In The Battle of Cats Versus Fleas
by Joëlle Steele
Fleas have been plaguing man and animal alike for the past 40 million years. Ancient writings document the many remedies that have been used to combat these blood-thirsty intruders because anyone who has ever been bitten by one can easily appreciate how much suffering just one flea can produce. Imagine how your cat feels having the capacity to accommodate 100 or more fleas on his body at any given time!
Besides the bites themselves, some cats are also hypersensitive to the flea saliva which can cause more intense itching or other allergic skin reactions. Since they may also ingest up to half of the fleas during the grooming process, the tapeworm (which uses the flea as an intermediate host), gets into their digestive tracts.
And, as if the pain and discomfort to your and your cat are not enough, there is the gritty mess (flea eggs and feces), which are fall from your cat's body all over your furniture. You have got to do something to combat these tiny tormenters — and fast.
KNOW YOUR ENEMY
The first step in the battle against fleas is to understand what makes them tick. That enables you to know the weak spots in their defenses and take the proper steps to eradicate them. The common cat flea, Ctenocephalides felis, spends most of its life off the cat, but, is capable of spending surviving and reproducing on the cat for at least 100 days or more. They mate on the cat and a single female flea can lay more than 1,000 eggs in a one month period. The eggs quickly fall off the cat and into your carpets and furniture where they incubate for from two to twelve days. After that, they hatch into tiny larva, complete with jaws, which they use to feed on the small debris in your carpets and upholstery.
The larvae stage can last from as little as one to three weeks to as long as a year or two depending on environmental conditions, and during that time they molt three times and then spin a cocoon. After as little as a week or as long as a year, they leave the cocoon as adult fleas. The more ideal the environmental conditions (i.e., warm and moist), the faster the evolution from egg to adult. The newly hatched adult flea does not require immediate feeding. It can go without food for several weeks, but once it does begin feeding, it must continue to eat or it will die within 48 hours after stopping.
Adult fleas have sharp notched mouth parts that break the skin to make an opening for the tube they use to withdraw the blood from their victims. They are acutely sensitive to changes in temperature, light, movement, air, and moisture, and to find a human or animal to bite, they distinguish changes in the carbon dioxide levels around them. They usually end up living and feeding on the warmest and most vulnerable areas of the cat's body: the groin, the neck, and the areas around the tail and hindquarters.
Since the life span of a flea is about a year, these highly sensitive and prolific pests can cause a great deal of aggravation and steps must be taken to prevent their infestation in the first place and to eliminate and deter them if they once appear.
NATURAL FLEA CONTROL
We humans have become more aware of our environment in recent years. We have begun to look for gentle, natural alternatives to the harsh, man-made products of yesteryear. We are more conscious of ourselves as more than just the sum total of our anatomical parts. We recognize the relationships between the products we use and how we feel, and what we do and how it affects our world. It seems only fitting that we should apply that same awareness to the selection of an appropriate flea control program for our feline companions.
All cats are different. Some young kittens are hardy and resistant to fleas while others become smothered in fleas to the point of becoming apathetic. Elderly felines can be especially susceptible to these parasites. Certain breeds seem to attract fleas while others do not. The animal's constitution is therefore quite important. To deter fleas in the first place, keep your cat healthy by feeding him a nutritious diet supplemented with brewers yeast and a small pinch of garlic no more than two to three times a week. Give him plenty of sunshine, fresh air, and exercise. Groom him with a flea comb regularly and give him a bath or two if necessary. If possible, keep him indoors.
The environment, the indoor one in particular, is already highly polluted from the emissions of all the chemicals used in paints, carpeting, and other household furnishings. In fact, experts believe that some indoor environments may have air that is twice as polluted as that of the surrounding outdoors. Adding more pollutants in the form of commercial pesticides is just making an already unpleasant situation much worse.
Keeping your home very clean by vacuuming regularly (which removes at least half the eggs in your carpets and upholstery), and emptying the bag into the outside trash far away from your house is one important step. Keep your bedding and that of your cat immaculately clean by washing it often in hot water. Last, but not least, use natural flea control preventatives to eliminate the need for so many harmful chemicals.
The war against fleas is ongoing and will never end. The best you can hope for is an old-fashioned stand-off. Your best defense is to exercise preventive measures at the earliest possible moment before flea season begins in your area and the little pests invade your home and set up housekeeping. They are at their most vulnerable in their larval stage when they are living in your carpet. Mount your best natural defense whether it's powders or repellents and be a relentless warrior — if you aren't, they will surely win the battle.
A NON-TOXIC FLEA CONTROL THAT REALLY WORKS
Just because something is made for a cat does not mean it is good for a cat or even safe for a cat. Flea collars, dips, and shampoos are ineffective and dangerous. They subject cats to highly toxic pesticides which can cause irritation to the skin, and to the mucous membranes of the eyes, nose, and throat. Sprays and foggers (a.k.a. "bombs") offer solutions to major infestations, but prevention is the best measure. If you have fogged and eliminated fleas and their eggs and larva, use preventative solutions to slow down or stop reinfestation. Get the fleas where they live — in your rugs and upholstered furniture. And, do it safely with non-irritating, non-toxic substances that really work. But remember, if your cat is an outdoor cat or your have a dog that goes outdoors, you may always have a flea problem, and in those cases, you may very well need to resort to stronger chemical measures, at least on occasion.
My home-made flea preventative consists of a combination of easily obtainable, edible, and extremely inexpensive ingredients: 50% natural diatom dust, 25% baking soda, and 25% cornstarch. Diatom dust is readily available at garden centers and is also known as diatomaceous earth. (Do not use the kind that is for swimming pools.) But this is a preventative only, not a solution if you already have a flea infestation.
It takes about four or five cups to do an average size bedroom. I vacuum everything thoroughly and empty the vacuum bag into the trash outdoors. Then I sprinkle the powder very heavily, (especially on the first application), onto the carpets and rub it in with my foot or with a push broom. I also apply it between the mattress and box springs, and into the sofa and other upholstered furnishings. I always try to apply it just before flea season so that I don't have to deal with fleas at all. The first time I use this method and in any particularly heavy flea years, I do two very heavy applications a month or so apart. If your pets are indoor/outdoor types, you may need to apply more frequently (every six weeks or so) since they will be bringing new fleas in all the time, which is just another good reason to keep your cats indoors and avoid the problem entirely.
To understand how this powder mixture works, you have to know a little bit about the flea's development cycle. Fleas hatch as minute larva which eventually spin cocoons out of which they emerge as adult fleas. Diatom dust, baking soda, and cornstarch are drying substances which dehydrate the flea while it is still in its larval stage, making it impossible for the fleas to reach adulthood, the stage at which they feast on you and your cat.
For many years I used a home-made flea preventative in the 18 unit apartment building I managed. There were over a dozen cats in that beachfront building and fleas used to be a major problem. Bombs were good for killing fleas in an infestation, but they didn't help prevent the return of fleas. And, most of my tenants were very health-conscious and concerned about the safety of their feline friends, so flea collars, dips, and shampoos were out. I was desperate to find a solution that worked. After much research and experimentation, I finally found such a solution, have used it successfully, and have not had a flea problem since.
OTHER NATURAL FLEA CONTROL METHODS
Do these methods work? The people who use them swear by them. Try them and judge for yourself.
• Soap-in-a-bowl. Fill a pie pan with water and liquid detergent. Light the pan with a gooseneck lamp in a dark room. Fleas are attracted and get trapped in the soapy water come morning.
• Herbal flea collars. These usually contain insect-repellent herbal oils which can be recharged with the oils and used again.
• Lemon juice. Dilute the lemon juice with water and apply to the flea-affected areas on your cat.
• Herbal repellents. Crush dried leaves and flowers of any of the following or combine them as you see fit: black alder, eucalyptus, laurel, rue, winter savory, marigolds, rosemary, wormwood, pennyroyal, citronella, and tobacco powder. Sprinkle them in your cat's bed and in your rugs and furniture as well.
• Dusting compounds. Combine any or all of the following in various proportions of your choice: diatomaceous earth, baking soda, cornstarch, and sodium polyborate. Sprinkle the powder heavily into carpets, upholstery, bedding, etc. Rub it into the fabric and vacuum up the excess about a week or so later. Apply just before flea season starts and then apply again a few weeks into the season. If you cats are indoor/outdoor, apply every six to eight weeks. These powders are harmless to humans and animals but they dehydrate and kill the flea in its larval stage.
• Herbal dust compounds. These are combinations of herbal repellents and dusting compounds. Pick and choose, mix and match until you find the ones that work for you.
• Food additives. Add four to six drops of apple cider vinegar to your cat's water dish. Supplement their diet with brewers yeast and no more than a tiny pinch of garlic two to three times per week.
EVEN "NATURAL" CAN BE DANGEROUS
Just because a product is derived from a natural substance does not make it 100% safe. Some of these compounds can be dangerous according to Dr. Richard H. Pitcairn in his "Complete Guide to Natural Health for Dogs and Cats":
• Arecoline hydrobromide used in tapeworm control is the active ingredient in the areca nut, an Oriental remedy for worms. It can cause vomiting and is not considered safe for use with cats.
• Rotenone and cube resins are derived from certain kinds of legumes and are often found in commercial flea treatments such as shampoos, dips, and powders. These substances cause vomiting and are toxic to most animals, cats included.
• Pyrethrins are derived from chrysanthemum flowers and are used in sprays, shampoos, sprays and dips. They act very rapidly on insects but frequent applications are necessary for thorough eradication. Although they are considered the least toxic of all insecticides, the necessity for frequent application means increased exposure.
CHEMICAL FLEA TREATMENTS
Not everyone is prepared to experiment with all the different natural methods of flea control. Many synthetic chemical preparations are available in sprays, powders, shampoos, dips, etc. Most of them work quickly at eradicating fleas. But, commercial flea control products have also been known to produce skin irritations, hair loss, irritations of the digestive tract, and a host of neurological symptoms. At their most toxic concentrations, they can cause slow and painful deaths.
Two common kinds of chemicals found in insecticides are organochlorines and carbamates. Organochlorines such as DDT, DDE, aldrin, dieldrin, and chlordane are currently banned or restricted. Others such as lindane, toxaphene, paradichlorobenzene, and dichlorophene are still used in some products. Organochlorines are retained in the tissues and the environment and so can result in a built-up resistance to the poison. Symptoms of toxicity include exaggerated heightening of the senses which may be followed by spasms, tremors, or even seizures, and sometimes death.
Carbamates such as carbaryl and Sevin, and Organophosphates such as diazinon, malathion, and parathion are the cause of most insecticide-related animal deaths. They are found in collars, dips, powders, sprays, and even some worming medications. Signs of toxicity include overproduction of saliva; muscle twitching, rigidity, or paralysis; involuntary defecation or diarrhea; slowed heartbeat and breathing; vomiting; watery eyes with contracted pupils; and, hyperactivity.
Notice that many of these products have labels which warn "avoid contact with skin," "wear protective gloves," "keep out of eyes," "avoid inhaling fumes," and "use in well-ventilated area." These should alert you to just how dangerous they really are.
TIPS ON USING COMMERCIAL INSECTICIDES
If you must use a commercial insecticide to control a flea infestation:
• Do not combine different ones or use them simultaneously without first consulting your agriculture department's pest control licensing division or the product manufacturer.
• Do not use more than the label recommends. With insecticides, more is almost never better and can, in fact, prove fatal.
• Check with your veterinarian before using any chemicals if you have a cat who is ill, elderly, or has any previous history of allergic or other reaction to chemicals.
• Hire only an individual who is licensed as a pest control applicator/operator by your local department of agriculture if you have your home or lawn sprayed.
• Be sure every living person and pet, including fish, birds, hamsters, etc., are out of the house if you spray anything or use a chemical flea fogger, and do not return them to the environment until the house is fully aired out (this usually takes about an hour with all the windows open).
This article last updated: 01/16/2012.
The articles on this Web site are informational only and are not intended to be a substitute for professional veterinary advice or treatment. Cats are not "one size fits all." They are different in terms of breed, age, health, lifestyle, and tolerance for different foods and other substances.