Despite the fact that it’s the middle of winter here, my dog has fleas. I got this great news at the vet’s office when she went in for her checkup. He said that the weather conditions here have been perfect for growing a huge flea population and now that it’s cold, all those fleas are moving indoors. Great. To top it off, he told me that the veterinary community is starting to see fleas evolving resistance to many of the popular topical treatments like Frontline and Advantage. So what’s a pet owner to do in the face of a flea invasion when the usual approaches aren’t working?
I did not want to launch an all out chemical assault in the house if I could avoid it. I didn’t want to have to break out the bug bombs, the carpet powders, or the special shampoos. And I really didn’t want to call an exterminator. Aside from being toxic and messy, chemical flea controls are expensive. So I went looking for lower cost, less toxic alternatives. I came up with several good ideas, most of which have worked very well.
Vacuum, vacuum, vacuum
The vacuum cleaner is the best weapon against fleas. It sucks up adult fleas and eggs. For the vacuum to be effective you need to vacuum often and thoroughly. This means getting under and behind furniture, cleaning around the baseboards and under things like radiators and floor registers, and also cleaning upholstery, drapes, and other soft furnishings.
When you’re done, either empty the cup or throw away the vacuum bag. Fleas can escape from a vacuum cleaner and eggs can hatch in a bag or dust cup, so dispose of them promptly. If you don’t want to change the bag every day (expensive!), buy a flea collar, cut off a good sized piece and drop it in the bag or dust cup. This should kill any fleas that are in the bag. Even if you use this method you should still dispose of the bag weekly.
Daily vacuuming is best, at least as you’re beginning treatment so you can gain the upper hand. You can eventually drop back to every other day and then weekly, but in the beginning you need to vacuum often. You can also steam clean your carpets, as the hot water and soap will kill fleas.
Wash all pet bedding
Wash pet beds, soft toys, and blankets in the hottest water the fabric will stand and dry on high. Wash out any kennels or crates, too, with bleach or soapy water. Washing kills adult fleas and eggs. You need to wash at least every three days until you have the problem under control. Eggs usually hatch after about 72 hours, so to keep ahead of any new hatchlings you need to wash about every three days. Once you have the problem under control you can wash once per week, just to stay on top of things.
Homemade flea traps
You can buy commercial flea traps for about $15, or you can make your own with items you likely already have on hand. You need a nightlight, a shallow pan like a cookie sheet or pie pan, water, and dish soap. Plug the nightlight into an outlet and set the pan of soapy water beneath it. You want to set your trap in an area where your pet spends a lot of time and where the fleas are likely to be. Fleas are attracted to the warm light at night and will jump toward it. When they do, they will land in the pan below the light and the soapy water will kill them. This is a great way to catch adult fleas. In the morning, you should be able to see the extent of your problem floating in the pan.
Homemade carpet treatment
Instead of buying expensive carpet powders, you can make your own. Mix equal parts table salt and baking soda in a container and then spread the mixture on your carpet. Work it into the carpet with a broom or your feet. Let it sit for at least three hours (overnight is preferable) and then vacuum it up. The salt will desiccate the fleas and kill them. The baking soda breaks down the protective covering of the eggs, preventing them from hatching. Very cheap, non-toxic, and effective
A flea comb has tiny teeth that trap both adult fleas and flea eggs, allowing you to manually remove them from your pet. Keep a bowl of warm, soapy water next to you as you comb your pet and rinse the comb in the water frequently to kill any fleas and flea eggs. This can be time consuming, particularly for very large or shaggy breeds, but it’s the best way to remove fleas from the animal without chemicals. Do this every day in the beginning and then taper off to every other day or so. Once you’ve gone a week without seeing any fleas during combing, you can drop back to combing once a week to prevent new infestations. Flea combing is a great way to get an idea of the extent of your problem and once you have things under control, you’ll be able to keep tabs on any new arrivals.
Cedar in the bedding
Put some cedar shavings inside your pet’s bedding. Most big pillow type beds have an inner stuffing compartment with a zipper that you can use to hold the shavings, or you can place some inside their kennel or crate. Fleas are repulsed by the cedar smell. Cedar won’t kill them, but it will send them hunting for a new place to live.
Washing your pet is another inexpensive (as long as you do it yourself and don’t visit the groomer) way to control fleas and you don’t have to use expensive flea shampoo, either, as it’s the act of washing combined with the warm soapy water that kills and removes the fleas. Flea shampoos merely leave a residue on the animal which probably isn’t strong enough to kill many fleas on its own.
Choose a shampoo that conditions your pets’ skin as you don’t want to replace flea itch with dry skin itch. Oatmeal shampoos are good for this. Soap the pet thoroughly and let the shampoo stand on the pet for up to ten minutes if possible. Rinse well. Wash at least every two weeks or once per week if your flea problem is severe.
My dog still gets her topical flea treatment. Even if it’s not as effective as it once was, it’s still one of the best ways to control fleas. My vet still recommends it because it’s a great first line of defense and something is better than nothing. But that can’t be the end of my flea control efforts. I need to keep up with my program of vacuuming, washing, and flea combing my dog to give myself the best chance of avoiding another infestation. Fortunately, I have been able to control the pesky fleas without resorting to expensive and toxic chemical treatments. It may take a bit more effort to do these things myself rather than launching a bug bomb, but I’d rather put in that effort than douse my dog and home with more chemicals than absolutely necessary.
(Photo courtesy of Christina Welsh)