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Making Fleas Flee - Getting Rid of Fleas Safely

By HHI Staff

Fleas can be extremely irritating, and their infestations can sometimes be difficult to eliminate. Although it may take persistence, fleas can often be controlled without resorting to powerful synthetic organic chemicals.

Flea Traits

If you own a pet, especially a cat or dog that is allowed both indoors and out, fleas can become a problem in your home—particularly in hot seasons, or year-round warm climates. When you spot what’s been termed “salt and pepper” around your pet’s bedding, it’s likely that a flea infestation is already in full swing. You see, the “salt” grains are white flea eggs and the “pepper” particles are bits of dried blood.


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Fleas are tiny (4/100–16/100" long), wingless, bloodsucking insects. The adults are equipped with powerful back legs for leaping. Fleas are common parasites on warm-blooded animals. Dog fleas are similar, but slightly larger, than cat fleas. No matter what kind of fleas they are, they can infest your pet’s bedding, as well as your carpets, rugs, and furniture.


Adult fleas actually bite their host, seeking blood. After an adult female has consumed blood, she’ll often lay eggs (usually less than ten) on or near the puncture site. The dried blood provides meals for the soon-to-hatch larvae. While this sounds like a rather small scale attack, it’s been estimated that a single adult female flea has the potential to produce 160,000 offspring in just over two months!


Most people who are bitten by fleas find it irritating and soon develop small red bumps. However, some individuals experience an allergic reaction, in which swelling and other symptoms result. In addition, some human diseases can be transmitted by certain types of fleas. For example, the bacterial toxin causing bubonic plague was transmitted by rodent fleas. Thankfully, the flea species associated with dogs and cats usually aren’t transmitters of human diseases.

Flea Control through Special Pet Care

To minimize flea problems in your home, there are several measures you may want to try. If you’re interested in using herbal pet preparations, the book, Natural Insect Repellents: For Pets, People, & Plants by Janette Grainger and Connie Moore may be of interest. It may be available in your local library.

Using Flea Combs to Control Fleas

A good anti-flea method is to regularly comb your cats and dogs with a specialized flea comb. These combs are designed with very small teeth that are so close together that, when you pull it through your pet’s fur, the fleas will be filtered out and caught. (With very long fur, using a flea comb can be somewhat difficult.) Then, using your fingernail, you can push the fleas off the comb into a dish of soapy water to quickly kill them. To buy a flea comb, check with local pet shops, pet supply stores, or your veterinarian.


Another method to help reduce flea infestations is to regularly vacuum your pets using a special dog and cat grooming attachment. These are sometimes sold by larger pet supply stores. It’s also a good idea to vacuum your floors and furnishings frequently, especially during peak flea seasons. Vacuuming is extremely important around your pet’s sleeping area. In addition, wash your pet’s bed regularly. When fleas are at their worst, you might even have your pet sleep on old towels, which you could clean daily if necessary.

Using Herbal Repellents to Control Fleas

Some people have also tried using a variety of herbal treatments and aromatic woods (such as cedar) as flea repellents. Sometimes these are in the form of shampoos, skin preparations, or dried material used in bedding. Although some of these may be of questionable value against fleas, the essential oils of eucalyptus (a tree in the myrtle family originally from Australia) and pennyroyal (a perennial herb of the mint family) apparently can be fairly effective. Unfortunately, some sensitive individuals may find that their pronounced odor is too bothersome.


If you’re interested in herbal anti-flea preparations, check with your veterinarian or pet-supply store to find out what they have available.

Using Insect Growth Regulators Against Fleas

A flea-control tactic that has gained popularity lately is the use of insect growth regulators or IGRs. Generally, with this approach a veterinarian may prescribe pills or drops for you to administer to your pet, or a compound to put on your pet’s food. Once in the pet’s system, the IGR compound becomes stored in the animal’s fat and is slowly released into the bloodstream. Then, whenever a female flea bites your pet, she inadvertently ingests the medication. Once in her system, the IGR rapidly travels to her ovaries and alters her eggs.


Because the female flea isn’t otherwise affected, she lays her eggs even though they are altered. The eggs are not dead; in fact they appear normal, and the fleas inside these eggs develop and get ready to hatch. However, because of their exposure to IGR, they lack their normal “egg teeth” to break free of their eggs. So, they never hatch. As another plus, any live molting flea larvae soon die after eating the IGR-tainted blood. Drawbacks to using an IGR include the fact that your pet will require a veterinary visit, and the treatment will need some time to become effective—time to build up to sufficient levels in the pet’s system, and time to kill live hatching eggs and larvae. Another problem is that all female fleas in your house must bite a treated pet in order to produce mutated offspring. If the fleas bite untreated pets, pets whose blood levels haven’t yet gotten a high enough IGR concentration, or if they bite humans, then they and their offspring will not be affected, and the infestation will continue. If you’re interested in using an IGR product with your pet, talk with your veterinarian for his (or her) recommendation and, specific product warnings, if any.

Using Borate Compounds Against Fleas

Products made of both powdered acidic and alkaline borate compounds (the combination creates a neutral pH) can be helpful. The formula dissolves easily in water, and it impregnates carpet fibers when used in an extraction-type carpet cleaning unit. The product can be sprayed on with a pump sprayer.

Manufacturers suggest mixing 1 cup in 1 gallon of carpet-cleaning water/detergent solution. Wearing waterproof household gloves is a good idea. Once mixed, simply clean your carpets as usual.


During the cleaning process, borate compounds are forced deep into the carpet fibers and bond with them. (They can’t even be vacuumed up in most cases.) At the same time, the deep cleaning removes flea eggs, dried blood particles (flea food), flea larvae, and adult fleas. Any remaining dried blood becomes saturated with borate and will kill larvae before they have a chance to become breeding adults.


When reviewed by the California EPA, “toxicity registered so low as to have an insignificant exposure risk associated with application.” However while this, and most other borate-based products, are generally much safer than typical pesticides, make sure to store any unmixed powder in such a way that children and pets will not have access to it.

Using Diatomaceous Earth Against Fleas

Still another option for flea control is to use naturally mined diatomaceous earth (DE) that has not been heat-treated. This powdery material consists of the silica-containing cell walls of millions of ancient diatoms (microscopic water algae). Some people suggest that you should simply sprinkle a small amount of DE directly on your pets so that any fleas and eggs present on them will dry up and die. However, others feel that if you do this, it’ll also cause an unhealthy drying of your pet’s skin. It could also cause respiratory irritation in susceptible animals if they inhale it.


Therefore, a better approach might be to sprinkle DE around your yard or even on your indoor carpeting. If you decide to go ahead and apply it to your carpets, place a tiny amount onto the carpet, dip a broom into it, and then work the pile across the entire room. Just five ounces should be enough to do as much as 1,000 square feet. While it’s supposedly safe to walk on the carpet, it’s probably best to leave it undisturbed for 48 hours. After that, you should vacuum thoroughly to remove any remaining diatomaceous earth and dead fleas. To treat your backyard, you can make a solution of 1 part diatomaceous earth in 4 parts water and put it in a yard pump sprayer, and then apply it.


It should be noted there are human-health concerns that have been associated with using diatomaceous earth. For example, it is often advised not to use heat-treated DE—it apparently has a much greater potential to produce lung diseases such as silicosis. (This is a serious lung condition brought on by breathing silica particulates.) Even when using DE that hasn’t been heat-treated, it’s best to wear a protective dust mask. Of course, those with asthma or other respiratory problems should probably avoid using this product. All DE should be stored so children and pets do not have access to it.

Using Pyrethrum Powder Against Fleas

Pyrethrum powder is sometimes used to counter flea infestations. Usually, it’s applied directly to the animal. However, it should be noted that some people feel that pyrethrum may be too active an agent to be applied to pets directly. Those who feel it’s quite safe obviously disagree. In any case, the pyrethrum will quickly break down when sunlight reaches it. So, it will probably be inert by the next day. It you do use it (asthmatics are advised not to), wear an effective dust mask. Of course, you’ll want to store the product so no children or pets get into it.


A procedure with pyrethrum powder that you might try is to place a very tiny amount on the back of your pet and work it into the fur. You can also work a very small amount onto your pet’s bed. Be aware that if pyrethrum powder gets on your carpet or rug and it should get wet before being vacuumed up, it has the potential to leave a stain.

Other Simple Flea-Control Methods

Sometimes cutting your lawn short and keeping it that way will lessen flea problems for your pets, and ultimately inside your home. Interestingly, a very simple flea-killing method is to carefully suspend a lit low-wattage light bulb 6–12" directly above a pan of water indoors at night. (You could also use a sheet of sticky insect paper instead of the bowl of water.) Ideally, this should be near a flea-infestation site in your home. When you do this, it’s best to have your pets elsewhere. The fleas will be attracted to the warmth of the light, especially if the warmth of your pet’s body is not around. As the fleas jump toward the light, they’ll land in the water and drown (or get stuck on the gluey paper). Flea light traps are commonly sold in local pet-supply stores.


Another simple anti-flea approach that’s widely advertised is using high-pitched sound to ward off fleas. The electronically induced ultrasound is above the hearing range of humans and most pets, but not that of fleas, etc. The noise is supposedly disturbing to fleas (and other insects), so they stay away. Unfortunately, research has shown that ultrasonic flea repellents simply don’t work. Again, check with local pet shops and pet-supply stores if you’re still interested in trying them.


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Making Fleas Flee - Getting Rid of Fleas Safely:  Created on November 24th, 2007.  Last Modified on June 3rd, 2014


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