Tough critters, fleas. These tiny pests can live for months without eating, jump 50 to 100 times their height, and helped wipe out one-fourth the population of 14th-century Europe.
Like many of the earth's creatures, fleas find the living lush and easy in the summertime. But it's less than lovely for pets who are dutifully bombarded with a ritual dousing, powdering and collaring of the very latest—and usually strongest—chemical created to fight the flea wars.
DDT (now banned) and chlordane (limited use) are two that tried and failed. Like many varieties of crop pests, fleas surviving the treatment became resistant to the insecticides.
"The problem is that most dogs and cats can't develop resistance as fast as fleas can," says Dr. Richard Pitcairn, a Eugene, Oregon, veterinarian. "Companies are always having to come up with products more powerful than the last." Unfortunately, many of these products induce side effects, in the owner as well as the pet—which makes finding and using non-toxic flea control methods more important than ever.
Hartz Mountain pulled the flea spray Blockade from stores in 1987, after the Illinois Animal Poison Information Center (a national poison center) received 560 consumer complaints about the product—a reported 46 cats and dogs died after being sprayed. Blockade was reintroduced in 1989. In addition, many long-term pet ailments, such as kidney and liver diseases, cancer and constant hyperactivity, are increasingly suspected to be the result of frequent chemical dousing, and—even more dangerous—the combined use of several such products at once, according to research at People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), in Washington, D.C.
More immediate effects of chemical poisoning, according to PETA, are foaming at the mouth, vomiting, muscle tremors, breathing difficulties, hyperactivity and lack of coordination. If your recently treated pet shows any of these symptoms, immediately wash the product off and call your veterinarian.
Fortunately, there are more benign, non-toxic treatments available. PETA offers these tips for safer flea control:
1. Groom daily with flea combs. These metal combs with tiny teeth are available in most pet stores. Drop fleas in warm soapy water and flush down the toilet.
2. Dust with diatomaceous earth, an organic powder sold at garden stores. It will kill flea larvae and is nontoxic.
3. Feed pets a nutritious, well-rounded diet (for more on this subject, see Pet Health Problems). Fleas tend to prey on sick or malnourished animals.
4. Sprinkle flea powder or mothballs in your vacuum bag and vacuum often: Fleas die in the bag. Just be sure to dispose of the bags regularly and carefully.
5. Eucalyptus oil massaged into the animal's skin, as well as herbal shampoos (available in pet stores), helps to repel fleas. (Do not use on animals with raw skin or open sores).
6. A little brewer's yeast or garlic added to a pet's dinner bowl is also thought to be effective in repelling fleas, although hard evidence on this has yet to be presented.
7. Fill your pet's bedding with cedar chips.
8. Finally, begin these treatments before flea season and keep at them before resorting to the more toxic measures.
Bio-Integral Resources Center, an Integrated Pest Management (IPM) research and resource center in Berkeley, California, recommends the following steps for controlling fleas:
1. Establish one sleeping area for pets; choose a spot that can be cleaned easily.
2. Regularly vacuum areas frequented by pets.
3. Regularly wash all bedding to which pets have access.
4. Use a flea comb regularly.
5. If you must resort to putting a flea collar on your pet, do so for brief periods only; then store in an airtight bag when not in use.
6. If chemical pesticides are used, protect yourself (with gloves, adequate airflow, etc.) and use for a short amount of time.
"Insecticides are meant to do the job alone," Dr. Pitcairn says. "They're strong, but then you get the trade-off of toxicity. Sanitation, flea combs, herbal mixes—all in combination with a healthy, nutritious diet—should take care of much of the problem."