Once upon a time, there was no Advantage, no Frontline, no Revolution or Comfortis or Advantix or any of the myriad of persistent topical or oral-to-skin pesticides for pets.
Fleas were much harder to combat in those days, and those pet owners who were determined to win the flea war usually resorted to whole-house flea bombs, which permeated every nook and cranny of the home with a cloud of pesticide. Flea collars -- little rings of pesticide-impregnated plastic that pets wore 24/7 -- were the norm, as were pesticide shampoos, sprays and powders.
Certainly the dawn of the persistent topicals and oral drugs designed to migrate pesticides to the skin was an improvement over those days. And because they're so easy, most people used them, and dogs with big patches of raw skin above the base of their tails from flea allergies became rare or even non-existent.
But in the last few years, pet owners have started muttering that these products, particularly the topicals, just don't seem to be doing the job anymore. Maybe they're just using the products wrong. Maybe they're using counterfeit product bought over the Internet. Or maybe, just maybe, fleas are becoming resistant to these miracle substances -- even though that's disputed by most experts.
Whatever the reality, there are people who for some reason either don't want to use persistent topical pesticides, or believe they don't work, or haven't had the luck with them they'd hoped.
I was once a flea-bomber, but long before the first topicals hit the market, I'd found a better way to fight fleas. It's not particularly easy, although once you get the hang of it, it's really not that hard (sort of like home feeding, really). So for those who are looking for something else to try, this is how I beat the flea -- naturally.
First, all my indoor/outdoor cats (this was a long time ago) had terrible flea problems until the day I started feeding a homemade diet, at which time their fleas vanished. You can tell me that's unscientific or even impossible, but all I can say is, it happened. They not only looked shinier and fluffier, with brighter eyes and sweeter breath and better-smelling litter boxes, but they stopped having fleas.
Make of it what you will, but I urge everyone who is trying to combat fleas to at least try to feed your pets a homemade diet and see what happens.
Now, if your home is infested with fleas, changing your pets' diet isn't going to be enough. And while my own cats lost their fleas with a diet change, I've known a number of people who continued to have flea problems regardless of diet. And you may just not be ready or willing to make that change.
So here are the steps I recommend to fight fleas:
One, bathe your pet. You don't need to use a shampoo with pesticides. Just use a shampoo formulated for cats or dogs.
Start at the pet's neck. Wet the area thoroughly, by which I mean make it sopping wet. Apply a generous palm full of shampoo, and, adding more water if necessary, work it up into the biggest fluffiest collar of suds you can. Make sure to work it down into the fur so it's in contact with the skin.
Then put little rings or blobs of suds on or around the pet's eyes, mouth, ears, anus, vulva, and urethra. This is to prevent fleas from fleeing to "dry land" when you shampoo the rest of the body.
Now you can wet your entire pet, and, again using liberal amounts of shampoo, work him up into a big heap of suds. Then wait 5 minutes or so while the fleas all drown.
Rinse until the water runs clear and there's no sign of soap -- or fleas -- in the run-off.
Only once did I have to repeat this process, for a dog I rescued from a backyard kennel who had so many fleas he turned out to be anemic. But you can do it a second time if it makes you feel better.
Before letting your pets back into your home, you're going to need to make sure it's flea-free, too.
Start out with a thorough cleaning. Wash everything that's washable -- dog bed covers, throw rugs, slipcovers, bedding -- everything.
Vacuum thoroughly, then seal the vacuum bag in a plastic bag, taped shut, and dispose of it.
If you have a true steam cleaner, it will kill all stages of the flea life cycle, including eggs, if they come in contact with the steam. Use it on hard surfaces, upholstery, wall-to-wall carpeting, and any other surface that can't be laundered -- including your mattress and pillows.
If you don't have a steam cleaner, vacuum all upholstery and surfaces as deeply as you can -- and consider getting one. Just make sure it creates true high-temperature steam, and not just hot soapy water. You want steam, like the stuff that comes out of an espresso maker.
For the next week, vacuum every day, and safely dispose of the bag as soon as you're done. Don't skip this step!
If you find that doesn't do the trick -- and if you have indoor/outdoor cats, it probably won't -- you can kick it up a notch.
Spray the house with a product containing the insect growth regulator methoprene, which is essentially non-toxic to mammals but prevents juvenile fleas from ever maturing into the adult biting stage. Unable to reproduce or mature, they'll die. The effect lasts around 7 months, but I've never heard of anyone who ever needed to re-apply after getting rid of an initial infestation.
Consider a powder like Fleabusters, which deyhdrates and kills fleas in all their life stages -- including eggs. Some people have concerns about the product's safety with cats, or dogs who might lick the powder up. All I can say is that I never had a problem with it. You'll have to decide for yourself if you're comfortable with the product.
You can purchase and apply the Fleabusters powder yourself, but if you have the company do it, they apply it with a water mist that cuts down on dust. They also work it much deeper into carpets and hardwood cracks than you're likely to be able to do. If you can afford it and are planning on using this powder, I recommend letting the company do it.
However, if you've used the methoprene and vacuum like a maniac for a week or so, that will probably be enough.
If you really want to go all the way, think about getting rid of any wall-to-wall carpeting in your home. It's full of bacteria, mold, mildew, fungus, dust mite feces and all kinds of allergens and dirt. It's impossible to clean, unlike hard floors, and can't be taken up, shaken out, and exposed to sun and the occasional deep professional cleaning like area rugs can. So to control fleas and improve your indoor air quality, lose the wall-to-wall.
I used to treat my garden with nematodes that killed immature fleas in the soil, but when I moved to the country, treating acres instead of square feet was daunting. However, nematode sprays come in small batches marketed specifically for pets as well as in formulations for bulk application to acreage. (The nematodes target some agricultural petsts as well.)
However, their efficacy varies wildly depending on amount of moisture in the soil, soil type, and other factors. They're very effective in cool, wet climates and times of year, such as coastal northern California where I live, but not so effective in places like Florida, which suffer from some of the worst flea problems in the country.
That's what worked for me back in the day. Any other oldtimers here who had luck with non-toxic or at least less toxic flea treatments? Share them in the comments!