Q Our cat, Frodo, has been scratching a lot and was diagnosed with miliary dermatitis as a result of fleas. We also have two dogs. Can you suggest some natural remedies? We are concerned about using pharmaceutical and chemical preparations all the time.
T.S., via email
A Fleas, particularly the dog and cat flea (Ctenocephalides canis and C. felis), are a common annoyance for pets and their owners. These dark brown 'ectoparasites'—parasites that live on the skin of their host—produce droppings resembling charcoal dust ('flea dirt')that can be seen when you part your pet's fur.
Like Frodo, almost all cats diagnosed with miliary dermatitis—a general term used to describe a skin condition caused by an allergic reaction—actually have flea-induced allergic dermatitis.
Warm, humid weather is ideal for fleas. Because of modern central heating, fleas can survive year-round, but they tend to peak in spring and autumn. Even indoor cats can get fleas, as they can be carried inside on shoes or clothes.
The flea life cycle
Understanding the flea life cycle (right) is crucial to preventing recurrent infestations. A single adult female flea can lay up to 50 eggs a day, which hatch when the air is warm and humid. Blind larvae emerge next, which eat the flea dirt, and eventually spin a cocoon and form pupae. These pupae have a sticky outer coating so they can hide deep in bedding and carpets. Only when a pupa senses a host nearby—triggered by movement and body heat—will it hatch into an adult, starting the cycle again.
A tell-tale sign of fleas is your pet biting or scratching itself compulsively on various parts of its body, especially its rump or back. The base of the tail is a favorite location. Some pets tend to demonstrate 'corn cob' nibbling (when they chew their fur like they are eating corn on the cob). Excessive licking and skin infections may also suggest fleas.
Flea saliva contains a histamine-like compound that irritates the skin. If your pet is allergic to flea saliva, then just one flea bite can cause severe flea allergic dermatitis, one of the most common causes of itchiness in dogs and cats.
Young puppies and kittens may become pale, ill and debilitated if the flea infestation is severe, because too much blood loss can cause anemia.
Flea dirt on the back and neck, hair loss from chewing and finding actual fleas when combing your pet can confirm a flea infestation.However, fleas are not always visible on your pet since they tend to groom them off quickly—so not finding any doesn't mean you don't have a flea issue.
You can try the wet paper test to confirm flea dirt (see 'top tip', below).
As fleas are the hosts for both dog and cat tapeworm, tapeworms in the feces also suggest a flea infestation.
If a dog suffers from allergic dermatitis, antibody testing may be needed to confirm a flea allergy.
You can easily determine whether your pet has fleas by using the wet paper test. Place your pet on or near a damp, white paper towel and brush or comb the fur so that any dirt falls onto the paper. If the dirt is flea dirt, the little black specs will turn red, confirming fleas.
Your vet will treat flea allergic dermatitis with steroids, antihistamines and washes and may even prescribe antibiotics if there is a secondary bacterial infection. You will then be advised to put flea control measures in place. Flea treatments sold exclusively by vets tend to be more effective and have better safety profiles. Over-the-counter products are potentially dangerous, so I recommend avoiding them.
Some flea treatments can also be effective for worms, mites or ticks. Topical preparations are popular, but some pets can have a localized reaction to these treatments or lick them off. It is important to discuss your pet's lifestyle with your vet to find the safest and most effective treatment for them.
If your pet has a flea allergy, then a fast-acting conventional flea control product is critical to eliminate as many fleas as possible in the shortest amount of time. If not, the choice of product depends on how much you and your pets are troubled by fleas.
For a major infestation, it may still be best to get a vet-prescribed product. But if your flea issue is on a smaller scale, there are lots of natural remedies you can use to prevent an infestation from happening in the first place.
Natural ways to fight fleas
To combat fleas successfully, you need to treat not just your pet but your home too. Flea eggs can survive in carpets, cracks and crevices around your home, but there are some simple chemical-free things you can do, like vacuuming regularly—paying particular attention to areas where your pet sleeps—and using flea light traps, which lure fleas onto a sticky surface (available on Amazon). In addition, you can try the following remedies for cats and dogs.
Vigilant flea combing can help to control fleas to some extent, or at least alert you if you have a flea problem. If you catch one, use a tissue to remove it from the comb and place in a glass of water. You can combine this with natural flea repellants, such as those mentioned below.
Pets can be bathed with a natural flea-repellant shampoo such as those from the brands Only Natural Pet (www.onlynaturalpet.com), Amazing Cedar (www.amazingcedar.com), Wildwash (www.wildwash.co.uk) and Dorwest (www.dorwest.com).
If your pet tolerates it, you could follow this with a diluted apple cider vinegar rinse or homemade nettle rinse (see box, above). After bathing is an ideal time to comb their fur.
Pulex 30c is a good remedy if there is evidence of flea irritation.
Suggested dosage: Twice daily for 7-10 days. Repeat after two weeks if necessary.
Natrum Muriaticum 30C is recommended for hair loss caused by biting and scratching during flea infestations.
Suggested dosage: Twice daily for 1-2 weeks. If effective, repeat again in two weeks.
Natural flea repellants
There are many natural flea repellants on the market that are worth trying, many of which use cedar oil. Earth Animal (www.earthanimal.com) and Wondercide (www.wondercide.com) products seem to be effective for long-term use.
For cats, you could also try making your own flea repellant using the leaves and bark of the neem tree (see box, left). Neem has no known side-effects, even if a cat grooms itself and ingests some.
Short-haired cats fare better with the powdered neem bark recipe, while long-haired cats do well with the neem leaf tea version, which penetrates the hair shaft.
Pets with a weak immune system cannot fight parasitic or flea infestations. By balancing their immune system, you can help them ward off such issues. Here are some immune boosters:
Garlic. There have been reports that feeding dogs garlic can cause a condition called hemolytic anemia. However, you would need to feed 50 cloves at one time to reach that level of toxicity. Feeding one or two cloves of crushed garlic to dogs a few times a week is perfectly safe. Use chives instead of garlic for cats, as they don't like the taste.
Echinacea. This is a fantastic herb for enhancing immunity.
Suggested dosage: Use daily for 3 weeks and then stop for 1 week, or use for 5 days and then rest for 2 days. Repeat this cycle as needed.
Feeding your pet a tiny amount of brewer's yeast at the end of a teaspoon is recommended during peak flea season as it seems to deter some insects.
Homemade topical recipes for cats and dogs
Nettle leaf rinse for dogs
This is an excellent skin and coat rinse that nourishes a pet's fur and provides symptomatic relief for itchy skin and flea bites. The nettle's sting is removed by cooking. Use young nettle tops, as they are more potent than the older leaves at the bottom of the plant.
1) Place 4 Tbsp fresh nettle tops in a cup, then fill the cup to the brim with just-boiled water. Steep overnight until cool.
2) Strain the liquid, then pour into a glass jar and label.
Neem leaf tea insect repellent for cats
1) Place 4 Tbsp fresh or dried neem leaf in a cup, then fill the cup to the brim with just-boiled water. Steep overnight until cool.
2) Strain the liquid and place in a glass jar; label it and store in the fridge for up to one week.
3) Take a clean cloth or sponge and apply to the back and flanks; avoid the face and genitals.
Neem bark powder insect repellent for cats
1) Place 4 Tbsp neem bark powder and 4 Tbsp internal green clay in a labeled glass jar with a screw-on lid. Shake the jar to mix the ingredients together.
2) Take a small handful of the powdered mixture and rub through the back and flanks; avoid the face and genitals.