Getting Rid of Fleas ... Holistically
By Christie Keith
The number one question I used to be asked at my online holistic pet chat was, "What do I do about fleas?" It is often very frustrating to newcomers to holistic pet care when they don't get an immediate, simple answer. Usually, they are concerned about harsh chemicals and drugs, and are hoping to find an herbal, natural, or at least, gentler, solution.
But holistic pet care isn't like that. Holistic itself means getting to the ROOT of the problem. It's not "holistic" to just switch to an herb from a chemical, because looking at things holistically means looking at the big picture.
What do you mean by holistic?
In 1986, I was browsing in a pet store's book section when I came across a book called Dr. Pitcairn's Complete Guide to Natural Health for Dogs and Cats. As I flipped through the pages, I saw that this was not just another book on what herb to use for itchy skin, or what special diet to give a diabetic cat.
Pitcairn was challenging his readers to change the way they perceived health, not just the substances they used to effect health. He said, "We need to look at the whole picture of an illness and find therapies that will work with the whole body- not against it- in the healing process. To me, that is what constitutes a true cure. I often use the term 'holistic' to describe this approach to medicine. Unlike many who use the word, I do not equate it with 'natural', for it is certainly possible to use natural methods such as herbs, vitamins, and exercise but still fail to see the overall picture of what is happening."
What is really needed, he said, "Is an entirely new understanding, not just the substitution of a vitamin for an antibiotic, or a mineral for a hormone."
So how do you fight fleas holistically?
The first step is to ask why your pet has fleas. Is your home infested with fleas? Your yard? The park where your pet plays? Do all your pets suffer from fleas, or only a particular pet?
Fleas, like all parasites, prey on the weak, sick, and malnourished. An animal infested with fleas is an unhealthy animal, and while the fleas certainly worsen this ill health, they do not cause it. Poor-quality, inappropriate diets cause parasite infestations, as do unsanitary conditions and all forms of stress. By knocking out the flea, whether with insecticides, nematodes, or hormones, you have done nothing to solve the root problem of ill health.
The first and most essential step is to improve your animals' health and vitality. The single best way to do this is to feed them a diet based on nature, rather than a highly processed commercial food. This single step is 99 percent of the battle, and yet is the one most people don't want to consider when looking for an alternative to pesticides.
To discover more about how to feed your animal a diet based on nature, some good books are Dr. Pitcairn's Complete Guide to Natural Health for Dogs and Cats by Richard Pitcairn DVM PhD and Susan Hubble Pitcairn.
Two others are Give Your Dog a Bone and Grow Your Pup With Bones by Ian Billinghurst.
For cats, I like The New Natural Cat: A Complete Guide for Finicky Owners, by Anitra Frazier.
After boosting your pets' basic health, the next steps involve getting rid of the fleas that are already around, and then preventing more from hatching. In the house, the cycle can be broken non-toxically in two primary ways: one, by the application of a flea hormone which keeps the fleas in the adolescent, non-biting, non-breeding state; and two, by the application of dehydrating powders that dry out and kill fleas. (The fleas on the pet can be controlled pretty easily by flea combing, bathing, or the use of herbal flea powders. Soap and water kill fleas on your pet, and there is absolutely no reason to use insecticidal shampoos or persistent topicals.)
After bathing or flea combing your pets and vacuuming the house, spray the house with a product containing only the flea hormone methoprene, which is commonly known as Precor and is available as a concentrate (made by Zodiac) that you can apply with a plant mister. The flea hormone is harmless to fleas, serving only to keep them from maturing into biting, reproducing adults. Stores which sell Zodiac products but don't carry this one can order it for you, and Zodiac is widely available in pet supply stores. I don't recommend any of their other products.
In addition to the hormone spray, I strongly recommend the use of a carpet powder such as that used by Fleabusters. Similar powders are often available at pet and feed stores. Whether you opt for the do-it-yourself approach or have Fleabusters come in and treat your home, the principal is the same. The powder, which is guaranteed effective for one year, dehydrates and kills fleas without actually being a poison or insecticide. Any fleas that are brought into the home die when they come in contact with the powder. It can be used on carpets, upholstery, and even in the cracks of wood floors!
As long as the outdoors is infested with fleas, flea prevention in the home is only half the battle. It used to be that those who wanted to treat their yards had to rely on dangerous pesticide sprays or ineffective herbal repellants. Even relatively benign treatments such as diatomaceous earth and pyrethrums are toxic to beneficial insects and earthworms.
With the marketing of the flea nematode, those days are gone. Pet owners can now buy a do-it-yourself product marketed as Interrupt, BioFlea Halt, or BioSafe. The nematodes are available at many vet offices, garden centers, and pet stores, and can also be purchased in bulk from organic farm and gardening supply catalogues (one source is Peaceful Valley Farm Supply). The nematodes can be applied easily with a hose end sprayer or through an irrigation system.
Remember, fleas are a symptom. The key to dealing with parasites is to make your animal undesirable to them, and to take steps to prevent an infestation. A healthy dog or cat should not be troubled by an occasional flea.
Copyright 1999 by Christie Keith