Natural Ways to Keep Your Pets Flea-Free Without Pesticide-Laden Spot Drops
Ah, summertime, and the itchin’ is easy — for your dog, your cat, perhaps even your ankles. With the heat come fleas, which means more fleas, and more and more and before you know it, you’ve got a full-on flea crisis.
Let’s not forget the ticks, too.
You may be one of the millions of pet owners pleased with the results of that not-too-cheap flea- and tick-killing liquid you drizzle onto your furry friends’ skin once a month.
It works well: Probably because it’s a strong pesticide that leaves a smear of chemicals on Max’s back. And those “spot-on” chemicals can rub off on everything his back touches — your other dog, the cat, maybe your little girl who hugs Max a lot.
If your anti-chemical instincts didn’t kick in then, perhaps they did when the EPA released a report a few months ago that said about 44,000 pets had bad reactions to it – from allergic reactions to illness, seizures or death – in 2008. Smaller breeds of dogs are particularly susceptible.
Among the popular “spot-on” treatments are Frontline, Top Spot, Bio Spot and K9 Advantix/Advantage. Some are only available through your veterinarian.
The EPA’s report said many of the products’ problems were linked to customer confusion because of unclear labels: using a dog’s flea treatment on a cat or too large a dose for the size of the pet. The agency has ordered manufacturers to clarify and add details to their labels.
Flea fighting is a big business. We spend about $1 billion a year on products, one report said.
Beyond just scratching, fleas can cause itchy spots that can become sore and infected. Fleas leave tiny residue that look like dirt on your dog’s or cat’s skin. They can live in various stages of growth for weeks, even months. The adult fleas hang onto your pet’s skin and chow down, but the eggs and pupae fall off and grow in the recesses of your rugs, carpet and floor nooks and crannies.
So what’s a green pet owner to do? Face it: You cannot peacefully co-exist with fleas and ticks.
There are lots of natural, organic products that claim to fight fleas, but most experts say the best course of action is some time and elbow grease.
Start with a flea comb, available at any pet store. A couple of quick passes through fur will immediately reveal fleas (and you’ll probably see or feel ticks).
Have a bowl of hot soapy water nearby, comb out the fleas and drop them into the water to kill them. Do this daily until the problem is under control
Bathe your pet regularly. Use a mild, non-chemical shampoo – some people suggest a drop or two of lemongrass or citronella oil will offer a little more bug repellent for the dog. (These essential oils are available at many natural food markets and alternative medicine stores.) Let the shampoo sit on the pet for a few minutes.
Clean your pet’s bedding at least once a week (in hot water).
Vacuum. A lot. Get into the corners and crevices where flea eggs can stay for weeks. After you vacuum, get rid of the bag, or quickly dump the canister’s contents into the trash bag. Vacuum again the next day, and the next – do it daily for a week.
If the infestation is really bad, call in the pros for a serious steam carpet cleaning.
Then take on the lawn: keep grass short because that helps it dry quickly and exposes it to sunlight – which fleas don’t like.
Other natural flea-fighting tools:
- Diatomaceous earth – from the organic nursery, not the stuff for your swimming pool – can reduce flea populations. You can sprinkle it under furniture or on carpets. You can also use it in the yard. Experts warn to be careful with DE because it can be harmful if inhaled, so it is best applied in crevices and other places where pets and children won’t come into direct contact with it. (See the Environmental Health Coalition for more details on this and other less toxic pest control measures.)
- Nematodes are all-natural biological controls (itsy-bitsy worms, actually) available at most garden or pet stores. They are very effective and eat young fleas in the yard. Reapply them monthly (they can’t survive long if it’s hotter than 95 degrees).
- Garlic and yeast. We can’t vouch for their effectiveness, but some green pet owners suggest feeding your dog (not the cat) garlic and a tablespoon of brewer’s yeast (less for smaller dogs). Don’t use more than a clove of garlic a day – more can make some dogs sick.
- Other natural pet owners swear by essential oils to repel fleas: lavender, eucalyptus and lemongrass as well as citronella or cedar oil. Be careful – just because something is natural doesn’t mean it’s safe. And skip the oils for the cat – they don’t metabolize them, some say.
For ticks, gather up rubbing alcohol, cotton balls, a jar and a pair of tweezers. Grasp the tick right where its head is buried in your dog’s skin, and firmly but slowly pull it out – head and all. Put alcohol in the jar, and toss the tick in to kill it. Don’t’ touch the tick. Then clean the spot on Spot with a rubbing alcohol-drenched cotton ball, followed with antibiotic ointment. Don’t touch anything – and quickly wash your hands. Ticks can pass along nasty illnesses, such as Lyme disease.
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