The ins and outs of herbal options for controlling pesky fleas and ticks.
As a holistic veterinarian, my aim is to help patients gain an inner balance of body/mind/heart/soul within their environment. In my neck of the woods, ticks and fleas are a huge challenge to this balancing act.
No matter what drug or herb I recommend for parasite control, I am always concerned with the balance between safety (a lack of adverse side effects in most, if not all, patients) and efficacy (how effective is this method when used in dozens or hundreds of patients?). Anything that has the potential to kill fleas and ticks also has the potential to harm the animal. Concerning the safety and efficacy of flea and tick control, here are the general guidelines:
• In commercial products, safety depends on the chemicals used in the product, the quality control used in the manufacturing process, and the way the chemical is applied—internally, given as a paste or pill; topically, as a powder, foam, spray, bath or dip; or the long-lasting products supplied as spot-ons or flea/tick collars.
• Commercial products can be extremely effective. For my patients that have an overwhelming number of fleas, I nearly always need to resort to chemical products, at least initially. Once the parasite numbers are under control, we can often go to our natural parasite-control plan, listed below.
• Herbs are, for the most part, extremely safe. However, even herbal preparations may be toxic to some animals. Powders, sprays, soaps and rinses that use whole herbs are the safest, followed by products that use herbal extracts.
• The relative safety depends somewhat on the method of application. Externally applied, short-acting herbal or chemical products (powders, sprays, foams) are generally the safest, partially because they can be quickly removed by bathing if the animal does have a reaction to them. Shampoos and dips are at least partially absorbed through the skin, so they are more likely to create a toxic reaction, and dips often contain chemicals that have more potential for creating toxicities.
For all topical products, the potential for toxicity is increased if the animal licks and ingests large amounts of the substance. Although the internal products—pills, capsules and the long-acting spot-ons—have proven to be relatively safe, they are not without their problems. I use them with caution, especially with young, old or immune-compromised animals. And I recommend that clients use them only during the season when ticks and fleas are most active.
• Cats are more sensitive than dogs to many of the chemicals contained in flea and tick control products—including the biochemicals contained in herbal products. Kittens are even more sensitive than adult cats. Be extremely careful when using any product on cats and kittens. If the label does not say that it is safe for cats or kittens, do not use it.
Build your pet’s immune system. Look closely at a household with a number of pets and you’ll almost always find one of the bunch that is a flea- and tick-infested mess. Seems that these are the guys that are also the most prone to a host of other diseases—typical symptoms of a compromised immune system. In some cases, all we need to do is rejuvenate the immune system and the parasite load decreases.
Herbal immune helpers include echinacea (Echinacea spp.), astragalus (Astragalus membranaceus) and eleuthero (Eleutherococcus senticosus). I recommend that small amounts of the herb be sprinkled over a pet’s food—a pinch or two daily for three weeks during each month. Good nutrition (quality, organic foods that contain no preservatives or other additives) is also beneficial to a lagging immune system, as are vitamins C, E and A.
Reduce contact with the bugs. There are several ways to accomplish this, and the success of any of the methods will depend on how vigilant you are in your approach. Vacuum the floors as often as you can—at least several times a week—and then either burn the house dust or put a long-lasting chemical flea killer in the vacuum bag to kill the fleas as they emerge. Flea combs should also be used daily to help remove eggs or larvae that are attached to your pet’s hair. Wash your pet’s bedding at least weekly to remove eggs and larvae. Fleas and ticks tend to congregate in outdoor areas with weeds and brush, so clear the weeds and pests will move to more bug-friendly areas.
Rinse or dip. Select three or four herbs from the following list and mix equal parts of the dried herbs together. Pour boiling water over the mixture and steep until cool. Apply to your pet, leave to dry, and reapply every two to three days as needed. Try rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis), wormwood (Artemisia absinthium), pennyroyal (Mentha pulegium), tansy (Tanacetum vulgare), southernwood (Artemisia abrotanum), lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) or eucalyptus (Eucalyptus globulus).
Powder. To dried pyrethrum flowers (Chrysanthemum cinerariifolium), add equal parts of two or three of the dried herbs listed above in “Rinse or dip,” and pulverize the herbs into a powder with a mortar and pestle or coffee grinder. Then apply powder liberally to the animal, rubbing into hair so that it reaches the skin.
Herbal oils. Combine equal parts of essential oils such as citronella (Cymbopogon nardus), cedarwood, lemongrass (Cybopogon citratus) or rosemary. Dilute in water (3 to 5 drops of oil per ounce of water) and use as a dip or rinse.
Decrease the population. Fleas and ticks are difficult to control naturally because they reproduce frequently and prodigiously, they are highly adaptable to both host and environment, and they are physically tough little buggers. Parasite population-control methods can be focused on killing the adults on the host animal, preventing reproduction, keeping the eggs from hatching, killing the young bugs as they emerge from the egg or some combination of all these methods.
I’ve found that herbs are not especially effective flea or tick killers, and they have almost no effect on the egg or larval stages of the bug. If you want to rely completely on natural means, perhaps the biggest gun is pyrethrum, a natural insecticide that is produced by chrysanthemums. While pyrethrum is by far the safest insecticide, a few critters will still have reactions to it—though these reactions are generally mild and totally reversible in a short amount of time. The other shortcoming with pyrethrum is that its primary mode of action is to knock down the insect, and many of the knocked-out bugs recover after a few hours to live a full and healthy life.
Randy Kidd holds doctorates in veterinary medicine and veterinary and clinical pathology, and practices in Kansas City, Missouri. Information provided in “Pet Corner” is not intended to replace the advice of a qualified veterinarian.
Pet Corner: Natural Flea and Tick Repellents was originally published in the September/October 2001 issue of Herbs for Health.
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