Last month, we launched a new series about ‘holistic’ health care for companion animals. Remember, holistic care entails viewing the body as a whole as well as how every discrete part works in relation to all the other parts. In keeping with a holistic mindset, this month I want to address fleas. Flea season is, or will very soon be, upon us again and the treatment of fleas illustrates how important the holistic approach is.
If you’ve experienced problems with fleas, or if your dog or cat is itchy, ask the following questions …
Do you live in a warm, humid environment? Or, has it been unusually warm for the past three weeks?
Under warm, humid conditions, a flea can complete its life cycle in only three weeks. Fleas have four life stages: egg, larvae, pupae and adult. Fleas take up residence in carpets and bedding, and when stimulated by vibrations, carbon dioxide or heat, adults hatch and seek out a host in your dog or cat. Upon transferral to your companion animal’s skin and coat, a flea can live for a year or more.
Have you just moved into a new home? Did animals live there before you?
If so, beware! There may be large numbers of flea eggs and larvae lurking in the carpet just waiting to hatch.
Has your companion animal recently started scratching and biting herself, often relentlessly? Does your dog have inflamed sores or evidence of hair loss, usually around the base of tail and lower back? Has your cat recently pulled out small clumps of hair, experienced unexplanable hair loss, or suffer from bumpy scabs, usually in the tummy area?
If the answer to any of these questions is “yes”, your pet is likely suffering from an attack of the fleas. Furthermore, your dear companion may also have a flea allergy, developing hot spots or skin infections as secondary symptoms.
Are there small, black or dark red, dirt-like flecks in the fur, especially along the base of the tail or along the spine?
Commonly called ‘flea dirt’, these specks are tiny clots of digested blood left behind by feeding fleas.
An easy way to find out whether or not your cat has flea dirt is to put him on a light-colored sheet or towel, then rub his fur back-and-forth. If he has fleas, you will see the evidence all around you. Even if you can’t see any fleas (which can be challenging unless the fur is white), the presence of flea dirt tells you without a doubt that you’ve got a flea problem.
There are two golden rules for treating fleas. One is to treat all animals in the household, and the other is treating the environment. Proactive management is vital, and following both options will be far more effective than just following one or the other.
Treating the environment
If you have a heavy infestation, or an animal who is sensitive to flea bites, controlling the flea population in the surrounding environment is crucial. Keep in mind that half of a flea’s life cycle occurs in your carpets, bedding and dust on the floor. An easy way to control fleas is to vacuum at least once a week - you will suck up eggs and immature fleas before they have a chance to hatch into biting adults. You might also consider inserting a flea collar inside your vacuum cleaner, which can be effective at killing fleas post-cleaning. Some pet parents have had good luck using diatomaceous earth (a non-toxic powder composed of ground fossilized organisms), but be sure to read the usage notes carefully as inhalation can prove dangerous. This powder interferes with a flea’s moisture control and causes it to dry out and die. If you like powders, you can also combine powdered eucalyptus, fennel, rosemary, yellow dock, wormwood and rue and apply sparingly to the carpet to repel fleas (for dog-only households, as some herbs can prove quite harmful to cats and other animals).
If you are not a fan of powders and you do not have a cat, try the following essential oil combination: up to 50 drops of lavender and eucalyptus combined with 1 ½ cups of water in a spray bottle. Shake well and mist the carpet just prior to vacuuming. If you have wood floors, try mopping with an emulsion of ½ cup lemon juice, ½ cup olive oil and 30 drops lavender oil (again, for dog-only homes).
There is a “natural” option for flea control outdoors in the form of Nematodes, which are worms that eat only fleas. If none of these steps prove effective, you may require the services of an exterminator. Remember, fleas can carry disease, such as the bubonic plague, so you need to address a serious problem decisively.
Treating the Pet
If the quantity of fleas is limited, you can use a flea comb to remove fleas manually, on a daily basis. Or, one or two drops of essential oil flea repellent massaged into the coat twice a week may be all that is necessary (for dogs, not cats). Try mixing 10 ml grape seed or almond oil with 10 drops lavender and 5 drops cedar wood oils, and use sparingly in your dog’s coat. If your dog has a heavy flea load, you can use the preceding recommendations with the added step of a bath.
Since it is hard to control fleas naturally, especially in cats, I suggest that you consult your veterinarian for product recommendations. Avoid the organophosphate powders and sprays, which are very toxic and not very effective. Some of the OTC commercial insecticide flea powders are potentially very toxic to cats and kittens.
Thank you for all you do to make the world a better place for companion animals,
Dr. Jane Bicks, DVM