Thursday, May 13, 2010

Natural...and safe....alternatives for flea and tick control

I've never been a fan of using chemicals of any sort on my dogs, but after researching the spot-on products and reading all the information on side effects and the EPA findings, I would definitely not use them now!

We do need to control fleas and ticks on our pets, yet at the same time we don't want to subject them to possible harm from chemical pesticides. Where does that leave us? Are there natural flea and tick controls that really work?

The answer is a resounding "yes". There are a number of natural options that work quite well in eliminating fleas, ticks, and other insects from pets, homes and yards.

We should consider the life cycle of the flea to get a perspective on controlling them. Most commercial flea and tick control products target the adult fleas that are on the pet. Understand, though, that only about 5% of the flea population consists of adults that are actively on the animal. Nearly 85% of the flea population consists of eggs and larvae. Another 10% consists of pupae, which are in a cocoon that is pretty much impenetrable. Some of the eggs may be laid on the pet, but most eggs and larvae are found on the ground, in the carpet, around baseboards, etc. From this, it would seem that the most effective treatment for fleas would be directed at the eggs and larvae.

You may notice as well that some animals seem to always be plagued with fleas, ticks, worms, etc., while others...even those in the same household...are rarely bothered. Animals with a weakened immune system may develop severe allergy symptoms from just one or two bites. It makes sense, then, that in order to protect our pets from these parasites, we need to start on the inside, building their health and resistance with a healthy diet and appropriate supplements. There are a number of really good supplements on the market (Nupro, Animal Essentials, Missing Link, and others) that provide needed nutrients and probiotics, herbal supplements, and immune boosting ingredients.

There are several inexpensive nutritional supplements commonly found in most cupboards or in your local supermarket that are great for parasite control. Fleas seem to particularly dislike the taste of garlic and yeast (nutritional or brewer's yeast). Mixing these in with your dog's food can make their blood unpalatable to fleas. Garlic cloves can be crushed and added to food with a spoonful of brewer's yeast. An easier, and less smelly, way to add the garlic is to buy odorless garlic tablets and putting them on the food, either crushed or whole. These supplements will take close to a month to build up in the pet's system enough to be effective in flea control, so it is best to start them early in the spring before fleas and ticks become active.

If your dog already has fleas, a flea comb is very effective in trapping fleas and flea eggs and removing them from your pet. Daily grooming is best. Believe it or not, Dawn dish washing liquid works wonders for a flea infested dog. The oils in it will suffocate the fleas, keep the eggs from sticking to the hair follicles, and keep the dog's skin/fur from drying out. There are good natural shampoos available as well that contain various essential oils which kill fleas and ticks. It is important to start by shampooing the neck and working your way down to keep the fleas from swarming up to the dog's face and ears. These work well for getting rid of fleas present on the dog, but do not have any residual effect.

Essential oils are a very effective, traditional way to repel fleas and ticks. The best oils for the job are:

  • Peppermint
  • Cedarwood
  • Lavender
  • Tea Tree
  • Citronella
  • Melaleuca
  • Cinnamon
  • Rosemary
Cedarwood and Peppermint oils block a specific neurotransmitter in insects called "octopamine" which regulates their nervous system. When exposed to these octopamine blockers, insects such as fleas, ticks, mosquitoes, flies, bed bugs, mites and lice lose their ability to function and die quickly. These oils and others can be applied to your pet's collar, mixed in with their regular shampoo, or mixed in a spray bottle with water and misted onto your dog's fur.

I have been using a mix of cedarwood, peppermint, cinnamon and rosemary oils in a shampoo and a spray on my dogs, and I haven't had any problems with fleas or ticks since. The added bonus is that my dogs smell faintly like potpourri!

For every flea you see on your pet, there are 4 or 5 times that many, at least, in your house or yard. Steam cleaning carpets will kill flea eggs. Vacuum and clean floors once or twice weekly to get rid of flea eggs, larvae and pupae. Wash the pet's bedding thoroughly.

Boric acid powder can be sprinkled on the carpet. The powder will remain down in the carpet even after vacuuming because of the fine particle size. It kills flea larvae on contact and is residual.

Another really great flea controller is diatomaceous earth. Diatomaceous earth is an all-natural product made from the fossilized skeletal remains of single-celled plants called diatoms. It is a very fine powder to us, but to insects it is a lethal dust with microscopic razor-sharp edges which cut the flea's protective outer covering, leading to dessication and death. It is completely harmless to humans and animals. Apply it to areas where fleas seem most prevalent. A dusting on the pet's bedding and furniture, a light sprinkling on carpets and wood floors, a teaspoon or two beneath appliances or cupboards and along baseboards is all that is needed. The dust will work its way into cracks and crevices where fleas might hide. The effectiveness of the dust does not wear out, but it can be accidentally sucked up when vacuuming so you may need to reapply in certain areas. Be sure to buy the unrefined type of diatomaceous earth, not the type used in swimming pool filters.

For outdoor flea control, there is a great biological control available. Nematodes are microscopic worms that eat flea larvae and naturally control the population. They are applied via a lawn sprayer, and, within 24 hours, brings about a 90% decrease in the number of flea larvae. It is a good idea to reapply them every spring to make sure the population is adequate to keep fleas in check.

If ticks are a major problem, there is a rather unconventional option to control them. If you live in an area where you are able to have them, guinea fowl are about the best tick control available. They love ticks, and a small flock of them will rid your yard of ticks, grasshoppers and other insects in a very short time. They are hardy, healthy birds and can be trained to come when called. The eggs can be eaten, as can the birds themselves. Check out these sites: or

As you can see, there are quite a few options for parasite control that do not involve any toxic chemicals. If used diligently, you can keep your pet happy and pest-free this summer.

A word of caution...cats are very sensitive to most essential oils and many do not recommend using them on cats at all. They are also more sensitive to garlic than dogs. You may want to check with your vet before using any of these methods on cats.

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