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.

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].