Many people swear by natural remedies for keeping their pets flea-free. But do they really work? And even more important, are they safe? Both dogs and cats can experience serious diseases secondary to fleabites. I've rounded up all the info you need to know about some of the most common natural flea treatments so you can keep your beloved pets free of those nasty varmints in the safest way possible.
Diatomaceous earth is a product that is mined from the earth. It’s actually the microscopic, fossilized remains of very tiny sea organisms known as diatoms. Most commonly, diatomaceous earth is a component of many “natural” pesticides. Because a form of silica is a component of diatomaceous earth and because silica has sharp edges, diatomaceous earth can help to dry out or “desiccate” the external skeleton (exoskeleton) of insects, thus causing them to die and hopefully stop bothering your beloved pet.
Because of the way it works, diatomaceous earth has to be applied topically to kill fleas on pets. Because it’s a silica-containing powder, it can be quite irritating to the respiratory tract if inhaled, especially to cats. And because it has to be in contact with the fleas themselves to work, you kind of have to put it all over your pet, which increases the risk of respiratory interference (and also the chance that your pet will look like that Pigpen kid in the Charlie Brown cartoons). So it’s likely this isn’t a very practical or efficacious treatment for fleas.
Some people swear by garlic for its insect-killing properties, but not only have I not seen proof that it actually works, I’d be extremely cautious when feeding it to my pets. Garlic, if eaten in sufficient quantities, can cause anemia (low red blood cell numbers), and cats are the most sensitive to this reaction.
The estimated toxic dose of garlic for cats is 1 gram per kilogram of body weight and for dogs it’s 3 to 6 grams per kilo. If an average head of garlic weighs about 28 grams (thank you, Google), then even a couple of cloves can cause consequences, especially in cats. The bottom line is that garlic just doesn’t have enough efficacy as a flea-fighter to warrant taking the risk of making your pet seriously ill by using it for that purpose.
If you’re sure your pet doesn’t have fleas and you just want to treat the environment to keep the fleas at bay, there are some commercial products that are extremely safe and actually effective for this purpose. Fleabusters has safe products for your yard and your home that will drive down the flea population. This may be an excellent strategy for keeping your pet flea-free, especially if used in conjunction with a good-quality monthly pharmaceutical flea preventive.
Neem oil is a component of many natural flea products, and alternative vets say that it may actually have some efficacy. It’s a vegetable oil pressed from the fruits and seeds of a type of evergreen that’s native to the Indian subcontinent. Although it has some efficacy against fleas, be aware that it’s fairly short-lived, and most veterinarians who recommend this product to pet parents in search of a natural flea product suggest using it every 2 to 3 days.
It’s important to remember that cats and dogs can have severe reactions to certain essential oils, either focused at the site of administration or more systemic. It’s best to avoid the use of them on your pets, especially if the skin is already irritated or infected.
Here’s a natural flea-fighting remedy that actually works. Flea combs are designed to have very little space in between the teeth, so when you comb through your pet’s fur, you’ll be able to pull out the fleas and send them to a watery death (actually, rubbing alcohol works best). But flea-combing needs to be done frequently — like daily — and while your 4-pound Chihuahua might not mind the additional attention, it hardly seems like a practical approach for those of us with jobs and other responsibilities, especially if we have pets of a larger size.
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