A friend of mine just got a new puppy, and she is floundering in a sea of way too much conflicting advice about how to deal with fleas, ticks, and other bug problems. So, being a good friend, I’ve agreed to give her even more advice, probably even more conflicting than what she’s already heard. (What are friends for?)
(Standard disclaimer: Not only has the FDA not approved any part of what I say, the FDA would laugh until they wet their pants if I even came near them. I'm a muscian with no medical training of any kind, I just read a lot and pay attention. Follow any advice I give with a grain of salt, do your own homework, and please do not hold me responsible for any negative results. I'm a musician.)
Her dilemma: to give monthly “preventative” medication or not? Obviously, me being me, I do not choose to give it to my pets. As I discussed in a previous post (http://greenmama.dreamwidth.org/7537.
I think the question for anyone would have to be something like, “How much would I freak out if I found living fleas on my animal?” Because once they are there, there’s a pretty lengthy and commitment-required regimen, if you don’t want to go the flea bomb route, for getting rid of them. (Discussed in part II of this post) (And by the way, they do sometimes appear on animals being treated in other ways! That’s another reason given for abandoning chemical flea treatment; many believe that the fleas are getting stronger and developing resistance to those meds anyhow.)
Because the fact is that every animal is different, and while I can say loftily that I’ve had pets for 16 years and experienced only 2 flea outbreaks, I could have been just plain lucky. However, given that that’s all I actually did have in all that time, in hindsight, it’s fairly clear that giving the prevention would have been way more expensive and way harder on the pet than it was worth for those two weeks out of 16 years when fleas actually were a problem.
I. So, flea prevention tactics to actually prevent fleas:
- Natural diet and supplements: My holistic vets have always said with great conviction that the most important aspect to keeping your pet from getting fleas is to keep them really healthy and with a very good immune system—that fleas don’t really like the blood of healthy dogs, so they stay away. I’ve been feeding my dogs some of the very natural foods for years, mostly because my doxie has a bunch of food intolerances and I need to give him stuff with only a few ingredients or we run into problems. California Natural (by NaturaPet, http://www.naturapet.com ) and Holistique (by Solid Gold, http://www.solidgoldhealth.com/products/ ) have served him really well over time, and they’re not too hard to find. For those who really want to get into it, there’s Dr. Pitcairn’s Complete Guide to Natural Health for Dogs and Cats (available on Amazon.com and other places) which is full of actual vet-created recipes for making one’s own dog food. (It’s actually not as hard as it looks, and the food is way less nasty than the canned stuff you buy. It can be prepared in quantity and frozen in easily thaw-able batches, and there’s enough flexibility that you can buy what’s on sale and it’s really pretty cost-effective.) But most of us just don’t really choose to go that far. Maybe when my kids are in college I’ll have time for that.
There are a gajillion different supplements out there for dogs, and every holistic vet I’ve talked with has his or her own pet favorite, so it’s hard to say. One thing they seem to agree on is that fish oil is a really good thing. (I get mine from Robbins Pet Care online, https://shop.robbinspetcare.com/ , where you can get cute little fish-shaped capsules, twist off the tail, and squeeze the oil onto the food. Much easier than measuring!)
One of the easier supplements to find is “The Missing Link;” I think you can even get it at PetSmart and places like that. It at first seems horrifically expensive (and probably is if you have a Great Dane or something), but with small dogs it really goes a long way and covers a lot of nutritional bases, and is in my opinion way easier than having six little bottles of different kinds of supplements to give your dog. I know this because currently we do have lots of little bottles, and they’re driving me nuts, but when they run out I may just shift back to Missing Link. (There’s one little bottle for digestion, another for his joints, another that’s a probiotic, on and on…)
I have also heard that giving a dog a tablespoon of apple cider vinegar with meals or in their water will keep fleas from wanting to jump on them. I’ve never tried it. Sounds a little too bizarre to be true. But who knows? I’ve also heard (and this makes more sense) that using it as a rinse for a dog after a bath, or in a spray, is a good way to keep fleas off. But I’ve never tried this either.
Brewer’s yeast, added to food each day, is also said to keep fleas away. Again, I’ve never tried it.
- Bug Repellent: In natural bug repellents, you have your essential oils and you have your Neem oil.
Neem Oil: expeller pressed from the seeds of a tropical evergreen indigenous to the Indian subcontinent, this is one of the most widely used bio-pesticides in use today for everything from domestic pest control to organic farming. Added to pet shampoo (http://www.organeem.com/neemoilitsuses.
I also happen to think neem oil smells really vile. Which is why I like to also use essential oils…
Essential Oils: These are the active ingredients in most non-toxic, deet-free bug sprays you can buy these days. It’s insane how widely varied the costs are for the different ones, although the quality of the essential oils used may have something to do with that. I doubt if there’s any one “magic formula” that’s going to work better than all the rest for every single dog in every single part of the world, but they all have some things in common. (Note: the prices between different pure essential oils, by themselves, are sometimes a shock, but most often they really do reflect the relative preciousness of the oil. Most of the insecticidal oils aren’t the really expensive ones, though.)
A few of the best-known essential oils for flea prevention are: lemongrass, citronella, eucalyptus, cedar, lavender, and peppermint. (I’m skeptical about lavender—but it does have a reputation for enhancing the quality of whatever oils you blend it with, so maybe that’s part of it.) I’ve also heard rose geranium mentioned.
(By the way—never use essential oils on a cat! Cats’ metabolism’s can’t deal with things the way other animals can, and severe liver damage can result. Hydrosols, the liquid byproducts of making essential oil, seem to work fine with cats, though. The Nature’s Gift website has lots of information about these.)
I’ve mentioned before Nature’s Gift (www.naturesgift.com ) a site with some of the best aromatherapy information I’ve ever found. They sell a great blend called “Skeeter Beater” which also does a good job keeping fleas away. A few drops of the oil on a fabric collar (of a dog, not a cat!), or a few drops in a spray bottle with distilled water, is what my family uses on dogs and humans whenever we are out and about. A few drops of neem oil added to that is even better. (Except for the smell. Yuck. I just don’t like it.)
As with all things, your mileage may vary! Some of these may work for you, some not, and trial and error is about the only way to do it. Just, as I say often, do your own research and homework, and make informed choices.
The final and probably most important thing about flea prevention is to pay attention. Frequent grooming, bathing, brushing, etc. are key to keeping fleas from becoming a problem, and if you do see one or find the signs of them on your pet, leap into action immediately, because you never know when the eggs will get laid and/or hatch.
“Flea sign” in a dog looks like little crumbs of black dirt, usually very close to the skin. It’s not dirt—it’s blood from the animal that the flea has consumed and digested…well, okay, to be real honest, it’s Flea Poop. But best to just think of it as dried blood, which is essentially what it is. The way to tell the difference between ordinary dirt and flea sign is to wipe it up with a damp tissue—if it streaks to red, it’s flea sign. If not, it’s just dirt.
If your dog has raw itchy spots and seems uncomfortable and you find flea sign…be afraid. That usually means they’ve been around a while and escaped unspotted.
Which brings us to Part II: What to do if they get in anyway? (Flea removal)
The unfortunate part of trial and error, is, of course, the error part! That means you may well have to deal with a flea infestation at some point, and while the process is not fun and it’s fairly labor-intensive, it’s also pretty effective.
Oh, and if you have two adults in the house who can initiate steps 1. and 2. simultaneously, that’s best of all.
- First things first: Give the dog a bath.
My dog hates baths. Most people’s dogs I know hate baths. But this is the first line of attack and probably the most important. A couple of tips:
· a little neem oil, just a few drops, in whatever shampoo you use will kick up its effectiveness.
· When you get the dog in the tub, immediately create a soapy barrier around the dog’s neck. The fleas, when they hit water, will immediately head for higher ground, and it’s really hard to get them out of the dog’s ears if they make it that far.
· Then scrub the poor creature, really well, all the way to skin level, not neglecting any of the nooks and crannies (between toes, armpits/pawpits, around the ears, etc.)—obviously, be careful around the face; as I said, fleas will long to get there, but they’re hard to clean without hurting the dog.
· If your dog has long hair, brush its coat out while still soapy, and/or use a flea comb (available at pet stores) to really seek out the little buggers.
· Rinse well. I usually repeat, if I think the dog can take it and he’s not looking too pathetic. Dry the poor wet creature off with a towel, be resigned that water will still be shaken everywhere, and move on to the next step.
- Clean your house. I mean, really, clean it all, all at once. (Again, if adult #2 can be doing this while adult #1 bathes the dog, so much the better!)
· Okay, we got all the fleas off the dog. Unfortunately, they have probably managed to lay some eggs somewhere, or lots of somewheres, around your home. So now you need to wash everything, every soft surface your pet has ever been anywhere near, to make sure of getting the eggs.
· Wash all bedding in hot water.
· Vacuum all rugs and soft furniture. If your vacuum has a bag, freeze its contents before dumping them out. The purpose of vacuuming is twofold: first, you hope to get the eggs and larvae, if there are any; second, the flea sign, that dried blood, is what the eggs need to eat upon hatching, so if there’s nothing for them to eat they starve quickly—unless they find a host to chow down on. Vacuuming and cleaning bedding is probably the single most important part of this whole process.
· If you can, stuff pillows and cushions into the freezer for 48 hours or so; this kills the eggs. Otherwise, really good vacuuming usually does the trick.
· With any luck, this will get most or all of your unwelcome visitors. However, even if you’re pretty sure you did a fabulous job…
- Use a flea comb daily, or more often even, for at least a week.
· The flea comb is a great thing. Go over every inch of the dog with it, combing backwards against the lay of the coat. If you find more flea sign the day or two after the big bath, you still have fleas on the dog. Keep a cup or bowl of soapy warm water next to you; if you catch a flea, immediately submerge it in the soapy water, This kills it. The little suckers don’t squish, they have to be drowned. If you’re not sure whether it’s a flea or a piece of flea sign, submerge it anyway—if it’s sign, it’ll float; if it’s a flea, it’ll sink. And you won’t lose the slippery little sucker in trying to examine it. (A single flea can lay up to 500 eggs in its lifespan and 50 in a day, so every one of the little buggers you get is that many fewer to deal with later!)
· An extra hint for those with male dogs, although it’s a little…gross to contemplate. (Grosser to witness, let me tell you.) If you really want to know whether or not your treatment worked, wait till some moment when your little boy is sleeping in the sun, calm and at peace and well into his nap, and then gently turn him over so you can see his boy parts (or where his boy parts used to be, assuming you, as a responsible pet owner, did indeed get him neutered. J) If there are fleas on him, chances are they’ve headed in that direction and are taking their own little nap, where for some reason it’s warmer than elsewhere, and there they stay until they realize they are busted, at which point they run for higher ground. For me, this is always the final test. If there are no fleas there for several days of naps in a row, I’m pretty sure they’re gone. Never worked with my female, though.
- Lather, rinse, and repeat: a week or so later, go through the whole process again—bathe the dog, wash the bedding, vacuum the house. Keep doing this until from one cleaning to the next you have had no indication of any flea activity anywhere in your home. (As in, after a week of no activity, do it one more time, and then figure maybe you’re done.)
- Keep vigilant: for several weeks or even months after the incident, go over the dog with a flea comb just to make sure you’re still in good shape.
So…that is what I’ve always done, and it’s served us well. As I said in the beginning, it’s going to depend on a lot of factors, most of which it’s hard to even recognize, whether a natural flea prevention regimen works. For me, it’s been well worth it—but I can’t say that if I’d been dealing with 3 outbreaks a summer every year since getting my dogs, I wouldn’t be heading for Frontline. And again, I live far enough north that the climate kills most of the bugs for several months out of the year.