Natural Flea Control

There are several drug companies promoting chemical flea treatments for dogs.  They give some scary statistics about how quickly one flea can turn into thousands.  While these facts could be quite true in an environment and on dogs where the conditions are ideal for fleas to thrive and multiply, the truth is that there are ways to make an environment difficult, if not impossible for fleas to live in, and ways to keep dogs in such conditions that fleas don’t like them. There are many different natural flea control methods that are advocated by a wide variety of people and websites.  Although some work better than others, I find that the best control is using a variety of methods under varying circumstances.  I will discuss many of these methods, beginning with what I recommend for prevention first and then discussing what to do if you do find fleas.

A first line of defense in flea control is keeping a dog healthy.  Fleas are much more attracted to old dogs, to puppies, and to unhealthy dogs.  There isn’t anything you can do about the age of your dog, but there is a lot you can do to keep your dog healthy and thereby less attractive to fleas.  A healthy diet is paramount.  See our page on dog food for more information on that.  Foregoing flea chemicals can actually have a positive affect by giving you a healthier dog.  Fewer vaccines and late spaying or neutering will also keep your dog healthier.   A flea will jump on an unhealthy host before a healthy one.

Adding apple cider vinegar to your dog’s food is a second very important way to keep fleas away from your dog.  Add two tablespoons daily to each dog’s food.  Use more or less depending on how the weight of your dog compares to a 65 pound grown Golden Retriever.  Apple cider vinegar changes the PH in the blood just enough to make a dog less attractive to bugs.  Apple cider vinegar has the same effect on people.  My 21 year old daughter was so attractive to mosquitoes that as I baby I couldn’t walk down a short driveway to the mailbox with her without her getting eat up.  As a child her legs were always covered in bites.  A couple of years ago, she started drinking a couple of tablespoons of apple cider vinegar a day as a chiropractor had recommended.  My daughter was pleasantly surprised to find out that in addition to the health benefits she had been told about, she was getting a lot fewer mosquito bites.  When I first decided to go all natural with regard to flea control, I went two years without a single flea and only used apple cider vinegar.  When I got the first flea was when I had run out of the vinegar and forgot to get more for over a week.  I am convinced that ACV is a big deterrent to fleas!

The third thing I do to prevent fleas is to spray diluted cedar oil on the dogs’ coats when taking them out for long periods of time in the woods or to fields that might have fleas.  Mixing pure cedar essential oil with water is the cheapest way to do it, but it can also be bought pre-mixed.  Oil does not mix well with water and so getting and keeping a home mixed spray at the right concentration can be a little hard.  You must shake it often or it will separate.  I recommend using Dr. Ben’s Cedar Oil.  It will not only repel fleas but if used liberally, will kill them whereas the water/cedar oil mixture only serves as a repellant.  Cedar oil does have a smell (similar to the smell inside a cedar chest) so your dog will need to be rinsed off before coming back in the house if you don’t like the smell.  Using cedar oil is not something that I regularly do and don’t think is necessary unless you will be out for an extended period of time in an area that might be infested.  The apple cider vinegar is most likely enough of a deterrent to keep fleas away.

There are several other essential oils that repel fleas, some of which have a much more pleasant smell.  I have found that the cedar oil works better, but I personaly don't like the smell of cedar. For short excursions or for playing in the back yard, a quick spray with a mixture of water and one of the more people pleasing smells could be an option.  If you like these smells, they can be left on the dog giving your home a nice smell.  These oils do not work quite as well as the cedar, but are better than nothing and can be handy to have.  The oils that I would recommend that fall into this category are lemongrass oil, cinnamon oil, sesame oil, and castor oil.  There are a couple of companies that make premade mixtures of these better smelling oils and market them as flea spray.  Though they aren’t as effective as cedar oil, they are a good alternative for more regular use when a more pleasant smell is necessary.  Citronella is another flea repelling oil that works very well and better than some of the nicer smelling oils, but I think citronella smells worse than cedar oil.  Though I don’t think that the non-food grade oils would hurt a dog, I would stick to the food grade essential oils just in case your dog licked them.  You may want to try a few of these bug repelling oils to see which smells you prefer.

Most years, I have been fortunate enough to keep fleas away by only using apple cider vinegar and an occasional light spray of the Dr. Ben’s cedar oil when I go where I think there might be a good chance of there being fleas.  I do, however, keep a close watch out for fleas so that I can take a more aggressive approach in order to get rid of them quickly at the first sign of even a single flea on any one of my dogs.  If I think there might be even a small chance of fleas, I will take additional steps.  Flea prevention is important, but equally important is flea detection. 

The best way to detect fleas early is by frequent flea combing.  Using a flea comb is simple once you get the hang of it, but if done incorrectly, you will miss the fleas or they will jump off your comb and back onto the dog.  Flea combing is easy but there is an art to it. 

Here is how to effectively use a flea comb.  Before starting, fill a bucket about ¼ full with soapy water to kill the fleas in.  I use a 2 gallon bucket.  It needs to be large enough to easily hold the comb completely inside the bucket without getting it in the water.   You will need a flea comb obviously.  I prefer using one of the combs with a double row of tines if I believe there to be no fleas or only one or two. With this type comb, I am able to go quickly over the dog in a way that will either catch the fleas or get them moving away from the skin so that I can see them.  I recommend using a different type comb which I will explain later if there is a real flea problem.  Once you have your supplies set up and your dog in the room with you, you are ready to begin.

Using a flea comb is easy, but you must hold it at the correct angle and the dog’s fur must be almost tangle free before you start.  If this is your first time to use a flea comb on your dog in awhile, I suggest that you use a butter comb or some other type of comb to get the coat completely tangle free so that the flea comb with its tight tines will go easily through the hair.  A brush will get many tangles out, but a comb will separate the hairs better.  Make sure you go over the dog’s entire body with the comb including the entire tail.   Once all the tangles are out, you should be able to easily comb through your dog’s coat with your flea comb without pulling.

Once the dog’s hairs are pretty well separated, you are ready to begin.  Hold the flea comb at about a 60 degree angle from the dog’s body having the tips of the tines going ahead of the handle as you comb.  Be careful not to hold the comb too flat against your dog or the comb could scratch your dog’s skin.  Start combing at the top of your dog’s head and then move down his back and under his neck down his chest.  Then have your dog lie down on his side so that you can do his side, belly, legs, and tail.  Have him turn over so that you can do the other side.   When checking for fleas, you need to be very quick after every stroke to either get the comb back in your dog’s fur for another stroke or get the comb over the water in your bucket.  If you don’t and you’ve caught a flea, it will jump out of your comb and get right back on your dog.  When you put your comb back in the dog’s fur and apply pressure again, it serves to hold any trapped fleas there until you take the comb out.  The time between each stroke must be short for flea combing to be effective.  If there aren’t any or many fleas, I will give about 3 or 4 strokes before emptying the comb and checking for fleas in the suds.  To get any fleas out of the comb, hold the comb down in the bucket, above the water (not in it).  Pull out anything that might be caught in the comb.  Usually all that is there are hairs but if there is a flea it will come out with the hairs in the comb and you can see the black flea moving around on top of the white suds in the water.  Use the handle end of the comb to push any fleas down into the water so that they will drown.  Also push any hair under the water.

If you don’t catch any fleas and you feel comfortable that you have been combing the correct way and have quickly held your comb over the water and emptied it, you are probably in good shape. If you’ve caught even one flea, there are probably more.  It’s time to start aggressive flea killing.  There are several natural methods of killing fleas.  If I find a flea, I use them all.

The first thing to do is to kill all the fleas on your dog by bathing him in Dove dishwashing liquid.  It must be done in a certain way or the fleas will hide.  Start off by squirting the soap on the top of your dog’s head (before wetting your dog).  Wet your dog’s head only. Soap up your dog’s head and around his ears forming a soap barricade to keep the fleas from running into his/her ears before you wet any of the rest of your dog.  Once you have barricaded the ears by soaping up all around them, the fleas have no safe place to hide.  Wet your dog’s back and soap up the rest of your dog, starting with his/her back and working around to his/her neck, then down to the end of the tail, around to the stomach and down each leg.  Don’t forget to soap up even the paw pads.  If there are fleas, the Dawn will kill them on contact.  I continue to scrub for at least 5 minutes to make sure there are no places that I have missed.  I use a liberal amount of soap and then make sure that I rinse well.  Be careful not to get soap in your dog’s eyes and when rinsing around the ears, hold the ear flaps over the ears so that you don’t get water inside.  The ears must be rinsed well while at the same time, the water should be kept out of them.  Dawn is a strong soap.  I would use it once at the first sign of a flea and then not use it again.  It can dry out your dog’s coat and skin.

Begin adding garlic to your dog’s food if you find fleas.  While some claim that garlic is not good for dogs, most holistic vets do recommend it for flea control in moderate amounts and I believe it to be safe.  Use about a teaspoonful per day for an averaged sized Golden Retriever (about 60-70 pounds).  I would use this from the time of the first flea until you’ve been at least a month without seeing a flea.  You can buy large containers of garlic from Springtime, Inc. Garlic, in addition to apple cider vinegar, will make your dog very unattractive to fleas.

The next thing to do is get the fleas out of your environment.  There are two ways that I find that work well.  Cedar oil is the most effective way but it leaves behind an odor that could linger for a couple of weeks if you spray your entire home.  Diatomaceous earth works also but if there are more than a few fleas, it is not as thorough at killing them all as the cedar oil.  I advise wearing a yard mask when spreading diatomaceous earth as it can be irritating to your nose and throat to breathe it if it gets in the air.  I would suggest spreading DE on your dog’s bedding and anywhere your dog frequently lies.   It is also safe to put on hardwood and tile floors.  I would leave the DE for 24 hours and then vacuum thoroughly.  The same applies to cedar oil. If you have found a flea on your dog, you need to vacuum every single day until you are sure that the fleas are gone.  If you use diatomaceous earth, make sure you buy food grade as some dogs will lick it up.  Try to discourage that as the diatomaceous earth only works when it is dry.  The way it kills fleas is by cutting the exoskeleton thereby causing the bug to dehydrate.  (Diatomaceous earth will kill any bug. As a bonus if you buy DE, it is  a safe natural ant killer.) Again, it must be dry so make sure you use it outside when rain is not in the forecast.  It is the shape of the tiny granules that cuts the bugs and when it is wet, the grains stick together and lose their effectiveness.  Do not use both DE and cedar oil.  The cedar oil will make the DE wet.  Choose one or the other.

Wash anything that your dog has come in contact with….upholstery, bed clothes, pillows, dog beds, etc.  If it will go in the washing machine, wash it there with hot water if the fabric will tolerate it.   If it can’t be put in the washing machine, spray it with diluted cedar oil.  I have used Dr. Ben’s Cedar Oil successfully on upholstered furniture.  Though it didn’t stain or cause fading to either my fabric or leather, I’d suggest using it first on an inconspicuous place before putting it on an entire piece of furniture. It does smell like cedar at first but the smell will mostly fade within a day and will fade totally within two or three weeks even if you heavily spray your entire house including furniture, hardwood floors, and carpet.

If your yard is not too large, treat the yard with either cedar oil or diatomaceous earth.  Again, I believe that cedar oil is more effective but diatomaceous earth is less expensive.  I recommend the brand of cedar oil called Nature’s Defender if you are going to be spraying it outside.  My yard is too large to treat.  I have about 5 acres fenced for our dogs.  This makes it impractical for me so I cannot personally attest to the effectiveness of using these products outside other than using DE on ant beds.  However, because of the success I’ve had ridding my home of fleas with these two cedar oil and DE, I believe that outside treatments would be helpful for someone with a normal sized yard.

If you’ve seen a flea on your dog within a week, make sure that you are flea combing every day until you’ve been at least a week without fleas.  If you continue to find fleas after bathing your dog with Dove, I would spray your dog well with Dr. Ben’s Paws and Claws Cedar Oil.  It will make your dog smell of cedar, but it will not only kill any fleas on contact that are on him, it will repel them for several days.  You shouldn’t be continuing to see fleas.

If I find fleas, I use a different type flea comb than I use for combing when there aren’t fleas.  I like the kind with a single row of teeth and a plastic flea catcher on one side.  It is a little more difficult to use than the kind with the double row of teeth.  You have to comb slower and make sure that you are holding the comb a little more parallel to the dogs skin than you would hold the other type comb.  Using this type comb is slower but more thorough.  I also make sure that I have a bottle of Dr. Ben’s Paws and Claws handy as sometimes flea combing will make a flea come to the surface and then you miss it with your comb.  The cedar oil will kill it on contact.

Until you are sure that all fleas are gone, put out a flea trap, the kind with a light and a piece of sticky paper that goes under the light.  This will let you know if you still have a problem in your home.  There shouldn’t be if you’ve sprayed with cedar oil but continue checking just in case.  To save money, you can make your own flea trap by rigging up a night light to shine down on a flat pan of soapy water.  I’ve never used the home-made kind but you can find information on how to make one by googling it.  The bought traps are not expensive and it was worth the lack of hassle for me to make the purchase.  Place your trap in the area where you suspect there might be fleas.  If you catch one, you probably have more.

I believe that the makers of chemical flea products are making flea problems sound worse than they are.  Even a cursory reading of this article might give someone the impression that fighting fleas can be a major ordeal.  It is not. I spent a large portion of this article talking about what I have only rarely had to do and I have a lot of dogs.  Most likely you do not.  All of my dogs live in my house. All of my dogs also have access to large areas of land that cannot reasonably be treated for fleas and I often take them out in the woods for walks.  The only time I have ever had more than one or two fleas was when my husband and I had to leave town for two weeks. Some of the important things for flea control were not done.  Still, even then, the problem was taken care of immediately when I sprayed our home and our dogs with cedar oil.  The smell was a bit of a nuisance but within a few days I could no longer smell it even though the smell lingered slightly for those with sensitive noses who weren’t used to it for about 3 weeks.  Still, for the health of my dogs, it was worth the temporary nuisance. For those with only one or two dogs, I would guess that you could go many years without fleas just by using ACV, regular flea combing, and a good healthy diet.

One other final point to consider when thinking about flea control is that chemical flea preventatives such as Comfortis do work, but they do not prevent or even repel fleas like the natural methods that I suggest do.  These chemical products are flea killers, not preventives.  Fleas must first get on your dog, then bite your dog, and finally ingest the poison that is floating around in your dog’s body.  Before fleas actually bite your dog and die, the fleas could hitch a ride on your dog into your home or the dog could bite at the flea and catch and eat it.  Some dogs are very good at catching fleas.  Once a dog eats a flea, you’ve got another problem….tapeworms.  Tapeworm eggs live inside of fleas and flea eggs live inside of tapeworms.  A cycle may be starting that could contribute to more fleas down the road.

There are two ways to keep your dog from having fleas.  The first way is by keeping your dog healthy, by adding supplements that make him unattractive to fleas, by using natural repellants, by regular grooming and checking for fleas, and by keeping your environment free of fleas.  The other more commonly used method is to turn your dog himself into a flea killing machine.  Circulate a chemical within his body.  Turn him loose where there are fleas so that he can collect them and kill them himself with the chemical that is in him.  This is the easy way, but is it what is best for your dog?