Spritz This Kitchen Staple on Your Pet to Nix These Pesky Parasites

mite and fleas in dog fur skin

Story at-a-glance -

  • Flea season is here, and if you live in a flea-endemic area, it can be a challenge to keep your pet pest-free
  • Fleas have a four-stage life cycle, and while adult fleas are the ones you’ll find on your dog or cat, they represent only 5 percent of the fleas in your environment
  • Signs of fleas on your pet include scratching, patchy hair loss and evidence of fleas or flea dirt
  • A flea comb is your best defense against adult fleas on your pet; there are several steps you’ll also need to take around your home to eliminate fleas in the other three life stages
  • Nontoxic repellents can be an effective deterrent to fleas on your pet and in your environment

By Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

The pesky pest season is here, and one of the most pervasive, frustrating insects on the planet is the flea. Here's the Wikipedia description of these little blood-sucking parasites:

"Fleas are small flightless insects that form the order Siphonaptera. As external parasites of mammals and birds, they live by consuming the blood of their hosts. Adults are up to about 3 mm (0.12 in) long and usually brown. Bodies flattened sideways enable them to move through their host's fur or feathers; strong claws prevent them from being dislodged.

They lack wings, and have mouthparts adapted for piercing skin and sucking blood and hind legs adapted for jumping. The latter enable them to leap a distance of some 50 times their body length, a feat second only to jumps made by froghoppers. Larvae are worm-like with no limbs; they have chewing mouthparts and feed on organic debris."1

If you live in an area where fleas are a problem for pets, I think you'll find the following information eye opening and helpful in keeping these pests out of your home and off furry family members.

Fleas 101

Fleas have a four-stage life cycle:

  • Stage 1 — Egg. Adult fleas lay eggs on your pet — from 20 to 28 a day. These eggs drop off your dog or cat and grow wherever they land, which is often on your furniture, carpets, throw rugs and other flooring.
  • Stage 2 — Larva. This is what the egg turns into, little worm-like creatures. Larva hatch from flea eggs.
  • Stage 3 — Pupa. The larva forms a pupae, a cocoon of sorts, inside which it moves through additional growth stages that can take anywhere from about 10 days all the way up to 200 to complete.
  • Stage 4 — Adult. Adult fleas are what the pupae evolve to and they're what you see on your pet. They live on average about six weeks, but they can live much longer. The only way to remove adult fleas from their natural habitat (your dog or cat) is to kill them or pick them off.

Most of the Fleas in Your Environment Aren't on Your Pet

Fleas reproduce at an incredible rate. Ten female fleas can produce over 250,000 more fleas in a single month. And believe it or not, the adult fleas riding around on your pet are only about 5 percent of the fleas in your living environ­ment. That means 95 percent of the fleas in your house are everywhere but on your pet.2

Flea eggs are most often found in carpets, bedding, floorboards and soil. Flea larvae and pupae are found where your dog or cat spends most of her time, including her bedding, in carpets and area rugs, on upholstered furniture, on your bedding and wherever else your pet hangs out.

Estimates are that for every adult flea on your pet, there are around 10 more wherever your pet spends time. That's why you must eliminate not only the adults on your dog or cat, but the eggs, larva and pupa in your home, yard and your pet's bedding.

Signs Your Pet Has Fleas

Once a flea hops aboard your pet, it will spend its remaining life feeding off your furry family member, causing a persistent itch-scratch cycle, mild to significant discomfort and in some cases, more serious health problems.

It's also important to note that intermittent flea exposure increases your pet's risk for flea allergy dermatitis (FAD), which is an allergic (hypersensitive) reaction to the presence of fleas, and sometimes just a single flea can trigger FAD. Things to look for if you suspect your pet is dealing with fleas:

Flea feces, also called flea dirt, which looks a lot like pepper, on your pet's fur or bedding

Flea eggs, which are light-colored specks, in your pet's coat or on bedding

Actual fleas crawling around on your pet (check armpits, around the tail and groin first)

Scratching and/or biting at his coat or legs

Patchy hair loss, typically around the neck or tail

Lethargy

Fleas flourish in temperatures between 65 and 80 degrees Fahrenheit with humidity in the 75 to 85 percent range. In some locations flea season is year-round, but in others the types of fleas that bother pets and people aren't considered a big problem. Fleas can transmit tapeworms, cause cat scratch disease and can even cause severe anemia, especially in young animals. However, they are primarily an annoyance, and if you live in flea-endemic area, it can seem like a constant battle to keep them under control.

What to Do if You Find Fleas on Your Pet

The best way to prevent a flea infestation is to proactively check for fleas daily during flea season. Removing a few fleas is a whole lot easier than fighting hundreds, which can occur quickly if you're not checking daily.

If you find a few fleas on your pet, don't panic. Instead, grab a flea comb and start combing; it's the best defense there is. Your dog or cat should be combed at least once daily with the flea comb. Place your pet on a light-colored towel to catch any fleas that fall off and dip the comb into a bowl of soapy water after each swipe (flush the contents down the toilet when you're done).

Bathe your pet frequently until the fleas are gone, as fleas are less attracted to clean animals and drown like any other creature when submerged under water.

Remember: Fleas on Your Pet Means Fleas in Your House

Vacuum all the areas of your home your pet has access to. Vacuum the carpet, area rugs, bare floors, upholstered furniture, pillows, your pet's bedding and even your own if your pet sleeps with you. Use the crevice tool and other attachments to vacuum along the baseboards and around the corners and edges of furniture.

Don't forget to vacuum hard-to-reach places like under furniture, beds and closet floors, and dump the contents of your vacuum into a sealed bag and leave it outside your house.

If it makes sense, designate a single sleeping area for your pet — one you can clean easily. Fleas accumulate in pet sleeping spaces, so if you can limit those, it will be easier to control the situation. Your dog's or cat's bedding should be vacuumed daily and washed frequently.

You can apply a light dusting of food-grade diatomaceous earth (DE) on your carpets, bare floors and pet bedding. Make sure the DE is food-grade, not pool-filter grade, which is toxic if ingested. Like diatomaceous earth, cedar oil, another all-natural insect repellent, can be applied to your environment and pet bedding, as well as directly on your dog or cat.

You can also apply sodium polyborate powder to your carpets and wood floors to get rid of fleas at the larval stage, just be sure to keep pets and children out of the area while you're applying the product. The powder works for a year once it's applied unless you have your carpets steam cleaned.

Nontoxic Flea Repellants

If you're battling a flea problem, it makes sense to use nontoxic flea deterrents whenever possible. Apple cider vinegar (ACV) is one option, and while it doesn't kill fleas, it does repel them. You can make a solution out of equal parts ACV and water. I recommend using a raw, organic product. Add the mixture to a spray bottle and spritz it on your pet before he heads outdoors. You can also spray his bedding.

To "supercharge" the spray and make it even more distasteful to fleas, add in a few drops of dog-safe essential oils. Geranium, lemongrass, lavender, neem and catnip oil are good choices that will help deter fleas (as well as ticks, mosquitoes and other pests) from your pet.

You can also add ACV to your pet's food. Use about 1 teaspoon per 20 pounds of dog. (Most dogs don't like the taste of water with ACV, so I don't recommend adding it because it could cause your pet to consume less water.) Another option is to pour diluted ACV over a freshly bathed dog. Add 1 cup of ACV to 1 gallon of water and pour it over your dog while he's still wet. Massage the solution into his coat, don't rinse, and towel him dry.

If you're not a fan of apple cider vinegar, you can try citrus juice instead. Fleas dislike citrus, so sprinkle some fresh-squeezed lemon, orange or grapefruit juice on your pet's coat, taking care to avoid her eyes (be aware, however, that lemon juice can lighten dark fur).

You can also add 1 cup of lemon juice to 1 gallon of water and pour it over your freshly bathed dog (avoiding the head), massage into the coat and towel dry. Then finish off with a light dusting of food-grade diatomaceous earth down your dog's back, which provides extra protection during the worst weeks of flea season.

A Healthy Pet Naturally Repels Fleas

It's extremely important to feed your dog or cat a nutritionally balanced, species-appropriate, fresh food diet that will help keep her immune system functioning optimally. Fleas are not as attracted to healthy animals. Also provide pure drinking water and limit your pet's exposure to unnecessary vaccines and medications, environmental chemicals (including lawn chemicals) and electromagnetic fields (EMFs).