Updated November 29, 2020
Is natural flea prevention an alternative for pets? Are there safe, non-toxic home remedies you can use to prevent or kill fleas?
I’ve listed some below and given my views on the safety and efficacy of each.
Do Pets Really Need Flea Treatment?
Why use flea controls at all?
My auntie’s dog Rufus was one of many dogs who become allergic to flea bite. We call this flea allergy dermatitis.
He was unlucky to live in the time before safe & effective flea treatments were available. If you’re my age or older you should be able to remember these dogs: we said they had ‘mange’ or ‘eczema’.
The point is, they were incurable. Rufus was diligently treated with the best available shampoos, ointments, flea deterrents, but he still needed high doses of steroids to keep him comfortable.
In the end, the steroids were probably what caused his early death. Diabetes is easily treatable these days, but back then it was difficult. Rufus would also have had to stop the steroids to have any chance of surviving.
Do Natural Flea Remedies Work?
Allergic dogs and cats like Rufus need you to keep fleas away 100% of the time. For these pets, sadly, the answer is no. Animals with skin problems need flea control like a shield.
For the others, natural flea remedies may reduce numbers adequately to make your pet comfortable.
The urban environment is so contaminated with flea eggs that keeping dogs and cats constantly flea free has only truly been possible since the mid-1990s.
Are Natural Flea Remedies Safe?
There are two important differences between pets and people that always need to be considered:
- Anything applied to an animal’s coat may be licked or groomed off. Even safe herbal products can become toxic with continuous low-level exposure.
- All pets are far more sensitive to odours than humans. Products that use a repellent odour may be very unpleasant to animals.
I can promise from first-hand experience that the modern flea remedies made by big pharmaceutical companies are very safe if used correctly. However, I respect the reluctance of some to use any chemical treatment. This page is to help you choose the best of the natural or herbal flea killers or repellents.
Natural Flea Controls
Note: these products are not registered or tested in pets and are used at the pet owner’s risk. Before using you should consult the manufacturer’s or supplier’s safety instructions and follow the advice of experienced users.
Method: The oil is massaged, sprayed or combed through the coat on a weekly basis. Probably works by asphyxiating the fleas so the pet needs to be visibly oily.
Toxicity: Low. However please don’t feed coconut oil due to the risk of pancreatitis. VERY messy in long-haired or double-coated breeds.
Method: Same as coconut oil although less is needed as neem is itself an insecticide.
Toxicity: High if taken internally: never use in cats and take great care with other species that they do not lick it off. Also, see the comment at the end.
Method: Garlic is fed to pets, typically at around one clove per day and is reputed to have flea repellent effects.
Toxicity: Stay away: garlic is just too risky. Garlic, whether cooked or raw, contains as much toxin as onion. Advocates say the acute toxic dose is much higher than one clove but no one knows the chronic (long-term) safe levels.
Tea Tree Oil & Essential Oils
Method: A few drops are applied to bath water or a collar or bandana. Essential oils used include rosemary, rose & geranium.
Toxicity: Minimal if used this way but you have to wonder about the efficacy. Here’s what I’ve written about Tea Tree Oil when used in larger quantities.
Method: The specially made oil (Dr Ben’s Paws and Claws Cedar Oil) is rubbed or sprayed through the coat as per the label.
Toxicity: Probably low but I personally would not use any oils on cats.
Method: Food grade powder is dusted through the pet’s coat and bedding and works by desiccating the fleas.
Toxicity: DE is highly irritant to the respiratory tract and can cause an asbestosis- or asthma-like condition. We don’t recommend DE cat litter either. DE may be useful to dust areas where flea pupae and larvae are found but not where your pet sleeps.
Method: Daily all over combing of your pet should reduce numbers, paying particular attention to the rump and head.
Toxicity: None. Hard to do thoroughly enough. May work better combined with coconut oil.
Method: Bathing with soap free shampoo or even just immersion (at least twice weekly) has been known to remove fleas since ancient times.
Toxicity: None. Just like combing, it won’t stop reinfestation so may need to be done very frequently.
Method: High-Efficiency vacuum cleaning twice a week on areas where your pet lives, plus hot water washing of bedding. Should reduce environmental contamination with eggs, larvae and pupae.
Toxicity: None as long as you don’t use environmental insecticides.
Plus a few less conventional options…
Apple Cider Vinegar
Method: Applied as a diluted spray to the coat.
Toxicity: Low as long as kept out of eyes. I doubt it will reach effective levels without causing discomfort.
Method: I hear of people using diluted lemon juice in a spray bottle.
Toxicity: Never use citrus oils or any processed citrus products; these can be quite toxic. I also believe citrus odours are unpleasant to cats and dogs.
Some believe that a strong immune system is better able to manage flea numbers and be less prone to allergy. We certainly see variations in susceptibility to fleas but there doesn’t seem to be a recognisable link to diet.
Do you want to know about any others or have an opinion on these treatments? If so please leave a comment.
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By Andrew Spanner BVSc(Hons) MVetStud, a vet in Adelaide, Australia. These articles are from a series regularly posted on email and Twitter. Subscribe via email here to never miss a story!