The age-old scourge of fleas, usually associated with pet dogs or cats, can affect any home. And while chemical-based flea treatments can be effective, they may pose health hazards to occupants as well as pets.
“Avoid contact with eyes, skin or clothing.” “Keep out of reach from children.” “Dust released by collar is a cholinesterase inhibitor.” (Cholinesterase inhibitors lead to an accumulation of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine. This produces paralysis and then death in insects.)
These are common precautionary statements on many readily available flea treatments. But while the product may be effective at killing fleas, what is its effect on your pet’s health, or your family?
Surveys show that as many as 50% of American families report using some kind of flea and tick control product on pets, exposing millions of children to toxic chemicals on a daily basis. Initial research also shows that thousands of pets may be sickened or die each year as a result of chronic, low-dose exposure to organophosphate-based insecticides through their flea and tick collars.
But while there are countless stories of pets, and even people, who have suffered the ill effects of flea treatments, finding alternatives can be a problem for most people.
A Few Facts About Fleas:
- Fleas are similar to cockroaches in that they adapt to their environment. They become stronger and more immune to the popular commercial flea control chemicals with each generation.
- Most of the fleas are living in your pet’s environment, rather than in its fur. Every flea found on your pet may mean that there approximately 30 more living in your home.
- A single flea can lay as many as 60 eggs per day. The lifespan of a flea is about 90 days, but the hibernating cocoon can survive up to year without feeding.
Controlling fleas does require some effort, but there are safer and effective ways to control fleas than chemical-based commercial flea control products. Understanding the flea life cycle will also help you eradicate fleas from your home by helping you target the most effective methods for the problem.
In the past, pet owners thought that treating their pets for fleas was the way to get rid of the problem. Unfortunately for every adult flea spotted on a pet, another 100 lie in wait around the house. That’s because although adult fleas take up residence in your pet’s coat, their eggs, pupa, and larvae live predominantly in your pet’s indoor environment.
A complete flea life cycle from egg to adult can take weeks to months, depending on the environmental conditions. Female fleas most often lay eggs on your pet’s coat, but these rapidly fall off and live undetected from one to 12 days until they hatch.
When the larvae emerge, they are semi-transparent to white. They live from four to 18 days, seeking out cracks in floors, damp corners, pet bedding, or other protected locations with high humidity. They turn progressively darker as they feed on adult flea feces and other organic matter. Eventually they spin a cocoon and enter the pupal stage, which can last from three days up to one year.
Adult fleas begin searching for a host soon after they emerge. Once they find one, they’ll begin the cycle all over again within 48 hours. Before reaching for pesticides, see if these safer, non-toxic methods help control flea problems.
Groom House Pets and Check for Fleas
Combing your cat or dog daily with a flea comb is an important part of flea control. Bathing animals regularly is also advised. There is no need to use chemical flea shampoos. A water bath with a gentle soap that won’t irritate their skin is sufficient to eliminate existing fleas.
The best way to check your pet for fleas is to comb your pet with a fine-toothed flea comb especially over the lower back near the tail base. You may pick up an adult flea, or you may collect black, pepper-like material. To determine if this black material is flea feces, place the debris on a white paper towel and add a drop of water. If it is flea feces, you will see a reddish-brown stain develop around the pepper since flea feces is actually digested blood.
Set a Trap
You can trap fleas by placing a dish of soapy water under a nightlight near where your pet sleeps. Fleas are attracted to warm light and will drown in the soapy water. This works for adult fleas only, but with diligence, can be effective reducing the flea population. Fleas already residing on your pet aren’t likely to leave, so you will still need to flea comb and/or bathe them in a mild shampoo (even a baby shampoo will work as fleas don’t survive well in soapy water).
If the idea of keeping a soapy water dish near your pet is not attractive, plug-in flea traps (also called electric flea traps or lighted flea traps) are available. These electric traps are very effective. (They seem to also work well for ants, as we have noticed in our personal experience.)
The images below show results using an electric flea trap for two weeks. You will notice the first image shows the sticky pad full of dead fleas, and the second image shows a reduction in the second week. This pattern shows the flea population is being reduced, and the trap should remain in place until no fleas appear on the pad. Once the area is cleared of fleas, the trap can be moved to any other location where fleas appear. (Order refill capture pads for your electric flea trap.)
Sanitize Your Pet's Environment
Fleas lay their eggs everywhere—in carpets, curtains, upholstery, animal bedding, cracks and crevices. Destroying fleas eggs by thorough weekly vacuuming and frequent washing of animal bedding goes to the source of the problem and will help eliminate the flea population in your house. After vacuuming, be sure to replace the bag right away and take the old bag out of the house so any captured eggs don’t hatch. Keeping clutter on the floor to a minimum also will deprive the fleas of hiding places. Be sure to target dark, damp areas where eggs may be hiding.
In severe infestations, steam cleaning is another effective remedy. Home or rental steam cleaners will usually kill adult and larval fleas, and even some eggs. Steam also encourages pupa to hatch, speeding up the life cycle of fleas so you can eradicate them more quickly.
Apply Diatomaceous Earth (DE)
Once your home is sanitized, defend against a recurrence of fleas and other insect pests by applying small amounts of diatomaceous earth throughout the home. Diatomaceous earth is a remarkable, all-natural product made from tiny fossilized skeletal remains of unicellular plants called diatoms. But while ‘DE’ may look and feel like talcum powder to us, to insects it is a lethal dust with microscopic razor-sharp edges which cuts the flea’s protective outer covering, leading to desiccation and death. And while DE spells death to insects, it is harmless to humans and pets.
Apply DE in places where fleas seem most prevalent: a dusting on the pet’s bedding and the carpet or couch, a teaspoon under the baseboard heater, beneath the stove or cupboards, near the sink, garbage or wherever you suspect fleas. While the effectiveness of the dust does not wear out, it can be accidentally sucked up when vacuuming, so you may need to reapply after using the vacuum in certain areas.
The application of DE has the added benefit of effective flea control whether rooms are carpeted or have bare wood or tile floors. A carpet can be given a light dusting of DE, and a sprinkling on wood floors will find its way to the cracks and crevices where insects frequent. DE can also be rubbed directly into the fur of your pet dog or cat.
It only takes a small amount of diatomaceous earth to cover a large area indoors if it is strategically placed near problem areas or where fleas would likely hide.
The application of diatomaceous earth should continue after the resident flea population is exterminated. This is because tiny hibernating fleas in the cocoon stage may survive in the home environment up to a year without food. This stage can survive most treatments and can emerge to reintroduce the flea population in your home.
It only takes a small amount of diatomaceous earth to cover a large area indoors if it is strategically placed near problem areas or where fleas would likely hide. Since diatomaceous earth usually comes in a fairly large bag, the leftover can be saved since DE stores well, but it can also be used outdoors as an effective slug repellent.
Although DE is nontoxic to humans and pets, it is a fine powder and may irritate the lungs of some people, especially those with breathing issues. Do not apply DE in windy environments or when the household fan is turned on.
A Word of Note: Diatomaceous earth for pest control should not be confused with “Pool Grade” diatomaceous earth, which is treated with heat, causing the formerly amorphous silicon dioxide to assume crystalline form, which is not effective for insect pest control.
To learn more about diatomaceous earth, read our comprehensive article:
Diatomaceous Earth: Non-Toxic Insect Pest Control for Your Home and Garden
While you can’t kill off the fleas that your pet is going to encounter when it goes outside, you can keep the population down in the area around your house by using nematodes. These microscopic worms eat flea larvae and are therefore a natural way to control the flea population.
You can purchase nematodes at some pet and garden stores. Place them in moist, shady spots near your house; neither fleas nor nematodes survive in the hot sun. A lawn sprayer is commonly used for application, and within 24 hours the resident flea population is reduced up to 80% depending on area sprayed. As nematodes multiply rapidly, you have only to introduce a small initial number to have residual benefits.
Nematodes have provided more than 95% control of flea larvae in some carefully prepared soil mixes.
Flea control nematodes, however, are not uniformly effective in all outdoor environments. For example, results of flea control nematode trials done under artificial conditions in North Carolina, California, Texas, and Louisiana have been very promising. They sometimes have provided more than 95% control of flea larvae in carefully prepared soil mixes. However, they were much less effective in several preliminary trials conducted in Florida. Although research is inconclusive, evidence suggests that nematodes are most effective against fleas in moist, sandy soil.
Cold winter weather will significantly reduce the population of nematodes in the soil. In most cases, nematodes will become dormant during cold weather, and any survivors would be few in number to provide adequate insect control the following spring. If your flea problems return the following year, another application of nematodes may be necessary.
Be Extra Vigilant During Peak Flea Season
Homeowners tend to see more fleas during hot, humid summers, with a peak in August and September. During these months, pay more attention to grooming your pet and observing if fleas are present. During the dry winter season, fleas are not as common. Often, fleas will remain dormant during this period as pupae, a cocoon-like stage.
Even if all the ingredients in a flea repellent product are natural, this doesn’t ensure that they won’t be toxic to your pet.
Even if all the ingredients in a flea repellent product are natural, this doesn’t ensure that they won’t be toxic to your pet. For instance, d’Limonene, which is derived from citrus peels and found in many natural anti-flea products, can be highly toxic to cats. Herbal flea collars, though they don’t contain the poisons that conventional flea collars do, come with the same warning: do not let children play with the collar. If it’s not good for your child, why would it be good for your pet?
It’s advisable to read product labels carefully. For example, one line of supposedly natural flea sprays and dips contains “all natural synthetic Pyrethrin.” Pyrethrins are insecticides derived from the African chrysanthemum (Pyrethrum). Pyrethroids are synthetic derivatives of pyrethrins. Both are commonly used in conventional preparations, which make the product sound innocent because it’s derived from a flower. But pyrethrins alone can be toxic to animals and pyrethroids expose your animal to more chemicals.
Other natural ingredients known to cause allergic reactions or have toxic effects in some animals include tea tree (Melaleuca alternifolia) oil and pennyroyal oil.
Cat Owners Take Special Note: Cats Should Not Be Given Any Essential Oils, Period.
The use of essential oils with cats is a potentially volatile combination. Cats do not efficiently metabolize essential oils and their use can lead to symptoms of toxicity. In addition to essential oils, cats have known metabolic sensitivities to certain herbal preparations and allopathic medications.
Because the cat’s body does not efficiently excrete essential oils, they can build up to toxic levels. Symptoms of toxicity include vomiting, dizziness, clumsiness, lack of appetite, lack of energy and shock. In addition, cats have very thin, delicate skin. Essential oils are absorbed rapidly into their skin and enter the bloodstream, overwhelming their systems. Cats dislike strong odors and generally keep away from strong scents, even highly diluted essential oils.
Some people find that they can use essential oils on their cats with no obvious adverse effects. Although one or more applications of an essential oil product or blend may not cause immediate harm, the effects of essential oils can be cumulative and manifest themselves at a later date in the form of toxicity for which owners and vets often can find no attributable cause. (Source: aromaleigh.com)
Animal Health: Nutrition First
Food- and plant-derived substances are a healthy substitute for chemical-based products. But are they strong enough to control fleas and ticks? And why are some people are more prone to mosquito bites than others?
There’s a nutritional reason, and it has to do with the strength of the individual’s immune system and the levels of B complex, zinc, selenium and antioxidants in the body and bloodstream. A strong immune system and high nutrient levels help repel insects in pets and humans. (Source: Alternative Medicine)
By feeding your animals a high-quality, natural diet free of additives and preservatives, you improve their health and dramatically increase their protection from fleas.
If your cat or dog has a severe flea problem, it’s often a signal that their health is not as it should be. Many commercial pet foods are nutritionally inadequate and contain harmful additives and by-products. Fresh, whole, raw foods are vital because they provide digestive enzymes and vitamins that can be destroyed by cooking. By feeding your animals a high-quality, natural diet free of additives and preservatives, you improve their health and dramatically increase their protection from fleas. A healthy animal does not taste or smell as good to fleas.
A natural diet can be enhanced with nutritional supplements such as Nupro Dog and Cat Supplement, the Animal Essentials line, a herbal multi-vitamin powder (for overall health support), plant enzymes and probiotics (a digestive aid), and omega 3 oils (an essential fatty acid supplement aimed at skin, coat and heart health).
You can also add these inexpensive, easy nutritional supplements commonly found in most household cupboards:
Garlic and Yeast
Fleas particularly dislike the flavor of garlic and yeast (nutritional or brewer’s yeast). Mixing garlic and yeast with your pet’s food can render their blood unpalatable to fleas. However, due to risks associated with garlic, which affects cats and some breeds of dogs, it is generally recommended that you avoid feeding your pets concentrated amounts of garlic.
Pet owners: Please be aware that as little as one clove of raw garlic can cause severe toxicity in dogs and cats. The use of garlic, as well as onions, shallots and chives, has been shown to cause damage to feline red blood cells which can result in hemolytic anemia and eventual death. Raw garlic and onions can also cause ulcers and irritation of the mouth, esophagus and stomach.
Due to risks associated with garlic, which affects cats and some breeds of dogs, it’s recommended that you avoid feeding your pets concentrated amounts of garlic.
Use about a teaspoon of unprocessed brewer’s (or nutritional) yeast daily for cats and small dogs, and a tablespoon for a 50-pound dog. Some animals are yeast intolerant and will react with a skin allergy. Discontinue use if this occurs.
Other natural repellents include vitamin B1 (thiamine) and unpasteurized apple cider vinegar. (See your veterinarian for the correct amount of a vitamin B1 supplement for your pet.) The dosage of apple cider vinegar is about one teaspoon daily in the pet’s drinking water. Apple cider vinegar helps strengthen the immune system.
Natural Shampoos and Rinses
A variety of natural ingredients can help eliminate the fleas that are feasting on your animal. But remember, these remedies won’t rid your house of fleas unless used in combination with a whole-house approach. Similarly, most natural shampoos and rinses won’t kill fleas on contact like pesticides, but they can help drive them from your pet and help them smell less desirable to fleas. When added to bathing water, they can also help drown many of the fleas present on your pet’s skin. They include:
- Apple Cider Vinegar: Add a small amount to bathing water or follow a bath with a rinse of apple cider vinegar. Dip your pet’s comb in a concentrated rinse of apple cider vinegar and water and comb over entire body while grooming.
- Neem Oil: For treating fleas on dogs, add a few drops of organic neem oil to pet shampoos. You can also place a few drops of neem oil on your palms and massage into your pet’s fur. However, be aware that neem oil has a strong smell and some dogs may attempt to rub it off by rolling. Do not use neem oil on cats, and avoid preparations of neem oil with other essential oils that might irritate your pet.
- Dish Soap: The surfactant ingredients in some dish soaps break down the waxy coating on insects and cause them to drown more easily. However, it’s important to remember that most dish soaps are harsher than pet shampoos and may break down your pet’s natural oils. This can quickly lead to skin irritation. Use no more than once a month, and discontinue use if irritation occurs. If you do proceed, add ½ to 1 cup to your pet’s bath and lather thoroughly, including behind the ears. Let sit for up to 10 minutes before rinsing.
The best defence against fleas, and other afflictions such as heartworms, is good overall health. This includes a balanced diet, grooming where necessary, and regular exercise. Before looking for external sources of flea problems with a pet, take a step back and consider the animal’s overall health. If the pet looks run down or exhibits poor self-grooming, it’s likely a remedy for fleas may alleviate the problem, but the pet’s underlying health condition may still leave it susceptible to future flea problems.
Flea bites are easy to identify, as they usually appear as small, hard, red, slightly raised, itching spots with no swelling. The itch can be intense and very localized. Some bleeding can occur, particularly if the bitten area is scratched. A single puncture point caused by the flea is generally apparent in the center of each spot, visible by using a magnifying glass. Fleabites can occur anywhere on the body, but are most often found on the lower legs and ankles.
The following measures will help bring relief and healing to fleabites on humans:
- Wash the affected area with soap and cold water. (Warm water may increase the itching.)
- Apply a cold pack to reduce swelling and further relieve itching.
- Try not to scratch the itch. Covering the area with loose clothing may help.
- If the affected area is red and swollen, you may apply an anti-itch topical cream or a mild steroid cream like 1% hydrocortisone cream. This should be available from a pharmacy without the need of a prescription. Hydrocortisone helps in reducing inflammation rapidly. Alternately, a few drops of calamine lotion may also be used.
These simple home treatment methods should produce results with a day or two. However, if swelling and itching persist or produce discharge, then a visit to your doctor may be warranted. In some cases the doctor may recommend a steroid injection to reduce swelling, or a course of antibiotics. It is not common for these measures to be applied in most instances of flea bites.
Purchase non-toxic flea control products in our online store!
Problems with other insect pests? See our page Natural Insect Pest Control.