The Rites of Spring….Death to the Fleas

At times they seem to be taking over the world. These bloodsucking pests not only are irritating to man and beast alike, but can also cause severe skin problems in both dogs and cats. Worse yet, as fleas become increasingly resistant to the synthetic chemicals science has produced for their control, pesticide manufacturers are making their products increasingly stronger — and more dangerous — in an attempt to keep pace with the parasites.

As a result of this unhealthy race, household pets are suffering twice: They’re chewed on by fleas, and they’re used as a battleground for the chemical warfare being waged by their well-meaning owners. Fortunately, there are effective nontoxic ways to do battle with fleas and win. But before we can attempt to control these pests without harming our pets, we must understand the tiny monsters’ life cycle and purpose in the natural scheme of things.

THE ENEMY: A BIOGRAPHICAL SKETCH

The adult dog flea is a wingless insect equipped with a set of powerful hind legs that enable it to jump nine inches straight up or five feet sideways. Like vampires, adult fleas feed only on blood. But the most important thing to know and remember about the flea is that the majority of its life is spent away from the host animal. Fleas invade our pets only when they need a transfusion.  The female flea prefers to lay her eggs in dark and damp areas of the house.  This could mean the basement, or a closet or behind an appliance. She will usually lay 20 in a setting and up to 400 in a lifetime.   They hatch within a week and move to a cocoon stage then will be fully developed in 8 months. If you project these numbers a pair of fleas can infest your home with fleas in varying stages of life for about two years.  It should be apparent that treating the dog or cat is just the beginning.  Treatment of your home is extremely important.

CONTROLLING THE MENACE

The first step in flea control is to examine your dog or cat to determine the extent of infestation. In severe cases, you’ll actually be able to see adult fleas swarming all over the animal’s skin and hair.  If no fleas are visible on your pet but the animal is scratching and obviously infected, inspect carefully around the base of the tail. If you find small black particles embedded in the hair, you’re looking at flea feces. (If you find such particles but believe they’re something other than flea scat, just place a few of them on a damp paper towel. If they turn red, they’re flea feces — that’s blood residue you’re seeing.)  OK, so your dog or cat has fleas. Don’t rush off to the store to buy the strongest product you can find in the pet section. Many of today’s synthetic insecticides are powerful poisons that had their origin in the development of chemical warfare agents.

Ironically, while pesticide labels contain warnings of their hazards to humans, the application instructions tell you to soak a flea-infected dog or cat thoroughly! These chemicals, especially in liquid form, can be absorbed through the animal’s skin and taken up by the blood. For that reason, even in the midst of a flea invasion, it’s important not to let the urgency of your need to get rid of the pests override concern for the safety of your pets and household.

FORMULATING A BATTLE PLAN

Treatment of your home must begin with a thorough cleaning. Frequent vacuuming of the house, especially pet areas, is necessary to keep fleas at bay. Pay special attention to dark, damp places where fleas may have deposited their eggs. After vacuuming, the cleaner bag shouldn’t be left in the closet, since the flea eggs it contains can hatch and reinfect your house. Empty the bag and burn the contents, or seal the sweepings in a plastic trash bag and dispose of it properly.

Next, wash your pet’s bedding in hot water with a quarter cup of bleach and finish off any six-legged survivors by tumbling the wet bedding in a hot dryer.  A good natural product should be sprinkled over the bedding, on furniture and in carpet and then worked in with a broom. Unfortunately, in cases of severe flea infestation it may be necessary to “bomb” your house with a commercial insecticide to annihilate the adult fleas before a natural-insecticide program can be implemented effectively. If you find yourself faced with this necessity, take the time to search out a bomb that contains either pyrethrins (natural) or resmethrin (one of the less dangerous synthetics) as the active ingredient. These are the safest of the “bombers,” but, nonetheless, follow the directions on the container exactly. After this initial treatment, an ongoing natural flea-control program should preclude the necessity for further chemical “fogging” in your home.  Sentry carries a line of natural flea control products that include a powder for soft surfaces as well as a spray for windows, doorways or other accesses that fleas may have to your home.  They also make a spot -on product and flea powder for dogs and cats.

Controlling fleas on your pets requires endless attention; it’s never a onetime or occasional thing. Also, it’s important to keep in mind, and learn from, the fact that parasites do have a function in nature’s scheme of things, to weed out and finish off unhealthy members of the various host species.

Grooming to Control Fleas

Frequent grooming is essential to keep fleas away from your pet. Shampooing with a mild organic lotion soap will kill many fleas by drowning. Afterward, a lemon rinse will tone the cleansed skin, leaving a residual citrus odor that will help repel fleas for a while.

To make such a rinse, slice one whole lemon and drop the slices (peel and all) into a pint of very hot water. Allow the lemonwater to steep overnight, then remove the pulp by filtering or straining. Sponge the lemon rinse onto your pet’s skin and allow it to air-dry (don’t towel). This treatment is nontoxic and can be repeated daily until the skin condition improves.

There are several herbal sprays, shampoos and flea collars whose odors repel fleas. Citronella, rosemary, pennyroyal and wormwood, which are the most common ingredients in these natural treatments, can be found at health food stores and lawn-and-garden shops (or ask your veterinarian). If you’d like to go the budget route, simply purchase dried herbs and make your own flea repellents. All of these herbs are nontoxic and can be used daily. Sentry uses natural botanical extracts including peppermint oil, cinnamon oil, lemon grass oil and thyme oil in their “Natural Defense” line of flea control products. (Caution: Any time you use a flea repellent, natural or otherwise, be sure to put the treated pet outside for a few hours so that the fleas won’t reinfest your home as they abandon ship!)

A CLOVE A DAY KEEPS THE FLEAS AWAY

Many dogs and cats seem to benefit in the fight against fleas from the addition of garlic and brewer’s yeast to their diets. When these substances are metabolized, an odor (and flavor) that fleas find very unattractive develops in the skin. One to three fresh garlic cloves, pulverized and mixed with food, may be administered daily. (But keep in mind that garlic will have the same effect on your pet’s breath as it does on yours.)

The important flea-control ingredient in brewer’s yeast is thiamine (vitamin B). A level of one milligram (1 mg) of thiamine daily for each five pounds of your pet’s body weight is ideal. For an average-size cat, this would translate to one teaspoon of brewer’s yeast; for a large dog, you might administer one tablespoon of brewer’s yeast supplemented with a B-complex vitamin pill. Brewer’s yeast can also be dusted on externally as a flea powder. (If your pet licks some off, there’s no harm done.)

A third important flea-fighting dietary supplement is zinc. This mineral is essential for healthy skin, but is lacking in many pets’ diets. Use chelated (pronounced key-lated) zinc: 10 mg daily for cats and small dogs; 20 mg for larger canines. These dietary supplements will require close to a month to build up to flea-fighting levels in a pet’s skin. So start them in the spring before you find yourself in the midst of a severe flea invasion. Of course, nothing is likely to completely eliminate fleas forever. However, you can rest assured that your efforts to eliminate and control fleas naturally will be much appreciated by your pet. When it comes to the use of dangerous pesticides to control fleas, it’s good to know we can live without them.

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