Integrated Pest Management is a nontoxic way to effectively control fleas.
Today, spot-on flea products are advertised in every sort of media available to animal guardians and veterinarians, and are touted as safe and effective. However, as we discussed last month (“Are Spot-On Flea Killers Safe?”), the safety record of these products is not as spotless as the manufacturers would make us believe. After all, they contain pesticides, which are poisons, and they also contain toxic ingredients.
The danger presented by these products is apparent in the hundreds of incident reports that sit in the Environmental Protection Agency’s files – not to mention the manufacturers’ own animal laboratory studies. These logs indicate hundreds of deaths and illnesses of cats and dogs who have been treated with these products by their guardians and veterinarians.
YOU HAVE OPTIONS
Fortunately, we have safe alternatives – effective, nontoxic methods to keep our companion animals and households free from fleas and their irritating and sometimes debilitating impacts. The safest and most effective way to eliminate fleas utilizes an approach called “integrated pest manage-ment” (IPM).
IPM is an ecosystem-based strategy that focuses on long-term prevention of pests. Pest control materials are selected and applied in a manner that minimizes risks to human and animal health, beneficial and nontarget organisms, and the environment.
The first step in any IPM program is to learn everything we can about the target, in this case, the flea. Who is the flea, and what are his habits? With this knowledge, we can implement an effective, nontoxic approach – and the knowledge that everyone in our household and surrounding environment is safe from the ravages of pesticides.
START WITH THE DOG
In order to control a flea infestation with IPM techniques, it is necessary to treat not only your dog, but also the indoor and outdoor environments surrounding your dog. In discussing all of these, we’ll start at the center: The dog.
- Improve the dog’s health. “The most important measure you can take for flea control is similar to that with any illness, and that is to strengthen the overall health of the animal,” states Don Hamilton, DVM, author of Homeopathic Care for Cats and Dogs: Small Doses for Small Animals. “In general, given the same environment, healthier animals suffer less from fleas. It all comes back to good food, lots of love, and minimal stress.” Dr. Hamilton prescribes a human grade food, preferably a raw meat diet for dogs, along with supplements, a clean indoor air environment (see “No Room to Breathe,” WDJ October 2001), and no vaccinations. Carolann Mancuso, one of Dr. Hamilton’s clients living near Tampa, Florida, has used this protocol for keeping her dog family healthy and flea-free for over a decade.
A healthy dog is less likely to be the target for fleas. Fleas seem to know which dogs are ill in a household. If you are not already feeding a raw meat, homemade diet or human-grade food, this is the time to shift gears. A healthy immune system will make your dog less tasty to a flea. Consult a holistic veterinarian to help boost the health of your dog’s immune system. Some complementary therapies that are useful include acupuncture, Chinese herbs, homeopathy, and nutritional therapy.
- Use supplements. There are numerous dietary additives reputed to be helpful in repelling fleas. Unfortunately, their effectiveness varies from dog to dog. Some people have found the following remedies to be effective for their dogs. If, after giving your dog any of these supplements for a month, you see no improvement in the flea population, consult your holistic veterinarian for further direction.
Garlic: One clove per day of crushed organic garlic for a large dog, half for a medium-sized dog, and a quarter for a small dog. Or, use a capsule of cold-pressed garlic oil; adjust the canine dosage from the human dosage on the label (assuming a 150 pound human dose).
Vitamin B complex (with vitamin B1): Use a plant-source vitamin B complex, and again, adjust the dose for your dog’s weight. Some people simply add brewers yeast to the dog’s diet for its vitamin B1.
- Some people have success with natural topical preparations. Again, the results vary widely. What works well for some dogs may not work at all for others. Desist if these suggestions do not work within three to four weeks.
Essential oils of cedar, tea tree, citronella, lavender, eucalyptus, and pennyroyal (the last two are toxic to cats): Mix 10 drops of certified organic essential oil to one tablespoon of olive oil. Spray on your dog as a repellent.
- Combing the dog daily with a flea comb will help you determine the effectiveness of your efforts. Comb around the dog’s tail, stomach, and face, where they tend to collect in greater quantities. Look for fleas, as well as flea eggs (tiny white specks) and flea feces (slightly larger black specks). Drop anything you find into a glass of water; it will drown the eggs and fleas. Flea feces is comprised largely of your dog’s blood, and will turn the water reddish brown, confirming the presence of fleas even if no adults are found.
- During the height of infestation, bathe your dog weekly with a noninsecticidal soap; reduce this frequency as the flea problem diminishes, because over-frequent bathing can dry out the skin. Rinsing the dog completely to remove all soap will help prevent drying the dog’s skin, as will increasing the essential fatty acids in the dog’s diet. For dogs who are being bathed frequently, using a nonscented hypoallergenic shampoo, such as Logona Free Shampoo and Shower Gel (800-648-6654), will be less irritating to their skin.
Outdoor flea populations can be controlled quickly and easily. Again, the focus here is on the 99 percent of the flea population: the nonadult stages of the flea.
- Keep grass cut short, and rake leaves to prevent piles where flea eggs, larvae, and pupae can harbor.
- Apply a mixture of water and food-grade diatomaceous earth (DE) – a calcium dust ground from single-cell, ocean organisms – to your lawns, walkways and planting beds (anywhere your dog frequents). In wet, humid climates, apply every other month; in drier climates, you can apply this less frequently.
This application works as an abrasive and desiccant, physically drying out and destroying the adult fleas’ breathing organs as well as drying out and killing flea larvae. This process is inexpensive, and the flea cannot develop resistance to DE. Use a mask whenever handling DE; the dust can irritate the lungs.
Indoor environment control is relatively simple, and like your outdoor control efforts, should focus on the largest part of the flea population – the nonadult stages.
- Wash floors frequently. Flea eggs, larvae, and pupae are attracted to cracks and joints in floors.
- Remove area rugs during the flea season. If you are considering a remodel or new construction, choose alternatives to wall-to-wall carpeting, such as cork, wood, ceramic, or linoleum (not vinyl) flooring.
- Vacuum carpeting daily during most intense infestation, cutting back to once or twice a week when it is under control. Seal the vacuum bag each time and put it in a freezer to kill the fleas before reusing.
- Wash your dog’s bedding at least once a week in hot water and a mild detergent, vinegar, or hydrogen peroxide (a whitening agent).
SMALL, SMALL DANGER
So far, all the indoor approaches we discussed are nontoxic. The methods we’ll discuss next have some toxic properties. However, properly used, these are very safe – far safer than pesticides.
- There are several chemically inert desiccant dusts, including diatomaceous earth (DE), that can be applied to your carpeting to effectively kill fleas in all their life stages. Use only food grade (natural) DE – avoid swimming pool grade. Use care when applying; keep animals out of the rooms being treated. Dusts can cause breathing problems in humans and animals and exacerbate asthmatic conditions. Do not use if any household members have asthmatic or upper respiratory conditions. Wear a mask when handling and apply close to the carpet surface (avoid creating airborne dust).
TINCTURE OF TIME
Sometimes the answer to our problem is very simple, but takes the one thing we seem to struggle with daily – time. Time to understand the full impacts of the flea product you are considering using, and time to create a healthy environment for your dog during the flea season, and year-round.
It does take more time for an IPM program to work than it would if you used pesticides. But it is important to understand that pesticide use can be dangerous to your family’s health. In her book Designer Poisons – about the dangers of pesticides – Dr. Marion Moses minces no words: “When we share metabolic or neuro pathways with insects, we are impacted by these chemicals. The difference is only in amount – just because it doesn’t kill humans or animals doesn’t mean it is not having damaging health effects.”