Saturday, May 7, 2011

Natural Flea Control for Dogs

by Lorie Huston, DVM

Fleas are a common parasite for both dogs and cats. As a veterinarian, my clients frequently ask me how they can protect their pets from these parasites. Normally, I recommend a monthly topical product, such as Revolution® or Frontline Plus®.

However, many of my clients are hesitant to apply these products to their dogs and cats and prefer a more natural means of flea control.

Can Natural Flea Control Work?

Natural flea control methods can be effective for some pets. However, pet owners need to realize that natural flea control methods are generally labor intensive and will require vigilance as well as time and patience on the part of the pet owner.

In cases where the pet suffers from severe flea allergies or flea sensitivity, natural flea control methods may not be enough in and of themselves to control the pet’s symptoms.

Are All Methods of Natural Flea Control
Safe for Your Dog?

Not all methods of natural flea control are safe for dogs.

Garlic is a commonly used flea preventive.

However, garlic can be associated with toxicities as well. 

Garlic can effectively destroy red blood cells and lead to hemolytic anemia. The toxic dose of garlic is dose related and the amount of garlic that is added to foods for flavoring is unlikely to be dangerous. However, there does some to be some variability between animals regarding the dose of garlic that will produce toxic effects. And the dose of garlic needed to repel fleas is likely to be far higher than that used for flavoring food.

For these reasons, garlic used for flea control is of questionable safety and, in my opinion, is not recommended.

Essential oils are also often used as natural flea control products. 

For dogs, some of these essential oils are safe and may be effective.

However, essential oils of any type should be used cautiously in cats due to the potential for toxicity. 

Pet owners that formulate their own mixtures of essential oils for flea control should be especially careful and should carefully research the effects of each essential oil used in the mixture.

What Methods of Natural Flea Control are Safe for Dogs?

1. Regular grooming is a frequently overlooked means of flea control but should be the mainstay of natural flea control. 

A flea comb used daily to check for fleas and flea dirt can not only remove live fleas from pets but can also give pet owners a good idea of the efficacy of their flea control methods.

Pet owners that frequently find flea dirt and live fleas while combing their pet with a flea comb should consider that their flea control may not be working well.

2. Bathing is another frequently used method of flea control. 

If your pet has large numbers of fleas and you need to remove the live fleas quickly for your pet’s health, a bath may help reduce the population of fleas on your pet directly after the bath.

However, it is important to realize that if the pet has been living in the house and has live fleas, there are also immature fleas, flea eggs and pupae present in the home. These immature life forms can live in carpeting, in cracks in hardwood and other types of flooring, and in upholstery and bedding and can re-infest your pet very quickly after the bath.

Therefore, bathing alone will not be effective in controlling fleas for your pets. However, in conjunction with other methods, you may have better success.

3. Natural pyrethrins, chemicals derived from chrysanthemums, can also be used for flea control and are commonly found in commercially available flea control products. 

(There are also products available with synthetically derived pyrethrins.) Products with pyrethrins should be used according to label directions to avoid toxicities.

4. Neem oil, a product produced by an evergreen tree, is found in numerous types of flea shampoos, sprays and powders. 

It has been used to control fleas in dogs and cats but seems to be variable in its efficacy. It does appear to be safe for both dogs and cats.

Ridding the Environment of Fleas

Though adult fleas live most of their lives on your pet, adult fleas produce eggs that fall off your pet into the environment, which is usually your home. These eggs live in the home as they progress through their life cycle and develop into more adult fleas, which in turn infest your pet. In order to prevent this re-infestation, it is necessary to remove the immature life stages from the environment.

Frequent vacuuming is one of the most effective ways to remove these immature fleas. 

Vacuum all flooring surfaces, including hardwood, tile and other types of flooring, in addition to the carpeting in your home. Be sure to use the vacuum on the upholstery in your home as well. Remove the contents of the vacuum bag from your home after you have finished vacuuming so the fleas do not continue to reproduce inside the bag.

Also, launder any bedding, especially bedding on which your pet sleeps.

Another technique that some people report success with is using a pan filled with water and a small amount of dish detergent placed under a night light. 

The theory is that the fleas will be attracted to the light and will jump in the water and drown. This method may or may not be successful but is unlikely to be dangerous.

Some sources advise using a candle placed in the center of the pan of water/dish detergent. However, especially with a pet in the area, I would be concerned about the potential for fire damage caused by an untended candle and urge caution with this technique.

Other products, such as diatomaceous earth and boric acid (borax), are also sometimes suggested for controlling fleas in the home. 

While boric acid appears to be safe, it is messy and some pet owners object to it for that reason. There is some concern about the safety of breathing the dust of diatomaceous earth for both pets and people.

Finally, nematodes are also available as a means of controlling fleas in the outdoor environment (i.e. the yard or garden). 

Nematodes are specific types of worms that live in the soil and ingest fleas, flea eggs and flea larvae. They can be purchased and seeded into the yard and garden.

In almost all cases, integrated flea control (controlling adult fleas on your pet as well as ridding the environment of fleas) is the most successful way to control fleas.

Have you found a flea control method that works well? Share your secrets with us. Let us know what methods have worked well for you and which ones have not by leaving a comment below.


Lorie Huston has been practicing veterinary medicine for over 20 years. Besides a successful career in a busy small animal hospital in Providence, RI, Lorie is also a successful freelance writer specializing in pet care and pet health topics. 

Currently, she is the feature writer for the Pet Care section at and the National Pet Health Examiner at Lorie also publishes her own blog, The Pet Health Care Gazette and manages an increasingly popular facebook page, The Voice of Pet Care

Articles by Dr. Huston:
Lyme Is Lame (Pun Intended)
The Ticking Bomb
Don't Let Heartworm Become A Heartbreak!
Summer Perils: Blue-green Algae
Your Dog And Leptospirosis
Canine Parvovirus
Canine Distemper Virus
Why Is My Dog So Itchy? Top 5 Causes Of Itching In Dogs 
Vaccination Concerns and Potential Side Effects

Further reading:
Fleas: Know your Enemy
Plants that Repel Fleas 
Natural Flea and Tick Remedies at PetMD


  1. Clients should realize that fleas are more than a yucky inconvenience, they can be vectors that can carry diseases such as Bartonella and the Plague. So , whatever flea control method they choose it needs to be effective to keep the household safe. And, no matter the source, if a chemical kills fleas, it is an insecticide natural or synthetic. I find it interesting that some of my clients will not use Frontline or Advantix, but will use "natural" pyrethrins. Or, risk potential respiratory disease inhaling diatomacious earth dust. Thanks for laying out all of the options.

  2. Dear Dr. Keith, thank you so much for the important addition to the article.

    It was my impression that the natural methods make more sense directed towards preventing the fleas, rather then getting rid of them once there.

  3. Argh. I wrote a whole comment and then blogger decided to be a butthead. =[

    Anyway, TY for the enlightening article - and thanks to Lorie for writing it.

    I just want to use the safest, most effective means of protecting Koda, and it seems that we're gonna have to go with the chemical vet office brands. (I don't even like the idea of heartworm, honestly... but you're right when you say that it's often choosing the lesser of two evils.)

    Pleh. Someone needs to invent a magic holistic flea/tick preventative that works reliably! =]
    *hint hint nudge nudge* lol


  4. Hi JJ, so sorry about blogger being a butthead :-(

    I agree, somebody should invent something both safe and effective! (particularly since you don't like my horse poo idea LOL)

    It's similar with all pest control, we're still trying to find something safe and effective against mosquitoes (other than staying at home).

  5. Great article and very informative. When I lived in California, it seemed like I spent every waking moment fighting those nasty fleas. I didn't want to use the chemicals, but as the author says, the natural methods are very labor intensive. Since moving to Montana, my flea problem is history.

  6. Hi Julia, now there is a natural and safe flea control strategy! :-)

    Thank you for reading and commenting.

  7. I found that simply improving my dogs' health by changing their diet got rid of our flea/tick problem. OTC flea/tick meds from the vet never worked for us... but now that we have been off of them for months, we have been having the most tickless and flealess year ever!

    I am not a fan of pesticides at all, "chemical" or "natural." We like "mechanical" only, as well as insect repellants. We are starting to phase in a spray with rose geranium oil, lemon eucalyptus oil, and neem oil (among a few other oils) in order to keep ticks off, but even without that, ticks have still been shockingly rare with OTC med-less dogs. (By this point in the season I should be averaging at least one tick a day per dog, but so far it's been about one tick a week total.) If the spray isn't enough, I am going to get some nematodes and diatomaceous earth. (We really just need to employ DE all over our house... the pest guy sure ain't doing his job!)

  8. Hi Serissime. That is great! I read about it in theory, I'm happy to hear that you experienced it first hand!

    I am not a fan of pesticides either. Do keep us posted how is your natural approach working for you!

  9. Really informative and interesting post - thanks!

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  11. Thanks for this article