Remembering that only 1 percent of a potential flea population is in the adult stage, you must interrupt the flea’s life cycle at an immature stage to prevent continuous flea infestation. As such, many of the following techniques are designed to prevent the immature stages of the flea from developing into adults. With this in mind, there are a variety of techniques at your disposal that do not require insecticides for effective flea control.
These fall into the categories:
- Pet Grooming
- Lighted Traps
- Pet Control
- Outside the Home
- Desiccant Powders
For best results, you’ll have to utilize several of these techniques in order to kill adult fleas and at least one immature stage. Especially important are the pet grooming and housekeeping procedures.
As we’ve discussed, the flea may spend all of its adult life on your pet. Although a flea may sometimes jump off your pet, fleas will typically feed, lay eggs, and make food for future generations, all on your pet. Therefore, as far as a flea is concerned, your pet is “home.”
At first glance this appears to be a distinct disadvantage, since we all would prefer the flea find itself a home far away from us and our pets. However, this actually has an advantage when you realize your pet is a walking “flea magnet” or “flea trap,” and will provide you with a daily trapping of adult fleas that it collects as it roams around its environment.
Since female fleas lay eggs everyday, it is possible (and likely during flea season) for new adult fleas to be hatching from cocoons every day. That’s why you should try to remove adult fleas from your pet everyday, if at all possible. I hope that as you and your pet get into the routine of looking for fleas on a daily basis, you will find “fleahunting” to be a worthwhile and rewarding endeavor.
A fine toothed flea comb is without question the most important tool available to the pet owner for removing fleas from a pet. With 2231 teeth per inch, the comb is designed to trap fleas in its teeth as the comb is brushed through your pet’s hair. Realistically, it can only be used if your pet’s hair is relatively thin and short. However, if your pet has moderately long or thick hair, you may try a comb with wider spaced teeth. Unfortunately, if your pet has thick or long hair, you may not be able to use a flea comb at all.
As with everything in life, there is a technique in the use of a flea comb, so we’ll discuss this in some detail. Before starting, you’ll need a small bowl filled with water with a few drops of shampoo or detergent added. The shampoo cuts the surface tension of the water so that live fleas you’ll be putting into the water will sink quickly and drown. As an alternative, you might try placing your pet in a bath tub (or other water container) containing an inch or two of water. As you catch fleas in the comb, you merely drop them into the water.
If your pet has moderately thick or long hair but you’re still able to use a flea comb, try using a standard brush to first remove knots. Wetting your pet’s hair with water and a small amount of mild shampoo before using the flea comb can also make the combing process easier.
Begin combing your pet’s hair with the flea comb, making sure you go down to the surface of the skin. Although fleas may be found throughout the hair mat, most will be on the skin. Here’s where the technique comes in: Fleas caught in the comb will remain caught in its teeth a few seconds. Grab the teeth of the comb that contains the flea and place the flea and comb underwater in your bowl. Slide the flea off the teeth of the comb. It will fall to the bottom of the bowl very quickly and drown.
While you’re combing your pet with a flea comb you may notice tiny dark particles caught in the comb teeth. Some will be dirt, but others will be flea droppings of undigested blood. Placing the particles in your bowl of water is an easy way to determine which it is. A dirt particle will look unchanged in water, but the flea dropping will soon form a halo of red color around it.
Soaking Your Pet
Placing your pet underwater for 5 minutes (with its head sticking out, of course) in a tub or sink with shampoo added will drown many of the fleas. After this soaking, fleas still alive will be disoriented and sluggish and should be relatively easy to catch in a flea comb.
Some cats will allow their bodies to be held underwater in a sink or bathtub while others won’t. If yours will, start training it by holding its body underwater, or sitting with it in the bathtub, for a few minutes at a time and work your way up to about 5 minutes. If you have a young kitten, try holding its body underwater periodically, even if it doesn’t have any fleas, to get it used to the feeling of being wet. Many dogs do not mind getting wet and may be held in a bathtub or outdoor pool for 5 minutes at a time with no trouble.
During the soaking process, some fleas will crawl to a pet’s head to escape a watery grave. These should be physically removed with a flea comb.
Bathing Your Pet
Because of their natural grooming habits, your cat may never need to be bathed due to lack of cleanliness. However, you may want to bathe your cat to remove fleas. On the other hand, dogs generally do require bathing and most don’t seem to mind the process.
Dogs, depending on their size, will probably have to be bathed by wetting them down, applying shampoo, working up a lather, and then rinsing the lather off completely. This procedure may also work for cats that won’t sit underwater.
Whether you soak your pet or wash its coat, it’s very important that you not dry out your pet’s skin with overwashing. Most shampoos contain detergents that will dry out skin. So if you’re going to bathe your pet frequently during flea season, use a pet shampoo that’s specifically formulated with oils and conditioners to prevent dry skin. In addition, you may want to consider using a shampoo that includes a flea repellent to repel fleas during bathing. Ordinarily, dogs and cats shouldn’t be bathed more than once a month. However, during a period of flea infestation, you can bathe them once a week with a mild pet shampoo, if necessary.
Whether you soak or bathe your pet, the use of a white towel can help you catch additional fleas. With your pet’s coat dripping wet, place a white towel around its body and hold it in place for about a minute. Remove the towel and inspect it for fleas. If they’ve jumped onto the towel, they’ll be trying to burrow into the fabric to hide. Using a tweezers to crush fleas is the easiest way to catch and kill them on the towel. One word of caution don’t routinely crush fleas with your fingers. Even the tiny flea can carry its own brand of parasites called mites (it only seems fair!), and these can cause irritation if they get under your fingernails when you crush a flea with your fingers.
Combing your pet’s hair with a flea comb will be relatively easy if you have a short hair dog or cat. It will definitely not be so easy if you have a pet with long, thick hair. A partial solution is to cut your pet’s hair short during the summer months to make it easier for you and your pet to cope with flea season. By cutting your pet’s hair, it may allow you to use a flea comb and also provide a cooling effect for your pet. Of course, if your pet spends a lot of time outdoors, be sure not be cut your pet’s hair so severely that its natural sunburn protection is reduced.
Flea eggs drop off your pet before they hatch. Places that your pet frequents, in particular resting and sleeping areas, are therefore prime sites for large numbers of flea eggs and larvae. I realize that pets don’t always spend their resting time in exactly the same spot; however, most pets spend most of their resting time in a few favorite locations.
The best method of killing flea eggs and larvae without using insecticides is to keep a washable surface under your pet when it’s resting. Towels placed where your pet sleeps work great. You’ll need two sets of towels, because you should remove one set every other day and wash it in order to insure you’re trapping flea eggs before they have a chance to hatch. This is birth control for fleas without using chemicals. If you don’t change towels every other day, you run the risk of having some (or all) of the eggs hatch. If your towel is made of a rather thick fabric, larvae may stay on the towel in search of food because they can burrow into the fabric to escape light. But I recommend washing towels every other day to catch eggs before they have a chance to hatch. Using two sets of towels will insure your pet’s resting areas are covered 100 percent of the time.
If your pet rests on your furniture, rug, or wood floor and you don’t want to place a towel there, then you’ll have to vacuum or wash that area as we’ll discuss next.
Please Note: If you spray an Insect Growth Regulator (IGR) on the towels used for flea control, you do not have to constantly change them in order to prevent eggs from hatching (see Insect Growth Regulators under “Classes of Insecticide Chemicals”).
Flea populations in the home are most likely to occur on carpeted and wood floors, rather than linoleum or tile surfaces, as well as on furniture used by your pet. In addition, areas likely to have the most fleas are the living or family rooms, and high traffic areas, such as hallways (Ref. 9).
An excellent control inside the home is to vacuum frequently for instance, every other day. You don’t need to vacuum the entire house, just those areas and furniture your pet frequents, especially when resting. In addition, vacuum high traffic areas, especially near outside doors where pets tend to be active waiting to be let out. Vacuuming will collect mostly eggs, although you might get lucky and catch an adult flea or two. It’s practically impossible to vacuum larvae and cocoons since they’re both found deep inside flooring cracks, carpet, and furniture.
Be aware that once you start vacuuming regularly during flea season, you’ll have fleas in all four stages of life in your vacuum bag. Because of this, I recommend you change vacuum bags frequently during flea season, sealing the bag’s contents as best you can for disposal.
Some folks recommend putting insecticidelaced flea collars or other insecticides inside a vacuum’s bag to kill fleas as they accumulate. However, I don’t think this is a good idea because insecticide vapors are released when you remove a flea collar from its packaging. Since the vacuum blows large quantities of air through its bag, this will cause insecticide vapors to be blown throughout your house for you and your pet to breathe. A safer way to use a flea collar in your vacuum bag, depending upon the design of your vacuum, is to place a piece of flea collar (one quarter at a time) in the vacuum bag the night before you plan to clean it out. In this way the flea stages are killed just before vacuum bag disposal and you never actually operate the vacuum with the flea collar inside. Store the remaining collar pieces in a reseal plastic bag for future use.
When vacuuming furniture surfaces, remember to remove and vacuum beneath cushions, as well as, cracks and crevices.
One last thought the vibrations caused by vacuuming may actually cause adult fleas to emerge from their cocoons. In an active flea infestation, you may want to vacuum twice to catch newly emerged fleas that are looking for a host after the first vacuuming. Again, there’s no need to vacuum the whole house twice, just the high traffic areas and around your pet’s resting areas.
Since flea eggs and larvae will drown if exposed to enough water, washing uncarpeted floors, especially wood floors, will effectively stop the flea’s life cycle. To insure effectiveness, it should be done once a week.
Steam cleaning rugs and furniture can kill and remove all stages of the flea’s life cycle. It’s an excellent method to bring heavy flea infestation down to “manageable” levels quickly without using insecticides. Please note: it is possible for cocoons to survive in carpets even during steam cleaning depending upon carpet thickness.
Shampooing rugs can also effectively kill and remove the egg and larval stages of the flea’s life cycle if shampoo and water sufficiently soak the rug’s fibers during the cleaning process. However, it is doubtful that shampooing will sufficiently contact cocoons to kill them.
Although there’s nothing like the real thing, a flea can be lured into a trap at night even if there’s a live host in the vicinity. A trap consists of a light source and a means to either hold or kill the fleas. Fleas are attracted to light and heat, not as readily as a live host, but you’ll be surprised at how many fleas can be caught this way in an active flea environment.
The idea for trapping fleas is actually borrowed from the American Indian. Legend has it they would place a lighted candle in a bowl of water at night. This clever trap protected them from fleas as they slept.
The modern version of this concept uses an electric light and a sticky surface to hold and trap fleas. There are a variety of commercially sold units and they all work quite well. As the sticky surface becomes soiled with trapped fleas and other insects, you simply replace the card. The best locations for such traps are near your pet’s resting and sleeping areas, but undoubtedly they’ll catch fleas throughout the carpeted areas of your home.
The most difficult environment in which to control fleas is created when your pet is allowed to roam inside and outside your home at will. In order to make flea control easier, you may want to select one or the other location for your pet during flea season.
Excluding Pet From Your Home
During the peak flea season (usually mid to late summer) you may want to consider keeping your pet outside all the time. This technique assumes fleas will find the outside environment more harsh than inside your home, so keeping a pet outside will tend to reduce a flea population overall. This is generally true if the outside environment is relatively dry (less than 50 percent humidity) and hot (over 90oF (32oC).
However, this will not be the case if you live in an area that gets relatively humid as summer temperatures increase. Warm temperatures and humidity make the outside environment ideal for flea populations. Another exception to this rule is if your pet frequents shaded and windprotected “microhabitats,” such as pet houses, under porches or “crawl spaces,” or under favorite trees and shrubbery; these can become oasis-like breeding areas for fleas. Just as your pet enjoys the shaded areas, so will fleas.
If your pet stays outside all the time, you should still wash its bedding surface by wetting down pet houses or other resting areas, or by using the towels we discussed earlier. To be effective, you must apply water or change towels at least once a week to catch larvae, or every other day to destroy eggs. Remember too, even if your pet stays primarily outdoors, you should still remove adult fleas from its body by bathing your pet and using a flea comb.
Pet Exclusively Indoors
This is opposite of the previous discussion. In this case, you keep your pet indoors continuously. When flea populations are “manageable,” keeping your pet primarily indoors minimizes opportunities for continuous re-infestation. Also, using air conditioning during the summer may make inside the house (with lower humidity and temperatures) a less ideal habitat for fleas. Keeping your pet primarily indoors throughout flea season is probably the best way to minimize flea contact.
Focus on your pet’s resting and sleeping areas. Outside dog and cat houses are notorious for breeding fleas. I recommend using a plastic pet house for outdoor use rather than a wooden one. This will allow you to wash the inside of the house once a week with a strong water spray in order to kill flea larvae and not worry about mildew destroying the wood.
Eggs and larvae are effectively killed by soaking in water. Therefore, you can destroy these immature stages by soaking outside areas at least once a week throughout flea season. By far the majority of fleas outside will be concentrated around your pet’s shaded resting and sleeping areas. Therefore, focus on the particular locations that your pet frequents that are protected from the sun. These include pet houses and under trees, shrubbery, porches, decks, etc. If possible, remove debris from these areas so when you apply water or insecticides (or nematodes as I’ll soon explain), you have a clear view of what you’re treating. If your pet lies under favorite trees or shrubbery, remove organic debris and, perhaps, remove lowhanging vegetation to allow more sunlight to penetrate. Remember, flea larvae will avoid direct sunlight at all costs. Don’t bother treating your general landscaping around your house or wide expanses of sunlit lawn. These are not generally the areas where flea larvae develop. Again, concentrate on your pet’s shaded resting locations.
It has been said that the most difficult grasses to deal with from a flea control standpoint are the thick varieties, such as Bermuda and St. Augustine (Ref. 5). Their strong, thick mats may provide the protection needed by flea larvae from environmental elements. Heavy rain or watering sufficiently to soak the ground will help destroy a favorable flea environment with these particular grasses. However as I’ve emphasized, it is much more important (and less expensive) to focus on your pet’s resting areas than to try and treat all your outdoor landscaping.
Another technique that has recently proven itself and may be more effective than soaking the soil is to spread nematodes outside. Now you’re probably asking yourself what in the world is a nematode? Actually, they’re very tiny worm-like creatures that naturally live in healthy soil. Recently, a company has developed a particular type of nematode that apparently enjoys hunting and destroying flea larvae and cocoons. The product is called BioFlea Halt when sold in pet stores, or interrupt when sold through veterinarians. To be effective, the manufacturer recommends it be applied to outside areas once every 4 weeks. In addition, there are watering requirements to prevent the ground from drying out too much for the nematodes.
I think this product has the potential to solve many flea control problems that stem from a pet’s continual reinfestation that occurs outdoors. In addition, it’s the only technique I’m aware of that may actually invade and kill the flea’s pupal (cocoon) stage. As the product gets more widely used, this feature may prove to be a significant advantage over outside water soaking and insecticidal spraying. It’s a relatively new product, so I’ll provide manufacturer’s information at the end of the book. Of course, the places to apply nemotodes are still your pet’s outside shaded resting areas.
These are powders that kill fleas by dehydrating the insect as the powder absorbs waxes from the flea’s body. Since these powders can be formulated with or without chemical insecticides, the desiccantonly powders will be covered here, while those powders containing an insecticidal chemical will be discussed in the next section. Please note however, even desiccant powders are technically an insecticide since an insecticide is any substance that kills insects.
Desiccant powders include diatomaceous earth (also known as DE or Diatom Dust) and silica gel. However, I’ve found that powdered silica gel is not effective in killing larvae, so I only recommend DE in this category of powders. DE powders can be sprinkled onto carpets and worked down into the fibers. Newly hatched flea larvae contact the powder and die from dehydration. If you apply such powders to your carpet, it is recommended you vacuum your carpet first. Then sprinkle the powder all over the carpet, rubbing it in with a broom. Since DE powder consists of tiny, but hard particles, be aware that they may cause carpet fibers to wear out more quickly in high traffic areas. Also, if you’ve recently installed a new carpet in your home, you should check the manufacturer’s warranty to insure it won’t be voided by using a desiccant powder.
Baking soda has been mentioned in the literature as also being a desiccant which will kill flea larvae. However, my own tests have shown this to be false, so do not use baking soda for flea control, it does not work.
Although DE powders do not include toxic chemicals, there is one caution to observe while applying them. When handling these materials, be careful that neither you nor your pet inhale the powders. If inhaled into the lungs, DE can produce scaring of lung tissue similar to the effect of asbestos. Therefore, wear a suitable dust respirator when applying.
An important thing to know the DE to use is a “garden grade” quality sold through plant nurseries as a soil amendment. My tests have shown that swimming pool filter DE does not kill fleas.
This is a category that is very controversial. Some people swear that oral repellents work great, while most professional authorities argue that they don’t. Even the veterinarian authorities who recommend these as food supplements, say they do not work consistently.
Oral repellents are dietary supplements that have been recommended for flea control for many years. They include brewer’s yeast (a rich source of B vitamins), thiamine, sulfur, garlic, chelated zinc, cod liver oil, vitamin C, as well as small amounts of vinegar added to a pet’s drinking water. Of these, yeast and garlic are probably the most popular ingredients in oral repellent products. The idea behind these remedies is that once ingested by an animal, an odor is released through its skin that repels fleas.
A real problem with the use of yeast supplements for flea control is the fact that many dogs and cats have an intolerance to yeast. Their digestive systems do not have the enzymes, the intestinal length (and corresponding digestive time), and the proper acid/alkaline balance to properly break down and assimilate yeast. Therefore, gas is a common problem with animals fed yeast.
Also, yeast can cause allergies in animals. Symptoms of allergies caused by yeast include: loss of hair, itching, rashes, watery eyes, stuffy nose, nausea, diarrhea, asthma, bronchitis, coughing, sore throat, arthritis, fatigue, eczema and depression (Ref. 17). All in all, yeast supplements for animals can do more harm than good.
Herbal and Citrus Extract Repellents
There are a variety of botanicalderived oils and chemicals that have demonstrated an ability to repel fleas. These are not controversial like the oral repellents since it’s well documented that certain plants and trees possess an inherent ability to repel insects.
This class of repellents include citrus extracts, cedarwood oil, pennyroyal oil, eucalyptus oil, walnut oil, peppermint oil, citronella oil, rosemary, and Australian tea tree oil (Ref. 2, 10). Citrus extracts include the chemicals Dlimonene and linalool.
I’ve tested many of these natural materials and can attest to the fact that they do, indeed, repel fleas. However, they cannot fully protect an animal, and should not be regarded as an alternative to physically removing adult fleas from your pet and removing eggs and larvae with good housekeeping techniques. The bottom line is repellents will not stop a hungry flea and should not be relied on as the primary defense against fleas. For that reason, I DON’T recommend using repellent sprays on animals. However, I DO recommend using a repellent in a pet shampoo to help remove fleas from a pet’s body during bathing or soaking.
One word of caution many of the above oils can be poisonous if in a pure or concentrated form. Cats are especially sensitive to concentrated herbal oils and citrus extracts. In addition, none of these oils are meant to be ingested by your pet. You’ll find some of these materials as ingredients in shampoos, sprays, and dips, and as the active ingredients in natural flea collars.
Herbal repellents and citrus extracts are especially useful in shampoos to repel fleas as you’re washing or soaking your pet, but like all shampoos, they should be completely rinsed off after bathing.
The citrus extract chemicals: Dlimonene and linalool have also been included in the Classes of Insecticide Chemicals Section of this book. This is because when these chemicals are used in concentrated form along with insecticides, overall toxicity increases.
Ultrasonic Flea Collars and Boxes
No one wishes that a simple, electrical device would repel fleas more than I. However, my own tests confirm those performed by veterinarians and university researchers alike that have shown several times that ultrasonic devices do not seem to work (Ref. 11).
Avon Skin So Soft Bath Oil
As you may know, Avon Skin So Soft Bath Oil is designed to be poured into bath water to prevent dry skin. However, it has been recommended for years as a mosquito repellent, and more recently some folks have begun recommending it as a flea repellent, as well.
I tested Skin So Soft and found it to be a mild repellent, at best. However, I’ve found that fleas, in general, don’t like oily substances. In low concentrations, (1% solution or 1 to 100 ratio) fleas stayed on Skin So Soft without much bother. In higher concentrations, (10% solution or 1 to 10 ratio), fleas obviously didn’t like it and jumped away. But fleas display these same actions when they’re in contact with a variety of oils. In fact, if an oil sufficiently coats a flea’s body, the oil will kill it.
Problems associated with applying an oil directly to a pet’s coat are twofold:
(1) Outdoors, oil is a magnet for dirt. If you use a 10% concentration of any oil, your pet may not attract fleas in the same way, but your pet’s coat will be coated with dirt the first time it rolls on the ground.
(2) Indoors, oil will get on carpets and furniture if your pet has several resting areas in the home.
Skin So Soft should be very safe to use if you want to give it a try. Concentrations I’ve seen recommended as a flea repellent start at 1% solutions (or 1 ml Skin So Soft in 100 ml of water) and go to 10% solutions (10 ml Skin So Soft in 100 ml of water). Be prepared for a very strong flowery fragrance at the higher concentrations.
This is a technique you can use to discover just how bad a flea infestation is in a particular room in your home. The concept is to wear kneehigh white socks into a room that you suspect contains fleas. As we’ve learned, fleas will be attracted to the vibration of your foot steps and will jump towards your legs looking for a free meal. Since your socks are white you can see fleas relatively easily as they jump onto you. If your socks are relatively thick, fleas will try to burrow into the fabric to get to your skin. While they’re doing that, take a tweezers and crush them.
This technique is definitely not a flea control method. However, you’ll find out just how bad of an infestation you’re dealing with using this technique. If you collect more than five fleas in a single room, you have a very active infestation on your hands.
Holistic Approach to Medical Problems
Since flea infestations can give rise to a variety of medical problems, I’m going to mention this often overlooked branch of medicine and give you a reference if you’d like to learn more on the subject.
Current medical treatment often focuses on symptoms of a disease. Treating symptoms produces relatively quick results which is certainly desirable in both human and animal medicine. However, in the process of producing rather quick results, the body’s own defense, the immune system, may become repressed.
An holistic approach to medicine attempts to build up a body’s (human or pet) natural immune system to counteract the effect of a disease rather than use a drug to directly attack the disease headon. As such, an holistic approach to a medical problem will look at the “whole picture” of an illness to include its physical, dietary, and sometimes emotional aspects.