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The Natural Approach to Flea Control

As flea season is in full swing in many areas around the country, we are realizing that some of you may need a bit of guidance with the war you are waging in your households.  There are so many products available for fighting the battle against fleas that a trip to the pet store or a little research on-line can leave you a bit overwhelmed and bewildered.  You may have noticed if you checked our site for flea control, that the selection is limited.  That’s because we carry only what works and only what is safe for your companions as well as everyone else in your household.  We also do not carry anything damaging to the environment. 

There are three stages, or areas to address, in the flea eviction process; the companion animal – internally and externally, the household environment, and the great outdoors, (or at least “securing the perimeter”).  But before we wage war, it is best to know thine enemy. 

The (almost) Invincible Flea

First let’s talk about the population statistics of our foe.  The adult fleas hopping around on your companion and in your house are only about 1% of the entire flea population in your home environment.  So this means that for every flea you see, there are actually at least 99 more in one or another stage of development lurking around the house or yard.  8-10% of the population is in the pupae (cocoon) stage, 35-37% is in the larval stage and 50-54% of the population consists of flea eggs. 

Flea Life Cycle

The adult female flea can lay from 10 to 50 eggs a day in appropriate weather.  Fleas tend to prefer warm, somewhat humid weather:  75-95 degrees with 60-85% humidity.  Considering an adult flea can live up to 60-100 days, a single flea could lay upwards of 2000 eggs in her lifetime.  And even if only half of those go on to reproduce…well; you get the picture – lots and lots of fleas! 

The eggs are laid on the “host” – your companion animal, and most will fall off into the carpet or in the yard.  A majority of those eggs and the resulting larvae and pupae remain within fifty feet of their host’s favorite resting spot, (keep that in mind when we get to the part about treating the environment).  Flea larvae emerge from the eggs within 1 to 10 days, although if conditions are not ideal, the egg can remain in the environment much longer waiting for the right “moment” to hatch.  The larval stage lasts 5 to 11 days and is a time of vulnerability in the flea’s life cycle.  Once they spin their cocoon and “pupate”, which takes 5 to 9 days, they are then in a pre-adult state within the cocoon that can last only days or more than 6 months. 

Now you can understand why “bug bombs” just don’t work.  They only kill the fleas in the adult and larval stage at best.  So all those thousands of eggs and little cocoons are still lurking and waiting for the proper conditions in order to emerge and start the whole population explosion all over again.

One more detail about our foe the flea: they can spread disease and tapeworms.  The way the flea feeds is by sticking its pointy little nose into the host and injecting a bit of “saliva” to thin the blood before sucking it.  This is why so many pets are allergic to flea bites and end up with severe rashes and hot spots.

Stage 1 – Armoring Your Companions

Protection from the Inside Out

Another important fact about fleas is that they prefer weaker, less healthy hosts and very young puppies and kittens with undeveloped immune systems.  Knowing this, we can arm our pets for flea resistance by boosting their health and immunity.  If you have a flea problem, this is the first place to start. 

If you’ve read any of the other articles on our site, you’ve heard this before:  Diet is the foundation of health.  Nothing you give your dog or cat can do as much good for their health and immunity as a proper diet.  After years of experience and research, we have come to believe that the best diet for both dogs and cats is a biologically appropriate raw food diet.  We realize, however, that not everyone is comfortable with or can manage to feed an all raw diet, so just feed the very best diet you can.  At the minimum this means top quality processed foods that do not contain fillers, chemical preservatives, or food colorings.  No “by-products” or “digests”.  Meat should be the first ingredient, not grains.  Dogs can be fed a mix of canned and dry foods, but cats should be fed only canned foods if they are to be fed processed diets.  For more information see “What You Should Know About Your Pet’s Food.”

Supplementing your companion’s diet can also help.  Essential Fatty Acids will help build the immune system and boost the health of the skin and coat.  Digestive Enzymes & Probiotics will help him get the most nutrition from his food and aid the digestive process.  Garlic and B vitamins tend to make the animal less tasty to fleas, so many guardians supplement with garlic & brewers yeast, (a good source of vitamin B1), during flea season to help their companions ward off attacks.  (Keep in mind that some animals are allergic to brewers yeast, so watch closely the first week or so to make sure the itching doesn’t get worse.) 

Over-vaccination is taxing on the immune system of dogs and cats.  Educate yourself about the risks of too many vaccinations before succumbing to the usual pressure to vaccinate annually for a variety of diseases.  See the article “The Truth About Pet Vaccinations.”

External Protection

The ultimate weapon in the battle with fleas is the Flea Comb.  It is the best way to investigate whether the scratching your dog or cat is doing is due to fleas or is just a little itch.  Run the comb through your pet’s hair and gather a bit of hair & “dirt”.  Then put this between two damp white paper towels and press them together – if the “dirt” creates rusty looking spots on the paper towel, then there is a flea somewhere – most likely a family of fleas – on your companion.  If you persist, 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.  Flea combing daily may sound tedious, but it is very helpful while you are working on the environmental control measures necessary to rid your world of fleas.  Just remember that for every adult flea you drown in that soapy water you are preventing generations of future parasites from searching for food in your home.

There are many topical sprays & shampoos out there touting their effectiveness at killing or deterring fleas.  Many of them contain chemicals and pesticides however, that are not conducive to building your companion’s immune system.  Cats, in particular, are susceptible to the toxic nature of many of these products because they are constantly grooming themselves and ingesting whatever they have been sprayed with.  Pesticides

We recommend Neem Oil products or Flea Away for dogs and cats, and essential oils for dogs.   Neem oil sprays and shampoos not only help repel fleas, they also help sooth and heal irritated skin.  Bite This essential oil blend is another good repellent for use on dogs.  You can put a drop on their collar and dilute it into a spray to mist your dog.  Other essential oils that seem to be “flea repellent” are cedar, tea tree, citronella, eucalyptus and pennyroyal, (the last two are toxic cats).  Combining a little neem spray with your flea combing is a great way to both spread the neem oil throughout the animal’s coat as well as giving you extra help with catching the fleas.  Pay particular attention to the neck and chest on cats and the top of the hips/base of the tail and under the legs and belly on dogs.    When using any product like these with a strong odor, just keep in mind that your dog or cat has a much stronger sense of smell than you do, (as do the fleas), so don’t overdo it.  Cats especially seem to be sensitive, so use sparingly.  Many cats do not like to be sprayed, so spray a small amount of Neem Protect Spray onto a cloth and wipe it on lightly.  We do not recommend the use of essential oils on cats.  One more precaution about using essential oils – they can interfere with the effectiveness of homeopathic remedies, so don’t use them if you are treating your pet with homeopathy or any of the Homeopet products.

Flea Away is a specialized diatomaceous earth that is safe for use on dogs and cats as well as around the home, (which we will get to next).  It kills fleas by dehydrating them – which is not only non-toxic to pets, humans and the environment, but fleas cannot develop an immunity to it as they do to 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 Flea Away.  Flea Away is safe if eaten, so your cat can lick and clean herself all she wants when treated with the Flea Away and it will not hurt her.  It is a very fine powder and a little goes a long way.  Suggested use is approximately 1 tsp. per 10 lbs of body weight.  Using the flea comb to help spread the powder throughout your companion’s coat is helpful.

Bathing your companion is an excellent way to kill fleas.  Use a neem shampoo or an oatmeal shampoo if your companion has irritated skin.  You can add a drop or two of essential oils to the oatmeal shampoo to make it more “flea unfriendly”.  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 Doc Acerman’s Orange Cream Conditioner to help prevent dry skin as well.

Why not use flea collars?

Good question!  The answer is: flea collars only repel fleas around the animal’s neck and do very little for the rest of the body.  Fleas are very resourceful; they will find a good spot far enough away from that collar to hang out.  Also, most flea collars, especially anything non-toxic, are only effective for a short time. 

What about “spot-on” flea products?

A pesticide is a pesticide no matter what you call it.  We only recommend spot-on flea products as a last resort for animals with severe flea allergies.  The most thorough investigation we have seen of these products was done by Whole Dog Journal as reported in the article “Are ‘Spot-On’ Flea Killers Safe?” in the February, 2002 issue, (available from their website for a fee:  www.wholedogjournal.com).  Here is an excerpt from that article: “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.” 

Systemic pesticides are NOT a good way to build an animal’s immune system; on the contrary, they can only weaken it.  Some guardians report that their companions appear more lethargic and depressed for a day or more after applying spot-on flea products.  More severe reactions that have been reported include excessive salivation, skin rashes, convulsions, tremors, hyperactivity, stiffened limbs and lameness.  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 of time. 

One more reason not to use pesticides – they end up in our environment – including on your lawn.  Fleas will develop immunity to any pesticide over time.  This is already being seen with some of the spot-on products.  They cannot, however, develop immunity to dehydration – which is how the diatomaceous earth and boric acid products kill fleas. 

Stage 2 – The Household Environment

You cannot rid your companion of fleas by treating him or her alone, (unless you are willing to resort to pesticides).  Most of the 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.

Carpets, Flooring & Furniture

Vacuuming and washing the hard 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 Flea Away or an herbal flea powder into the vacuum bag to kill any fleas in the bag, or remove the bag and discard it in a sealed plastic bag after use.

Some infestations, however, are just too much to be controlled by vacuuming alone, 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 substances available for this are diatomaceous earth and boric acid products.

Flea Away, discussed above, can be used on carpeting, on the pet’s bedding, on furniture and on hard floors.  It is a very fine powder similar in consistency to talcum powder, so it gets into cracks and crevices on hardwood and linoleum floors easily.  It acts more quickly than boric acid products – 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.  Monthly applications are recommended, especially during the height of flea season. 

Boric acid products, such as Fleabusters and Fleago work in a similar fashion to the diatomaceous earth by dehydrating the fleas.  When applied correctly, they offer protection for up to a year or more as they remain deep in the carpet fibers.  Fleabusters may also be used on hard floors as the powder is fine enough to reach into cracks and crevices well.  Both products may be used on furniture.  All visible powder must be worked into the carpet, floor or furniture well with a broom or 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 you may not see the results for 2-6 weeks while the adult population dies off.   During the initial weeks after application, it is helpful to vacuum frequently to kill the adult fleas. 

With all three of these flea control products, common sense caution must be used.  Follow package directions carefully.  They are drying agents, and therefore irritate nasal passages and lungs if inhaled directly.  Avoid overzealous shaking of the container while spreading it 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.

Bedding

Don’t forget the sleeping quarters!  Wash your pet’s bedding in hot, soapy water at least weekly.  You can even add some essential oils or Bite This! to the water for extra flea-zapping power.  Sprinkle a little Flea Away onto DRY bedding and work it in to help kill the little pests while your companion sleeps.

Stage 3 – Securing the Perimeter(Your Yard)

Last, but certainly not least, treat the yard.  Remember that the larvae don’t like light – so rake up any leaves and keep the grass cut.  Watering can help drown the larvae as well.  A majority of the fleas and larvae will be within 50 feet of your companion’s favorite spot to rest, so focus on those areas.

Flea Away can be sprayed onto the grass with a hose sprayer to kill fleas in the yard.  Application must be repeated after rain or watering.

Beneficial Nematodes are another way to control fleas in the yard.  Beneficial nematodes are a flea parasite, (mother nature always has a balancing mechanism).  They are tiny little bugs 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 more sources than you can sort through. 

The Pre-emptive Strike

One last point to make: 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 – treat a month before it starts.  If you live in the south where flea season is every season, start now and plan to treat your home regularly.  Using natural methods is a bit more work than dropping a spot of pesticides on their back, but in the long run your companion and your environment will be healthier for your efforts.
 

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