What Does An Organic Gardener Do About Flea Control?



I'm sure my vet thinks I'm a terrible cat owner.  Whenever I bring Loretta in, they ask me nicely what I'm doing about flea control, and I mutter and shuffle my feet and make excuses.  The truth is that I don't know what to do.

Those flea drops have always bothered me.  I've tried various brands over the years, at my vet's urging, and my cats hate them.  As soon as I put the drops on, they go running around in circles, clearly in pain.  They try frantically to lick them off, no easy feat as they're applied to the back of the head.  And the last time I did it (after still more prodding from the vet), Loretta clearly got sick.  He scratched the spot where the drops were until it bled, he hardly moved for a couple of days, and it was a week or two before he was himself again. (Yes, I have a male cat named Loretta. It's a Beatles reference.)

I don't know why it took me so long to just read the package and find out what was in those drops.  Well, what's in them are pesticides, of course.

The same pesticides I refuse to spray on my plants.

So why would I put them on my cat? 

Phenothrin. Imidacloprid. Fipronil.  The NRDC maintains a directory of flea control products and their ingredients if you'd like to look them up yourself.  The UK's Pesticide Action Network has created a useful list of ingredients and toxicity reports–specific to the UK, but worth checking out nonetheless.  And the EPA has been evaluating complaints about pet poisonings and coming up with new requirements for these "spot-on" treatments–their whole program is summarized here, and there is a link to a reporting system for reporting problems with these products.

And this report (PDF) suggests that fleas may become resistant to these pesticides.  Well, yeah.

Of course fleas are a problem.  They can transmit tapeworms, and ticks can transmit Lyme and other diseases, and they are just unpleasant in so many ways.

But–dang.  I won't put these pesticides on a shrub, so why would I put them on my pet?  Who I sleep with?  (and if I had kids–whose fur the children would be nuzzling constantly?)

So what are the alternatives?

Well, the NRDC has some suggestions.  I bought an herbal spray at the pet store, and my cat hated it. The smell was overpowering, even in tiny quantities. It gave me a headache, and I wasn't the one covered in it.  So I washed that off. (This Colorado State University report (PDF) confirms that some of the so-called "natural" treatments can be hazardous as well.)

Combing?  Bathing?  That's easy enough.

Cat flea nematoes in the garden?  Maybe not so effective.

Electric flea traps?  That same report on pesticide resistance I linked to above (PDF) suggests that they might work. Could be worth a try.

What are your thoughts?  Organic gardeners, what's your stance on flea control?


  1. Plant lavender! It does a fine job repelling fleas. I once “cured” my dog of an infestation by washing her repeatedly with organic lavender shampoo containing essential oils.

  2. I tried for almost a year to control fleas with daily combing and shampoos. Didn’t work well enough. I heard there’s a plant that if grown near your door the fleas jump off the cat and don’t come inside. Was it lavender?

  3. Yeah, DE is the way to go. I wrestled with flea shampoos, (back) yard sprays (my garden is in the front, dog free zone), and bug bombs in the house. It wasn’t until I saturated them with DE on the outside that the problem went away.

    The downside is that your house will be dusty as all hell for a while after, and your cat may hate you for rubbing them down w/weird powder, but it works.

    Available to Lowes/HD/BB everywhere.

  4. I’m in the – I don’t know what to do camp either. But DE? Yikes, not so safe for humans or pets to breathe in the dust, so be careful when applying.

  5. Not so much on the organic gardening, but I do visit a holistic vet. We haven’t used one of those products in years because, well, they creep me out.

    There are a few things I use and we’ve never had a flea problem. They eat a lot of garlic in their homemade treats. Also, I put a few drops of apple cider vinegar in their water bowl (not religiously, but when I remember).

    I am NOT a professional, just sharing a couple of things I do.

    Not sure what works and what doesn’t, but they love the treats and we have no fleas.

  6. Unfortunately indoor cats can get fleas particular in bad flea seasons like this wet year on the east coast. My guess is they hitch a ride in on my cat-scented trouser cuffs. I’ve had some luck getting them eradicated by the comb and sweep up routine for two weeks – which certainly wouldn’t succeed if the animals were going out on their own and getting re-flead.

  7. I agree with others who point out that even indoor cats get fleas, depending on the season and weather conditions. And after reading yesterday’s front page story in the WashPost by Rob Stein (http://www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/microbes-may-play-crucial-role-in-human-health-researchers-discovering/2011/09/24/gIQAH5lFYL_story.html) I’m inclined to think there may be a good reason for the fleas. But then I’m overly influenced by the most recent thing I’ve read. A big problem for me.

  8. My understanding is that there are two types of diatomaceous earth, one for swimming pool water filters (available at any hardware store) and one that is food grade and safe to use on pets/humans (and harder to find).

    You might try sulfur powder – supposed to be safe for pets, but they’ll hate you for dusting them all the time.

    My big dog seems depressed after I dose her with the goo, but her’s is a flea/tick/mosquito/heartworm med that solves more problems than it causes. My little dog doesn’t care at all. My vet told me that it has an alcohol base and is safe for them to lick but it will make their mouths foam a bit and they’ll try to get the taste out of their mouth.

    There are places where fleas and ticks are extremely bad and new diseases and parasites show up all the time. What worked 10 years ago may not work now or for everyone.

    I used to cringe every time I dosed my dog until I watched a friend barely survive Lyme’s disease. Plenty of people around here catch it and I know two people that were very sick for six to eight months while in treatment. It is not a minor issue.

  9. The thing I’ve found that works wonders on reducing fleas is borax (sold in the laundry aisle). I sprinkle it on rugs and the cat trees, under the mattress pad on my bed, under the cushions on the couch. 1/2 cup per square yard; I wear a mask because the dust is an irritant. The LD50 of borax for flea larvae is miniscule. The LD50 for cats, dogs, and humans is measured in cups. Borax began being used for pest control when they noticed that the miners in Borax, CA, had no fleas, ticks, or lice (most mining camps at the time were completely infested). The larvae eat the borax crystals and die, breaking the lifecycle.

    I don’t know if borax counts as organic; it’s a mined mineral, after all, and I’ve literally had people yell at me for using it. But it works like a charm, the animals are unharmed, and in most situations I only have to apply it once. (Also, it acts as a cleaning agent in the rug or upholstery, though it might be a bit harsh for use on antique or fragile textiles.)

  10. I have been making my own flea spray for years, and it is both safe and effective on both dogs and cats. It smells nice, but you HAVE to spray every day during flea season, especially if your animals go outside.

    For 4 ounces, you use 2 ounces of water, 1/2 ounces of vodka, and 1/2 ounce of each of these 3 HYDROSOLS (NOT essential oils, which can be toxic to cats, due to their inability to process EOs, which then build up to toxic levels in their livers): lavender, rosemary & lemon verbena.

    Like I said, I have used this spray on both dogs and cats for years, and we have no fleas. Ever. This is not a tick preventative, though.

  11. I recommend moving to a place that is too cold for fleas to thrive. In all my life our pets only ever got fleas (and ticks for that matter) when we went over the moutains to the much milder coastal regions. I’m in Canada, but I suspect Montana would work just fine, no trees for ticks, too cold for fleas (they mostly die over the winter, not completely but mostly.) Besides it makes gardening more of a challenge!

    Sorry I have no real solutions….

  12. Citrus is toxic to fleas. You can use citrus zest on the cat’s bedding. You could even try spraying him with citrus oil.

  13. It’s not organic, but the shelter I volunteered at used Dawn dish soap. You have to get the animal almost completely covered in soap. Then you rinse it out and comb out the dead fleas.

    I don’t know how it worked, but worked it did. I wouldn’t recommend doing it that often because it would strip the oil from the cat’s skin and fur, but in a pinch it works.

  14. Alas, fleas and me are such enemies that I no longer have pets. I’m very sensitive to flea bites,venom and they LOVE to munch on me. So no more cats, dogs…. ANYTHING with fur. Too many infestations to deal with chemical free.

  15. Theres a new chewable Spinosad treatment. I don’t know if you consider Spinosad safe or not. It’s not Imidacloprid, anyway.

    I use the Imidacloprid treatment, but it seems to last far, far longer than the label says–like a couple of years. Or maybe we just don’t get many fleas here.

  16. Most garden centers that sell organics will have DE in the food grade formula. A bandana over your face should protect you for the short time you’re applying it.

    We’re in the south and I use it to keep the palmetto bug population down by spreading it on top of the compost once or twice in the summer . And we still have oodles of worms down in the compost.

  17. I struggle with this as well.

    Right now I use the stuff. I had a dog get Lyme who eventually died even though she was on Frontline, and it may not have been Lyme that killed her..but still..its just not fun. But frontline/advantix never seemed to bother my animals.

    I’ve heard diatamaceous earth can work well, and my friend recommended this: http://www.cedarcidestore.com/ANIMALHEALTH.html I have not tried it yet.

  18. I used a necklace of eucalyptus leaves on a boarder collie that was staying at our house one summer. I also bathed him reguarly, seemed to work fine. Not everyone has access to eycalyptus leaves.

  19. The best and safest method is just to keep the cat indoors. Period. I don’t know where this idea comes from that cats simply have to be allowed outdoor access, or they’ll be miserable. Possibly a little bit, but they’ll also be safe, disease-free and alive.

  20. No solution for the fleas, but I plan to come back to this post to use some of these ideas when I get them–I mean when the dogs get them again. (Too hot in Texas this year for fleas at my house.) Okay, I can’t resist. I know I shouldn’t ask. Please don’t hate me: Do you also have a male cat named Sue?

  21. DE is the base of the oldstyle cat litter. Plain old cat litter does have a certain amount of dust–but the food grade stuff sounds reasonable, if more expensive. Plain old DE/cat litter is also good for keeping snails away from plant YOU want to eat, instead of feeding them, by spreading it around its base–or possibly the perimeter of the area.

    I had no idea about the history of borax–thank you, that was rather interesting. I know some folks swear by it for keeping ants out of the house, and I used it in laundry for a number of years. Wonder if it would work on head lice–knock wood, my son has yet to encounter any.

    Our poodle mix pound pups have considerably more problems without the once-a-month flea treatment–they seem to have flea AND seasonal allergies that manifest as skin irritation.

    I get ill from the scent of ewwwcalyptus, so I shan’t be giving them collars of the stuff, but that spray of lavendar, rosemary and lemon verbena sounds & smell great to me.

    I just read up a bit on Spinosad, which, did it work against ticks, I might buy. Our dogs do not, as far as we know, walk with us anywhere where ticks are known to be found (urban streets), but to be safe…

    Due to the fact that the formula in garden use can kill bees (and a couple other beneficial insects, but not ladybugs), I am not like to use it–but then, I don’t tend to need any garden insecticides.

    I wish I had some stunning idea to help you, but alas, I do not.

  22. My dog gets a lot of garlic in her food, so fleas are only an occasional problem, but when she does get them, it’s serious, because she is allergic to the bites or saliva or whatever.
    I stopped using Frontline a few years ago because my dog was getting old and the chemicals scare me. I also found she was still getting fleas and ticks – even days after an application! My vet confirms that fleas and ticks are developing a resistance to these products. The interesting thing is that after I stopped using Frontline, she had fewer bites – practically none. If she does get fleas, I give her a “Comfortis” tablet which kills them in half an hour and works for a month. This cannot be given to cats, though.

  23. I have had flea infestations before, and never really got rid of them in the house. That was before the stuff that you put on the dog/cat’s back. I was chemical free in my garden but I was spraying my entire house with noxious chemicals trying to get rid of the fleas.

    Unfortunately I do resort to the chemicals on their backs to control them now. It’s either that or not have animals.

  24. I have 5 indoor cats and 2 dogs. I have zero carpet and I wash bedding and vacuum every week religiously. I’ve used borax & salt on the floor and it worked. If I use natural sprays I use them on the furniture. I don’t mind a few fleas. We all evolved with them and research suggests some immune problems today (allergies for example) may be a result of ridding ourselves of our symbiotic fellows. There are even people today treating modern illnesses (Crohns for example) by having intestinal worms reintroduced to their bodies with success. Just another perspective. And on this note, I stopped treating the pets for worms too…I think we need to start thinking about germs & bugs differently.

  25. I have dogs and an indoor cat. They all get vet-prescribed flea / tick / heartworm perventatives. None of them seem bothered by it (though one of the dogs hates the initial smell). I work in dog rescue, so I know what a huge problem heartworms are in my area, so the preventatives are certainly worth it. When I lived in colder climes, our indoor cats didn’t get any sort of preventative and we never had a flea problem.

  26. See if you can find a list of mideaval “strewing herbs” They were put on top of the rushes on the floors to keep down insecct populations. These are in contrast to “cooking herbs” although some plants may be in both catagories. I think rosenmary is one. If you plant them close to doorways, where you and guests brush against them when entering, they might keep down flea population, but no guarentees.


  27. Amazon sells a lighted sticky trap for fleas that really works. You can move it around do a body count and tell where your hot spots are. Then do some cleaning, replace the sticky pad and use the lighted traps to show you when the next generation emerges.

  28. I’m a veterinarian and this is exactly why I blog on gardening instead of treating animals 🙂 But, Amy, although I try to garden without pesticides, my pets do get the full Monty for flea treatments; Mrs. ProfessorRoush tolerates aphids on her roses, but doesn’t like fleas in her house!

  29. Do you feed a wet/canned food? If so, you could easily try the old remedy of a teaspoon of brewers yeast mixed in kitty’s food…its alleged that this will repel the fleas from kitty and wherever kitty sleeps…if nothing else, its safe and certinally natural. Good luck, but if all else fails please do try another brand of the spot treatment/neck drops, as they (unfortunately) really are the best thing going for control. Cheers!

  30. Try freshly grated orange peel – rub on the cat, sprinkle around the bed, in the carpet, wherever. Be cautious about the staining of the oil, though. To those who think cats should be confined to the indoors, pooh. Cats are animals, and animals live outdoors. Peace.

  31. I love the idea of using DE sprinkled on the compost pile, going th try that one today.

    We used Frontline on our cat once and it burned a hole in her flesh. Looked just like someone had held a lit cigarette to her. It was painful for her and for us to see. Even the vet was blown away, he had never seen anything like it, she just seemed to be especially sensitive to the ingredients. After that we used the Capstar pill(nitenpyram) which works instantly and you only need to use it as necessary, which in our case was only 2 or 3 times a year. Not organic at all but it did work for us and fleas in the south can spread some nasty stuff. Interestingly, our dog never gets any fleas, Now I wonder if his (organic) food contains an ingredient like garlic that naturally repels them?

  32. a teaspoon or so (maybe more?) of brewer’s yeast in their food every day in the morning. when i kept up with it, they never got fleas. i got the brewer’s yeast from the health food store. i love plants almost as much as i love cats. thanks for the post.

  33. Like some of the other commenters, I’m in Lyme disease country, and know at least 4 people who have gotten it in the 5 years I’ve lived here. When I expressed my concern about putting pesticide on my dog around my young daughter, the vet said it’s safer than a child getting Lyme. It’s not a great trade, but Lyme is no fun. It’s the ticks we treat for, really, not the fleas.

  34. Our St. Bernard doesn’t seem to have fleas, but ticks appear once in a while (we live on a farm next to forestland, and he lives outdoors Spring through Fall), so this Spring I tried a “natural system” of drops to be applied to his neck and back….well he got pretty lethargic after the first treatment, so I stopped. Since he’s a farm dog, bathing is pretty useless, but I tried that too. Within 24 hours, he’d gone out to find a pile of elk poop to roll in (my son pointed out that my shampoo had “un-masked” him to the critters, and rolling in the poop was his way of installing a “cloaking device”, so critters won’t smell him coming a mile away). He hasn’t had ticks or fleas all Summer, so something must be working.

  35. I love that your male cat’s name is Loretta. Haven’t read GardenRant since August due to unfortunate circumstances – however, my 18 lb. (big boned) 9 yr old cat has been on Advantage only in summer, and doesn’t seem bothered by it. Frontline used to make him freak out. For 8 of his 9 years, he has been a happy outside- cat who comes in at night. Every night I wash his feet/ears and brush him out w/ a furminator which picks up any straggler fleas.

  36. If its for a cat there is the program injection which contains lufenuron and lasts 6 months.doesn’t kill fleas but sterilizes any adults that bite by ensuring the baby fleas egg tooth doesn’t develop so it doesn’t hatch.would not be classed as a pesticide (which acts on the nerves).is 100% effective and evidence based if you choose to look rather than home made products that likely have little or no effect.I am a vet and regularly pull my hair out when animals are presented with dirty flea infestations for supposedly sterile surgery or that are anemic because too many fleas are biting (usually kittens).

  37. I go for harm reduction, which in my case means reducing the incidence of vector-born ailments in my cats. I use a vet-prescribed product called Revolution which prevents heartworm infections and treats for fleas and ticks and certain intestinal parasites. It’s alcohol-based and dries quickly. I read the peer-reviewed lit on it (I’m weird that way). Of course it’s not organic.
    My cats live indoors. They are pest-free and healthy. The cats hate the application but I don’t believe it’s painful because I’ve accidentally dripped it on my skin and had no pain.

  38. The U.S. population has historically placed a considerable degree of trust in the regulatory oversight provided by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and its agencies. There is little tradition of people having a close relationship with their food, with the overwhelming majority of people having bought their food in supermarkets for years. But the 2003 survey by the Pew Research Center showed that even in the U.S., 55% see GM food as “bad” food. A 2010 survey found that over one third of U.S. consumers were very or extremely concerned about GM food, a 3% reduction from 2008.

  39. Keep your cats indoors where they can’t get fleas and they also can’t kill birds. Our lovely, organic native plant gardens attract more birds and can become “bird sinks” when there are prowling felines about. (BTW, I love cats, have two of my own, and they stay indoors.)

  40. Flea combs and a cupful of soapy water to douse them in are the two things I always swore by with cats. You can’t eradicate the fleas, but you can control them really well, as long as you and your cat get used to grooming time involving combs. The other thing I found important was to use white sheets and towels as bedding covers during flea season, so you can keep an eye out for flea dirt and hence fleas. This whole approach felt better to me than any chemicals I ever tried.

  41. We used to have to give our dog frontline every 2 months because he was so allergic to flea bites. This year I sprayed him all year, every couple of days (more when it looked like he was chewing a lot) with apple cider vinegar mixed with water. We have only had to give him frontline once a few weeks ago, the time of year when fleas seem to multiply before the winter. The spray also helps clear up sore bits he’s chewed. He’s never had infection. He also eats raw, meaty bones (chicken drumsticks mostly) which keeps him healthy. He’s a ten year old kind charles cavalier who used to be afflicted with every ailment imaginable.

  42. Outdoor cat enclosures can provide a safe environment you can control for your cats. No songbirds will fall victim to them. You can treat the earth with parasitic nematodes and diotomaceous earth. Surround the enclosure with purported flea repelling plants. An enclosure is even better if it is on a patio. Fleas hatch in dirt. Kitty will get good exercise and mental stimulation. Make the enclosure an oasis for yourself AND your cat. It’s a great place to enjoy a cup of coffee with your little friend. Best of all cats will not fall victim to cars, dogs, or other hazards. I think the only reason fences and pens for dogs are the norm is because they are often the law. It’s time to let cats enjoy the outdoors in safety and make cat enclosures a normal feature if you own a cat. On a flea note…if your cat catches prey, or is treated for fleas only, they will still need to be kept parasite free inside! Be sure to protect them from heart worms (transmitted by mosquitoes) and tapeworms (from ingesting a flea or an animal with worms) and other internal parasites.

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