Natural Flea Prevention: 10 Alternatives to Toxic Chemicals

We Americans spend about a billion dollars a year on products that we hope will protect our pets from fleas. No one can blame us for wanting to avoid these nasty little guys; but the use of toxic chemicals must be weighed against the dangers they pose to the health of our pets and our families, particularly our children. Hopefully, my previous article has convinced you that a chemical approach to flea prevention should be, at best, a last resort. Finding safe alternatives admittedly takes some time and effort as well as a realization that you just may have to try a few options before you find the one that will work for you. We encourage you to persevere! The reward will be knowing that your pet -- and your family -- are safe from toxic chemicals.

Preventing Fleas -- Naturally

Before you reach for a chemical flea preventive, consider these 10 alternatives -- primarily for your dog. Felines are sensitive creatures and they lick their fur -- a lot; so you must be certain that anything you use on them is safe. For example, both pennyroyal oil and tea tree oil can be toxic to cats.  Never use a dog flea product on a cat!  It could be lethal.

1.  Start with a healthy pet. A lot of vets will tell you that healthy pets simply don’t get fleas! So be sure you’re feeding yours a high-quality pet food – see our article for help – and be sure your pet is getting plenty of exercise.

2.  Bathe your pet every other week. Any shampoo, lathered well and left for 10 to 15 minutes (some sources say 20 to 30) will kill fleas and send their eggs down the drain; but be sure to use a non-drying shampoo, e.g. one with aloe or oatmeal. Essential oil ingredients such as rosemary, mint or cedar will leave a pleasant lingering scent and will help to repel fleas. Consider Dr. Shawn’s kind-to-the-skin herbal shampoos and DerMagic’s Flea Shampoo Bar.

If you want to reinforce the shampoo with an herbal rinse, try a lavender tea  or rosemary tea rinse. The latter may have the added benefit of improving the look and feel of your cat’s coat.

If you don't mind your pet smelling a bit like a tossed salad, try apple cider vinegar! This may be a good alternative for cats who can be sensitive to essential oils. Fill a spray bottle with vinegar and spray liberally on the fur, leave 5 minutes, then rinse; or, if your cat will tolerate a bath, simply mix vinegar 50/50 with a gentle shampoo. Avoid eyes!

3.  Spray flea bites with PurSpray Pet Care to soothe your pet's skin, speed healing and prevent infection!  

"Our 14-year-old Pomeranian is allergic to flea bites.  He'll chew at the area, rip his hair out, and whimper.  Bites quickly become infected,and that means a vet visit, antibiotics and steroids. This past week he was bitten by a flea at a dog park. I used PurSpray on the area and it was amazing. No stinging, and he was back to himself in minutes. This is a terrific product! It saved our sweet dog hours of discomfort, the dangers of medicine and steroids, and it saved us a huge vet bill!"  Jo Lynn D.

4.  Use a flea comb daily! These tiny-toothed wonders are one of the greatest weapons against fleas as well as ticks. Run the comb carefully from nose to tail before he comes in the house. You may see flea debris – little black specks that turn red when wet -- particularly in a dog’s rump area and between the shoulder blades of a cat. (Ticks gravitate toward ears, armpits and paws, even burrowing between the toes.) If you find a flea, move quickly! Have a bowl of soapy water handy to dunk the comb and drown the little critter.

5.  Treat the fur. Sprays with essential oils can be effective repellents. Look for lemongrass, cedarwood, peppermint, rosemary or thyme.  Earth Heart’s Buzz Guard, an aromatherapy treatment, uses wonderful ingredients like neem seed oil and pure essential oils to keep bugs at bay. Simply spray on your hands and massage into your dog’s outer ears, back of head, abdomen, legs and tail.

Be aware that not all essential oils are safe for animals or people! Products with citrus, cinnamon, clove, d-limonene, geranium, tea tree, lavender, linalool, bay, eucalyptus and rue oils should be used with caution as they can cause allergic reactions in people, and serious reactions in cats and dogs. Avoid pennyroyal oil (it can be deadly for pets) and never use tea tree oil on cats!

6.  Keep living areas clean. Vacuum regularly, getting into nooks and crannies, under furniture and along baseboards. Dispose of the bag immediately. Wash wood floors once a week, as larvae love to hide in cracks in the wood. If you have a flea infestation, you will probably need professional steam cleaning (no toxic chemicals, please!). Wash and dry your pet’s bedding on high heat once a week. Walnut leaves and cedar shavings in the bedding will help repel fleas.

7.  Celebrated holistic vet, Dr. Marty Goldstein, recommends feeding your pets garlic and brewer's yeast, as fleas simply dislike the odor and the taste. Dr. Marty particularly loves garlic, calling it "as close to a panacea as a natural product can get." Grate or chop a clove or two into each meal, to discourage fleas and promote health and longevity. As for brewer's yeast, a tablespoon a day will work for medium to large dogs, half that for small dogs and for cats. He even suggests sprinkling brewer's yeast on your pet's fur every couple of days, working it in with your hands. Do this outside, as fleas may quickly abandon ship!

8.  Step outside the box!  There are a few new products out there that may be worth trying.  For example, check out Only Natural Pet's Flea & Tick Tag which, they say, "uses your pet's own bio-energetic field to repel pests." This website has a variety of products for flea control, all with natural ingredients. They even have an ergonomically-designed flea comb!

9.  Maintain outdoor areas. If your pets go outdoors, then your yard needs some attention. Trim grass and shrubs and remove low-hanging branches to dry out damp areas. Diatomaceous earth, or DE, will kill fleas, but it will also kill other friendly insects; so nematodes, tiny microscopic parasites, may be a more eco-friendly choice. Purchase them at a garden supply store or online.

NOTE: DE may be used inside the home and even directly on your pet; but it’s messy and can irritate lungs (yours and your pet’s). So use with caution.

10.  If you’ve tried these methods and still have a problem, then you may need to resort to chemicals. But do so with these cautions in mind:

  • Remember, “Don’t use a shotgun when a rifle will do the trick.” Use the product that addresses your specific problem – fleas? Fleas and ticks? Heartworm? Don’t use a combination product if you don’t have to.
  • Use only as needed, for as short a time as possible. Manufacturers love to have you use their product every month; but it may not be necessary.
  • Read the label! Be sure you follow directions and pay special attention to the warnings and weight restrictions. Many per poisonings are simply are matter of improper use of the product.
  • Watch for warnings about using these products on older, sick, underweight, medicated, very young or very small pets.
  • Don’t mix products!
  • Be especially cautious with cats. Products designed for dogs can be lethal to your cat. Even sleeping next to or near a canine buddy who has been treated for fleas, or licking and grooming his fur, could be fatal to a cat!
  • Make GreenPaws Flea and Tick Products Directory your go-to source for finding the safest treatment for your pet.
  • Download Whole Dog Journal's eBook"Keeping Your Dog Flea Free." It's well worth the $8.95 investment!

How are you dealing with fleas? What has worked as a flea preventive or treatment for your pet? We would love to hear from you!

 SOURCES for this article:

Natural Resources Defense Council. “How to Control Fleas Without Chemicals. Last revised April 26, 2011.

Martin Goldstein. The Nature of Animal Healing. NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1999.

Nancy Kerns. “Protecting Your Home from Fleas.” January 2014.