Healthy pets, no fleas

How to control fleas without resorting to chemical warfare

by Sylvie Farrell of Mothers & Others, with reporting by Aisha Ikramuddin
s my two terriers frolic in their new farmhouse and run wild on two acres of land (they let my husband and me live there, too), we find ourselves doing epic battle with possibly the greatest nuisance known to man and beast: fleas! Mind you, Sophie and Hamlet's previous life in a New York City apartment did not exempt them from these biting buggers. One thing all pet owners must come to grips with: if you are going to own pets with hair - whether in or out of doors - you are going to have fleas. Once you resign yourself to this, you can set about controlling your flea population without resorting to chemical warfare.
Most chemically-based products pose a real danger to the health of your pet, your kids and yourself. After all, a pesticide flea collar is nothing but a poison necklace around your pet's head. It emits a constant toxic cloud that your pet inhales, as do you and your kids every time you hug or kiss your pet. And what about those insecticidal flea and tick shampoos and powders, sprays and dips? Labels warn you not to get them on your skin, to use rubber gloves and wash your hands. Yet the instructions also tell you to work them into your animal's coat, where they absorb into your pet's skin and are licked!
This is not the answer. As Alisa Mullins reported in Animal Times magazine (July/August 1995), she accidentally poisoned her cat, Pepper, to death with flea dips, powders and shampoos. Signs of pesticide overdose in your pet can include vomiting, diarrhea, trembling, seizures and respiratory problems. Check labels carefully, advises Mullins, who now uses only non-toxic flea remedies on her cats and dogs. As for pet owners who apply these pesticides to their pets, the California Senate Office of Research has warned against exposure to pesticides during pregnancy or infancy, which may impair neurological development and contribute to childhood leukemia.

What to avoid

Flea collars. The Cancer Prevention Coalition (CPC), which informs the public about preventable exposures to carcinogens, lists many brand-name products as containing either carcinogens or neurotoxins, or both. These include certain flea collars by Longlife, Hartz, Pet Agree, Sergeant's and Zodiac. In addition, several of these products may have adverse reproductive effects.

Flea & tick dips, sprays, powders, foggers and bombs. Foggers and bombs are flammable, and poison the atmosphere so pervasively that they should be completely avoided. One infamous flea-and-tick repellent, Hartz Mountain Blockade, caused 26 known pet deaths in 1987 and at least 200 dog and cat poisonings. The EPA forced Hartz to list warnings about tremors and vomiting on the label, but Blockade, which contains the pesticides DEET and fenvalerate, is still on the market. According to the Washington Toxics Coalition (WTC), an environmental organization working to reduce reliance on toxic chemicals, other active ingredients in anti-flea products include dichlorvos (or DDVP, found in Duokill, No-Pest, and Duravos), propoxur, diazinon and carbaryl nerve poisons that may cause adverse, long-term health effects in both pets and humans.
What doesn't appear on labels, due to "trade-secret" laws, are the inert ingredients - solvents and petrochemicals that make up to 90 percent of a pesticide's mix and are often toxic. These toxic substances include xylene, methyl bromide, benzene, asbestos, DDT (a by-product of the manufacture of certain pesticides) and toluene. The New York State Attorney General's office has listed some of the effects of toluene as including headache, abdominal pain, nausea, dizziness, drowsiness, hallucinations, anemia, liver disorders, central nervous system dysfunction and skin, eye and respiratory irritation. Many of these symptoms have been found among flea dip users in a survey conducted by the California Department of Health Services Hazard Evaluation System.
CPC lists the following products in their chronic health advisory column as containing carcinogens or neurotoxins, or both: Ace Hardware Pet & Home Flea & Tick Killer; Cardinal Flea & Tick Shampoo 118 and Shampoo for Cats and Kittens; Daltek Timed-Release for Cats and Kittens and Organic (sic) Flea Spray for Cats and Dogs; Enforcer Flea & Tick Powder, Shampoo and Spray; Flea Stop Pet; Four Paws Flea and Tick Shampoo and Foam Dry Bath.
NOTE: CPC measures all the above products in various ways. Some pose "minimal risk"; CPC advises "caution" against using others at all. "Minimal risk doesn't mean you should use a product frequently - there can be cumulative effects," says Keith Ashdown, outreach director of CPC. For more detailed information, including exact names and product numbers, write CPC with your question or buy their Safe Shopper's Bible (520 N. Michigan Ave., Ste 410, Chicago IL 60611).

Pesticide alternatives

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), the publisher of Animal Times, has compiled a non-toxic, six-step regimen for attacking - and winning - the battle of the flea that I have used with total success for years - even when I lived in California and my dogs lived outdoors during summers of epidemic fleas.

Pet diet and skin care. Feed your pets fresh, whole foods - try to avoid meat by-products, preservatives and artificial colorings. Add either brewer's or nutritional yeast, fresh garlic or flaxseed oil (found at health food stores) to pet food for skin health and flea repellent. My dogs Sophie and Hamlet love the taste.
I use PETA's recipe for the skin: slice up two lemons and pour nearly boiling water over them, then soak overnight. The next day, strain the liquid and pour into a spray bottle. The dogs get spritzed liberally and then the solution is massaged into their coats. Citrus oil kills and repels fleas and the pooches smell great, too. I spray their bedding, as well. Cats hate to be sprayed and find citrus offensive, so for felines, make a solution of one ounce pennyroyal oil (also found at health food stores) with 18 ounces of water. Sponge this solution onto kitty and massage it into the coat. You can also spray dogs with this solution - they don't mind. WARNING: Be sure to dilute pennyroyal - it can be toxic to pets if used alone. Skin that is irritated from scratching and flea bites can be soothed by applying aloe vera, nature's miracle healer.
Treatment for your house and yard. Most flea eggs are laid on bedding, not the living host. So commit to vacuuming rugs, floor cracks and furniture frequently, every two to three days, during the peak flea seasons - summer and fall - especially if there is an abundance of rain. Flea eggs can still hatch in the vacuum bag, so invest in extra bags and change them after each use. In severe cases, rugs should be steam-cleaned. May 5th is "Be Kind to Pets Week": give your pets the gift of cedar-filled beds, which repel fleas, with removable covers that you can launder often. You can also place sticky paper flea traps and a small light bulb in a darkened room to attract fleas. For the yard, WTC recommends beneficial nematodes - tiny worms that infect and kill flea larvae. They can eliminate over 90 percent of larvae in 24 hours following the first application.

Anti-flea sachets. Fleas detest the scent of lavender, mint, rosemary, sweet woodruff and cedar: use sachets of these fragrances between couch cushions.

Pet baths. Bathe pets with gentle herbal shampoos. Pesticide shampoos are overkill, since simple soap and water will kill fleas if the soap is left on for about 5-8 minutes.

Flea combs. Use a fine-toothed flea comb to catch fleas, dipping comb into a bowl of soapy water after each sweep through your pet's fur.

Low-toxicity pesticides. In cases of overwhelming infestation, try low-toxicity pesticides derived from natural sources. Pyrethrum, or pyrethrins (crushed chrysanthemum blossoms), is toxic to humans, pets and beneficial insects. However, WTC recommends Pet and Premise, an insecticidal soap made by Safer, Inc., which contains small amounts of pyrethrums that do not pose great risks. It is available in retail stores. Permaguard, by Pristine Products, combines diatomaceous earth with pyrethrins, and can be used on carpets, pets and outdoors in the grass. NOTE: not to be confused with the synthetic pyrethroids, which are potent neurotoxins.
Limonene, a frequently-recommended extract from mandarin orange and lemon peels, has caused tumors in male rats, according to WTC, which advises using shampoos or area sprays containing linalool, another citrus derivative, instead. However, linalool can cause respiratory problems and should be used outdoors or with good ventilation.
Diatomaceous earth (DE) kills fleas by drying them out. DE, a non-toxic, chalky powder made of fossilized algae, can be sprinkled on carpets and lawns. It can be found in garden supply stores. CAUTION: DE is a lung irritant if inhaled.
As an alternative to the "poison necklace," Natural Animal, Solid Gold, Nature's Best and Nature's Way herb-based flea collars have as their active ingredients different combinations of eucalyptus, citronella, pennyroyal, rue, cedar, sesame, and natural fragrances. While the herbs don't actually kill fleas, they can repel them.
Approached systematically, the all-natural approach to non-toxic pet care is easy, truly effective and the only way to go if you care about the health of your pets, your family and the planet (not to mention yourself).

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