The Control of Fleas in Dogs and Cats
(with notes on rabbits and ferrets)
How do we know when our pets have fleas?
You can often see them scurrying about on the animal, particularly where the coat is sparse. You may find ‘nests’ of reddish-black debris in the coat. Fleas usually cause irritation. Dogs scratch and bite, especially around the rump and shoulders/neck area. Cats may scratch but, more often, they harbour fleas with little outward sign.
A moist piece of paper is a good low-tech flea detector. Vigorously scratch the animal’s coat over the moist paper and flea dirts will show. They stick to the moisture, starting as varying sized, very dark particles, which turn red-brown in the moisture. See this and your animal has fleas. If not, you can’t be certain that all is clear.
If fleas jump onto you, you have stark evidence of trouble!
Dealing with Fleas
There are many flea-killing chemicals on the market and there are various programs offered, involving house and animal treatments. These chemicals are powerful substances, which have not been about long enough to be certain of their safety, especially in an ageing or frail animal. Some recent reports of possible nerve toxicity are of concern.
There is even an internal chemical offered, to be given by mouth to your dog. This controls the breeding/fertility of fleas. This seems to be a very ‘blunt instrument’!
Spot-on Flea Treatments
While we have long been concerned that there may be nerve toxicity connected with certain spot-on flea treatments, the strongest suggestion yet has come from a client who has reported repeated hind limb weakness in a cat following spot-on treatment and in another of her cats, that we had successfully treated for megacolon, relapse after spot-on flea treatment.
This still does not amount to proof but gives cause for concern. Remember too that the family is also exposed to these chemicals.
There are more natural methods of flea control
Fleas tend to breed (very rapidly) off the dog or cat, in warm and dark nooks and crannies. Favourite sites can be down the sides of chairs and cushions, under carpet edges, in deep carpet pile, under skirting board and between floorboards. The situation is usually worse during the summer, but central heating can contribute to the problem during the winter. All that is needed is for a dog to commune with a hedgehog or a rabbit, picking up fleas and then shedding them in the house while sleeping. Rigorous and frequent vacuum cleaning is an essential part of control, taking eggs and larvae out of circulation. Concentrate on areas as mentioned above.
Animals should be well-groomed and thoroughly checked, on a regular basis. A traditional flea comb, used diligently, can prove very useful.
Regular swimming may also help.
Nature has ways of reducing the risk of flea infestation, both in the home and on the animal. Natural ‘oils’ can be used, certain herbs have flea-deterrent properties and some feed supplements make the dog less desirable.
There follows a very brief list of some of the measures that can be tried, to render your home and your pets less susceptible to these pests. There are more and we are happy to advise clients of the AVMC in more detail, on any aspect of this issue.
- Chrysanthemum (care needed as this plant contains pyrethrum (a natural pyrethrin), which can be toxic to sensitive animals and inhaling pyrethrum dust cannot be certified ‘safe’ for people)
- African Marigold (care – also contains natural pyrethrins – see above)
- Fleabane (care – may also contain natural pyrethrins – see above)
- Tea Tree
N.B.: Not all oils are safe for pregnant women.
Some food supplements that act as ‘internal’ flea deterrents*, by creating natural body odor
- Brewers Yeast
N.B.: Cats appear to tolerate garlic less well than dogs.
A fresh food diet, preferably organic, appears to lessen flea problems.
We always seek alternatives to toxic chemicals. Only in rare cases should it be necessary to resort to powerful and potentially toxic chemicals, to which fleas can eventually become immune, anyway.
N.B.: Similar considerations may apply to rabbits and ferrets, although the author has less experience of flea control in these species. In rabbits, of course, the viral disease Myxomatosis can be spread by rabbit fleas. Certainly, wild rabbits act as a prolific reservoir of rabbit fleas. Dogs and cats can carry them too.