MANAGING FLEAS WITHOUT POISONS
Genetics Editor / Sept. 2006
Most of us have
resorted to using commercial flea control products at one time or
another. These products can present significant hazards. They are
pesticides; poisons which are intended to kill living organisms. Many
pesticides affect a broad range of living things.
organophosphate and carbamate compounds (two classes of pesticides
commonly used for flea control) act on the nervous systems of insects
and mammals in the same manner. When you use these chemicals, you can
affect not only fleas, but your pet and yourself as well.
If you think you or your pet
has been adversely affected by a pet product containing pesticides, call
your regional poison control center for immediate help, and report the
incident to the EPA's National Pesticide Telecommunications Network, at
Most pesticides are
neurotoxic, meaning that they cause the nervous system to malfunction,
thereby causing death. About 2/3 of available pesticides function in
this manner. Flea control products have also caused reproductive
problems in laboratory tests. About half of the available products are
classified as carcinogens by the EPA, while
one-fourth are known to cause genetic damage in at least one test.
Almost all pesticides have environmental concerns.
Per pound of weight,
small dogs breathe more air, drink more water, and eat more food than
larger dogs. In addition, young puppies are more sensitive than adults
because they are growing and some of their organs are still developing.
A lesser amount of toxic material per pound can poison a young puppy or
small dog very quickly.
There are several ways
chemicals enter the body. They may be inhaled and enter the
bloodstream through the lungs. They may be ingested by mouth, and enter
through the gastrointestinal tract. They may also be absorbed through
the skin (and paw pads) through direct contact.
The good new is, that
by understanding the flea's life cycle and targeting your management
activities, an effective and least-toxic flea control program is
possible. Fleas go through four stages of development: egg, larva, pupa
and adult. Warm, moist conditions (65-80 degrees F and 70% relative
humidity) are optimal for flea hatching and development. A female can
lay up to 800 eggs in her lifetime. Eggs are laid both on and off the
pet. Those laid on the pet later fall off and accumulate on the floor,
in cracks, on furniture, and in dust. The eggs hatch within 2 to 12 days
into wormlike larvae. The larval stage generally lasts 1 to 3 weeks, but
can exist up to 200 days. The larvae then spin a cocoon and transform
into pupae. Pupae remain dormant until they detect a host (by warmth and
vibrations) and hatch out as adults. The pupae stage lasts from 1-2
weeks under favorable conditions but can extend to nearly a year. After
emerging the adult fleas immediately seek a blood meal. Adults can live
1-2 months without a meal and can survive 7 to 8 months with just one
meal. So, as you can see, when conditions of heat and humidity are
favorable, fleas can emerge from seemingly out of nowhere to torture
your pet. In addition to causing discomfort and skin lesions from
allergic reactions and scratching, fleas can transmit tapeworm and
preventive techniques allow most pet owners to keep flea populations
under control without using poisons. An effective program must address
the flea at all four stages of development. Vacuuming areas your pet
frequents, bathing your pet, washing pet bedding, and combing for fleas
can effectively keep your flea population at a tolerable level.
Fleas tend to
accumulate where pets sleep. Try to establish a single, regular sleeping
place with bedding that is easily removable and washable. Wash bedding
about once a week to break up the flea life cycle. Pick up the bedding
by the four corners so that eggs and larvae aren't scattered throughout
Keep your lawn cut
short and either very dry or very wet. Fleas don't do well in either
extreme. Bathing your pet is an effective control measure. It is not
necessary to use insecticidal shampoos, most soaps will kill fleas. Use
a comb to remove fleas from your dog. Keep a container of soapy water
nearby to drown the fleas in. Dish soap works well. Don't crush fleas
with your fingers since they carry parasites and disease organisms.
carpets, furniture, crevices and cracks once a week is an excellent
means of controlling the flea population. Vacuuming is especially
effective at picking up adults and eggs. The vibration from vacuuming
can result in the emergence of adult fleas from the pupae stage, the
newly hatched fleas are vacuumed up prior to ever meeting you or your
pet. Steam cleaning carpet kills fleas in the adult and larval stages.
However, the steam can trigger the hatching of the remaining flea eggs a
few days later but vacuuming religiously will take care of most of the
newly hatched fleas. Vacuum more frequently if the flea population
increases, every 2-3 days during the peak season. After vacuuming, the
bag must be dealt with immediately or the fleas will escape and
re-infest the area.
that prey on flea larvae and pupae as they are developing in soil are
available commercially. The nematodes are mixed with water and watered
in to lawns to reduce outdoor flea populations. Nematodes are available
from Gardens Alive! (812-537-8650) (www.gardensalive.com).
Gardens Alive! is a wonderful source for environmentally friendly,
nontoxic home and garden products. Another good company with information
related to flea control on their website is Planet Natural.
ALTERNATIVES TO FLEA TREATMENT PESTICIDES
such as diatomaceous earth and silica aerogels, kill fleas by drying
them out, causing the insect to lose moisture and eventually die. Always
wear goggles and a dust mask during application to avoid breathing in
desiccating dusts. Cover or remove equipment that can be damaged by
dust. People with respiratory problems should not use diatomaceous
earth. Be sure not to use glassified diatomaceous earth
manufactured for use in swimming pool filters, it causes the lung
Some pest control
companies are advertising a natural flea control through use of boric
acid (another desiccant material) in cracks and crevices.
Diatomaceous earth or
silica aerogel can be applied to pets and their bedding. Both are
desiccating agents. Work in using a brush or broom. Vacuum afterwards to
remove loose dust.
Use of brewer's yeast
tablets make your dog less attractive to fleas, as the smell is excreted
through the skin. Adding a spoon of apple cider vinegar to the water
bowl will make the skin more acidic and unpleasant to fleas. You can
also use a 50:50 dilution in a spray bottle and dampen the coat with the
regulators are not
pesticides, but rather chemicals that arrest the growth and development
of young fleas. These include methoprene, fenoxycarb and pyriproxyfen
and the popular lufenuron (Program®). Alternatives also include newer
pesticide products sprayed or spotted onto pets, such as fipronil
(Frontline®) or imidacloprid (Advantage®). Particularly when used in
combination with physical measures, the safety and effectiveness of
these newer chemical products makes the continued use of pet products
containing Organophosphates -- and their attendant risks for humans and
pets alike -- unnecessary.
You can make your own
nontoxic flea repellents with some natural aromatherapy ingredients.
These essential oils work well as repellents; add a few drops of these,
in varying combinations, in a spray bottle filled with water: You could
also make a flea collar by rubbing a few drops of these essential oils
into a cloth collar or bandana for your dog. Be sure to refresh weekly.
reprinted with permission from the Journal of Pesticide Reform,
Northwest Coalition For Alternatives to Pesticides - P.O. Box 1393,
Eugene, Oregon 97440 541-344-5044
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