Dog Flea Control:
Chemical v. Natural Products

dog healthOur dog flea control plan includes a homeopathic flea preventative spray used on Buddy and our other 9 dogs and 3 foster dogs.

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Snapshot: Dog Flea Control
Here's a quick overview if you're in a hurry. Come back later when you have time to read the complete guide.
  • Symptoms: Scratching or loss of fur, especially in a dog with an allergic reaction to fleas. However, a dog without an allergic reaction will not scratch, so do not rely on this as the final verdict.
  • Diagnosis: You can't count on seeing a flea on your dog in order to confirm a flea problem. Instead, use a flea comb, available at pet stores, and comb through the fur. Black specks, or flea feces, confirm the presence of fleas.
  • Treatment: While chemical-based "top-on" products are usually effective in killing and preventing fleas, as insecticides they have an inherent long-term health risk. Natural or non-toxic treatment includes using a flea comb daily and bathing your dog in a non-toxic shampoo.

Symptoms
One sign that a dog may have fleas is scratching or loss of fur, especially in a dog with an allergic reaction to fleas. However, a dog without an allergic reaction will not scratch, so do not rely on this as the final verdict.

Diagnosis
Fleas spend most of their lives in areas near the dog rather than on him. A flea goes back to the dog when he needs to eat. One "meal" can keep the flea fed for several months. The flea spends most of its time in the bedding, carpet, cracks in the floor, etc.

Because of this, you may never see a flea on your dog even when he has a flea problem. What you will see are dark specks, usually near the dog's tail. This flea dirt is blood that the flea has ingested (from the dog) and excreted. If you place the "dirt" on a wet paper towel and smoosh it, it will look red because it is dried blood.

It can be difficult to see flea dirt, especially on a dog with dark-colored fur. Your dog flea control plan should include an inexpensive flea comb, available at vet clinics and pet stores. Pull the comb through the fur and inspect it for flea dirt.

Fleas 101
Fleas consist of four life-stage groups: Eggs, larvae, pupae (sealed in a cocoon, the transformation stage between larva and adult) and adults. Most of today's dog flea control products are targeted at killing the adult flea, which is a blood-sucking parasite.

Unfortunately for anyone with a flea infestation, most of the flea population—about half—are eggs. So if you target killing the adults, you will have a short-lived victory. The second-largest flea group is larvae (worms) that come out of the eggs and feed on organic matter in cracks, carpet and other surroundings.

Health Risks
Fleas drink blood and can cause anemia if there are enough of them present. A severe case of anemia can cause death. A puppy is at greatest risk of dying from anemia. Because it is young and growing, the puppy does not have blood to spare. A parasite like the flea feeding on the puppy is going to compromise the animal's health. If the puppy has other issues, it is more likely to attract fleas, which will lead to an anemic state. If this occurs, the puppy will need a blood transfusion to survive.

Conventional Treatment & Prevention
Frontline, Advantage, Vectra—these are a few of the many chemical-based "spot-on" topical flea treatments on the market. And while they can be effective, their toxic composition also means they may have the ability to cause serious health issues. When a product comes with a warning that says "Avoid contact with eyes, skin or clothing," common sense makes you ask, "If this product is unsafe to touch my skin, how can it possibly be safe to apply to my dog's skin?" Some chemical-based flea preventatives come in tablet form, but these also have health cautions.

So why are these chemical flea treatments popular? 1.Because they are effective in killing and preventing fleas. 2.They are sold and endorsed by many veterinarians. 3. They are convenient to use. 4.Many people are not aware of the toxicity of these products. 5.The ill effects are not immediately apparent.

EPA Investigates Top-On Pesticide Products
In 2009, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency launched an investigation of "top-on" topically-applied pesticide products for flea and tick prevention for dogs and cats. This came as a result of an increase in the number of reported incidents related to the products, including seizures and even death in dogs and cats. After a year's investigation, the EPA decided that the products could be used safely, but with additional restrictions. They found that small dogs were more likely to have a bad reaction and that the amount of product in a single dose needed to vary more between small and large dogs. In other words, a dog's weight matters a lot in deciding how much of a product should be used. Visit the EPA's web site to read the complete findings.

The EPA was looking specifically at adverse reactions that happened immediately after application of the dog flea control product. What they are not investigating is the long-term health impact of using pesticides on pets. The use of chemicals has a cumulative effect. Similar to people being exposed to asbestos or second-hand smoke, the disease may take several years to build up in the body before the dog shows signs of the illness.

Everyone must make a decision on what is the right dog flea control for their dog and household. Having fleas on your pet, on you or in your home is not an acceptable way to live—plus, fleas create health issues also, such as allergic reactions and tapeworm (when a dog eats a contaminated flea.) But I suggest trying the non-toxic alternatives for dog flea control first and if these fail, try a chemical-based product.

It is important to realize that fleas build up a tolerance to chemical products. Over time, the chemical-based products are less effective. As a result, stronger, more toxic products are needed to do the job. It's a vicious cycle; avoid it.

Natural Treatment
Treat the dog: If your dog has fleas, use a flea comb, available at pet stores, to comb your dog at least once a day. Have a bowl of soapy warm water nearby to dunk the comb into. The soap will kill the fleas. You can also try vacuuming your dog with an attachment to pick up adult fleas, if he's a good sport and will tolerate it! Think outside the box, but within reason, when it comes to dog flea control.

Your dog flea control strategy can also include bathing your dog using a non-toxic dog shampoo or even a gentle soap like Dawn dish washing liquid. You do not need a shampoo with a harsh insecticide to kill fleas. Any soap will kill adult fleas. Just don't bathe your dog more than once every few weeks or you'll create another problem—dry skin. Dogs need the oil in their fur for good health and too much bathing depletes the oil.

Treat the home: Your dog flea control plan must go beyond you furry best friend—you also need to treat your home and yard. Boric acid is a non-toxic effective flea killer that causes dehydration and death in the insect. It is can be sprinkled onto carpet and mixed in with a broom, then allowed to sit for 24 hours before vacuuming. Remnants of the fine powder will remain in the carpet and kill larvae for up to a year or until the carpet is shampooed. Since the powder is less lethal on adult fleas, you will need to vacuum daily to pick up the adult fleas as they die. Be sure to dispose of the vacuum bag after each day's cleaning. It may take up to six weeks to be rid of the adults. While boric acid is much safer than pesticides, pets (and people) can have reactions to natural substances too. Take precautions and have the window open while applying the boric acid and wear goggles and gloves. Turn off fans and air conditioning to keep the powder from blowing. Also keep pets off of the carpet until it is vacuumed.

In addition to using straight boric acid, there are a number of natural products containing boric acid available for dog flea control, specifically treating flea-infested carpets and rugs. Two of these products include Fleabusters Rx for Fleas and Fleago Natural Flea Control.

Treat the yard: Nematodes or tiny worms can be dispersed into grass using a lawn sprayer. The worms eat the flea larvae in the soil. Nematodes can be purchased at many garden stores and such online stores as Gardens Alive!

Natural Prevention
The best, most effective method of dog flea control is to attack the problems from several sides.

  • Vacuum: Vacuum your home daily, with special attention to any place your dog visits during the course of the day.
  • Keep your dog healthy: A healthy, well-nourished dog is not likely to attract the opportunistic flea, which prefers a sickly host. Buy high quality dog food that uses whole protein like chicken and turkey, not by-products and additives. This is perhaps the single most effective element of your dog flea control program.
  • Use a non-toxic flea preventative.

My Experience
When my husband Mike and I founded a dog rescue in 2003, a police chief contacted us for help. He took photos of three dogs he believed had mange; they had large bald spots on their bodies and they were living in feces. The chief filed charges and a judge ordered the dogs removed from the home. We were contacted to help re-home the dogs, which we did. But the first stop was the vet. Rather than mange, the dogs had the WORST CASE OF FLEAS THE VET HAD EVER ENCOUNTERED. The dogs were so infested with fleas they had pulled out their fur seeking relief. The vet applied Capstar to the dogs, who fully recovered and went on to be adopted into loving homes.

Like many people, I once used chemical-based flea topicals on my dogs. But I was bothered by the warnings on the label. Common sense told me the products were a health risk. So my husband and I decided it was time for a natural, gentler approach to dog flea control. We use a homeopathic flea and tick preventative from a holistic vet. We place 1 teaspoon into a 16-ounce spray bottle (the kind you find in the garden department) and add water. We spray the dogs at least once per day, before they go outside. Since the treatment is water-based, it does not become oily on the fur.

We've had good luck with this in preventing fleas and ticks. However, it does not repel mosquitoes. (We've been using Burt's Bees human mosquito repellent for that. It has no toxic ingredients but it is oily.)

I have never dealt with fleas on my own dogs, probably because they are in a clean environment, receive flea preventative and eat nutritious food. A healthy dog is much less appealing to a blood-sucking flea than an unhealthy dog.

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Advantage is my choice Not rated yet
I am a holistic-bent veterinarian that truly despises chemicals. I strive to avoid them as much as possible in all aspects of my life, including on/in …

Abby, Niki, Hildy & Frontline Not rated yet
I've never had a problem with Frontline, except that after applying it to my dogs' (both Hildy and Abby) skin, they would be lethargic for a day or two. …

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