Spring is on its way and so are the fleas! Prevention is better than cure, so now is the perfect time to start planning your Happy Animal Herb Garden. Include herbs that are natural flea repellents and enjoy harvesting them as needed in the summer. These herbs may also help keep your veggies free from other unwanted insects.
Some Flea Facts
Everyone who has animals in their home sooner or later gets to meet fleas.
These ancient wingless insects (they have been on earth for 160 million years) spend 95% of their lives in the environment. After emerging from eggs, larvae feed on organic material before weaving a tiny, silken cocoon and pupating. Adult fleas emerge from the cocoon when they sense the presence of a potential host animal. Import cues to hatch are an increase in carbon dioxide, temperature and vibrations as the animal moves nearby. Fleas use their remarkable hind legs to jump onto their animal host – adult fleas can jump up to 30cm, about 200 times their own size. Fleas jump onto cats and dogs to feed, requiring a meal of blood before they can reproduce. Female fleas then lay around 500 eggs and the cycle continues. In ideal conditions fleas can go from egg to laying eggs in as little as 2 weeks. On cats and dogs, fleas typically cause local irritation and itching but are also be associated with other diseases. Fleas can transmit tapeworm and cause severe skin allergies.
War & Peace with Fleas
Over the last few decades we humans have been manufacturing increasingly potent chemicals to try and eliminate fleas and treat flea-associated illnesses. We quickly discovered, however, that fleas can adapt and develop resistance to insecticides. We also now know that the environment and many other creatures are often negatively affected by our dependence on and overuse of these chemicals. Recent research even suggests that the complete absence of parasites may actually lead to immune-related problems in animals. It seems parasites like fleas may be playing an important positive role and be essential to wellbeing.
What does Nature do
The good news is that many aromatic herbs, rich in essential oils, have natural insect-repellent properties. Could it be possible, using herbs, to make your home and animals less welcoming to fleas?
Some animals already use these herbs to reduce insect parasite burdens in the wild. See the section on Zoopharmacognosy – how wild animals use the plants in their environments to support healing and prevent disease. In that article we mentioned birds that line their nests with essential-oil rich plants. Researchers have found that this behaviour in starlings reduces parasites in the nest and improves the survival of their young.
Herbs that may deter fleas
Here is a list of herbs with flea repellent properties you definitely want in your garden and home this summer. Most of them should be available at your local nursery:
- African Basil (Ocimum canum) – an indigenous herb with a good reputation for keeping insects away
- Chrysanthemum (Chrysanthemum cinerariifolium) – the flowers contain pyrethrins, an insecticide still used in many over-the-counter flea products.
- Fleabane (Erigeron spp.) – a number of plants carry this name, and traditionally used to help prevent flea infestation.
- Imphepho (Helichrysum odoratissimum) – indigenous to South Africa and traditionally used as bedding to repel insects.
- Khakibos (Tagetes minuata) – native to South America but now common in South Africa, and used in some flea shampoos.
- Lavender (Lavandula spp) – a popular and safe herb to use as a flea repellent.
- Neem (Azadirachta indica) – a tree native toIndia, seeds and oil are used as insect repellent.
- Pennyroyal (Mentha pulegium) – a potent mint that is potentially toxic so use with care.
- Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) – another popular and safe herb to use as a flea repellent. Rosemary has the added reputation of giving a shine to dull coats.
- Tansy (Tanacetum vulgare) – this herb is also potentially toxic, use with care.
Simple ways to use herbs to deter fleas
As only a small percentage of the flea population is on the animal host, it’s wise to pay special attention to their environment. As well as encouraging insect-eating birds into the garden, we can use herbs to help create an environment for animals that is not attractive to fleas.
- grow aromatic herbs in the garden and your animal’s outside environment
- grow aromatic herbs in pots and bring them into your living areas
- rub fresh herbs on the legs and coat before going out on a walk
- or create a herbal infusion (tea) and use this as a final rinse when washing your animals or as a spray. (1 teaspoon of dried herb, or 1 tablespoon of fresh herb per cup of water – allow to cool before use!)
- grind dried herbs to create simple flea repellent powders. Harvest the herbs from your garden, dry them thoroughly and grind them into a fine powder using a coffee grinder. Sprinkle the powder around the home, on bedding or anywhere your animals spend a lot time. The aromatic herb powders can also be used directly onto the coat and combed through.
- fill small pillows or socks with dried herbs for the bedding area, or stuff dried herbs under their mattress. Remember to always give animals a choice and provide sleeping places without herbal pillows if they prefer.
The flea repelling effects of herbs used as a powder, spray or wash will not last very long. The volatile essential oils will exert their effects for a couple of hours to perhaps a day or two. Herbal pillows may be useful for days or even weeks if filled with quality, dried herbs. The beneficial effects of living herbs in an animal’s environment in pots or the garden will be ongoing.
BE AWARE: essential oils can pose a health risk to cats.
As modern research begins to validate traditional herbal knowledge it’s time to get to know these herbs again, and explore how to use them safely to help reduce and prevent flea-related problems in our animals. Although fleas and other parasites may offend us, they play important roles in Earth’s ecosystems and Life’s processes. While there may well be a time and place for chemical treatments, flea control strategies in nature typically aim at a balance and harmony without trying to ‘eliminate the enemy’.