Adult fleas are not only a nuisance to humans and their pets, but can cause serious medical problems including allergic dermatitis, tapeworms, secondary skin irritations and, in extreme cases, anemia. Adult fleas are about 1/16 to 1/8-inch long, dark reddish-brown, wingless, hard-bodied (making them very difficult to crush between your fingers), have three pairs of legs (hind legs enlarged enabling jumping) and are flattened vertically or side to side, allowing easy movement between the hair, fur or feathers of the host. Fleas are excellent jumpers, leaping vertically up to seven inches and horizontally thirteen inches. (An equivalent hop for a human would be 250 feet vertically and 450 feet horizontally.) They have piercing-sucking mouthparts and spines on the body projecting backward.
Now that we know what they are and how they can affect our pets, how can we get rid of them without coating our beloved pets in chemicals? This is a tricky proposition, as fleas pass through 4 distinct life cycles – egg, larva, pupa and adult. A typical flea population consists of 50 percent eggs, 35 percent larvae, 10 percent pupae and 5 percent adults. Completion of the life cycle from egg to adult varies from two weeks to eight months, depending on the temperature, humidity, food, and species. Eggs loosely laid in the hair coat, drop out most anywhere especially where the host rests, sleeps or nests (rugs, carpets, upholstered furniture, cat or dog boxes, kennels, sand boxes, etc.). Eggs hatch in two days to two weeks into larvae found indoors in floor cracks & crevices, along baseboards, under rug edges and in furniture or beds. Outdoor development occurs in sandy gravel soils (moist sand boxes, dirt crawlspace under the house, under shrubs, etc.) where the pet may rest or sleep; sand and gravel are very suitable for larval development.
I have opted to go with natural, organic flea prevention and eradication methods with my dogs. I have seen, heard, and read one too many horror story regarding the use of Advantage, Frontline, Bio Spot and other topically applied flea medication. The medicated flea collars are just as bad – a good comparison would be that of wrapping a chain of poison around your dog’s neck that simply pushes the pests to his tail. It is possible, but certainly not simple, to avoid these commonly used medications and rid your home and dog of fleas.
A Healthy, Balanced, Pet
Fleas are generally more attracted to weaker unhealthy, animals, so keeping your pet at his or her peak of optimal health is the first line of defense in protection against a flea infestation. Good nutrition is the key to good health, which for dogs means a diet of fresh, wholesome foods. Be sure to add plenty of variety to your dog’s diet including various vegetables, fruits, meats, and grains, and being careful to avoid foods dangerous to dogs like grapes, onions, and macadamia nuts (to name a few). I know it is simply just not realistic for everyone to be able to devote time to cooking meals for their dogs, so if you must buy bagged dog food go ahead and add in supplement powders like nutritional yeast, lecithin, sea kelp, and vitamin, but try to give them some scraps of fresh food when the opportunity arises.
Exercise is also an integral part of maintaining good health, and all dogs should participate in some form of physical activity each and every day. Exercise helps with muscle tone, promotion of circulation, optimal metabolic function, and the efficient elimination of waste products from the body.
Brewer’s Yeast and Garlic
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. There are commercially sold tablets and powders out there containing these ingredients, but I have found that my dogs do not mind the taste of either the yeast or garlic with their food so I sprinkle a bit of both in their dry food at dinnertime. 1/2 a tablespoon per 25 pounds of weight is a good rule of thumb to use with the nutritional yeast; I give my 100 pound dog 2 tablespoons in the morning and 2 tablespoons at night. I generally give each dog a half a clove of garlic in the evening with their meal; do not overfeed garlic to your dog, it can be toxic in high amounts. Also be aware that some animals are yeast intolerant and will react with a skin allergy; discontinue use if this occurs.
Combing your cat or dog daily with a flea comb is an important part of flea control. Bathing animals regularly is also advised and a water bath with a gentle soap that won’t irritate their skin is sufficient to eliminate existing fleas; no need to use harsh sprays or shampoos. My preferred soap of choice is Dr. Bronner’s Unscented/Sensitive soap. I find that this leaves no residue on my dog’s skin, and is gentle enough to use as often as necessary.
While in the process of eradicating your home of fleas, you may want to use an herbal insect repellent to keep your dogs comfortable. If you already have essential oils like lavender and chamomile you may make your own mixture with whatever you have laying around, but if you wish to buy a pre-made solution my personal recommendation is for Burt’s Bees Herbal Insect Repellent. The Burt’s Bees spray contains the following aromatics – castor oil, rosemary oil, lemongrass oil, cedar oil, peppermint oil, citronella oil, clove oil, geranium oil, and soybean oil. It is 100% natural and effective in keeping your dog flea free while working to control the environment. I also use this spray on my dogs during the summer months to protect them from bugs during walks.
An excellent way to destroy the fleas’ eggs is weekly vacuuming, and frequent washing, of animal bedding. This 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. Keeping clutter on the floor to a minimum also will deprive the fleas of hiding places.
The key to preventing fleas is to control your environments and prevent any existing fleas from spawning. The best way to do this outside is to cover your yard, or at least the entrance areas through which your pet travels, with a special soil known as diatomaceous earth. This soil is special because of its glass-like composition, which is the result of the presence of deceased diatom skeletons within the mixture. Diatomaceous earth, or DE, will work to paralyze the fleas, and they will subsequently die of dehydration. This can also be used indoors on carpets, flooring, and on your pet himself.
How to Use Diatomaceous Earth for Flea Control:
1) Wear a mask and put one on your pet. Even though it’s nontoxic, you don’t want to get it in your lungs because of its harsh, glass-like quality.
2) Sprinkle the DE along your dry pet’s spine. Massage it along the body, working your way carefully to the extremities, avoiding the eyes.
3) Spread some diatomaceous earth on the carpets, brush it in and leave for about four days. Then vacuum it up to remove most of the fleas in the carpet.
4) Repeat the application frequently during an infestation. You should notice a decrease in fleas within a couple days.