Photographed by Shirley Bittner
Last fall, after a routine visit to the groomer, I was surprised to learn that Lucky Charms, my eight-year-old Shih Tzu had fleas! Having lived through a lice infestation in my teens, the thought of playing host to another parasite made my skin crawl. I swiftly started my research about how to get rid of the itty-bitty pests and make sure they never came back!


First, the basics. Fleas are small wingless insects adapted to feeding on the blood of their host. While different species of fleas will specialize as parasites on specific warm-blooded vertebrates, including dogs, cats, and humans, they may use other mammals as a host as well.
Fleas are a nuisance for many reasons. Their bites cause an itching sensation which can remain itchy and inflamed for up to several weeks. Some animals may even suffer allergic reasons to flea saliva and develop flea bite dermatitis – a skin condition causing extreme itchiness, thickening of the skin and skin lesions. In other animals, however, the only way to spot a flea infestation is by noticing dark specks in their coat or the fleas themselves. (If these specks are indeed flea droppings, they will “bleed” red when placed on a damp paper towel, if they don’t, the specks are most likely just dirt).

According to the Companion Animal Parasite Council, broad spectrum parasite control should be administered year round to protect against all parasites, not just fleas. Methods of parasite control include, shampoos, dips, powders, sprays, and oral medications, however, the most popular and vet recommended are Advantage and Frontline — monthly topical applications for both dogs and cats. While effective, the active ingredients in these therapies are insecticides, which can leave behind a high chemical residue or be absorbed into the animal’s subcutaneous fat layer. Meanwhile, labels on these therapies warm no to get these substances on your skin, to wash your hands and to keep away from children.

Photographed by Shirley Bittner

For this reason, natural flea remedies are becoming quite popular alternatives to the conventional treatments. Natural and organic sprays, shampoos and collars are available on the market; although , contrary to what the label might say, these may not always be 100% natural. Instead, the easiest and cheapest way to repel fleas is to use what nature has given us. Research conducted in 2003 and 2004 by Cheryl Lans examined three natural treatments for flea problems. 

At the first sight of fleas, pets were soaked with a strained infusion of two cups of packed lemon balm, one cup of boiling water and four cups of warm water, left to steep for 30 minutes, then allowed to air dry. This treatment was repeated twice a week. Diatomaceous earth was also sprinkled on the pet’s skin. This fossilized algae has physico-sorptive properties which cause the fleas to dehydrate and die. Lastly, a spritzer was made with a strained concoction of citrus peels in one cup of water steeped overnight and also allowed to air dry. Lans’ study concludes that all methods were effective in controlling fleas.

While pet parents are left to decide on the best action plan to prevent, treat and control fleas, both conventional and holistic wisdoms agree that the best way to protect your pet against fleas is keeping them and their environment healthy. This begins with a thorough cleaning of your home. Pet’s bedding should also be washed and tumble dried weekly. Lans adds that leaving fresh crushed lavender stems in the bedding also repels fleas.

When it comes to the health of your pet, optimal nutrition is essential. To repair unhealthy skin feed your pet a proper diet. Frequent grooming is also important as it allows you to keep an eye on the condition of your pet’s coat and skin, not to mention you can catch those pesky parasites before they become an infestation.

As always, when it comes to the health of your pet, communicate with your veterinarian. In Lucky’s experience, that one and only flea bath she had at the groomers took care of her flea problem. Currently she enjoys weekly baths as well as a weekly citrus peel spritz. Fleas now cower at the sheer thought of invading our home, and Lady Luck smells nice too!

By Krystine McKinnon