By Jennifer Kvamme, DVM
While there are a multitude of chemical options available for dog owners who are faced with fleas, not all dog owners want to risk the possible toxic side effects of chemical pesticides. If you are not interested in using chemicals for dealing with these pests, there are a few options that are considered more nature-based.
Depending on the level of flea infestation and your diligence in combating the critters, you may have to work harder one year versus the next. You may find that some of these "home remedies" work great the first year that you use them and become less effective over time. While these methods are safer, you will find that they are more effective at preventing flea problems than eliminating established infestations. In some cases, you may have to first resort to a chemical method for dealing with a severe infestation, and then use natural methods to control the population of fleas. No single method is going to work 100 percent, so it may be necessary to combine a few different options to reduce the level of infestation present in your home and on your pet.
If your dog spends lots of time outdoors, even just in a backyard, you will probably have more difficulty controlling fleas naturally, since they may be strongly established in the yard (or wherever your dog frequents) as well as in the home. Be aware that not every flea control method will work for every situation. You may need to use one method for the yard, another for the home and yet another for your dog’s body.
Caring for the Dog
Your dog can benefit from a simple rinse with cool water to expel some of the fleas from the body and hair. Water alone will not get rid of the fleas. You will need to use a shampoo that is made with flea repelling ingredients. A cedar, eucalyptus, lavender, or citrus-infused shampoo may help to keep fleas at bay following the bath. Cedar has also been suggested for repelling fleas from areas where dogs sleep, and some say that fennel leaves rubbed into the dog’s coat can also discourage fleas.
Keeping your dog’s haircoat and skin healthy is important. Giving your dog extra omega-3 fatty acid supplements with the diet will help to improve skin health, and is especially helpful for protecting the skin from drying out when you are shampooing your dog regularly to remove fleas.
Using a flea comb (a comb made with very close-set teeth) will physically pull fleas from the dog’s body. You will need to make sure the comb gets down close to the skin, but work slowly, as the comb may tug on the hair. Have a bowl of soapy water nearby so you can drown the fleas as you remove them. They can’t be squashed with your fingers and will jump quickly away. When combing, concentrate on areas on the dog’s body where fleas like to hide, like the groin, armpits and base of the tail.
If your dog is long haired and difficult to comb thoroughly, you may want to consider having her hair closely shorn for the season. Of course, not everyone likes the hairless (or nearly hairless) look on their dog, especially with certain breeds that are known for their full coats. If you don’t want your dog to look hairless, there are a lot of attractive cuts that groomers can style to make your dog look good during the summer and flea season.
Caring for the Home Environment
Adult fleas lay eggs in your dog’s bedding and deep in the carpet, so you won’t be able to get rid of the entire population of fleas by simple combing and washing. Be sure to also clean and treat the household and yard when fighting a flea problem.
You will need to be very diligent in vacuuming and cleaning the inside and outside of your home when dealing with fleas. You may wish to initially have your carpets professionally cleaned to help remove some of the deposited eggs and larvae, but this also will not eliminate the problem entirely, since eggs and cocoons can remain dormant for a surprisingly long time. You will need to vacuum all surfaces of the house every few days (disposing of the vacuum bag at least weekly) and wash all your dog’s bedding almost as often.
One home remedy that is commonly suggested is sprinkling a boric acid-like product, also known as 20 Mule Team Borax (sold as a laundry detergent). It works to dry out the fleas and kills larvae and eggs in carpeting. The product is an abrasive and it can abrade carpets, so you will want to take precautions before covering your entire floor with it. Test an area of your carpet first. You want to use care when using it around your pets as well. Before sprinkling the Borax, vacuum all of the floors well, and then make sure it is allowed to settle deep into the carpets before vacuuming again.
As an alternative to boric acid-related products, salt has been suggested as an alternative dessicant (drying agent). However, salt would not be a good solution for those in areas of the country with higher humidity levels (such as Florida), as it can absorb water and result in mildewed carpeting.
The yard will also need to be kept free of debris (piles of leaves, etc.) to help reduce places where fleas can congregate. Planting certain herbs and plants in the yard may also help direct fleas away from your property. Lavender, eucalyptus, fennel, marigold, and citrus, all known flea repellants, can make your yard less interesting to these pests.
Diatomaceous earth can be used to treat the yard without chemicals. This material is made from a ground-up stone (made up of tiny fossils) that is similar to a pumice powder, which acts as an abrasive and drying agent, much like boric acid does. It’s a dust that can be spread in the yard, or even on carpeting, instead of Borax. You will want to look for a natural or food-grade diatomaceous earth for use around humans and pets. You may need to reapply it after a particularly heavy rain as it can be washed away.
Be sure to get the advice of your veterinarian before using any products to control fleas, even those touted as "natural." It’s always best to err on the side of caution when using something on or around your home, family, and your precious pets.