Dealing with Fleas Naturally
These ancient, wingless insects have been on earth for 160 million years and spend 95% of their lives in the environment.
After emerging from eggs, larvae feed on organic material before weaving a tiny, silken cocoon and pupating. Adult fleas emerge from the cocoon when they sense the presence of a potential host animal. Important cues to hatch are an increase in carbon dioxide, temperature and vibrations as the animal moves nearby. Fleas use their remarkable hind legs to jump onto their animal host – adult fleas can jump up to 30cm, about 200 times their own size.
Fleas jump onto cats and dogs to feed, requiring a meal of blood before they can reproduce. Female fleas then lay around 500 eggs and the cycle continues. In ideal conditions fleas can go from egg to laying eggs in as little as two weeks. On cats and dogs, fleas typically cause local irritation and itching but are also associated with other diseases. Fleas can transmit tapeworm and cause severe skin allergies.
Do we Need fleas?
Over the past few decades we humans have been manufacturing increasingly potent chemicals to try and eliminate fleas and treat flea-associated illnesses. We quickly discovered, however, that fleas can adapt and develop resistance to insecticides.
We also now know that the environment and many other creatures are often negatively affected by our dependence on, and overuse of, these chemicals. Recent research even suggests that the complete absence of parasites may actually lead to immune-related problems in animals. It seems parasites like fleas may be playing an important, positive role and be essential to well-being.
The good news for gardeners is that many aromatic herbs, rich in essential oils, have natural insect-repellent properties. Some animals use these herbs to reduce insect parasite burdens in the wild. Last month, we briefly looked at the emerging science of Zoopharmacognosy – how wild animals use the plants in their environments to support healing and prevent disease. In that article we mentioned birds that line their nests with essential oil-rich plants. Researchers have found that this behaviour in starlings reduces parasites in the nest and improves the survival of their young.
Herbs that Harry Fleas
A number of plants carry this name, and are traditionally used to help prevent flea infestation.
Chrysanthemum Cinerariifolium (Pyrethrum) – The flowers contain pyrethrins, an insecticide still used in many over-the-counter flea products.
Helichrysum Odoratissmum (Imphepho) – Indigenous to South Africa, this plant is traditionally used as bedding to repel insects.
Tagetes Minuata (Khakibos) – Native to South America, but now common in South Africa, this plant is used in certain flea shampoos.
Lavandula spp (Lavender) –This is a popular and safe herb to use as a flea repellent.
Azadirachta Indica (Neem) – Native to India, the seeds and oil of this tree are used as an insect repellent.
Mentha Pulegium (Pennyroyal) – This potent mint is potentially toxic, so use it with care.
Rosmarinus Officinalis (Rosemary) – This is another popular and safe herb to use as a flea repellent. Rosemary has the added reputation of giving a shine to dull coats. (Tansy)
Tanacetum Vulgare – This herb is also potentially toxic, so do use it with care.
As modern research begins to support traditional herbal knowledge it’s time to get to know these herbs again and explore how to use them safely to help reduce and prevent flea-related problems in our animals. Although fleas and other parasites may offend us, they play an important role in the Earth’s ecosystem and in Life’s processes. While there may be a time and place for chemical treatments, flea control strategies in nature typically aim at a balance and harmony without trying to ‘eliminate the enemy’.
Use Herbs to Deter Fleas
As only a small percentage of the flea population is on the animal host, it’s wise to pay special attention to their environment. Our aim as gardeners is to use herbs to help create an environment for animals that is unattractive to fleas.
Grow a variety of insect-repelling plants in your garden. Plant some in pots and, where possible, bring them into your living areas. Encourage birds in your garden especially insect-eaters that can help you keep the numbers of ticks and fleas in check.
Use a selection of safe herbs to create simple flea-repellent powders. Harvest the herbs from your garden, dry them thoroughly and grind them into a fine powder using a coffee grinder or an empty spice grinder. Sprinkle the powder around the home, on bedding, or anywhere that your animals spend a lot time. These aromatic herb powders can also be used directly on your pet’s coat and combed through.
Herb Sprays and Washes
A simple herb spray can be made using fresh or dried herbs. Add a cup of warm water to two teaspoons of herbs. Cover to prevent evaporation of the oils and let the tea stand to cool. When cool, strain out the herbs. The herbal tea can be used as a final rinse after shampooing, or to fill a spray bottle and use in the same way as the herbal powder. The spray can also be sprayed onto legs and paws before going for walks.
Fresh or dried herbs can be used to help repel fleas from the sleeping areas of animals. Fill an old sock or pillowcase with a selection of the flea-repellent herbs and place it in or near the area where your animals sleep. Remember always to give animals a choice and provide sleeping places without herbal pillows if they prefer.
The flea repelling effects of herbs used as a powder, spray or wash do not last very long. The volatile essential oils exert their effects for a couple of hours or perhaps a day or two. Herbal pillows may be useful for days or even weeks if filled with fresh, whole herbs. The beneficial effects of living herbs in an animal’s environment in pots or in the garden are ongoing.
Be aware of that Itch
An itchy skin can be associated with a variety of problems besides fleas. If your animal companion has an itchy skin, consult your family veterinarian for help on identifying the cause and implementing an appropriate treatment and prevention program. Many essential oils are toxic to cats. To be safe, avoid using essential oils and essential oil-containing herbs on cats. If in doubt, consult your family veterinarian.