The market is brimming with products that treat and prevent flea and tick infestations naturally and safely.
Pet owners often figure out that their pets have been infested with parasites when they see them scratching excessively. They rush out to the store, grab a bottle of flea and tick shampoo, and often have their children give Fido his backyard flea bath. Problem solved. In recent years, however, pet owners have begun to scrutinize these products, concerned that they are exposing their pets, their families and themselves to potentially dangerous chemicals.
For many years, pesticidal products have relied on chemical compounds to get the job done. Organophosphates, carbamates, and organochlorines have been added to dips, shampoos, carpet powders and flea collars to battle these pesky creatures. They are popular choices because of the high efficacy rate: they kill the parasites. However, they can also have major side effects for pets and the humans applying them. This is why choosing a flea and tick treatment should be done with great care. These days, there are much safer botanical products available to battle external parasites.
First, let’s start with the flea. It is estimated that there are over 2,000 different species; however, the cat flea is the primary species that most commonly infests both dogs and cats. Luckily, these nasty critters don’t prefer to feed off of humans (but biting them is always an option).
Cat fleas have a four-stage lifecycle: egg, larvae, pupae and adulthood. These stages can continue for several months, depending upon conditions. The most interesting of these is the pupal stage, because the fleas-to-be hang out in their cocoons until they sense warmth or vibration, indicating a potential host. This creates a big challenge, because the pesticide needs to be able to kill the fleas in all four stages. If not, pet owners will have to use other supplemental products to decrease the chances of re-infestation.
Ticks, like spiders, are arthropods; they have eight legs. More than 850 species have been identified, and can be divided into two categories: hard ticks and soft ticks. Both types also have a four-stage life cycle: egg, larvae, nymph and adulthood. However, in soft ticks there can be several nymph stages until reaching adulthood. Generally, ticks are more difficult to kill than fleas. Many products will kill an adult tick, but have no effect on juvenile ticks or eggs.
The Dangers of Parasites
More than being just an inconvenience, fleas and ticks pose real danger. Fleas can cause tapeworm infestation, if swallowed (by pets or humans). They carry diseases (such as deadly bubonic plague), cause weakness, allergic skin reactions, anemia and even death in weaker animals, if left untreated. Ticks can transmit diseases such as Lyme disease, Rocky Mountain spotted fever and tick-borne meningoencephalitis, just to name a few. It’s easy to see why it’s vital to get rid of any infestations as quickly possible.
There are all sorts of flea and tick products on the market today that utilize various botanical oils: peppermint, cinnamon, geranium, tea tree, lemon grass, lavender, eucalyptus, clove, rosemary and thyme. Many have proven to be effective in the fight against parasites. However, it is important to mention that cats are highly sensitivity to essential oils, as they lack the ability to properly metabolize them. Since, during the self-grooming process, cats can ingest whatever treatment has been applied, careful selection is vital.
Another popular choice is neem, which is derived from the bark, leaves and oil of the neem tree. It is available as an oil, but also in a dried-leaf format, which is said to be much safer for use on cats when steeped into a tea-like solution.
By far, the most popular natural additives are pyrethrins and citrus-peel extracts.
Pyrethrins are the active ingredients found in Chrysanthemum flowers. These act as a neurotoxin, which disrupts the nerve function in insects when absorbed through their exoskeletons, causing paralysis and then death. While toxic to insects, pyrethrins are not toxic to mammals, unless used in large doses. The USDA’s stand on pyrethrin-containing compounds is that they are the safest of all insecticides for use in food crops. The only drawback is that since pyrethrins are neurotoxins, they are only effective on the adult flea; they will not kill eggs, larvae or pupae.
Due to a high demand for pyrethrins, scientists have mastered synthetically made pyrethrin compounds (called pyrethroids). These have proven to be even more effective and less toxic to mammals than the naturally occurring pyrethrins. Both the synthetic and natural forms can be found in various products on the market.
Extracted from citrus peels, d-limonene is used to make paint, cleaners and cosmetics, and to lend an orange scent to various products. As a botanical insecticide, d-limonene has been added to dips and shampoos to treat both fleas and ticks. Unlike pyrethrins, d-limonene will kill fleas in all stages of development, including the eggs. It kills by dissolving the waxy coating of an insect’s respiratory system; when applied directly, the insect actually suffocates.
Linalool is produced by over 200 species of plants, including the scented herbs and laurel family, as well as by citrus fruits. It is also a contact-poison and kills in the same manner as d-limonene. It is a popular choice for botanical carpet treatments, as it can kill fleas in all four stages of growth, and provides long-term prevention of re-infestation.
Better Safe Than Sorry
Unlike chemical pesticides, natural pyrethrins, synthetic pyrethroid and citrus products do not accumulate in the body and therefore can be used repeatedly. Botanicals, as with any insecticide, can cause problems in pets if overused; sensitivities and allergies can occur. Do not use on puppies or kittens under 12 weeks old without first consulting a veterinarian. Do the same with elderly, weak, pregnant or nursing pets, or if the animal is on any medication. Following the manufacturers’ directions and dosages is vital to prevent injury or toxicity.
How to Use Them
First, the animal should be rid of all parasites. A d-limonene bath or a pyrethrin dip are both great choices. Botanical flea and tick collars are available, as well as topically applied oil compounds to prevent future infestations. Remember, because these parasites can exist in a dormant state, it is important to also treat the pet’s environment. Pyrethrin foggers and linalool carpet powders can safeguard the indoor environment for several months, when used properly. And don’t forget the outdoors: keep grass cut short, and treat surroundings with a synthetic-pyrethrin spray concentrate.
Shannon Heggem NCMG, CKO, CMG is a dynamic pet business expert who has motivated thousands to take action. She is an internationallyrecognized grooming and boarding kennel expert, with a long list of accolades and certifications. She is the founder and drill sergeant of the newly launched groomingbootcamp.com, and recently opened the Australian Grooming School in Queensland, Australia. She also works as a consultant to pet professionals, helping the overwhelmed and overworked get focused, organized and more productive in their pet care businesses. Subscribe to Shannon’s free e-zine “Words to Wag By” at