Sane Alternatives to Flea Poisons
There is probably no area in a pet’s life that takes so much attention to detail as flea control. To do this well makes life with animals easy and fun, yet to do it wrong or incompletely can make your pet sick and make your life together miserable. Tick control has long been a challenge to do non-toxically, but I’ve finally got some answers, as you can read about towards the bottom of this page. Put non-toxic flea control to work for your animals today. I’ll show you how.
Breaking the Pest Population Down
Let’s consider the flea’s life cycle a bit to get a perspective on controlling this beast (who’s been here for millennia and is not likely to leave without some very concerted efforts). If you picture a population pyramid of fleas as a representation of the relative numbers of the various life stages that exist at any given moment, the bothersome adult fleas that bite and cause problems would be only the very top, about 5% of the total. The broad base of the pyramid is the vast number of eggs, 50% of the total population. These are laid both on and off the host animal, and are awaiting proper conditions to hatch and begin a new generation. The next major population segment is the larvae (35% of the total), which emerge from the eggs and feed on debris and organic matter in carpets, soil, or in cracks and baseboards. Then, above these, a relatively small segment of the total (10%), are the pupae, suspended in a cocoon that seems impervious to all control efforts, natural or otherwise.
Bottom Line: Hit the Base — Eggs and Larvae!
So, from a purely statistical point of view, the efforts to control this pest that are directed at the eggs and larvae will yield the best results, and prevent future generations from being born.
Unfortunately, most of the flea control products are directed at the bothersome adults, and most of these are toxic chemicals that are poisonous to the pet and its person.
Don’t Make Things Worse
The end result of bombs, sprays, dips, “spot-ons,” and the like, is resistant fleas and sick people and pets. Why?
It’s the same story that happens with any antibiotic, pesticide, or herbicide: a certain percentage of every population of “pest” is resistant to any given chemical. When the chemical is used, these resistant microbes, parasites, or weeds breed and begin a new strain that simply ignores the chemical. New chemicals are sought that are increasingly less safe to the humans and animals they contact, and resistance develops at each new turn.
In case you’ve had only good experiences putting these topical pesticides on your animal, your neighbors have not, and the Environmental Protection Agency is investigating:
This from the Pennsylvania Veterinary Medical Association’s newsletter:
In response to more than 44,000 potential adverse reactions to spot-on flea and tick products reported in 2008, the Environmental Protection Agency is intensifying its evaluation of these products. No recalls have been issued at this time. The AVMA will continue to maintain contact with the EPA and monitor the situation, and updates will be posted as they come to our attention. To see the EPA’s statement, including a chart of products, go towww.epa.gov/pesticides/health/flea-tick-control.html.
For information about reporting adverse events, go tohttps://www.avma.org/KB/Resources/Reference/Pages/Reporting-Adverse-Events.aspx.
And this from the EPA itself:
U.S. and Canada to Increase Scrutiny of Flea and Tick Pet Products
(Washington, DC – April 16, 2009) The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is intensifying its evaluation of spot-on pesticide products for flea and tick control for pets due to recent increases in the number of reported incidents. Adverse reactions reported range from mild effects such as skin irritation tomore serious effects such as seizures and, in some cases, the death of pets.(emphasis mine) . . .
Incidents with flea and tick products can involve the use of spot-on treatments, sprays, collars and shampoos.
However, the majority of the incidents reported to EPA are related to flea and tick treatments with EPA-registered spot-on products. (emphasis mine)(To read the complete EPA news release, click here.)
The good news is that there are effective, safe, non-toxic ways to address the flea population where it counts and not make everyone sick in doing so.
There are two main areas to address the major segments of the flea population, the eggs and larvae (remember, they’re 85% of the population).
Let’s start with the outdoor environment first. If your animals spend a fair amount of time in a grassy yard, there is a biological control that can be used to prey on the flea larvae in the soil. A nematode, which is a tiny worm, is applied via lawn sprayer, and, within 24 hours, brings about a 90% decrease in the number of flea larvae.
In Austin, there’s ANTidote, which preys on fire ants as well as fleas! (A real boon here in Texas.) They’re sold through pet stores and garden suppliers, like The Natural Gardener.
Nematodes have no adverse affect on anything but the pest, and they have the side benefit of helping in the garden against cutworms and grubs. As with all biological controls, the predators need to be reintroduced periodically, because they eat all the prey species and die off for lack of food. Follow the label instructions, which usually recommend wetting the soil well before application, to give the nematodes a good start.
In the household, we have two choices for non-toxic flea control, depending on the type of flooring.
Mostly carpet: In this case, you can do a very inexpensive treatment that gets to the larvae quite effectively without much risk of resistance developing and without significant toxicity to people or pets. There are a number of boric acid products on the market that are variously marketed as flea controllers or carpet deodorizers. They work by putting a powder in the carpet that remains there even after vacuuming (because of the fine particle size).
Flea larvae are killed by contacting the borate power, yet the mammals in the house are safe due to its extremely low toxicity. One of the best products is Fleago Natural Flea Control. I also have good reports of people applying good ‘ole 20 Mule Team Borax (sold as a detergent booster for washing clothes)!
These products are applied by shaking the powder on the carpet until it turns lightly white, brushing it in with a broom, and then vacuuming the carpet. Most applications are good for a year. It’s best not to inhale the dust as you are working it in, so wearing a mask is advised, as is removing the animals during application. If you shampoo your carpet, you’ll of course have to repeat the application.
Mostly bare floors: There is a very safe chemical called Nylar, which is a flea growth regulator. This is sprayed on floors, kennels, bedding, and any furniture that is commonly used as a resting place for the pet. Its action is to prevent eggs from hatching and larvae from molting to adults. It does this by mimicking a juvenile hormone in the insect, and keeps the young from ever becoming adults.
As you remember, this is the goal of successful flea control: no more biting flea adults!
Once-a-year application should be sufficient in most cases, unless floors or kennels are washed or exposed to rain. It is difficult to find this chemical alone. It is often combined with adulticides (read: poisons). So it becomes imperative for consumers to be label detectives.
The folks at DoMyOwnPestControl.com have what I used to sell in my office, a product called NyGuard EZ1, which is an ounce concentrate that treats 1500 square feet, and is free of adulticides.
Yo! Eggs! Larvae! Where are You? I’m Comin’ for You!
The key indoors seems to be thinking of all the places where your pet rests. These are all places where flea eggs, laid on the pet by the feeding female, roll off and try to get a new generation started. If the sofa is a dog bed, the cushions need to be pulled and the crack between back and seat treated with borates or Nylar. If your cat climbs into bed with you, normal washing of bedding in hot water and drying in the dryer is sufficient to prevent this area from becoming a breeding ground.
If you’re still seeing fleas after applying these non-toxic flea control methods, think of all the places your pet rests. Are they treated in ways that prevent fleas from growing to the next generation?
But What About My Flea-ridden Animal??
For those adult fleas bothering your pet, a good flea comb is your best tool while you wait for the control to begin to work. Adult fleas may live many weeks, and you may get some new ones born on occasion from the pupae that are awaiting proper conditions to hatch, so there needs to be some attention paid here, as well as a certain amount of patience.
Typically, this safer approach takes about a month to show a noticeable decrease in the flea population. Use the flea comb over all of the animal on a daily basis, and as you catch fleas, dunk the comb into a glass of soapy water to drown them.
Did you know that a bath with anything that makes lather will drown fleas? It’s true! Just leave the lather on for 3-5 minutes, and no toxic chemicals need be used.
Now, I don’t recommend bathing as a means of flea control routinely, as bathing dries out the skin. And it certainly won’t control fleas alone. But, if you’re in a tight spot and the fleas have exploded, it can be a quick solution to get you some sanity. And if you add a dropper or two of essential oils (lavender, citronella, pennyroyal, eucalyptus, etc.) to the bath, you’ll have a pretty good repellent to discourage the next wave from jumping on your pal.
Also note: this is really not a cat recommendation, as the cat can be quite sensitive to essential oils and get sick from them. Best to stick to the dogs for this one, or at least be very careful with the dose in cats.
Finally, while I always thought any shampoos would work equally well, I’ve got a client who swears by Johnson’s Baby Shampoo, and she says it works better than any other she’s tried.
There have been very few choices I’d trust in pest control over the years, but I’ve come upon one recently that shows promise for both premises pest control and even on-the-animal prevention: natural cedar oil products from Wondercide.
It turns out that cedar oil works well on both fleas and ticks (and yes, bedbugs), and is safe for the mammals, be they pets or human folk. It acts by interrupting the pheromones of these pests, which is the way they communicate and find their prey and their mates. My friend Stephanie Boone owns this boot-strapped business, and she and her staff offer individualized advice to fit your situation. They get the cedar oil from trees that get cleared here in Texas, and put it into a natural line of products that are safe and effective.
Topically, the animal product is Evolv, which both kills fleas and ticks on your dog, and acts as a repellant when used before going into areas that may be infested with either. The company says this is safe for cats as well, but I’m conservative here. Cats are just more sensitive to volatile compounds in general, and that includes essential oils. If you have a cat plagued with fleas, I’d start with a small area of the body, say on the shoulders, mist on some Evolv, and watch for any signs of discomfort or vomiting. If all is well in 12 hours, carry on with the rest of the body. If you see a reaction, you can wash your cat well with baby shampoo or Dr. Bronner’s soap to remove the cedar oil.
(Note: If, dear reader, you have used this on your cat and would share your results with me, I’d love to hear about it, pro or con. I really want to love this for cats, but I need your real world feedback to be confident. You can contact me here. Thanks.)
You can also find products that work to fog your living quarters and treat your yard. This may be a boon when it’s too dry for the nematodes to reproduce in the soil. And as I mentioned, the staff at Wondercide will field your questions and tell you the best fit for your situation. Just visit their Contact page, call during working hours, and they’ll either answer or call you right back.
What About Garlic and Yeast?
Sure, it can help to feed garlic and yeast to dogs and cats. This gives them some extra B vitamins and makes them not so tasty to the flea. The only caution is that you not depend on this as your sole means of controlling fleas. For cats, a teaspoonful of yeast flakes (nutritional, not baking), and a small clove of garlic daily should be adequate. For big breeds of dogs, up to 1/4 cup of yeast and a few big cloves is a decent dose, and for those in between, adjust according to body weight.
Perhaps easier and safer are the treats sold with these ingredients in them. And a caution: garlic in high doses, like onions, causes anemia in pets. Err on the side of caution, always, and keep the doses low, knowing the goal is in treating the environment, not the pet.
Repellent Herbal Spray (not for cats)
Other repellent herbs (like those mentioned above) can be applied before walks in the park to deter new additions to the population. But with your environmental controls in place, you needn’t worry much about newcomers — they can’t set up a new generation and they’ll fall prey to your flea comb, or next bath. To use these herbs, get the essential oil(s) and add a large dropper full of one or a combination of several to a quart misting bottle and spray your animal’s coat. Avoid eye contact.
I Bet You Don’t Like The “Flea Pill,” Right?
I’m afraid not. Mainly because I see us already subjecting our animals to a stew of chemicals that they are not genetically equipped to deal with. Evolution has not equipped the animals (or us) to detoxify and live compatibly with these foreign compounds — they are too new to the scene. While the company claims safety, the testing data is relatively short term (6-8 months at the longest), and once it’s out on the market, there is no incentive to follow that product long term to see if there is any greater incidence of cancer, allergies, autoimmune disorders, etc. in those animals taking the pill.
Also, any chemical that works by polluting the blood of the animal as a way to get to the flea leaves me a bit cold. Think about it in human terms. Say a big petrochemical/pharmaceutical firm came out with a monthly mosquito control pill for you to take. The instructions are to take it with food, and the mosquitoes must bite you to get a drink of the chemical; then their eggs would fail to hold together and slowly there would be fewer mosquitoes. Would you take it?
Ah, what a convenience! Just don’t get it on your skin. Wait. What?
“Read that label again, will you Jane?”
“It says it’s OK to put on Spot’s skin, but not OK to get it on mine. Hmmm, and I shouldn’t eat, drink, smoke, or scratch myself while applying this? This doesn’t sound safe, Dick!”
“Well, I guess not, Jane! Say, you don’t smoke, do you?”
The Bottom Line
Finally, fleas, like any parasite, are more attracted to the weak animals. You’ll see this clearly in multi-animal households. “Old Bowzer really gets the most fleas. Always has.”
So, it pays big dividends to have your animal as healthy as possible, not only for fleas, but for heartworm prevention, disease resistance, stamina, and long life. That’s really the goal for all problems.