Features June 2003 Issue

Natural Herbs for Flea Relief

This nourishing herb can relieve your dog’s spring and summer allergies.

Summertime – a season of outdoor fun, warm nights, plenty of sunshine, and fleas.

Although they prefer a warm, humid climate, fleas can thrive virtually anywhere, even places where they seemingly have nothing to eat. When food (like your dog) is not available, fleas will feed upon the bodies of each other as they lay in wait for a larger meal, nestled within the ground covers, carpets, and cracks they call home.

Don’t bathe your dog too frequently; doing so gives fleas an advantage.

These tough, relentless survivors spend most of their time in the environment, not on the actual host – which is exactly why so many conventional anti-flea treatments don’t work well in the long term. Most conventional approaches to flea control involve killing the tiny ectoparasites where they feed – on the dog. However, many people remain unaware of the possible downsides of using chemical insecticides on their pets. After all, these are products that are freely offered over-the-counter at pet stores, grooming salons, and across the front desks of veterinary clinics – they must be safe, right?

Unfortunately, they are not as safe as one might think. How could they be? After all, we are talking about chemicals powerful enough to kill an ancient, highly adaptable parasite that has survived, and will continue to survive, beyond the extinction of thousands of host species.

Many of the most widely used commercial flea killers on the market are very effective poisons with long-term effects that remain unknown or are seldom discussed. This includes many of the popular anti-flea remedies that are absorbed through an animal’s skin. These products are toxic enough to require manufacturing employees to be outfitted with respirators and protective clothing. Warnings against skin contact are printed right on the labels, based from caution that is derived from animal testing – yet millions of people feel comfortable with allowing these chemicals to course through a dog’s body and impregnate every inch of their dog’s skin.

Other conventional approaches to providing dogs with some relief from flea bites include medicated shampoos, corticoid ointments, or corticosteroid therapies. The problem is, Prednisone and other corticosteroid drugs don’t just suppress uncomfortable itching and inflammation, they suppress the immune system as well. Add to this the possible long-term side effects of water retention, hypertension, liver damage, thyroid dysfunction, obesity, and heart attack, and suddenly the corticosteroid option doesn’t sound so kind.

The Whole Dog Approach to Flea Removal

When approached from a holistic perspective, long-term flea control does not begin with insecticide flea sprays, dips, or shampoos. It begins only after the caregiver reaches an understanding of how fleas live, behave, and how they select their hosts. From this perspective we can see that it is the effects of fleas, and not their existence, that cause so much misery to our dogs – the fleas themselves are only a single symptom of deep-seated and complex health problem.

To clarify, let’s take a look at what I call the “Flea vs. Host Dog” scenario.

Dogs have been host to fleas, as well as thousands of other parasites, for millions of years. Certainly, like all cross-species relationships, nature maintains certain checks and balances that allow parasites and their hosts to coexist in symbiotic harmony.

But in the case of fleas and domesticated canines, we keep seeing the same scenario repeat itself: Host Dog is completely tormented by fleas while his canine companion, although in the same house, seems relatively trouble-free. Why? Because the natural countermeasures that exist between Flea and Host Dog are no longer working. The parasite-host relationship is out of balance.

Flea problems do not actually stem from the mere presence of fleas, but from health-related and environmental circumstances that allow parasites to wreak havoc upon a weakened host.

Like all parasites, fleas are opportunistic, preying on the easiest meal they can find. While it is true that dogs with healthy skins and coats are usually less bothered by fleas than those with flaky, dry skin and constantly shedding coats, this is only part of the picture. Deeper toward the root of the problem are issues involving Host Dog’s immune system and the way his body reacts to flea bites. Host Dog is allergic to flea bites, and for reasons that have little to do with the fleas themselves, his body system can neither repel nor tolerate their bites.

Strengthen Your Dog's Health for Better Flea Resistance

If your dog’s body is overburdened with problems of poor digestion, inadequate waste elimination, over-vaccination, or food allergies, his immune system’s ability to deal with fleas and their saliva will be greatly reduced. This is why properly nourished dogs with well-balanced immune systems aren’t bothered by the bites of fleas.

In many cases, switching from kibble to a raw or home-cooked diet will bring a world of positive change to dogs who suffer from flea allergies. Changing the type of meat you feed and weeding out allergens from the diet can bring quick positive results. Common food allergens include grains, yeast, soy, and synthetic preservatives.

Supplementing your dog’s diet with a well-balanced essential fatty acid (EFA) supplement is also important. In fact, EFAs may be the most important of all dietary supplements for flea allergy sufferers. The Omega 3 and 6 fatty acids contained in fish and vegetable oils play critical roles in how your companion’s immune system responds to the introduction of flea saliva and other antigenic compounds that enter the body. EFAs are also important in building a strong, healthy, flea-resistant skin and coat – making the feeding ground less attractive to hungry opportunists.

Probiotics (Bifidus, Acidophilus, etc.) and digestive enzyme supplements are also strongly indicated for flea sufferers. These two groups of supplements assist the transport of nutrients throughout the body and the breakdown and removal of waste materials that might otherwise contribute to food-related allergies. Among the best products I’ve seen is the new Plant Enzymes & Probiotics Supplement for Dogs & Cats by Animal Essentials, which combines both supplements into a concentrated, easy-to-feed powder. (Note: I have served Animal Essentials as an independent contractor, but do not receive any compensation for this product.)

Treat Your Environment for Fleas

Remember, fleas spend about 80 percent of their time not on the host, but in the surrounding environment. Furthermore, flea eggs can remain dormant for several months. This means that you must be relentless at hitting them where they sleep and reproduce. (See “Eliminate Fleas Without Poison: Integrated Pest Management,” March 2002, for more information on this topic.)

There are also several herbal products available that can be applied to the dog’s bedding, carpet, or outdoor areas to help repel or even kill fleas. Look for those that contain oils and/or extracts of juniper, citronella, eucalyptus, cedar, Canadian fleabane, or citrus oil (the latter two contain d-Limonene, which can kill fleas).

Herbal Support as a Flea Deterrent

A small pinch of garlic powder can be added to your companion’s food to help support the immune system, skin, and liver – systems that work overtime to weed out and eliminate allergens. However, contrary to what some people believe, garlic should not be fed in quantities so great that garlic odor exudes from your dog’s skin. This is not only an unnecessary waste of garlic, it can be harmful to your dog, especially if continued over an extended period. Just use a pinch of garlic powder – Rover does not need to smell like a delicatessen to benefit from this herb!

Also, try adding apple cider vinegar to the animals’ water dish – some people swear by this, as it may add some nutrients that help the animal deal with the fleas. Animals supplemented with B-complex, trace minerals, and zinc also seem to have fewer problems with fleas.

Alterative herbs, such as burdock root (Arctium spp.), Dandelion root (Taraxacum officinale), or Red Clover (Trifolium pratense) may also be used to help eliminate waste and allow natural defense systems to work more freely toward coping with flea bites. I like using these herbs in the form of a low-alcohol liquid tincture, which can be added to the food according to the manufacturer’s directions, or squirted directly into the dog’s mouth.

Nettle (Urtica spp.) is one of my favorites for treating any type of allergy (see “Prove Your Nettle,” May 2003). The dried herb (easily accessed at the health food store) can be sprinkled onto your animal’s food to lend nutritive support. One-half teaspoon of the dried herb for each cup of food fed is a good amount.

Nettle is also thought to reduce the severity of an allergic response. If your animal won’t eat dried nettle, you can steep it in hot water or salt-free meat broth, which is then added to your companion’s food.

If flea bite allergies are severe, itching is persistent, and the skin is red and inflamed, licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra) can be used as an internal anti-inflammatory (see “Licorice Soothes and Heals,” January 2003).

To help relieve itching and promote healing externally, a calendula flower rinse is a good choice, as is aloe juice, which can be diluted with four parts water (e.g., 1 cup aloe juice to 4 parts water). Dried peppermint or lavender flowers may also be added to bring relief as well.

To make the rinse, simply brew a strong tea from the dried herbs of your choice (¼ cup herbs to one quart of boiling water), let steep until cool, then pour the cooled liquid into your companion’s coat. If scratching has left oozing, infected scabs, yarrow (Achillea spp.), rosemary, or thyme can be generously added to the rinse formula.

Bathing Your Dog for Flea Relief 

Bathe your dog only with shampoos that are meant for use on dogs – shampoos for humans can be too harsh and irritate the skin, and may add to the allergies that already contribute to your companion’s misery.

There are many very good herbal dog shampoos on the market. These can be very useful for cleaning flea and body waste build-ups from the skin, and for bringing soothing relief. However, don’t shampoo your dog too often, as this can dry out her skin and cause added irritation.

Overuse can also result in microbial imbalances on the surface of the body. Your companion’s skin supports a natural community of interdependent organisms, many of which serve anti-parasitic or cleansing purposes. In fact, fleas get their own type of parasites – tiny mites that crawl beneath their body armor.

Let the flea’s fleas do their job; it’s part of the grand scheme, and part of dealing with an ancient, highly adaptable species – on their own bloodsucking terms!

Greg Tilford is a well-known veterinary herbalist, lecturer, and author. He serves as a consultant and formulator to hundreds of holistic veterinarians throughout the world, and is CEO of Animal’s Apawthecary, a company that develops herbal products specifically for use in animals. He is author of four books on herbs, including All You Ever Wanted to Know About Herbs for Pets (Bowtie, 1999), which he co-authored with his wife, Mary.

Comments (2)

I understand the instinctive aversion to chemicals, I do not believe any "natural" product which kills a parasite should be assumed to be inherently safe for the host.

The warning against too much garlic is appreciated. However, mentioning a half dozen products as possibly helping does not provide the practical information I can actually use.

My raw fed dogs have never had a flea problem. I am guessing many people who use these products have never had a flea problem, but that does not prove the products prevented parasites.

For now, I suppose I will stick without using monthly prevention and using the chemical if parasites are noticed. The exception is heartworm which is so serious it should be prevented.

Posted by: Erich R | July 6, 2012 2:38 PM    Report this comment

thank you this is very helpfull

Posted by: JEAN CHEATHAM | October 25, 2010 9:10 AM    Report this comment

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