Fighting the Dreaded Flea

Holistic Pet Care at Home:  Fighting the Dreaded Flea©

Natasha Kassell, VMD

(Reprinted with permission from Dr. Kassell)


It’s summer, and that means it’s the height of flea season.  Hopefully your life is free of these little buggers, but among pets and pet households, they are a commonplace occurrence even with care and prevention.  Fortunately, there are ways to deal with fleas while causing minimal harm to our pets, ourselves, and our environment.

For starters, I’ll discuss the lifecycle of the flea.  Adult fleas spend most of their lives on dogs and cats, feasting, mating and laying hundreds of minute eggs.  The eggs are slippery and slide off the dogs and cats into the environment, concentrating in areas where our pets spend most of their time.  As little as two days after being laid, millimeter-long, worm-like larvae hatch from the eggs.  These larvae burrow into dark places such as carpet, bedding and cracks between floorboards where they spin tiny cocoons, much like butterflies.

When it’s cool and dry, or when there are no mammals or birds around to feed on, fleas remain in their cocoons for up to two years. During warm, humid months, adult fleas emerge from the cocoons one to two weeks after spinning them.  Other stimuli that signal it’s time to emerge include vibrations and carbon dioxide emitted by warm-blooded animals including dogs, cats and humans.  This is the reason you can enter a house that was inhabited by pets months or even years earlier and suddenly be attacked by hordes of hungry, freshly-hatched fleas.

How to combat the voracious little vampires? A strong immune system is the first line of defense.  The immune system is important not only for fighting off internal germs and parasites, but external, as well.  This point was vividly illustrated to me a couple of years ago when my old cat was nearing the end of his life.  He became quite debilitated, and practically overnight, was covered with fleas, poor guy.  Yet I couldn’t find a single flea on our dog, who was young and vibrant.

There are many factors to consider in supporting your pets’ immune system.  A nutritious diet, preferably based on raw or lightly cooked foods, is key.  Medications, including vaccinations, should be used sparingly.  When possible, choose modalities to treat illnesses that increase the overall health of your pets such as homeopathy, acupuncture and chiropractics.  Minimize contact with toxins: exterminator sprays, poisonous cleaning products and topical flea and tick preparations, to name a few.

Providing your pets with plenty of fresh air, sunshine and exercise is also important.  I realize that for indoor-only cats, this can be difficult to accomplish.  Like dogs, cats can get used to being on a leash.  Lara, who works in the Co-op Pet Store, told me that, much like my dog, her cat begs to go out on his leash.  This is a great compromise that will keep your cats (and neighborhood songbirds) safe while still providing them with some of the benefits of getting outside.

Nutritional supplements that can help repel fleas include garlic, B-vitamins and fish oil.  Though many people have fed their dogs and cats garlic for years without any problem, its use has become controversial.  Garlic, like onions, contains thiosulfate, which can cause a potentially fatal anemia in dogs and cats.  Use it at your own discretion.  Flea Treats are a chewable product formulated for dogs and cats (not fleas) that contain B-vitamins.  Sea Pet and Nordic Naturals both produce high quality, omega-3 fish oils for pets.

For short-haired cats and dogs, daily flea combing with a comb made specifically for that purpose is helpful at removing adult fleas.  Keep in mind that you have to kill the fleas quickly or they’ll jump away and quickly find their way back onto your pets.  Squash them between your thumbnails until you hear a satisfying pop, drop them in alcohol or roll them between your fingers until their legs are crushed and they can no longer hop.  Though gruesome, these techniques are effective.

Since approximately 75% of the flea’s lifecycle is spent in the environment in the form of eggs, larvae and pupae in cocoons, treating the environment makes sense.  That said, I do not recommend bombs.  Pesticides released from bombs shoot into the air, landing on surfaces where pets lie (and children play), yet failing to penetrate the deeper, darker areas where flea larvae burrow and form their cocoons.

There are several less toxic and more effective solutions for treating the environment.  Vacuum frequently, making sure to discard the vacuum bag after use or the fleas will hatch, crawl out of the bag and waste no time in finding your pets.  Wash all bedding in hot, soapy water and dry on high.  Consider using Flea Buster’s (active ingredient: borate) or diatomaceous earth (food grade only!), which are powders that you apply to carpet and wood floors.  While relatively nontoxic to mammals, birds and reptiles, these products scratch the exoskeleton of the fleas, causing them to dehydrate and die.  Food grade diatomaceous earth can also be used as a flea powder on your pets.  Just be sure not to get the powder in the eyes or nose, as it can be irritating to the respiratory tract and mucous membranes.

Topical herbal sprays such as Only Natural Herbal Defense Spray can help repel fleas and ticks.  My concern is that some pets, especially cats, are sensitive to aromatherapy in herbal sprays.  If your pets show any signs of side effects, such as skin irritation or foaming at the mouth, rinse them to remove the spray and discontinue use.

What if you do all of the above, and your pet still has fleas?  As a last ditch resort, I reach for the big guns such as Frontline, Advantage and Revolution.  Many veterinarians recommend monthly, year-round application of these spot-on products.  I do not.  These products contain strong pesticides and should be used judiciously.  Here in Philly, it’s almost never necessary to use them year round.  Our toughest flea months tend to be August, September and October.  For most pets, a few fleas are tolerable.  For those who get fleas despite the use of benign methods to repel them and become uncomfortably itchy, one to two doses of a spot-on product, applied at an interval of no less than four weeks, is usually sufficient.

The other reason spot-on products concern me is that they are dangerous.  They contain potent pesticides that gradually disperse over the skin and collect in the oil-producing sebaceous glands in the skin.  The pesticides are then wicked onto the hair for 30 days or more, killing any fleas that come in contact with them.  But what effects do these pesticides have on the dogs and cats on whom they’re applied, and on the humans, especially the children, who stroke and cuddle their pets?

Documented acute side effects for dogs and cats include skin irritation, lethargy, hyperactivity, vomiting, diarrhea, muscle tremors, seizures and death.  Long-term effects are unknown, though many spot-on products contain active ingredients that, according to the EPA, are possible or likely carcinogens.  In addition, the ingredients can be lethal to birds, lizards and fish.  Please consider this if your dog likes to swim.

Though not surprising, it’s unfortunate that the most effective flea control products we have are also the most toxic.  Try not to become discouraged.  While fighting fleas can be a challenge, by using an integrated approach, it doesn’t have to be impossible.

Further Thoughts on Pet Foods© by Natasha Kassell, VMD

(Reprinted with permission from Dr. Kassell)

Hundreds of brands of dog and cat foods are now available, with more popping up each month.  Selecting which to purchase can feel overwhelming.  In the article, “Pet Nutrition: A Plug for Raw Foods,” I discussed raw meaty bone-based diets for dogs and cats.  In this article, my goal is to help you understand more about dry and canned pet foods: how they’re made, what to look for and what to avoid.  And if I convince you to feed at least some fresh foods, all the better!

Let’s begin with how commercial pet foods are created.  Most dry foods are made by a process called extrusion.  Meat products are rendered, ground and dried then mixed with grains to form dough, which is fed into a machine called an extruder.  The extruder subjects the dough to high temperature and pressure, and squeezes it through an orifice that gives the food its unique shape (stars, triangles, etc.). The food is then sprayed with fat, animal digests and other compounds to make it palatable.  (Incidentally, many breakfast cereals, pastas and other “people foods” are also made via extrusion.)

Canned foods are generally less processed than dry. Ingredients are mixed together, poured into cans and cooked at extremely high temperatures.  The high temperatures and pressures used in the making of both canned and dry foods can denature the proteins, change the fats and destroy many of the vitamins, enzymes and other nutrients found in raw or lightly cooked foods.

Most conventional veterinarians tell their clients: “Cats should be fed only cat food and dogs only dog food.  No table scraps, no human foods.”  These words ring in my ears––and on my tongue.  Before I began my studies of holistic health care, I was one of those vets.  The history of how and why veterinary schools and their students have embraced this notion is fascinating, if not disturbing, and can be attributed primarily to marketing campaigns instilling fear that home-prepared diets––raw or cooked––are comparatively incomplete and thus harmful to our pets.

If anything, the opposite is true.  Chronic disease such as cancer, autoimmune disease, kidney failure, dental disease, digestive disorders, arthritis and allergic dermatitis are rampant in our pets.  Many factors may play a role in these disorders including environmental toxins, vaccinations, genetics and lack of fresh air, sunshine and exercise.  But we should not ignore diet as a potential risk factor for our pets any more than we should for ourselves.

Most holistic veterinarians are of the opinion that diets based on fresh, whole, organic, raw foods, in which the nutrients exist in their natural states, are optimal for our pets.  You may be concerned that raw meat is dangerous because of the potential for bacterial contamination.  Bacteria, if present, is more dangerous for us than for our pets, as dogs and cats digest them far more effectively than we do.  (Think about what they lick.)  You should employ the same safe practices when handling raw meats for your pets as you would for yourself.

If you’re not comfortable feeding raw foods, there are many excellent books that outline how to prepare cooked foods, such as Dr. Pitcairn’s Complete Guide to Natural Health for Dogs and Cats and Natural Nutrition for Dogs and Cats by Kymythy Schultze.  In any case, we should all be aware that commercial pet foods may contain bacteria.  Thousands of pounds of dog and cat foods have been recalled for everything from contamination with salmonella, aflatoxin and melamine to toxic doses of some vitamins and insufficient amounts of others.  Processed pet foods are neither as safe nor as nutritious as we have been led to believe.

In my opinion, there’s only one reason to feed dogs and cats cooked commercial pet foods.  Convenience.  It certainly takes less energy––both physically and mentally––to pour a scoop of dry food or place a spoonful of canned into a bowl than to prepare food or even to defrost it.  Chucking a chicken neck to your dog or cracking an egg into your cat’s bowl is relatively easy, but I recognize that it’s only realistic to accept that processed pet foods are here to stay.  So let’s look at how to choose them, beginning with cat foods.

Cats are strict carnivores.  Since they’re designed to eat only meat, it is preferable to select diets that are high in meats and low in grains and other sources of carbohydrates.  Canned foods are typically higher in meats than dry.  Canned foods are also much higher in water content than dry foods.  This is particularly beneficial for cats as they have a low thirst drive.  In the wild, most of cats’ water intake comes from their prey.  Cats will drink more if they’re fed dry rather than canned food, but it still may not be enough to make up for the lack of moisture in the food. And please take note: dry foods do not clean teeth.  For all of these reasons, I recommend canned food over dry for cats.

Dogs are more omnivorous than cats.  This does not mean they are designed to eat grains, but it is possible that they tolerate them better.  That said, I recommend avoiding wheat, corn, and soy, which are some of the most common allergy-causing ingredients for both dogs and cats.  Other ingredients to avoid are any kind of animal or grain by-product (the leftovers from processing foods for human consumption), chemical preservatives including BHA, BHT and ethoxyquin, artificial flavors and preservatives, and fillers such as beet pulp, powdered cellulose and soybean mill run (soybean hulls).

I’ll give you an example of the importance of reading labels.  Let’s compare two bags of dry dog food purchased at Pet Smart.  The ingredients in the first are listed in the following order, by weight: whole grain corn, soybean mill run, chicken by-product meal, powdered cellulose, corn gluten meal, soybean meal, chicken liver flavor, soybean oil and lots of vitamins and minerals.  The ingredients in the second are turkey, chicken, chicken meal, barley, brown rice, potato, rice, chicken fat preserved with natural tocopherols, some vegetables, egg and lots of vitamins and minerals.  Which food would you choose?  No doubt the second.  Would you be surprised to know that the first food is Science Diet Light dog food and the second is Innova?  I must admit that I was.

If you choose to use commercial kibble or canned foods, please don’t choose just one.  Variety, even in processed pet foods, is key.  Each food has a different nutritional composition.  Vary the brands, vary the flavors.  Better yet, grab a bag of Primal from the Co-op’s freezer or prepare your own raw or lightly cooked foods at home.  Even a little fresh food is better than none.

Be brave.  Go natural.  Your pets will thank you!

If you’d like more information on pet foods, I encourage you to visit Born Free USA’s wonderful website.

Correction from last month’s article: The books Dr. Kassell recommends can be found at and at the Big Blue Marble.  Please support your neighborhood bookstore!

Pet Nutrition: A Plug for Raw Foods© by Natasha Kassell, VMD

(Reprinted with permission from Dr. Kassell)

During veterinary school, I was taught that the most nutritious way to feed dogs and cats was to open a bag of Science Diet, pour it into the bowl and let Fido and Boots have at it.  This did not surprise me.  It was how everyone I knew fed their dogs and cats, myself included.  I did not question why it was the best way.  I merely accepted that it was.

I have since learned that eating a diet based on fresh, whole, organic foods is just as important for your dogs and cats (and guinea pigs and rabbits) as it is for you.  For guinea pigs and rabbits that means lots of fresh fruits and veggies.  For dogs and cats it means a diet based on raw, meaty bones.

“Why raw meaty bones?” you might ask.

Because that’s what dogs and cats would eat in the wild.  The entire carcass of the prey: muscle, organs and lots of raw, meaty bones.

Why feed raw as opposed to cooked? 

Many holistic veterinarians are of the opinion that feeding raw foods increases the general health of our patients and may help prevent disorders ranging from dermatitis to autoimmune diseases to cancer.  Raw meat, bones and organs contain proteins and fats in their natural forms, as well as vitamins, minerals, enzymes and other nutrients that are not found in cooked foods––especially if they’re cooked at the extremely high temperatures that dry and canned pet foods are cooked.

Isn’t it dangerous to feed dogs and cats bones? 

We all know never to feed our pets cooked chicken bones.  Raw bones have a completely different property.  They do not splinter into dangerous shards the way cooked bones do.

Won’t my dog or cat get sick from bacteria in the meat?

While this is a possibility, I have not seen it happen.  Dogs and cats digest bacteria, including E. coli and Salmonella, more effectively than humans.  Most holistic vets feel that the health benefits of feeding a raw diet outweigh the risks of our pets getting sick from the food.  Toxoplasmosis is one food-born disease that I have seen, and though it was only once, it does concern me.  The good news is that freezing meat for 72 kills Toxoplasmosis.

How do I feed my dog or cat a raw diet? 

There are two options.  The first is to prepare the food yourself using chicken or turkey necks and backs, some organ and muscle meat, and a bit of pulverized vegetables to simulate the material found in the prey’s gut.  It’s important to get the ratios right.  For dogs, there’s an excellent little book that outlines how to feed a balanced raw, meaty bone-based diet called Raw Dog Food: Make It Easy for You and Your Dog, by Carina Beth McDonald.  Some of the other titles on my shelf are Dr. Ian Billinghurst’s Give Your Dog a Bone and The BARF Diet: Raw Feeding for Dogs and Cats Using Evolutionary Principles.  (BARF is a less than charming acronym for “biologically available raw foods”.)  These books are available locally through the Big Blue Marble Bookstore and can also be found on

For cats and small dogs, this diet works best if you grind the bones or find someone to grind them for you.  Or you can purchase the food.  This is exciting news.  Complete, frozen, raw meaty bone-based diets are now available from health food stores, some veterinary offices and pet stores, including Weavers Way Pet Store and The Bone Appetite in Chestnut Hill.  Some of the many high quality brands are Steve’s, Bravo! and Nature’s Variety.  Weavers Way and Bone Appetite both carry an excellent brand called Primal.

For dogs, another option is to purchase foods through a company called Top Quality Dog Food.  I’ve recently learned of this company.  I’m excited about it as a) the meats do look to be of excellent quality, b) price-wise, they’re more affordable than other raw meaty bone-based diets, and c) the company is relatively local (based in Maryland), and their meats come from relatively local sources.  To check out their products and place an order, google

No matter where you get your food, the most important thing is to feed your pets as Mother Nature intended, using as many fresh, whole and raw ingredients as possible.  The payoff will be a friskier Fido, a bouncier Boots and fewer visits to the vet for all of you.

The Needs of a Dog

You know, I love my dog.  I really, really do.  When we take walks together, I embarrassingly often catch myself making eyes with him, asking, “when did you get so perfect, huh?” or “who’s my best baby?”  Of course, he answers, “Oooh!  Oooh!  Me!  Me!”  (at least that’s my translation of his sparkly eyes and waggy tail).  And this makes me unbelievably happy-that I’ve got this gorgeous dog, whom everyone loves, who’s super cute, and I created him.  Well, ok, I didn’t originally, but you know what I’m saying.

I taught Governor Monkey (who lives up to both parts of his name) how to walk beautifully on (and even off) a leash.  I taught him how to sit patiently and await his meals.  I taught him to be able to resist even the freshest pile of horse poop, as he obeys the command “leave it.”  He’s a joy to walk, an exceptional cuddler, brilliant with other dogs, and even nuzzles with my two kitties.  For all intents and purposes, he’s perfect.

However, don’t tell anyone this (because I’m a professional dog walker and my dog “should” be a model dog), there are also times that he’s not perfect.  Like the fact that he goes positively bananas when someone rings my doorbell.  Or the times when he’s just a liiiiittle too busy sleeping or sniffing to be bothered coming when I call him.  There’s the fact that he lives for playing fetch – but prefers, once he catches the toy or stick, that I chase him for it rather than bringing it back to me for another toss.  And don’t get me started on him giving himself permission to lie on the couch.  That was never part of the original contract he and I signed.

If my story sounds at all like yours, good.  Not good that we both have pups with manners we love and some we don’t love so much, but good in that we can know we’re not alone.  We love our dogs so deeply it almost hurts; yet have things about them that we really wish we could change.  What’s amazing, though, is that we can, and it’s honestly not that hard.

Given my profession, I have seen every range of behavior in dogs and I’ve seen virtually every different approach to shaping canine manners.  In my opinion, praise-based training is the best approach, but we can save that discussion for another article.  Much of the unwelcome conduct of our dogs is due to either a lack of exercise (aka, pent-up energy, boredom or lack of mental stimulation) or our own laissez-faire attitude toward certain behaviors – until we realize how annoying they’ve become.  Now, here’s where my shameless plug comes in: of course, you want to hire my company, Queenie’s Pets, to come walk, hike, run or playdate your pup in the middle of the day for you so she’s good and tired when you come home!

But seriously, folks, whomever you choose as your walker – choose one, and go pro.  A professional dog walker, as opposed to the neighbor’s kid, your mother, or the retiree next door, is going to have a set schedule, a code of conduct, a lot of experience and, most importantly of all, insurance (if they don’t, don’t hire them).  Typically, a well-exercised dog is a well-behaved dog, and, in all likelihood, even if you work from home, you’re busy and don’t have time to give Rover the romp he really needs.  Just imagine how relaxing it would be to come home, tired after your long day at work, to a calm dog who, rather than needing a high-energy walk straight away, is just ready to give you a snuggle, because she’s already had her grand outing for the day with her trusted, loving, professional walker.

Then, I invite you to begin to think of hiring a professional trainer (we love local, positive trainers CJ Hazell or Ruth Cionca) not just as something you do to begin your relationship with your dog, or, heaven forbid, after they’ve done something really ghastly (ie, bite someone or tear up your entire couch).  Rather, think of bringing on a trainer as a sort of “maintenance plan,” helping you teach her better manners (wouldn’t it be just dandy if she actually came when you called her back to you to leave the park, or didn’t dart out the front door each time a guest arrived?) or games you can play to keep her from being bored. You can even learn how to teach your pup new tricks to wow your friends. She can learn to pick up her toys and put them away, or even to bring you a tissue when you have a cold!

Having a trainer in your back pocket, or, even better, as a regular part of you pet care team, you can hop right on those behaviors you don’t like as much (I am sure Governor Monkey is downstairs sleeping on the couch as I write this).  You can even work on those little, annoying things Spot does before they drive you over the edge.  Even better, a professional trainer can help you build an even stronger relationship with your dog, no matter if you have had him for years or have just adopted a new pup.  No dog is too young or too old to learn something new!

So, here are the top three reasons to round out your pet care team with a professional trainer and professional walker/pet sitter:

  1. Your dog is learning all the time whether you’re training her or not.  With training, you have control over what your dog is learning.
  2. If your dog has been walked by a pro during the day, you have a calmer, easier homecoming, re-gain hours of your life back and have less worry about rushing home because Fido’s been alone all day.  Heck, maybe even meet some friends out for a happy hour straight from work!
  3. Combining training with exercise, especially amongst professionals who know and trust one another’s methods, ensures consistency for your beloved four-legged family members.

If we re-frame our thinking about our dogs’ behaviors, perhaps even take on the “it takes a village” mindset, and have a trainer, a walker, and a veterinarian we like and trust formulating a team approach throughout our dogs’ lives, we might just be able to say, “How’d you get so perfect, huh?!?”…. and have it be true.

For more information about how to create a relationship with a professional trainer and a professional dog walker, or to ask us any questions, visit, call Queenie’s Pets at 215-248-9999 or contact trainer CJ Hazell at 215-848-2308 or email her at [email protected].