Cat fleas (Ctenocephalides felis) are a common wingless parasite that feeds on the blood of cats. A female adult flea can lay 50 eggs a day. The eggs, which have the appearance of salt drop off the cat and into the environment. Eggs hatch into larvae (which look like small maggots) in warm, moist environments. Larvae feed on organic matter such as skin and adult flea feces.
Adult fleas spend their entire life on the cat, feeding on the blood. Proteins in the flea’s saliva are the most common source of allergic reactions in cats, causing intense itching, crusting, and scabs around the neck and on the back. They also transmit several diseases and parasites, including tapeworm, plague, cat scratch disease, tularemia, and rickettsia.
Even indoor cats can get fleas when they hitch a ride into the home via people and objects or entering via open windows, cracks or breaks in fly screens.
Why use natural?
I’m not actively against flea-control medications and use them to treat fleas on my cats and dogs; however, many people prefer natural for the reasons listed below:
- Very young kittens under 4-6 weeks
- Pregnant or lactating cats (many flea control products are safe to use on pregnant and lactating cats)
- Elderly cats
- Cats with underlying medical problems
- Mild flea outbreaks
- Preference for natural products in the home
- Fleas are becoming resistant to some commercial brands of flea product
Flea life cycle
This has been explained in more detail here, so I won’t cover it again. In summary, there are four stages of flea development:
Only the adult flea lives on the cat; the remainder of the flea life cycle is in the environment. This highlights the importance of treating both the cat and the home at the same time. Treatment must be aimed at all four stages, egg, larvae, pupae and adult flea.
Eggs and pupae are the hardest to destroy, the pupae are in a protective casing, and the flea can remain in the pupae for several months until conditions are right such as vibrations (from the host), humidity, heat and an increase in carbon dioxide levels.
Natural flea treatments for cats
In the event of a mild flea outbreak, the following methods can be used to treat fleas on affected cats. Treat all pets at the same time.
Flea comb and dishwashing soap:
This can be used to control adult fleas on the cat. Keep a bowl of hot soapy water close to dip the fleas into.
Natural flea treatment for the home
The following treatments are for use in the environment to kill the eggs, larvae, and pupae and must not be used on the cat.
Borax (sodium borate)
Borax is an effective flea control product drying out the flea larvae in the environment. It is toxic to cats but can be used to control fleas in areas cats do not access such as gardens, sheds, and garages.
How to use:
Liberally sprinkle borax on the floor in areas of infestation. Pay attention to crevices such as skirting boards where larvae like to hide.
Salt works in much the same way as borax, desiccating (drying) flea larvae in the environment. It is non-toxic to cats and can be used safely in the home however it is strongly advised to keep cats out of areas being treated as large amounts of salt can be irritating to the eyes. The more highly refined the salt, the better.
How to use:
Liberally sprinkle salt (bicarbonate of soda can be added to the salt) into carpets, rugs, and bedding, use a brush to dissipate the salt deep into the fibres. Leave for 3-4 hours and vacuum. Empty the vacuum cleaner bag or canister in the outside garbage. This process will need to be repeated several times to ensure newly hatched larvae are killed.
Food grade diatomaceous earth
This powder may look and feel fine, but it is made up of jagged, razor-sharp edges which penetrate the flea and flea larvae.
How to use:
Apply to flooring, carpets, and rugs. Use a brush to get the powder deep into the carpet. Leave for 6-12 hours and vacuum. Repeat every 3-4 days to break the flea cycle.
Do not use on your cat or cat bedding as it can be extremely irritating to the skin and airways and if enough is ingested during grooming, can potentially cause an intestinal blockage.
These can be homemade or purchased online. They consist of a light source and water with dishwashing detergent added to drown the fleas. Opinion is divided as to the effectiveness of flea traps. One site caught 50 fleas overnight.
In addition to the above methods, vacuum daily, and throw out the vacuum cleaner bag/empty the canister daily in the outside garbage. If possible, purchase a cat flea collar and cut it into 1-inch pieces, place one piece in the vacuum. Pay attention to nooks and crannies, skirting boards, underneath furniture, between sofa cushions and seats and sliding door tracks.
Wash your cat’s bedding in hot water once a week, hang out in the sun to dry. Between washes, spray with cider vinegar/water solution.
Treat the garden and outbuildings such as sheds and garages with borax, salt or diatomaceous earth.
Add cedar wood-chips as a mulch on garden beds to repel fleas.
Products to avoid
It concerns me when I see people recommend natural products such as tea tree to treat fleas under the belief that because they are natural, they are safe. Natural products can be extremely dangerous after all, arsenic and cyanide are natural, but we wouldn’t give them to our cats!
- Cats are at risk of toxicity as their livers don’t produce the necessary enzymes to break down the substances as humans (or dogs). This is why cats are also sensitive to common over the counter medications.
- Secondary poisoning can also occur because cats are fastidious groomers; anything that goes onto their coat will be ingested during grooming.
- Anything applied to the coat can make its way to the skin and cause chemical burns and be absorbed through the skin into the system. This is particularly true of essential oils when they are used in high concentrations.
While effective, tea tree is toxic to cats at a dilution above 0.1 to 1% and therefore, it is better to avoid.
A member of the nightshade family, garlic (and its cousin onion) is toxic to cats causing a life-threatening condition known as hemolytic anemia in which Heinz bodies develop on the red blood cells leading to their destruction.
Other products to avoid:
No single product is 100% effective when you are dealing with a parasite that has four life stages which are spent on and off the cat. Used in combination with one another, natural products can be effective.
I am always over-cautious when providing advice on this site and have omitted some products which you may see elsewhere, especially essential oils. We must remember that these products are high concentrations of chemicals. While it no doubt isn’t an issue that your cat fell asleep on the lavender bush, or licked a slice of lemon, it is completely different when adding these concentrated oils to the fur and skin, which are absorbed and ingested. I prefer to err on the side of caution.
If you are having problems with fleas and have tried natural products, it may be time to bring out the big guns and use a veterinary prescribed flea control product. We all want the best for our pets, and many pet owners worry about the over-use of chemicals, but fleas are extremely irritating to cats, especially those who suffer from flea allergies. I have had the best success with tablets (Comfortis), having tried almost all topical flea treatments on one of my cats who suffered from severe flea allergy dermatitis.