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As an herbalist, I often hear from folks who are looking for safe, effective alternatives to the standard chemical arsenal available to fend off insects and pests on the body and in the home. I’ve made my own herb-based products for years, because I react poorly to a number of common pesticides and insecticides. My natural formulas keep my home relatively bug-free, plus they smell pleasant and keep my skin and respiratory tract happy.
As for our pets, they don’t like being pestered by pests either, namely fleas and ticks. In addition to being an irritating nuisance, these pests pose potential health risks to you and your pets. Fleas are responsible for “flea allergy dermatitis” (FAD), a skin condition caused by an allergic reaction to fleas and flea bites. And if a tapeworm-infected flea is ingested while your pet grooms itself, intestinal tapeworms may develop. If left unchecked, tapeworms can lead to several complications, including weight loss and intestinal blockage. As for ticks, they’re carriers of a number of diseases, including Lyme disease, which can affect both you and your pets.
Understandably, we want to protect our furry companions from those pesky pests. Just like humans, however, dogs and cats can react poorly to chemical-based products, including spot-on liquid insecticides and powders. My two cats used to suffer skin and respiratory irritation after chemical pest treatments. For hours after the application they’d experience itchy skin and would break out in rashes. They’d also lose their appetites until the initial chemical shock of the spot-on liquid application wore off. As an alternative, I created herbal formulations that keep them comfortable and healthy, and, as a bonus, smelling fresh and clean.
Many plants, including rosemary, lavender, lemongrass, geranium, cedar, black walnut, and neem, contain intensely aromatic volatile oils that, while appealing to most humans, repel many winged and crawling critters. Other natural ingredients, such as diatomaceous earth, act as insecticides rather than mere repellents. (See “The Details on Diatomaceous Earth and Bentonite Clay” below for more details.) When these products are used properly, they’re harmless to people, pets, and the environment. So, if you want to naturally protect your dogs and cats against ticks and fleas, do what I’ve done for the past 20 years: Ditch the chemicals and make your own effective, herb-based formulas.
These herbal powders are most effective when applied regularly — once or twice per week. Don’t worry about your pets licking themselves following an application; diatomaceous earth and bentonite clay are harmless to pets, and even contain beneficial trace minerals. Additionally, the powders act as a deodorizer and a dry shampoo, leaving your pets’ coats smelling fresh and clean. Of course, if your pets like to take a dip in the local pond or creek, or romp in the rain, you’ll have to reapply once their fur dries.
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Despite their effectiveness, natural pest-repellent powders are not a fix-all solution for pest control. For the most success, use the powders alongside other pest-preventative measures to naturally rid your pets and home of these parasites. This includes combing your pets daily using a flea comb; shampooing your pets regularly, especially if the pet is infested, to remove fleas and flea eggs; adding pest-repellent, aromatic herbal sachets to your pet’s sleeping area; changing and washing pet bedding weekly; vacuuming often; and mopping hard-surface floors weekly with herbal repellent and disinfecting solutions.
Precaution: Essential oils should only be added if the powder will be used on dogs over 1 year of age. Don’t add any essential oils to powder recipes made for cats of any age, or dogs under 1 year of age, regardless of their size.
“Shoo, Flea, Don’t Bother Me” Powder
Rosemary and cedarwood essential oils give this powder a light, woody scent. Be aware that black walnut hull powder can temporarily darken light-colored fur. Yield: 2 cups.
- 1 cup food-grade diatomaceous earth
- 1/2 cup food-grade bentonite clay powder
- 1/4 cup rosemary leaf (Salvia rosmarinus*) powder
- 1/4 cup black walnut hull (Juglans nigra) powder
- 5 drops Virginia cedar (Juniperus virginiana) essential oil (optional)
- 5 drops rosemary (Salvia rosmarinus*) essential oil (optional)
*commonly sold as Rosmarinus officinalis
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Bite Ban Flea & Tick Powder
Lemongrass and neem, two of nature’s best pest-repelling herbs, come together in this pleasant lemon-scented powder. Yield: 2 cups.
- 1-1/2 cups food-grade diatomaceous earth
- 1/4 cup lemongrass (Cymbopogon citratus) powder
- 1/4 cup neem leaf (Azadirachta indica) powder
- 10 drops lemongrass (Cymbopogon citratus) essential oil (optional)
I tend to favor light, floral aromas in spring and summer, which is when I apply pest-repelling powders to my indoor cats. This delicate lavender-rose scented formula is a favorite — it makes their fur smell oh-so-nice! Because I use this on my cats, I leave out the geranium essential oil. Yield: 2 cups.
- 1 cup food-grade diatomaceous earth
- 1/2 cup neem leaf (Azadirachta indica) powder
- 1/4 cup lavender flower (Lavandula angustifolia) powder
- 1/4 cup rose petal (Rosa damascena) powder (if unavailable, substitute 1/4 cup lavender powder)
- 10 drops geranium (Pelargonium graveolens) essential oil (optional)
- You’ll need a medium-sized bowl; a whisk; and plastic, cardboard, metal, or glass application and storage containers. A good application container is a recycled herb or spice jar with a perforated lid. A pint-sized canning jar works great, too; use a hammer and nail to perforate the metal lid a few times so the contents will readily shake out.
- In your bowl, combine diatomaceous earth with other dry ingredients and gently whisk to blend. Add essential oils, if using, scattering the drops around the powder, and whisk again to combine. Loosely spoon the mixture into a container, and then shake vigorously for about 30 seconds. Label and date the powder. Allow the powder to synergize for 24 hours prior to use. Store at room temperature, away from heat and light. Use within 1 year.
- To ensure maximum effectiveness, sprinkle the powder evenly and uniformly from nose to tail, as close to the skin as possible, and thoroughly massage it in. Fleas and ticks will locate any part of your pet that’s dust-free, so carefully apply to the face, ears, genitals, anus, and between the toes. When applying to the face, be extra careful not to get powder in your pet’s eyes, nose, or mouth, as it’s irritating to mucous membranes and may make your pet sneeze. Repeat once or twice per week, as needed, to control fleas and ticks.
- When treating mature pets under 5 pounds or young kittens and puppies, carefully apply very small amounts of powder to one section of the body at a time, massaging it into the skin very gently to minimize dust.
- To prevent making a dust cloud in your home and irritating your pet’s mucous membranes in a confined space, powder both your indoor and outdoor pets outside, keeping them controlled with a comfortable harness and leash. Most pets will shake off much of the powder immediately after being treated, but if you’ve massaged it close to the skin, a sufficient amount should remain.
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The Details on Diatomaceous Earth and Bentonite Clay
Food-grade diatomaceous earth is made of fossilized diatom shells that’ve been ground into a finely textured, off-white, chalky powder. Diatoms, a type of one-celled phytoplankton found in both fresh and salt water, form a glass-like protective exterior made from silica. When diatoms die, they sink, resulting in large mineral deposits that are found in abundance worldwide and harvested as “fossil shell flour.” On the microscopic level, diatomaceous earth, which is almost 100 percent silica, resembles bits of broken glass. Though food-grade diatomaceous earth is harmless to humans and animals, those microscopic, glass-like fragments kill pests — including fleas, ticks, lice, mites, and their larvae — by piercing their exoskeletons. Silica kills mechanically, so insects can’t become immune to its action. It works as a powerful desiccant, leading to dehydration, usually within 24 to 72 hours. Because it’s a dust, it also clogs the insects’ breathing channels. Diatomaceous earth is effective against just about any crawling insect, even bedbugs. For pets and other animals, it acts as a natural and safe source of minerals, as well as a dewormer, because it does the same thing to internal parasites that it does to external ones.
Make sure you only use “food-grade” diatomaceous earth in your herbal pet powders and never “filter-grade,” also known as “industrial-grade,” diatomaceous earth, which is used as a deodorizer and cleaner in aquarium and swimming pool filtering systems. Though derived from the same source as food-grade diatomaceous earth, filter-grade diatomaceous earth is treated with very high heat in a process called “calcination,” which changes the silicon dioxide into crystalline silica to make for better filtering. It’s highly abrasive and toxic to humans and pets. For garden, household, and pet use, look for “food grade” on the label.
Bentonite, also known as “montmorillonite,” is a naturally occurring clay derived from volcanic ash. It’s pale to medium gray, and has a fine texture when powdered. Chock-full of beneficial minerals, such as magnesium, sodium, calcium, potassium, and silica, it works well in tandem with diatomaceous earth against fleas and ticks in a topical powder. When shopping for bentonite clay, look for a product that’s labeled safe for internal use. You may find both calcium and sodium bentonite; either one is fine for use in herbal pest powders.
Excerpted from Naturally Bug-Free: 75 Nontoxic Recipes for Repelling Mosquitoes, Ticks, Fleas, Ants, Moths & Other Pesky Insects (2016) by Stephanie Tourles. Used with permission from Storey Publishing.