Ministry Of Controversy

What Does An Organic Gardener Do About Flea Control?

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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?

Posted by

Amy Stewart
on October 12, 2011 at 5:18 am, in the category Ministry of Controversy.


  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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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!

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