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Prevent & kill fleas

By Michele Welton, Dog Trainer, Breed Selection Consultant, Author of 15 Dog Books


There are 5 things you can do to prevent or kill fleas:

  • Keep your dog healthy and strong.
  • Check your dog regularly with a flea comb.
  • Make your house flea-resistant.
  • Make your yard flea-resistant.
  • As a last resort, especially on a flea-allergic dog, use Frontline Plus, a topical drug.

Let's look at these one at a time.

1) Keep your dog strong and healthy.

Like all parasites, fleas tend to infest weaker dogs. So your first step in preventing fleas is to keep your dog strong and healthy by following the 11 steps in this free book.

  • For example, a diet comprised mainly of meat, especially with additional Omega 3 fatty acids, keeps his skin and hair healthy and flea-resistant.
  • Minimal vaccinations keeps his immune system "exercised" (which is healthy) but not "stressed" (which would be a magnet for parasites).
  • Providing a non-toxic environment protects his skin, eyes, nose, and respiratory system.

Dogs who are strong and healthy seem to resist and repel fleas better than dogs who are fed processed food, over-vaccinated, and living their daily life among chemicals.

2) Check your dog regularly with a flea comb.

Use a special, fine-toothed flea comb to comb through your dog's hair, especially when you come home from outings in fields or woods where fleas are known to be, or likely to be.

The teeth of a flea comb are very close together, so as you comb slowly through the hair, a flea will inevitably get caught against the teeth and can't escape. Quickly dunk the little bugger in a glass or bowl of soapy water to drown.

As you're combing through the coat, be alert for flea "waste." These black specks (resembling coffee grounds) are dried flea feces stuck to your dog's hair.

3) Make your house flea-resistant.


Frequent vacuuming, especially of carpets, baseboards, and upholstery (including between cushions) removes flea eggs and also flea waste (which contains blood) that flea larvae feed on. Remove their habitat and your home is less hospitable to fleas.

Sprinkle borate powder on carpets.

Sodium borate powder kills fleas by dehydrating them, drying out their skeletons until they perish. Popular borate products include Fleabusters and Flea Stoppers. Note that SODIUM borate powder is different from HYDROGEN borate or boric acid.

You work the very fine powder into your carpets with a push broom and leave it for a couple of days before vacuuming. The powder is so fine that particles remain deep in the carpet.

It can take 2-6 weeks for fleas to dehydrate and die. But it's usually effective and one application lasts up to a year.

Negatives? It's very messy to apply. The fine powder puffs out of the canister in clouds of white flour. Although skin contact is safe, inhaling it irritates the respiratory system. So wear a dust mask and goggles and remove your pets while applying it.

Fleabusters also has outlets across the country that will come to your home and do it for you, if you prefer.

Caution: 20 Mule Team Borax might also work. But it wasn't designed for either fleas or pets, and the company itself doesn't recommend using it as such.

Diatomaceous earth powder

Pronounced DIE-ya-toe-may-shus,  the name comes from the diatom,  an ancient aquatic organism. In lake and sea beds, the skeletons of millions of diatoms have fossilized into a soft sedimentary rock that's easily crumbled into a fine powder.

How does this powdery substance help with fleas? Diatomaceous earth (DE) has razor-sharp edges that scratch the outer layer of hard-bodied insects (like fleas, ants, and roaches) when they walk across it. Those insects dehydrate and die.

I have some concerns about DE. It can be effective, but if you get the wrong kind or use it improperly, it can cause health issues.

DE comes in food-grade, pest grade, and pool grade. All three grades contain amorphous silica, which is mostly harmless unless you get it in your eyes or nose. Then it's quite the irritant!

  • Pest grade DE adds chemicals to help attract insects into the powder.
  • Pool grade DE (used for pool filtration) is the most dangerous because it also contains crystalline silica, which causes serious lung disease.
  • Food grade is the only safe grade I recommend. But it's not easy to apply properly. If you apply too much (a visible layer), bugs simply walk around it or hop over. Too much powder also tends to puff up into the air when anyone walks past, causing inhalation issues or landing on your kitchen counters or electronics.

Another negative: the powder needs to stay completely dry, so if you wash your floors, you'll need to reapply it.

Flea traps

There are dozens of flea trap designs, most of which fail abysmally.

But there are two I like: the Victor M230 Flea Trap  and the BioCare Flea Trap  (also called Springstar S102 ). They cost less than $20 online, or from home and garden stores. You might try both to see which works better for you.

If you're handy, you can build your own and place them all over your house. Basically you want to combine a light source (which attracts the fleas) and a shallow dish or pie plate that the fleas can easily hop into.

For the light source, you can use a battery-powered LED "tea light candle." Tuck it inside a drinking glass and stand the glass/candle in the center of the plate.

In the shallow dish, you can put water plus a few tablespoons of Dawn dish soap. Or skip the water and lay down a sticky substance such as shampoo or cooking oil.

Wait until nighttime to set the traps, so the fleas will be more attracted to the light. The traps usually do best on the floor in high-traffic areas, but keep moving them around to find the best spots. Be sure your pets are kept out of the area or in their crates so they can't drink the water or stick their nose into the sticky stuff!

4) Make your yard flea-resistant.


Many of you may garden your yards to provide sanctuary for wildlife such as field mice, squirrels, chipmunks, skunks, opossums, and so on. I do, too.

Unfortunately, those animals are often infested with fleas, as are stray cats who wander through your yard.

So if you're determined not to have fleas, you either need to manicure your yard, or else treat it with some form of flea preventative. The problem, of course, is that flea preventatives are insecticides, and insecticides are almost always toxic to our pets.

Some owners use food-grade diatomaceous earth  in their yard. We talked about DE in the previous section. It can work, but its primary problem for outdoor use is that it must be dry to work. Whenever it rains, you need to re-apply it.

I recommend nematodes for your yard

Nematodes are teeny-tiny organisms that gobble up fleas (in all life stages), but are harmless to people, mammals, birds, aquatic life, reptiles, amphibians, and plants (even vegetables). They're also harmless to desirable garden dwellers such as earthworms, praying mantises, bees, and ladybugs.

I highly recommend nematodes.

Your soil already contains some of these organisms, so you're not introducing anything alien. You just need more of them to really make a dent in your flea population.

There are many different types of nematodes. The ones that prey on fleas are called Steinernema carpocapsae.

Where to buy nematodes

You can buy SC nematodes  at garden centers, but there's always a concern about how long they've been kept in storage, because they can die. If you open the sealed package and detect a fishy-like smell, a bunch of them have died.

I suggest ordering online from a reputable company such as Arbico Organics. You need about 5 million nematodes for 1600 square feet. Order at the beginning of spring.

When they arrive, either deploy them immediately, or store them in the fridge and deploy within 7 days. Spray them throughout your garden and expect results in a week or two.

5) Use Frontline Plus or Advantage.

If my dogs pick up a bunch of fleas,  rather than just a couple, a flea comb might not be enough to get them all, as fleas multiply so quickly. Or if a dog is allergic to fleas,  he might engage in frenzied scratching from a single bite. Allergic dogs can tear their skin open, leading to nasty infections.

That's when I apply a single dose of Frontline Plus or Advantage 2, which are flea-killing liquids available from pet stores. You squirt the liquid onto your dog's skin between his shoulder blades and it spreads across his body via the oil layer on his skin.

Frontline and Advantage work by disrupting a flea's nervous system, wiping out the little buggers within 24 hours. Just coming into contact with the dog's hair is enough to kill them. Frontline and Advantage also break the flea's life cycle, which helps prevent an infestation.

One application works for 4-6 weeks, assuming the flea population in your area isn't resistant to the ingredients.

Just as bacteria can become resistant to antibiotics, parasites can become resistant to the drugs in flea preventatives. If Frontline isn't working in your area, try Advantage, and vice versa.

Are these drugs safe? No, nothing intended to kill another living creature can really be called "safe". Keep in mind that the drug poisons the flea by poisoning the dog.  Yes, it sounds melodramatic, but in essence, that is what we're doing. We're putting the poison on the dog.

The most common side effect of Frontline or Advantage is a mild skin reaction. Far less common, but much more serious, are neurological side effects such as tremors, uncoordinated movement, or seizures.

Remember, this is a drug that attacks the central nervous system of the flea. So it's not a surprise that in rare cases, it might affect the central nervous system of the dog.

So why use it? Because I'm not convinced there's anything better or safer for those occasional instances when fleas break through my home- and yard-preventatives and either attack an allergic dog, or are too numerous to combat with a flea comb.

Competitors of Frontline Plus and Advantage

Unfortunately, my dogs experienced side effects from K9 Advantix and Revolution, so I no longer use those.

Newer competitors include chewables such as Nexgard, Bravecto, Simparica, and Credelio. I haven't tried these because I never  use brand new flea meds on my dogs. Manufacturers run their safety tests for only a few months. Who knows what long-term side effects will come to light in the coming years?

So I stick with the older tried-and-true Frontline Plus or Advantage. And remember, I don't use them as preventatives.  I use them as a rapid treatment on an occasional, as-needed basis.

Flea preventatives I DON'T recommend

With all of the effective flea control methods described above, there's really no reason to use any of these:

  • NO flea shampoos or dips
  • NO flea sprays or powders
  • NO flea collars
  • NO flea foggers

Herbal products

Even though I'm a big supporter of herbal medicine and use it for both my human and animal families, I have not had success with herbal products against fleas.

Some owners report success with pennyroyal and tea tree oil. I have friends and colleagues whose dogs suffered serious reactions to these herbs. The Merck Veterinary Manual lists tea tree oil as "especially risky" because it's so difficult to dilute safely for any given dog. Small dogs and cats are especially vulnerable to overdoses.

Essential oils (eucalyptus, citronella, cedarwood) are often touted as flea repellents, and they can be. Tthe problem is that it's frighteningly easy to overdose these oils if you actually put them on the dog, especially a small dog. Even if you don't actually put them on the dog's skin, they're still awfully strong-smelling for a dog's sensitive nose.

Always remember that natural  doesn't necessarily mean non-toxic!

Brewer's yeast and garlic

garlic Finally, garlic and brewer's yeast are sometimes considered flea repellents.

Unfortunately, current research suggests that yeast is hard for dogs to digest and can trigger allergies.

Garlic is dangerous to dogs in large quantities, but fine for dogs in small quantities. But I've had no success with it against fleas. They're tough and persistent little buggers!

Michele Welton with BuffyAbout the author: Michele Welton has over 40 years of experience as a Dog Trainer, Dog Breed Consultant, and founder of three Dog Training Centers. An expert researcher and author of 15 books about dogs, she loves helping people choose, train, and care for their dogs.

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