An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, they say. This is especially true for controlling fleas. The earlier you can start a flea prevention program, the less likely it is that your animal will become infested. In this brochure, you’ll find the outline of a program that can be used to help control fleas with a minimum of risk to the health of dogs and cats. You’ll also find information about the life cycle and habits of the flea because, as Sun Tzu said, “Know your enemy and know yourself and you can fight a hundred battles with no danger of defeat.”
Dry, itchy skin is the preferred environment for fleas, and can be a sign of inadequate nutrition. Feeding the right diet can bring the skin back into balance, and is an effective way to stop flea problems before they start.
Healthy skin and coat oils can keep fleas from gaining a foothold on dogs and cats. The natural oils on an animal’s skin clog the flea’s breathing tubes, or spiracles, essentially suffocating the flea. Adding a fatty acid supplement to the diet can help dogs and cats generate natural skin oils. And, fats that are rich in omega-3 fatty acids, like fish oil or flax seed oil, may help to combat inflammatory reactions, which might provide some additional relief if the fleas do bite.
Dog flea treatments can be toxic to cats. It's incredibly important that you only use canine flea treatments on dogs and feline flea treatments on cats. Avoid using chemical flea products on cats if at all possible, and never use a flea product on a cat— even one labeled natural, organic, or gentle—unless it is specifically labeled for use on cats.
Flea combing is an excellent way to track the severity of an infestation, though it is unlikely to help reduce the overall number of fleas. When combing, keep a dish of soapy water nearby to drown trapped fleas.
If a dog or cat is infested with fleas, try bathing with a natural flea shampoo. Some shampoos have pesticides added that will kill fleas on the animal, and some have residual repellents. Care should be exercised when selecting a shampoo for a cat. Some contain permethrin, which can be toxic to cats.
Any shampoo can kill fleas. The soap breaks the surface tension of the water, and the fleas become trapped and drown. The residual effects of additional ingredients added to flea shampoos are what make them more effective. Neem, cedar and melaleuca seem to have repellent properties.
When bathing a dog or cat, it’s important to start at the head and work toward the tail, which prevents the fleas from being driven onto the animal’s face. Let lather stand for at least ten minutes.
When bathing a cat, it will be easier to have several pitchers of warm water available for washing and rinsing, rather than trying to run the tap while holding the cat. The sudden rush of water from a tap can turn a startled cat into a slippery torpedo. Placing a towel on the bottom of the tub or sink can help a dog or cat to maintain stable footing, which will reduce nervousness.
Too-frequent bathing may dry the skin, making dogs and cats easier targets for fleas. Dryness can be reduced by using a natural conditioner.
Use sprays and natural repellents. Cedar, neem and tea tree oils seem to be the most effective botanical repellents. Combing the dog or cat’s hair backward while applying will help to prolong the repellent action. Bedding and resting areas can also be sprayed to make them a less attractive environment for fleas.
It’s good to be cautious when applying any flea control product, natural or otherwise. When used according to package instructions, these products should be relatively safe, but even botanical pesticides and repellents can cause problems if used incorrectly or applied to a dog or cat who is sensitive to them. If you believe your cat or dog is having a reaction to a flea control product, wash off any topical treatments with Dawn dishwashing liquid and contact a veterinarian immediately.
Vacuuming is one of the most effective methods of controlling fleas. It’s a quick way to get rid of free-roaming adults, some of the eggs and larvae, and it eliminates larval food sources. Also, the pressure and vibration can encourage pupal fleas to emerge as adults, making them easier to spot and eliminate. All places where dust might accumulate should be vacuumed, including crevices, floor moldings, and upholstery. To prevent fleas from escaping back into the house, the dust or vacuum bag can be sealed in a plastic bag and discarded in a trash can that’s outside of the house. For best results, vacuum every three to four days.
Using a desiccant, which dehydrates fleas, in conjunction with vacuuming will help to eliminate any fleas that remain in the house. Diatomaceous earth and boric acid are both effective desiccants. They both work to dry out the flea, but boric acid also functions as an intestinal poison for flea larvae. Diatomaceous earth is basically inert; it’s made of the microscopic skeletons of single-celled sea creatures. There is some debate about boric acid and how toxic it may be when ingested or inhaled. When applying boric acid, always follow the package instructions, and use caution around small children and sensitive animals.
Treat bedding, cat furniture, and anywhere a dog or cat spends time, including human furniture. If a dog or cat spends a great deal of time outside on a particular perch or in a dog house, treat that space as well. In severe cases, it may be necessary to treat the yard by applying beneficial nematodes, like Steinernema carpocapsa. These roundworms attack insect larvae, and are available at many local greenhouses.
For dogs or cats suffering from flea allergy dermatitis (FAD), natural methods of flea control are unlikely to be enough to relieve the problem. Dogs and cats with FAD are allergic to compounds in the saliva of the flea, so a single bite is all it takes to start an allergic reaction. If you suspect your dog or cat is suffering from FAD, speak with a veterinarian as soon as possible. Also, if you have a flea infestation that does not respond to natural treatments, you should consult with your veterinarian for alternatives.