Fleas & Your Cat
It's the middle of July and, so far, I haven't seen a single flea yet this year, although my neighbors are complaining that this has been a bad year for fleas. We had a few of them last year, but nothing that couldn't be eliminated with a flea comb. In fact, it's been a few years since we've had a major problem with fleas, and we had five cats up until a few months ago.
The last really bad year was 2OO4, and it was awful. For one thing, we had opened an Internet cafe in Millinocket that summer, which took us away from home a lot, meaning that the cats weren't combed out as often as they would have been had I been working out of the house, as I had been. For another, we were having some of our floors replaced downstairs, and vibrations tend to reduce the time of the larval stage of immature fleas, bringing them to life all at once.
It was awful. There were fleas everywhere. Our cats were miserable, we were miserable, and the people who were replacing the floors refused to come back until we had rid the place of fleas. Although fleas had been an occasional part of my life for as long as I have had cats, I had never before experienced such an infestation, and hope never to do so again.
I have since learned that I had handled everything wrong, both before and after the flea infestation became apparent. I moved the cats out of the house, bathing them in flea shampoo, and following it up with one of the bio spots that everyone was recommending. Meanwhile, I bought cases of flea bombs, foggers, and sprays, hoping that a mixture of different flea-killing poisons would take care of the problem once and for all.
When the air cleared, we moved back in.
So did the fleas. We never did get rid of them that summer. We tried baths, and powders, and combed the cats our regularly, always finding fleas, although never as many as we had found initially. We didn't have carpeting, so we swept and mopped the floors regularly, washing couch covers, and anything else that the cats would sit on, daily. Every weekend, we moved the cats out and bombed the house, from the crawl space to the attic, using a variety of different products.
By the end of the summer, we weren't seeing a lot of fleas anymore, but we still had fleas. Unlike other years, we welcomed winter, and ushered it in by letting the house get colder than we normally would. The Maine winter got rid of them, and they didn't return.
With a better understanding today, I wonder what harm I might have done to our cats by marinating their environment in poisons. In my quest to rid their environment of fleas, I may have put them at a greater risk than the fleas.
A large part of the reason why it's so easy to resort to poison as a solution to flea problems is that the negative effects are not immediately apparent. Rather, the toxic effects to our pets are delayed and cumulative.
The poisons are invisible, but they find their way to every part of the cat's body. They find their way into the cat's body, entering the lungs through the nose. From the lungs, they enter the blood, which pumps them to the heart, and to the liver, where they are detoxified before moving to the kidneys where they can be eliminated in the urine.
Poisonous vapors are also absorbed through the skin. If the cat's immune system is working properly, it will be able to tolerate the offense, but not necessarily without damage.
I can't undo any of that now, but I can be sure that I don't repeat it. Moreover, I can do what I can to help them build up their immune systems by providing them with the proper nutrition.
Perhaps I can take some solace in the fact that it wasn't entirely my fault, and that I was not at all alone in my reaction to this very real problem.
Despite an average of a billion dollars a year spent on flea remedies in the United States alone, fleas are thriving, while animals are suffering. The toxic cures that we've learned to reach for are weakening the immune systems of our cats, taking from them their own innate abilities to fight off the infestation themselves, while encouraging each new generation of fleas to become resistant to the chemicals.
Stronger chemicals gave birth to resistant forms of fleas, able to withstand anything that the pesticide industry could come up with. The heavy use of pesticides has been responsible for the evolution of the superflea, which is able to withstand progressively more powerful poisons, and hop away from them with longer life cycles than they had fifty years ago.
Fleas are no longer purely seasonal pests. They breed more quickly, and many of them can survive colder weather than their ancestors were able to withstand.
The pesticide industry is responsible for the production of these poisons, but we all keep the industry alive because we don't know that there are better, more natural, alternatives.
I'm not yet certain whether I would be willing to adhere to a strictly natural regimen if I were faced with an infestation such as that which I faced in 2OO4, but even that wouldn't have been as bad as it was if I hadn't allowed it to get so bad before I noticed, and took action.
Fleas and diet
First, I should say that I'm not a vegan, a PeTA person, or even one of those people who will eat only organic, free-range chickens, although I don't doubt that this would be a healthier thing to do. While I am free to make bad choices in my own diet, my cats are dependent upon me to make the right decisions for them. In the past, in ignorance, I didn't always make good decisions as far as they were concerned, but I am trying to do better today.
Second, the most important thing that you can do to prevent flea infestation in your home, and on your pet, is to ensure that they have proper nutrition. The secret, I believe, can be found in their diet rather than in poisons.
With the correct diet, a cat's own immune system can go a long way toward fighting off infestations of fleas. Even at its worst, not all of our five cats were equally affected by fleas.
Just as some people are more apt to be bothered by mosquitoes than others, so you will find that some cats will pick up more fleas than others, even while living in the same environment. Cutie, for example, had relatively few fleas, and no discernable bites, even while her twin sister played host to several of them. Bird had a lot of fleas, while her daughter had comparatively few. Despite her advanced age, Baby Girl was nearly as bothered by them as was her daughter, Lydia.
The age and health of the animal will have much to do with it, in that an older, unhealthy cat is apt to pick up more fleas than would a healthier, younger pet.
Diet also plays into it. Although I didn't understand, as well as I do now, the things that are important in a feline diet, Cutie has always begged for, and included in her diet, such food items as yogurt, vegetables, fruit, and even olives, while Lydia never asked for anything special, resigning herself to whatever I put into her food dish.
They all tried to tell me something once, when we thought we had found a good deal, with Meow Mix on sale, by refusing to eat it until, finally, out of hunger, they gave in. I wish now that I had listened; for they knew what I didn't know at the time, which is that Meow Mix was not fit for feline consumption.
When your cat is eating right, she will be better equipped to fight off an infestation of fleas, or even to prevent an infestaton from occurring.
When the immune system of the cat is strong, pests, such as fleas and ticks, will often move on to easier prey. An animal with a weakened immune system emits an odor that announces to the parasitic world that she is an easy target. Even when there is a bite, a cat with a strong immune system won't react as strongly to it, as a healthy immune system is more organized, and less likely to overreact to such an intrusion as a flea bite.
If you find that one of your cats is far more inclined to pick up fleas than another, you should consider that to be an indication that something is wrong, that your cat may not be as healthy as she could be, or that a change in diet is in order.
The addition of certain foods and supplements to your cat's diet can give your cat a healthier immune system, making your cat healthier, and cause its blood to be less attractive to such parasites as fleas and ticks.
Earth Animal Internal Powder
Dr. Robert S. Goldstein, the author of an excellent book on natural care for dogs and cats - The Goldsteins’ Wellness & Longevity Program: Natural Care for Dogs and Cats - which I used in my research for this page, has developed a formula which he markets as "Earth Animal Internal Powder", which is a blend of dark brewer's yeast, garlic, B vitamins, minerals and special nutrients that work together synergistically and more effectively for fleas than yeast and garlic alone. Taken orally, the Powder produces an odor that is undetectable by humans and is loathed by fleas and ticks, mosquitoes, and black flies. Taken regularly, the Internal Powder makes your animal less attractive to infestation. All ingredients are human food grade with no insecticides, chemical preservatives, salt or sugar.
There are other, similar, products on the market, but I wouldn't suggest supplementing your cat's diet with anything that is not derived from natural food sources, since tricking your cat into ingesting pesticides isn't likely to be any healthier for your cat than applying it to her fur or allowing her to breathe it in.
While a naturally derived product, such as Dr. Goldstein's, may well prove helpful in boosting your pet's immune system, and making its blood less attractive to fleas, I am not suggesting that the only way to do this is by sending out for this product.
In fact, I haven't used it on my cats yet. I ordered a pound of it last night, but then cancelled my order when I found that the shipping charges nearly doubled the cost of the item, chargine my card more than $3O for a $16 order. I have a problem with that and, while I'd still like to try it, I'll wait until I can come up with a more reasonable way of obtaining it.
With a healthy diet, we haven't seen any fleas yet this year, even without the doctor's supplement.
A healthy base diet
If you are currently feeding your cat Meow Mix, 9 Lives, or another inexpensive store brand of cat food, switch to a natural brand, as described in other pages of this site.
It is probably safe to say that any premium brand is likely to be healthier for your cat than a store brand, but not all premium brands are alike.
Read the labels and select one that is high in digestible protein, one that is made with meat, poultry, or fish, listed on the label as one of the first four ingredients, the higher up the list the better. Make sure the protein is not a by-product, often derived from rejected meats and waste parts.
Look for a food that includes vegetable or fish oil, rather than highly processed saturated animal fat. Although cats can digest fats more efficiently than people can, and its inclusion in the food may not be a bad thing, the addition of vegetable or fish oils add omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids that are not found in sufficient quantities in chicken or beef fat.
Seek a food that includes whole grains, with their fiber and nutrients intact, rather than that which uses wheat middlings, bakery fines, brewer's rice, and white or wheat flour, which have had most of their nutrients processed out of them, and which are not easily digested by cats.
The better premium foods also contain fruits and vegetables, such as cranberries, blueberries, sweet potatoes, carrots, and other healthy ingredients, rather than artificial sweeteners.
Also important, are natural rather than artificial or chemical preservatives. Tocopherol is the chemical name for Vitamin E, one of the natural antioxidants and preservatives, so don't be scared off by that one.
By transitioning to a naturally derived, premium cat food, you will help to bolster your cat's immune system and improve her overall health.
Supplementing the diet
Be careful about supplementing your cat's diet. Before you decide to add something to her diet, first be sure that it is derived from natural sources, rather than a chemical additive. Additionally, if the food that you're feeding your cat already includes the ingredient in sufficient quantities, supplementation may be unnecessary and, in some cases, may even be harmful.
Most commercially available pet foods, even those brands advertised as all natural or organic, are cooked at high temperatures, destroying many of the naturally occurring vitamins, phytonutrients, and antioxidants, so it may be necessary to supplement these foods.
While there may be others, the only cat food that I know of that uses a cold forming process is Blue Buffalo's Spa Select brand, which uses cold forming in its LifeSource Bits, an essential ingredient in its pet food, containing vital antioxidants, nutrients, and vitamins, including alfalfa, flax seed, parsley, spirulina, Vitamin C, kelp, Vitamin E, beta carotene, selenium, green tea, lecithin, omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, glucosamine, green lipped mussel, sea cucumber, yucca, and taurine. Blue uses cold forming because excessive heat can degrate the potency of these important vitamins and enzymes, some of which can lose up to 75% of their potency when exposed to high temperatures.
Regardless of which food you're using, you might want to dump the idea, promoted by the pet food industry, that you should never feed your cat anything other than commercial pet food. For years, I was led to believe that maybe I was doing Cutie a disservice when I gave in to her begging for fruits and vegetables but, as it turned out, she knew something that I hadn't learned yet.
Veggies and fruits
You may not be able to expect your cat to beg for them, but cats will eat vegetables, such as carrots or chopped greens, and if you wanted to share your salad with your cat, she will probably be better off for it; although you might want to hold off on the dressing. Try other veggies as well, such as spinach, celery, asparagus, string beans, watercress, parsley, and dandelion greens, to mention a few. If your cat is allowed to go outside, she'll find some of this stuff for herself, I know, as I've noticed my cats grazing on dandelion greens and plantain.
Cats will eat chopped apples or melons, as snacks between meals, especially if you take the time to chop them fine using a hand grater or food processor, which will allow them to be more easily digested.
Mixing grated or chopped raw vegetables, especially carrots, into the natural base food that you're feeding your cat, can be a healthy supplement to her diet.
I haven't read anything testifying to the healthiness of including olives or pineapple in the feline diet, but, since Cutie has been right about so many other things, I'll trust that she knows what she's doing when she begs for them. She's absolutely frantic in her begging for olives, and eats them as if they are the best thing she's ever tasted, so there must be something in it for her, and it's not as if it's a daily part of her dietary regimen.
Although I won't claim to do this myself yet, I should say that organic vegetables and fruits are best. Otherwise, at least wash them carefully, to remove as much of the pesticide as possible.
Don't be afraid to share some of the healthier portions of your meals with your feline friend. If you're already cooking wholesome food for yourself, share some with your cat. I'm not talking about replacing her premium cat food with table scraps, but these can be a useful supplement to her regular diet.
The ban on table scraps is a part of a campaign promoted by the commercial pet food industry, and is purely self-serving. Feeding table scraps as a supplement to your cat's diet can be good for her.
Don't restrict your handouts to the meaty items that your cat is probably begging for, although she knows what she's doing when she's begging for your chicken. If you're cooking oatmeal or baking potatoes, make a little extra for your cat.
If you steam your vegetables, the residue broth is rich in minerals that may be important to your cat. Add this broth to the cat's food, or to the drinking water, if it isn't allowed to stand for too long.
Another favorite of Cutie is yogurt. She always begs for yogurt and will eat as much of it as I'm willing to give her. Plain, low-fat or non-fat, yogurt might be best for your cat, but small amounts of any live-culture yogurt will serve to aid in digestion.
Whatever you're feeding your cat, consider adding small amounts of cold-pressed extra virgin olive oil, fish oil, or oil derived from sesame or flax seed, as these are all good sources of omega-3, omega-6, or omega-9 fatty acids, which will serve to enhance the cat's skin and coat, and reduce itching.
Other human foods that are known to be beneficial to your cat include brussels sprouts, green beans, watercress, broccoli, zucchini, cabbage, and beet greens, either raw or lightly steamed, and chopped fine. Baked potatoes are good for them, especially the portions just beneath the skins, which many people peel off, as they are rich in potassium. Don't serve them raw potatoes, as there is a good reason why you don't eat them that way. Oats, and any whole grains, such as brown rice, barley, and millet, are good, as they provide fiber.
Most cats don't like citrus and, since there's probably a good reason for that, I wouldn't push that issue. Cutie likes pineapple, but none of the others will go near it, so I seldom give her that.
You shouldn't feed them anything made from refined wheat flour, white rice, or any grain by-products, as these are not easily digested by cats. Tomatoes are high in lycopenes, a beneficial nutrient, but their acidity may upset the cat's gastrointestinal tract, so I wouldn't give them too much tomato at a time.
In cats or people, I think it's best to avoid foods that have been genetically modified.
A controversial topic among feline nutritionists has to do with the beneficial, or possibly harmful, effects of feeding your cat raw meats.
A strong argument can be made for the fact that you couldn't feed your cat a more natural diet than one that includes raw meat. Cats are carnivores, and very few of them have learned to start fires or to cook their kill before dining. Proponents of raw food will insist that the only way that you can offer your cat a healthy diet is by feeding raw meat.
Long before cats became domesticated, indoor pets, cats were expected to hunt for their daily meals. I grew up on a farm and, while we did feed our cats, they supplemented their diet with mice and other small animals that they could hunt and kill.
Raw meat is high in nutritional value, containing enzymes, essential fatty acids, pure protein, B-complex and other key vitamins and minerals.
So a good argument can be made for feeding raw meats to your cat.
Others have expressed concerns about the feeding of raw meat that may be contaminated with harmful bacteria, such as salmonella, parasites, or even chemical contaminants.
They argue that our domesticated pets are not very similar to their predatory ancestors, that they have comparatively compromised immune systems, and are far more prone to degenerative disease. They argue also, that the intestinal tracts of domesticated cats are not as strong as that of their ancestors, leaving them more prone to the possible harmful effects of splintered bones.
Lastly, they argue that the regular feeding of raw meats will lead the cat to eat far less of its more carefully balanced premium cat food, leading to imbalances and deficiencies in protein, fat, carbohydrates, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants.
I haven't taken a stand on this one, and probably won't, since my cats will not eat raw meat; not even Bird, who came to us as a feral adult.
Before she came to live with us, Bird would hunt, kill, and eat birds and rodents, leaving very little of its kill to waste. As a house cat, she has learned to prefer cat food. It's been awhile since I've seen her even attempt to eat her kill, although that may not be a fair assessment, since I generally take it away from her before she gets to that point, since she insists on bringing everything into the house.
Some of you will no doubt hate me for this, but I've never discouraged her from hunting. She has no friends among the other cats here, including her own daughter, and - at sixteen - I'm not going to take that away from her. Since the snow melted, she has brought us about forty frogs, and about as many mice, a few moles, a turtle, and about a half dozen birds, most of them unharmed.
During her transition from feral cat to house kitty, she has gone from killing and eating her prey, to killing them and bringing the bodies in the house for show and tell, to bringing them in to play (often roughly) with, to bringing them in unharmed, losing interest in them after she has presented them to us. She carries mice by the nap of the neck, ever so carefully, as if they were kittens, and manages to bring frogs in from the pond without harming them in any way.
I don't think she intentionally kills anything anymore, and the others have never hunted. I've watched Lydia stalk a couple of birds, pouncing on them, holding them down with her paws, the releasing them to fly away, in what we referred to as her catch-and-release program.
As for raw meat, if I give them a piece of clean raw meat or chicken, they look at, and then at me, as if I had reneged on a promise to give them something they wanted. They're not interested, so I don't have to decide whether or not to feed them raw meat.
But we were talking about fleas, so I apologize for the digression. Tying it in, and bringing the discussion back on-topic, the best thing that you can do to protect your cat from fleas is to provide your cat with the nutrition that it needs to be able to protect itself.
Some foods are particularly useful in helping your cat to win the battle against fleas.
- Brewer's yeast: high grade, unprocessed brewer's yeast will help to support immune system health.
- Garlic: Garlic has been used for centuries as a medicinal supplement, and it works against fleas by cleaning and detoxifying the cat's body, resulting in a healthier immune system. One clove of garlic a day will also give a taste to the blood that fleas and ticks don't like.
- B Vitamins: Vitamin B-1 (thiamine) and Vitamin B-6 (pyridoxine) are known to repel fleas and ticks. Brewer's yeast and rice bran contain high levels of all of the B-vitamins.
- Minerals: Minerals are also essential for a healthy metabolism, the most important being calcium, phosphorus, and zinc.
Cats which are allergic to flea bites will have an exaggerated response. Some foods that can be useful in building up your pet's immune system, so as to reduce this response, include spirulina, wheat grass, and alfalfa, added to the same food ingredients discussed above. Some of the better cat foods, including Blue's Spa Select brand, include these foods.
Additionally, Dr. Robert S. Goldstein, V.M.D., markets a product called Herbal Internal Powder, which includes all of these flea-fighting ingredients.
When your cat is constantly scratching and biting at its fur, she may have a fleabite allergy, or an allergy to the saliva of fleas. At the milder levels, there might be minor scratching, itching, and redness of the skin. In its more servere stages, your cat might chew through its own skin trying to relieve the itch. These self-inflicted wounds are known as hot spots, and will require veterinary intervention.
Your veterinarian may prescribe cortisone shots to relieve the itching, and will want to dip the animal in order to rid it completely of fleas. Ask about the use of non-toxic products, but the important thing at this point is for the animal to be rid of fleas.
Once the emergent problem has been taken care of, help her to never have to experience it again, using the methods discussed above and below. If your cat has been exposed to toxic substances as a means of ridding it of the fleas, help it to clear its body of the toxins, and boost its natural immune system, through the use of antioxidants, such as Vitamin C, Vitamin A, and Vitamin E.
House and yard
Dogs and cats are the most common household hosts of fleas. Cats that are permitted to go outdoors will bring fleas back in with them, but even indoor cats are not safe. In turn, the fleas will lay eggs on the pet.
Flea eggs are tiny, white, and oval. If you turn your cat over, you may be able to see the eggs, like white ground pepper, along her stomach and genital region; but the eggs don't generally remain on the cat.
Fleas go through four life cycle stages: embryo, larva, pupa and adult. The life cycle begins when the female lays her eggs after feeding. Adult fleas must feed on blood before they can become capable of reproduction. Eggs are laid in batches of up to twenty or so, usually on the host itself, which easily roll onto the ground. As such, areas where the host rests and sleeps become one of the primary habitats of eggs and developing fleas. The eggs take around two days to two weeks to hatch.
Flea larvae emerge from the eggs to feed on any available organic material, such as dead insects, feces and vegetable matter. They are blind and avoid sunlight, keeping to dark places like sand, cracks, crevices, and bedding. Given an adequate supply of food, larvae should pupate within a couple of weeks.
After going through three larval stages they spin a silken cocoon. After another week or two the adult flea is fully developed and ready to emerge from the cocoon. They may however remain resting during this period until they receive a signal that a host is near - vibrations (including sound), heat and carbon dioxide are all stimuli indicating the probable presence of a host. Fleas are known to remain in the larval or pupal stages throughout the winter.
Once the flea reaches adulthood its primary goal is to find blood, as adult fleas only have around a week to find food once they emerge; although they can survive two months to a year between meals.
The normal flea population is unevenly distributed, with 5O% eggs, 35% larvae, 1O% pupae and 5%adults, so the adult fleas that you see make up a very small portion of the total flea population.
Their total life cycle can take as little as two weeks, but may be lengthened to many months if conditions are favorable. One female flea can lay more than five hundred eggs in her lifetime, so you can see why it's important to treat the house and yard, and not just the pets themselves.
There are safe, yet effective, ways to rid your home of fleas.
Borates, derivatives of boric acid, come in a very fine powder that is usually mixed with an inert carrier. The borates are harmless to people and to pets, yet are effective at killing fleas in the larval stage.
They will also kill adult fleas, although not like an insecticide. Rather, they kill slowly, as the flea ingests the borate.
Sprinkle the powder onto your carpet and upholstered furniture, working it into the nap with a broom, let it sit for about ten minutes, then vaccum any excess.
The powder is so fine that it will remain there for many months, despite frequent vacuumings, remaining effective against fleas. Because the borates are most effective on the flea larvae and newly hatched fleas, they can be an important part of a flea prevention program.
While you can't kill off the fleas that your cat is going to encounter when it goes outdoors, you can keep the population down in the area around your house by using nematodes. These microscopic worms eat flea larvae and are therefore a natural way to control the flea population.
You can purchase nematodes online, or at pet stores. Place them in moist, shady spots near your house; neither fleas or nematodes survive in the hot sun, so there is no need to apply them to open areas of your yard. As nematodes multiply rapidly, you have only to introduce a small number to have the desired effect.
If your pets and your home are already infested with fleas, as was ours a few years ago, this is the time when you, like us, will be tempted to reach for the big guns: the dips, the bombs, the sprays, and the foggers.
You don't have to do that. If your home is infested with fleas, you should:
- bathe your cat with a natural herbal shampoo, repeating every week for four weeks.
- switch your cat to a nutritious, flea-fighting diet, if you haven't already.
- add fresh, chopped garlic to her every meal; about one clove per day.
- supplement her food with B-complex vitamins.
- use a natural, topical spray, or powder, containing natural flea-fighting ingredients; continuing to use as often as needed, or as directed.
- add a natural, stress reduction formula, to your cat's water.
- apply aloe vera to any hot spots, in order to soothe and help heal the area.
- apply a herbal flea collar, watching your cat's neck for any signs of an adverse reaction.
- use one of the borate products, as described above, then vacuum thoroughly, depositing the vacuum bag, or contents, into a plastic bag, seal the bag, and discard outside of your home.
- use a fine-toothed flea comb to check for fleas on your cat, killing any resulting fleas by depositing them into a cup or glass containing soapy water; repeat this a few times a day, or until you are no longer finding fleas.
While you have choices in topical sprays or powders, some of which I have no personal experiences with, I have found the Sentry Natural Defense natural flea and tick powder for cats and kittens to be very effective, at least as a deterrent. Also available in a spray, the Sentry product contains peppermint oil, cinnamon oil, lemon grass oil, clove oil, and thyme oil, although it does contain phenethyl propionate, derived from peanut oil, which is considered a minimum-risk carcinogen. We like it, not only for its effectiveness, but also for the pleasant smell of cloves that it leaves behind.
If it should be necessary to bring the immediate death to every flea living on your cat, one of the big guns that might be brought out, after consultation with your veterinarian, is Bayer Advantage, applied to the skin. While Advantage is a chemical poison, it is superior to the sprays, dips, bombs, foggers, and collars.
Frontline PLUS has also gained a wide reputation as a flea killer, but I wouldn’t recommend the regular use of either of these pesticides, as natural precautionary measures are far more effective, and safer for your pet.
I do not recommend any of the other over-the-counter flea killing concoctions that you drop onto your cat’s back. While they might prove effective at killing the fleas, they may also contribute to the early death of your cat.
With proper nutrition, and natural remedies, you should never have to use a fogger, or a flea bomb.