapy water at least weekly. You can even add some flea repellent essential oils to the water for extra flea-zapping power. Sprinkle a little Only Natural Pet All-in-One Flea Remedy onto DRY bedding and work it in to help kill the little pests while your companion sleeps.
Securing the Perimeter (Your Yard)
Last, but certainly not least, treat the yard, the major source of fleas. Larvae avoid light – so rake up leaves and thatch, and keep the grass cut. A majority of fleas and larvae will be within 50 feet of your companion’s favorite resting spots, so focus on those areas, especially shady areas under trees, bushes, and decks. Only Natural Pet All-in-One Flea Remedy or diatomaceous earth can safely be applied to grass.
Beneficial nematodes (worms) are another way to control fleas in the yard, especially during wet weather. Beneficial nematodes are a flea parasite. They are tiny little critters that prey on both adult fleas and larvae. They can be applied with a hose sprayer or, on a smaller yard, with a watering can. Some garden centers and nurseries carry them (or can order them for you), as well as some of the “natural” pet stores. An Internet search will provide many sources as well.
The Pre-emptive Strike
If you live in a high-flea area, don’t wait until you see fleas on your companion to treat your environment! If you live in an area with a predictable flea season, begin the treatment a month before they appear. If you live where flea season is every season, start now and treat your home regularly. Using natural methods takes more effort than dropping a blob of pesticide on your cat’s or dog’s back, but in the long run your pets, your family, and your environment will be healthier!
For convenient starter kits for natural flea control, view our Flea Care Kits for dogs and cats.