One of the biggest complaints of dog owners (and their dogs) is fleas. They bite, they multiply and they are hard to avoid. How can you relieve your dog’s itchy skin? There are chemical treatments, natural treatments, supplements, topical month-long applications. You can spray, sprinkle, and aerosol bomb. Washing, combing, ultrasonic…the ways you can spend money is nearly endless. And when the fleas are biting your ankles and making your dog miserable – you ARE willing to spend on anything that even remotely promises relief.
When the fleas have invaded your home or infested your pet, you are willing to do nearly anything to get rid of them. Even people who buy organic are sometimes drawn into the “nuke ‘em” mentality of flea control. Take a couple of deep breaths. There are ways to combat fleas which will not leave you concerned about your health and the health of your dog.
To kill fleas you need to understand fleas, what they are looking for, where and how they live, and – most importantly – how to get rid of them. To learn more about treating your dog for fleas, read Fearless Flea Control.
Meet the enemy: Ctenocephalides – the adult flea
Fleas in your home. Yuck! According to Wikipedia, “Fleas are wingless insects (1/16 to 1/8-inch (1.5 to 3.3 mm) long) that are agile, usually dark colored (for example, the reddish-brown of the cat flea), with tube-like mouth-parts adapted to feeding on the blood of their hosts…Fleas..(go) through the four life cycle stages of egg, larva, pupa, and imago (adult). Adult fleas must feed on blood before they can become capable of reproduction..” Yup…feeding on the blood of their hosts – which means both your dog AND you.
According to Mike Potter, Extension Entomologist at the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture, adult fleas spend most of their lives on your dog. They lay their eggs on your dog. Those eggs fall off, eventually hatching into tiny worm-like critters who feed on flea feces – which is mostly dried blood. Next they develop into pupa stages which encases the growing flea in a cocoon-like protective shell. They can stay this way for weeks or months until they sense the presence or potential for food. Then they hatch out to fleas ready to feast on you and your dog.
What’s worse – while the fleas bite the dog and leave flea bites, the flea saliva is also a potent irritant. In fact flea saliva may actually cause more of a skin reaction in dogs than the actual bite.
Each of the four stages of fleas mean that they are vulnerable to different treatments. The flea life cycle can be as short as a couple of weeks or as long as 8-10 months. Yes, if food (your blood) is limited, they will actually enter a state of suspended animation just waiting for their cue to hatch and have a snack. So how do you defend yourself and get rid of these pests?
Defeat the Enemy!
First of all, take a deep breath. Fleas can be beaten. And unless you have a truly horrible situation (think filthy house, lots of untended pets, warm, moist environment, lots of hiding places under furniture and in rugs) you probably have FEWER fleas than you think. That’s the good news.
The bad news? It is going to take time and effort on your part to get rid of these pests. Below are some low-tech and low/n0n-toxic methods of getting rid of fleas.
The reality is that most live, adult fleas will be found on your dog. Most flea eggs, larva (wormy things), and pupa (cocoon things) will be found where your dog frequents: his bed, favorite spot on the rug or anywhere else he spends time.
You Sure You Have Fleas? Are You Really Infested?
While it’s easy to think you have fleas either on your pet or in your home, the first step is to actually verify this. Look for these signs:
- Flea dirt. This is actually the excrement from the flea which is usually mostly blood. If dissolved in water, it turns red. Yucky but true. Tiny specks of unexplained “dirt” in corners or near where your dog sleeps might actually be from fleas.
- Jumping bugs. A tiny blackish-brown bug with a skinny body who is here one second and disappears the next. Often looks like a speck of dirt or a crumb. They aren’t disappearing, they are jumping out of sight.
- Bites on your body or on your dog. Flea bites are the gift that keeps on giving. You may be bitten and not even feel the bite for 4-6 hours. What is making you itch is probably not the bite but rather the flea saliva. This is also what makes most dogs miserable. After the initial itch, it is not uncommon to continue to feel itchiness – which makes it appear that you are being continually bitten rather than having multiple reactions to that single bite. Ouch.
- White sock test. Walk around your house and yard – anywhere you think you have fleas – with white athletic socks pulled up to your knees. If fleas are around, they will attempt to jump on you. The white socks will make it easy for you to spot them and hard for them to bite you.
I Do Have Fleas! Now What?
So, you’ve found the signs of fleas. The good news is that you and your home probably have fewer fleas than you think. Your pet is probably hosting far more adult – biting – fleas than you are. His thick coat provides a perfect hiding place while fleas are hanging out between meals. And it’s a great place to start a family.
The secret to getting rid of fleas has two parts: break the cycle of egg-laying and get rid of the fleas you already have.
To break the cycle of egg laying, you must get rid of the adult fleas. The good news is that they are the easiest to spot. The bad news is that it will probably take a few rounds to collect and get rid of these adults. To completely get rid of fleas will probably take 3-5 weeks of daily vigilance. After that, you will need to watch closely for any signs of fleas for a couple of months – that way any pupa stage fleas who have been hibernating will have hatched and you can dispose of them.
First Line of Defense: De-Flea Your Dog
According to the University of Kentucky School of Agriculture “adult fleas lay all their eggs on (your) dog.” The eggs then fall off the dog onto the dog’s bed, your carpets and furniture, and even YOUR bed if your dog sleeps or jumps up there. Before you ban your dog from the house, here are two effective steps to de-flea your dog.
Bathing: For the next few weeks, you are going to have to commit to washing your dog. Spot is going to need baths at least once a week – 2-3 times a week is better. Your goal here is to break the cycle on your dog. If you are using a flea shampoo, please use as directed. If they are pesticide-based – regardless of whether the pesticide is chemical or “natural” – most recommend using no more than once a week or less. Regardless of the formulation, FOLLOW THE DIRECTIONS. They are there for a reason. You do not want to make your dog sick by over-applying chemicals. Don’t be fooled by rainbows and birds and claims of “all natural” or “herbal” – some natural formulations are just as potent as chemical pesticides. When my sister’s dog Gracie got infested last summer, we did the first round with a flea shampoo and all other shampooing during that month with non-flea shampoo.
Flea Comb: The second method for de-fleaing your dog is a flea comb. These range in price from about $1 for a small plastic comb to $10 for a comb with a comfort-grip handle and metal teeth. Flea combs are nothing more than a very fine-toothed comb with long fingers for reaching through your dog’s fur to the skin. You work the comb through your dog’s coat and manually pick fleas off the comb or dunk the comb quickly into a bucket of water.
On a small dog with a short coat, this may be feasible. On a large, shaggy-coated dog, this is a long, tedious process with no guarantee of actually getting rid of all the fleas. Surprisingly, fleas do on sit patiently on your dog waiting for you to comb them out. As your dog moves (and he will), the fleas move. Some people swear by flea combs – others swear at them. If you are going to flea comb your dog, be sure to do it outside, well away from your house. Have a bucket of warm soapy water to drop the fleas into as you pick them off. The last thing you want is to pick off the fleas and have them hop off into your house again.
One product to avoid is electric flea combs. In theory, they are supposed to zap the fleas so you can pick them off more easily. Save the $35 – $50 that these things cost. Few users give them high marks, citing how breakable they are and how little they improve over a vastly cheaper plastic or metal flea comb.
My sister’s dog, Gracie, is a Golden Retriever with very long fur; we opted to skip the flea comb and bathe her more frequently. This also had the benefit of removing flea saliva from her skin – another irritant for most dogs. Even on our dog, Monty, a Labradoodle who gets a very short “summer cut,” a flea comb would be the last thing that I would do to battle fleas.
Keep Fleas from Coming Back on Your Dog
There are lots of treatment options for keeping your dog flea-free. I compare different treatments in this article which extensively reviews and compares topical, herbals, sprays, collars, and even ultrasonic methods. Read Fearless Flea Control.
Second Line of Defense: Cleaning Your Home
For the next two weeks, you are going to be vacuuming. A lot. For the first week, plan on vacuuming at least twice a day. Vacuum the rugs, and move furniture. If Fido is allowed on the furniture or beds, you will need to vacuum those as well. Fleas can jump up to about 8″ so anything knee-height or under is prime flea territory. Weirdly, the vibration of a vacuum cleaner will signal some of the pupa (cocoon) stages of fleas to hatch as they think the vibration signals the presence of a host (you or your dog). This is where vacuuming frequently really pays off. While you might think that encouraging fleas to hatch is counter productive, you actually want them to hatch now while you’re fully prepared to defeat the enemy.
While some pest experts recommend adding a flea collar to the vacuum bag, this is not necessary. The jury is out on whether you have to dispose of the vacuum bag after every round of vacuuming. If you have a bagless vacuum that collects into a bin, be sure that you are emptying it outside into a bucket after every use. Do not empty it into a trash bucket in your house. A covered barrel outside is fine. Extra points if that barrel gets full sun during the day. Heat of at least 108 degrees Fahrenheit kills the buggers.
Vacuum in particular along baseboards and under furniture. Think like a flea and look for places to hide. Look where your dog hangs out and pay special attention to those places.
Non-Toxic Diatomaceous Earth (DE) to the Rescue
Once you have done a couple of rounds of vacuuming, you may want to consider spreading some diatomaceous earth (DE) ONLY use food-grade and never swimming-pool grade. Food-grade DE is available at feed and grain stores and at garden centers. It is completely non-toxic (in fact farmers often add it to animal feed to keep it – and their animals – bug-free). DE is the fossilized remains of sea algae, and looks like a fine, white flour. If you looked at it under a microscope, you would see particles that look like shards of broken glass. Some researchers theorize that DE cuts into the exoskeleton of the flea, causing it to die. Others conjecture that it sticks to the flea and dries it out. Either way, the stuff works.
If you can spread a thin (think dusty table rather than sand-box) layer in hard-to-reach places like under the sofa, it gives fleas one less place to hide out. If you have a rug that seems to be a flea haven, you can even spread some diatomaceous earth on the rug. Use a broom to work it in and around the rug. Leave it for a few hours – overnight if possible – and then vacuum it up. You can also apply with a special duster which will make it easier to get the DE under furniture and into corners. A duster isn’t required – but it is a tool which can make it quicker and easier to apply the DE.
Caution: While DE is non-toxic, it is a fine dust. Some people like wearing a paper surgical mask to cover their mouth and nose. If you have lung or breathing impairments, wearing a mask is smart. For everyone else, unless you are working with it a lot or toss handfuls into the air to settle on everything, you probably don’t need a mask. Just use common sense and keep your kids and pets out while you are spreading and while it is on the carpet. Also be very careful not to get it into eyes – yours or your pets – it is a serious irritant.
You can also use DE outside. Some users sprinkle or dust it in areas where they suspect fleas, others mix it with water to a milky consistency and spray areas with a garden sprayer. The sprayer method can be more effective in spreading it evenly and also spraying into nooks and crannies where it might be hard to reach with powder. As a side benefit, DE is also very effective on bed bugs.
Some people put it directly on their dog as they would a flea powder. Check with your veterinarian before you do this. Dogs who have allergies, respiratory issues, or breathing problems could be impacted by the fine, powder-like consistency.
Another positive: DE is cheap. A ten pound sack will cost you about $15 and will probably last at least a year in an average household. And if your dog laps it up or your toddler gets some on her hands, it is non-toxic. Cheap, non-toxic, and effective – my kind of flea control!
Wash, Rinse, Repeat
Wash anything that you can. Pet bedding, sofa throws, small rugs, pillows. If you can safely launder it, washing is very effective and non-toxic flea control. During the first two weeks, run these things through the wash as often as practical. Your goal is to not only get rid of fleas but also the eggs that have not yet hatched. Washing once gets whatever is there only at the time of washing. If your dog has fleas, these fleas will continue to drop eggs wherever he goes. Keep washing if you want to keep getting rid of them.
While vacuuming your rugs will do most of the work, you may want to consider shampooing or steam cleaning carpets or area rugs. You don’t need any pesticides added to the cleaning solution. Just a thorough cleaning with detergent and hot water will do the job. Steam cleaning will get rid of flea eggs and flea dirt buried deep in the pile. The trick with cleaning rugs is to get along the baseboards, under wall heaters, and into all the nooks and crannies where you would hide if you were a flea. Easier said than done, but work into as many corners and crevices as you can. And insist that the furniture gets moved and the rug area under that is cleaned. Don’t give the buggers a chance to hide anywhere.
Go Into the Light – And Die!
Another non-toxic trick that can be effective is a flea trap. This is especially effective if your fleas are contained to an area of your home. Fleas are constantly looking for a food source – warm blooded you or your dog. They are heat-seekers. If you can set up a source of heat, they will be attracted to it. If you add light, that also is attractive. You can make a simple flea trap by setting up a desk lamp and pointing it down over a dish of warm soapy water. The heat and the light attract the fleas, they jump toward the source, and fall into the soapy water where they cannot escape. Making the water soapy makes it hard for the fleas to jump right out of the water. These home-made traps really work best at night. Turn off all the other lights and set up your light/soapy water combo on the floor in an area where you have found fleas. Some people swear that a white dish works best at attracting the fleas.
One interesting method I read involves using a incandescent night light – with a green bulb. Seems that fleas are attracted to green light in particular (it is speculated that it mimics vegetation). You will have more success attracting fleas with an incandescent light as it gives off heat – an LED nightlight burns much cooler. Raid your old-school Christmas lights for a bulb. Check out PestCemetry’s post on this and DIY flea traps.
You can also buy commercial flea traps which use sticky paper instead of dishes of soapy water. The advantage is that these can be left on all the time. Some users are astounded at the number of fleas that they dispose of this way. And there is no risk of the lamp tumbling into the water and causing a electrical problem. The heat is just warmer than body temperature, so there is little risk of burns if a pet or child touches it while on.
Whether you use a commercial trap or a home-made trap, this is an effective way to see if you are winning the battle. When we thought we had fleas, we set up a trap like this. We quickly figured out that our “flea infestation” was not nearly as bad as we thought. We caught just a couple of fleas for each of the three nights we set up the trap. We even moved the trap around to see if we just weren’t setting it up in the right spot. While we did find a few fleas on the dog, we were far less panicked about launching an all-out war on fleas in the house and could concentrate on treatments for the dog.
Chemicals: Cautious Pros and Lots of Cons
More than a few sites recommend flea bombs or sprays. If you are thinking about using them, read and follow ALL warnings including keeping your dog and children away from the area for the treatment period which can range from a day or two to up to two weeks. The warning labels are there for a reason.
Some treatments are labeled as natural. Don’t let “natural” fool you. Arsenic is natural, too. Please test for infestation and try less toxic methods (including vacuuming and washing your dog) before going the chemical route.
The pros of flea bombs and sprays is that they kill all bugs they come in contact with. The cons are that you are spreading a chemical potpourri around your home and yard. And you may only be killing fleas that are adults, larva, and eggs. The pupa (cocoon) phase is remarkably well-protected and will wait to hatch, leaving you with a new infestation if you are not vigilant.
If you are hiring a pest-control company, insist on getting a full disclosure on any precautions necessary prior to treatment. Ask them how long they have been using the product, how experienced their pest technician is, and for references from other customers. Seriously, if you are introducing this level of chemical into your home or yard, you not only have a right, you have a duty to know what you are exposing yourself and your family to. Ask.
Also remember that any bombs, sprays, or powders are going to remain in your environment. Your dog will sleep on the rug you sprayed. Your kids (or you) can rub off the dust you applied. If you go this route, please read and follow all directions carefully.
What to Look For: If you decide that you need to go with chemical treatments, be aware that it generally takes at least two different chemicals: one to kill adult fleas and another chemical to kill eggs, larvae and pupae (such as methoprene or pyriproxyfen). Choose a formula which includes both.
Flea Bombs: Flea bombs are generally an aerosol can that you set off in a confined space and which cover all surfaces with a fine chemical mist. Don’t know about you, but the idea that my kitchen counters are now covered in flea spray scares me. Most instructions recommend removing all eating utensils, cooking equipment, and silverware. Aquariums must be covered. Some bombs are not safe for cats or puppies. You set the aerosol off and then have to leave for 6-8 hours. Then when you come back, you have to clean all surfaces. Yikes. After reading the list of chemicals and the warnings – including warnings about neurotoxins, I would hesitate to use them in any living area that would be occupied again without a thorough floor to ceiling cleaning. One other BIG negative with flea bombs is that as the aerosol settles, it does not get into the very spots that fleas like most – under furniture and in crevices.
If you have an ongoing flea problem, and your dog spends considerable time outside in a specific part of your yard, you may want to investigate outside treatments. Do the “white sock test” as described above (Are You Sure You Have Fleas?) and treat the areas where fleas are active. This not only means less chemicals, it means a lower cost for you as you can buy less spray or powder to treat.
Room Flea Sprays: Come in two general types – indoor and outdoor. Outdoor flea sprays are meant to be applied over a larger area and are often sold in a concentrated liquid that is used in a hose-end sprayer or a mixed in a garden sprayer. Again, some scary chemicals which are actually prohibited for sale in some states. Indoor sprays generally are sprayed on rugs and floors where your know there are fleas.
Room Flea Powders: There are also powders available – generally some formulation of boric acid, borax, or borate. While some sellers tout borate/borax/boric acid as “natural” pest control, they still have strongly-worded warning labels about contact and usage.
Read my article, Are Flea Control Products Safe? for more information.
Homemade and Alternative Treatments: What Kills Fleas and What Wastes Your Money and Time
Some people have had success treating fleas with a vinegar-based spray. While proportions vary, most suggest 1 part vinegar to 1 or 2 parts water. This can be sprayed on your dog or used to clean areas which may be infested with fleas or flea eggs. Vinegar itself does not seem to kill fleas, but rather fleas don’t like the smell of the vinegar and will find another food source or place to hide. Of course, you have to want your dog to smell like a pickle factory all the time for this treatment to be effective. Once the smell goes away, there fleas can (and often do) return. And if your dog’s skin is irritated by flea bites or saliva, the acidity of the vinegar may be painful on inflamed skin. I could find no vet or medical articles which recommend vinegar for effective flea control.
Organic or Natural Oils
There are many variations on these mixtures. Some contain cedar oil, others highlight lemon or lemongrass oil. There are the clove and cinnamon sprays, and the rosemary crowd. Results are mixed (no pun intended). Some people swear by them, others swear at the waste of time and money. The common element seems to be some type of heavily scented oil which is supposed to repel fleas because they don’t like the smell. Most last just a few hours to a couple of days and then need to be reapplied to be effective. I could find no vet or medical articles which recommend natural oils for effective flea control.
The other problem with some of these essential oil sprays is they often contain linalool. Over 200 species of plants produce linalool, including mints, scented herbs, laurels, cinnamon, rosewood, citrus fruits, some fungi and others such as birch. It is commonly used as a scent. According to the U.S. National Institute of Health, oxidized linalool carries the risk of skin irritation and allergic reactions. Oxidation happens naturally as the essential oils are exposed to air – for example in a spray bottle. So the essential oil you are spraying on your dog to ward off fleas might be causing its own allergic reaction. Probably not what you intended.
My sister used a clove/cinnamon spray on her dog last summer when the sand fleas were particularly intense here on Cape Cod. She would apply this directly after bathing and Gracie would seem to have some relief – for about a day. Coincidentally, the scent would be gone by this point too. As long as Gracie smelled like a candle shop at Christmas, she was scratching less – but even at its stinkiest, Gracie still was scratching. Considering that a dog’s sense of smell is so much keener than a human, I can only imagine what Gracie thought of the heavy cinnamon/clove scent – especially when she couldn’t get away from the smell. No wonder Gracie ran from the room whenever my sister pulled out that spray bottle.
Dawn Dish Soap (original blue): The Groomer’s Secret Weapon
While this is not homemade, it is a low-tech/very low-toxic solution. We stumbled on this recommendation when Gracie was infested with sand fleas. We put Gracie in the tub, wet a ring around her neck and lathered her up with a thick “suds collar.” We then washed her from the neck down. Fleas were literally dropping off her into the tub – nearly two dozen of the critters! By lathering a ring around her neck, they could not scamper up and into her ears or eyes or hide out under her neck where we would not be scrubbing and lathering as much. The barrier of thick lather kept them back. On advice from a groomer, we also paid particular attention to Gracie’s anal and genital region, making sure no fleas were hiding out.
What really surprised us was the dead fleas. Dawn killed them dead – working at least as well as any flea shampoo. Dawn left Gracie clean and the bonus was no toxic chemicals on her skin. While the fleas raged here in Cape Cod late last summer, this was by far the most effective relief for Gracie. We were bathing her a couple of times a week to kill fleas and clean her skin of flea saliva.
I have used this on Monty for the last few months with no ill effects. His coat is clean, his skin is clear, and (knock wood) no fleas. I was very concerned that the Dawn might dry out or irritate his skin, but that never happened. I was careful to rinse him VERY thoroughly – several minutes after the water started running clear – just to make sure that his skin had not traces of detergent.
How Long Does The Battle Go On?
If you are vigilant and attack the problem by controlling and eliminating adult fleas on your dog and flea eggs, pupae, and larvae in your environment, you should be flea-free in three to five weeks. Then it’s maintenance and vigilance – and tackling fleas at the very first sign of problem.
Flea Protection on Your Dog
Now that you have defeated the enemy in your home, it’s time to keep the fleas off your dog and out of your house. Read my article about different flea protection for your dog including flea and tick topical treatments such as Frontline and Advantix, flea collars, and more.
What Is YOUR Secret Weapon?
Do you have a favorite remedy not mentioned here? Share it with our readers.
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