Fighting fleas on dogs and cats

Summertime, and the livin’ is easy…until the fleas start biting. Here’s how to combat these nasty pests in the most natural way possible.

Fleas are every pet parents’ nightmare. These tiny blood-sucking parasites can make your companion’s life miserable, especially if he’s prone to skin problems like fleabite dermatitis. This increasingly common affliction among dogs and cats can trigger painful, itchy rashes, flaking skin and hair loss, and it doesn’t stop there. Fleas can also cause anemia and weaken your animal’s immune system, leaving him susceptible to infection and attacks from other parasites.

The best way to win the battle against fleas is to take a holistic approach. This means taking into consideration a wide range of factors, from diet to coat care to environment. By covering all the bases, you can strengthen your companion’s defenses against this hardy and persistent pest and maintain his health and comfort through even the worst of the flea season.

Diet and supplements

One of the first steps to successful flea control is to feed your companion a healthy diet. A well-balanced home-prepared or high-quality packaged/canned food made from natural ingredients will help keep your companion’s immune system strong and will also improve the health of his skin and reduce the risk of flea allergies. Avoid foods that contain artificial additives, preservatives and colorings: these chemicals can cause serious skin problems because they are secreted through the hair follicles.

A variety of supplements will also aid in the fight against fleas. Flaxseed oil and evening primrose oil contain essential fatty acids that promote healthy skin, while Vitamin C and B-complex are good for the coat. Supplements that actually help repel fleas include garlic and Vitamin B1 (found in brewer’s yeast). NaturVet is just one company that offers a brewer’s yeast and garlic supplement in powder or tablet form for dogs and cats. “It was actually one of the first products we put out,” says marketer Les Litten. Although the product is sold as a nutritional supplement rather than as a repellent, the strong odor of garlic acts as a deterrent to fleas, while the brewer’s yeast makes the animal less tasty to the parasites. “We aren’t allowed to actually state that garlic repels fleas, but we all know it does,” says Les. “It certainly works on my dogs.”

Shampoos and dips

Regular bathing is another important line of defense in the fight against fleas, but think twice before you reach for a commercial shampoo. These products often contain harsh chemicals that can dry out your animal’s hair and skin and aggravate irritation and itching. For gentle cleansing, look for a natural product containing aloe and oatmeal. Shampoos containing natural oils such as rosemary, mint, lavender or cedar not only make your animal smell nice but also act as repellents because the fleas detest the strong, pungent odors of these herbs.

The very act of bathing your companion will drown many existing fleas, but in stubborn cases you may need to use a shampoo specifically designed for flea control. Many products formulated to kill fleas include pyrethrins as their active ingredient. Pyrethrins are derived from the dried flower heads of the chrysanthemum family and act as an insecticide that attacks the flea’s nervous system without harming your companion.

Bio-Groom’s flea shampoo contains pyrethrins in a mild protein-lanolin base. This biodegradable, pH balanced conditioning shampoo is formulated to kill fleas while gently cleaning the animal and leaving behind the natural oils that are essential to the health of his coat and skin. The company also offers two pyrethrin dips, one of which provides residual flea control lasting up to two weeks.

One of the problems with many insecticides is that fleas eventually become resistant to them, requiring increasingly stronger products to kill them off. Natural Chemistry uses a different approach in its De Flea line. Their shampoo contains ingredients that mechanically, rather than chemically, kill the fleas. “The product contains a very mild acid derived from castor beans that softens the exoskeleton of the flea,” explains Scott Smith, Director of Marketing. “The exoskeleton then absorbs the solution, the flea’s internal organs are saturated and the insect bursts. It’s like a lethal dose of diuretics.”

Scott points out that De Flea products are not 100% natural in the strictest sense of the word. “There are two ingredients that are slightly refined, so we can’t say these products are totally natural, but they’re still among the friendliest and safest of their type.”

Powders and sprays for indoors and out

Natural Chemistry’s De Flea line also includes a spray that can be used on the animal as well as its bedding. “It works basically the same way as the shampoo but provides a broader coverage,” says Scott. In fact, treating the animal’s coat is only half the job, since it’s his bedding, as well as your carpets and upholstery, that harbour the eggs and larvae that will eventually mature into hungry new fleas. Dealing effectively with these parasites involves breaking their life cycle, and that means implementing environmental controls.

Sprays and powders are the most common means of treating fleas in the home, but be sure to differentiate between products that actually kill the insects and those that act as a repellant. Both are effective tools, but the latter is best used for prevention rather than as a means of dealing with an existing flea problem. “Our Herbal Pet Powder basically repels rather than kills the fleas,” says Les of NaturVet. “It can be used on bedding as well as on the pet. It’s all natural, and contains a combination of rosemary, peppermint and cedar oils in an inert base of calcium carbonate and corn starch.”

One of the most effective flea control products on the market today is made by Fleabusters. Their Rx for Fleas Plus is a patented powder that’s used to eliminate fleas from the home. “It’s a sodium-based product that’s less toxic than common table salt,” says Executive Vice President Robert Yarmuth. “It kills fleas physically rather than chemically, so they’ll never build up an immunity to it. It creates an environment that fleas can’t live or breathe in.” The white, odorless powder is basically a benign, inorganic salt that acts as a desiccant when it comes in contact with the larvae, pupa or eggs of fleas.

The powder can either be applied professionally by a Fleabusters technician or purchased in a three-pound canister that will cover about five average-sized rooms. “Fleas like access to darkness and quiet, so they’ll be in one of three places in your home: carpets, upholstered furniture, and baseboard areas,” explains Robert. “A single treatment will last in the house for one year as long as you don’t shampoo your carpets.” Vacuuming won’t reduce the product’s effectiveness because the powder is designed to cling to carpet fibers.

Fleas also need to be eliminated from outdoor areas. “Our Biobusters outdoor flea spray uses beneficial nematodes, which are microscopic worms that seek out and feed on flea larvae,” says Robert. Millions of the tiny worms are contained in pellets that are mixed with water and then sprayed on your lawn. “Nematodes are great,” says Robert. “They just keep feeding until they extinguish all the fleas in the yard. They’re good for about 90 days and are very environmentally friendly.”

Topical treatments

However bad the flea problem you’re dealing with, try to avoid the commercial flea powders and sprays available at many pet stores. Most contain toxic substances, while overuse can result in the fleas building up an immunity to the chemicals, rendering the products ineffective. If your animal’s flea problem is a serious one, ask your veterinarian for advice. He or she might recommend a topical product like Advantage or Frontline, although these are usually regarded as a last resort by holistic practitioners.

Both Frontline and Advantage involve applying a drop of liquid directly to the animal, usually between the shoulder blades where he can’t reach it to lick it off.

Frontline’s active ingredient is a substance called fipronil, which dissolves into the animal’s coat and is stored in the oil glands under his skin. Advantage works by spreading over the surface of the body, but doesn’t absorb into the skin the way Frontline does. While both products offer convenient, effective, long-term protection against fleas, they are nevertheless powerful chemicals and should be used with caution.

Essentials oils can also be used as a topical treatment for fleas, although it’s best to buy products specially formulated for animals rather than use a homemade blend. Many people assume that because essential oils are natural substances, they’re safe to use neat without taking precautions. In fact, they can be toxic in high doses and are hazardous to cats unless used in hydrosol form.

One of the most effective essential oils for flea control is tea tree. It will kill fleas when used as a spot-on, and can also be rubbed over the animal’s coat. Again, look for a product specifically formulated for animals, or ask a holistic vet for advice in using this oil.

Developing a holistic, all-round battle strategy against fleas may entail a bit of work and foresight, but it’s the safest way to ensure that your animal companion enjoys the lazy, hazy dog days of summer in comfort and good health.

For more information on natural flea control products, check out the following websites: