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Dangers of Flea Control

They're back! Most people are delighted when they think of summer and its long awaited warmth, while pet owners, knowing the horror to come, may shudder. In the course of a few months, they could spend many long hours vacuuming, spraying, bombing the house, and maybe hundreds of dollars on pesticides, professional cleanings, collars, powders, shampoos, veterinary treatments to counteract the effects of all these chemicals, and work themselves down to their last nerve fighting a never ending battle against relentless, blood sucking parasites - FLEAS! Pet owners terrorized by fleas often launch an all out war not realizing that in doing so they could be hurting their pets. Many animals show adverse reactions to these chemicals; usually constant scratching or licking, rashes and bald spots, sometimes worse. However, if you do your homework you will find there are many natural ways to avoid this.

A word on flea treatments before I begin: Please do not treat your pet for fleas unless you know for certain that he has them! Scratching can be a sign of many things, so don't rely on that alone. You have to actually SEE a flea hopping around on your animal. Only then (if at all) should you resort to chemical warfare. As for those of you who treat your pets just in case, how are you to know that your pet wouldn't get fleas in the first place? There are many animals who roam the woods and fields, with no preventative measures taken, who don't see a single flea in their entire lifetime. If your pet is one of these, why spend money on harsh chemicals that you don't need, plus even more money in vet bills when your pet has a negative reaction to the needless poisons? If, on the other hand, your pet is truely a flea magnet, that is most likely a sign of poor health. True, even the healthiest creature may find a parasite checking them out now and then, but only the diseased creatures literally attract swarms of pests. What a wonderful exuse to restore your pets to good health!

Fighting Fleas . . . Naturally
(or, Make Fleas Flee and be Flea Free!)

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The Health Connection
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The first step to having a flea free pet is health. When an animal (that includes humans) is unhealthy, their immune system is lowered making them more succeptable to illness and attack by parasites. This is the parasite's whole reason for existence; to clean up the garbage. That's probably not a word you want to hear describing your pet, but I think it gets the point across clearly. As I stated above, it is the dead, dying, and diseased animals that the parasites flock to. Contrarily, fleas are not usually found on very healthy animals.

Health problems in pets are often caused by stress and improper diet. Nearly all commercial pet foods contain ingredients that you wouldn't even want to know about (but you should learn about them anyway). Recently though, natural pet foods have risen in popularity. These are usually preserved with vitamins C & E, as opposed to cancer causing BHA, BHT, and ethoxyquin which has been banned from use in human edibles. Still, many of these natural foods have unhealthy ingredients, but they are a step in the right direction.

High quality pet foods that contain human grade, USDA approved, organically grown, naturally preserved ingredients are the best, next to a complete and balanced homemade diet. (After all, if you wouldn't eat it, why should your pet?) Although premium pet foods are more expensive and homemade food takes a little work, the costs are well worth it when you consider what you might save in vet bills. Besides, just where are your priorities if you refuse to spend more than a few pennies to feed your pet each day?! For more information on nutrition and what goes into commercial pet foods, read my article on the topic.

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Your next step towards winning the war against fleas is treatment. But perhaps you're overwhelmed with so many choices. There are dips, shampoos, collars, pills, sprays, powders, the list goes on and on. The way to make a safe choice is to know what your dealing with. By the way, if you are shopping for your feline companion make sure the label says it's safe for cats, otherwise it could be lethal.

One of the most popular flea control products is the flea collar. It's cheap and simple to use. But if you read the label closely it warns that you should always wash your hands after handling it and never touch your face with it. Also, it should be kept away from children. Obviously, this is some serious poison we're dealing with, so why would you put it so close to your pet's head? Many pets are allergic to the collars and if they ingest any part of it, the effects might be deadly. Also, if the collar gets wet, the chemicals become more potent, and therefore are even more of a health hazard. Second of all, flea collars really don't work unless the flea comes in contact with it. With unlimited access to the rest of your pet's body there's plenty of room for a flea or two (thousand) to thrive.

There are also herbal flea collars available, which are certainly less toxic than chemical ones, but they could still be irritating to an animal's skin, eyes, and sensitive nose, plus they're just as useless. I advise against getting any kind of flea collar, they are potentially dangerous and a waste of money.

Another option is using sprays or powders, the spray being the more effective. Both are applied directly to your pet's skin and favorite spots such as a bed or rug. Both are also allergy causing and toxic when licked off. Most labels even state the product's many health risks.

A very popular way to control fleas today are spot-on treatments. These usually contain growth control substances that prevent the larvae from developing into adults. Again, though, they can effect pets with sensitive skin. Besides causing allergies, these can also result in matted hair on the application spot or damage to the fur. Some dogs have suffered severe organ damage.

There are pills available which sterilize the flea eggs, but only if the female bites the pet. This makes for very slow progress and subjects the animal to internal poisoning. I always have to laugh when I see the commercials for these products; "spot-ons can leave pesticide residue," they say, implying that such a thing is highly dangerous (as it truely can be), "so let's put the poison on the inside of the dog so it can't hurt anybody but the dog!" Perhaps not their exact words, but that's the general idea.

Shampoos and dips are common choices. Many different pesticides and chemicals are used in these, creating reactions in pets ranging from mild and tolerable to serious and life threatening. Most products leave an active residue on the skin, which is always a potential danger, to not only your pet, but also to you and your children.

There are natural flea shampoos on the market, usually containing pyrethrin or d-limonene. These are safer than the stronger chemicals and supposedly can be used on young pets, but they can still pose a risk. Remember, just because something is natural does not automatically make it safe.

Herbal shampoos only repel insects, however if your pet has no adverse reactions to them they can be good preventatives if used regularly.

Dips are very potent chemicals in which your pet is submerged, or they are sponged on. Either way, a dip is left on your pet's fragile skin and should be done only by a professional groomer or vet. Dips have to be very carefully mixed, otherwise they can actually kill an animal. No exaggeration. I strongly recommend against dips, regardless of the level of infestation.

Ready to use shampoo is okay for home use, as long as your pet is not allergic or in a sensitive state of health. If in doubt, ask your vet. Look for a flea shampoo with only one or two active ingredients, such as pyrethrin, preferably in an oatmeal or similarly gentle base shampoo. And I wouldn't use any shampoo not deemed safe for puppies and kittens, even on an adult. After using the flea shampoo, repeat with regular shampoo to remove any residue, and rinse very well. You really shouldn't use any kind of insecticide for a prolonged time, but if you are in a hurry to rid your pet of fleas (and who wouldn't be?) it's a fairly safe temporary measure to take the fleas off your pet. Don't forget to read warning labels and follow directions.

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The Environment
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Now what about the house and yard? After the animal steps out of the tub, it sooner or later picks the fleas right back up. Many people go out for the day and use a bug bomb or fogger while the pet is at the groomer. This is perfectly fine... as long as the house is completely aired out afterwards, and all the upholstory, blankets, clothing, rugs, and everything in the kitchen is thoroughly cleaned. Sounds like fun, eh? There are safer ways though.

Some people suggest using amorphous diatomaceous earth from a garden store - DO NOT use earth made for pool filters. The diatoms are said to make fleas dry up and die. It only kills adults so it will take time and a few treatments to totally get rid of fleas. Wash your pet's bed, your bed blankets, the curtains, and whatever else you can in hot water. Wearing a dust mask, sprinkle the earth on all rugs and furniture, cracks in the floor by the baseboards, closets and other hiding places, working it in with a brush or broom. Try not to breathe in the powder while you apply or let it set. The diatoms are non-toxic, and harmless through direct contact, but breathing in any foreign substance (even natural powder) can irritate the airways. Make your best attempt at not stirring up too much dust, and limit your pet's freedom if you must. After a couple days, vaccuum it up thoroughly. In the meantime, do not get the earth wet; that deactivates it.

Another option is to simply shampoo the rugs, launder bedding, etc. and basically do spring cleaning. This, along with treating your pet, should eventually clear the house of all fleas, along with any other critters that may be lurking about.

As for the great outdoors, nematodes seem to be a good choice. These hardy, microscopic worms prey on the larvae of fleas, as well as many other harmful insects. You can find them at garden stores. Just follow the directions, it's as easy as using a hose sprayer. Nematodes are completely harmless and certainly safer than using a chemical spray where children and pets play and roll around.

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Finally, you need to prevent those little suckers from coming back. Fleas or not, something you should do anyway is wash the pet bed and vaccuum at least weekly. Fleas love filth, so keeping the place clean tends to discourage them.

Keeping your dog healthy is essential even if you aren't bugged by bugs. An entirely natural diet, in itself, is perhaps the perfect cure. It provides optimal nutrition for all pets, creating a strong immune system. It isn't decided if the diet as a whole, or just certain ingredients, are responsible for a decrease in flea problems, but either way it seems to work.

Adding garlic to your pet's food is sometimes of great help. Often called a miracle cure, garlic is intolerable to a flea's taste buds and sense of smell. It has been used by Holistic veterinarians as a natural dewormer. It is great for the heart, lungs, and immune system. Fresh cloves are the healthiest, but must be taken with your pet's larger meal, as raw garlic alone can upset the stomach. If your pet still can't handle the strength of the raw cloves, try garlic powder instead. Odorless pills are fine for health but won't help with fleas. Don't worry, you won't notice the animal's change in smell unless you get right in his face after dinner. Warning - like onions, garlic can cause anemia when overdosed. (This effect is also not unknown in humans.) Of course, for this to happen an animal would have to eat alot of garlic. The largest dog should not eat much more than a couple cloves per day. Ask your veterinarian or a nutritionist how much your pet needs. Because of the potential to thin blood, if your pet is scheduled for surgery, stop feeding garlic a few days before he goes in.

A nice way to repel insects is to use an herbal shampoo. They leave your pet's coat clean and smelling nice - except to fleas. Herbs found to have repellant powers include lavender, rosemary, citronella, and erigeron (fleabane). Also look for pennyroyal or eucalyptus oil. Caution: undiluted pennyroyal can be toxic, as can other essential oils when used alone. Ready to use shampoos are the easiest and safest to use at home. If you can't find what you want in stores though, buy some essential oils of eucalyptus or pennyroyal and add just a few drops to the bottle of regular shampoo. Never apply full strength essential oils to your pet's skin or your's; they can be very irritating. It will probably work best if you bathe your pet once a month in a gentle, herbal shampoo, maybe more if your dog swims. This will keep the effect going and you will have a clean pet - something necessary for complete health.

Alternatively, you can mix a solution of essential oils and water in a spritzer bottle, and mist your pet every day or so to repel insects. Or concoct some lemon water by boiling lemon slices for a while, cooling, straining, and using the resultant liquid as above.

You could also try soaking your pet with apple cider vinegar after a bath, or misting it on. This normalizes the skin's pH, helps prevent dandruff, and creates an acidic base undesirable to fleas and ticks. The downfall to this is that the ACV leaves a rather strong scent on your pet. However, it should work, and you will eventually get used to the odor. Perhaps you will reserve this potent repellant for when you travel to infested areas. Just don't make the mistake of substituting white vinegar - that stuff is way too strong; not for the skin, but for the nose!

Lastly, a timeless remedy is the flea comb. This picks up adults and eggs which you can then dispose of in a jar of soapy water or any chemical. Seal the jar for at least two hours or until all the fleas are deceased. Be careful, they like to play dead! I'd suggest leaving them there for a few days, just to be on the safe side. The only problem with a flea comb is that it is nearly impossible to get it through thick hair. But if you can manage to comb down to your pet's skin, do so every day. Grooming keeps the fur in top condition. Even using regular combs helps discourage fleas - they just hate to be disturbed. Keeping your pet well groomed goes a long way in the fight against parasites.

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Using natural remedies might take a bit longer, but they are immeasurably safer than chemical treatments. Just think ahead to what it will be like with no fleas torturing you and your pet. It will happen. And in the end you will have a happy, healthy pet. . . naturally.

TL, 1999
(edited '01)