Are there natural flea products for pets that are both safe and effective?
We all want to use ‘natural’ products – they sound safer and less scary. But the first thing to remember is that ‘natural’ doesn’t mean safe. In fact, poisons are natural – and something as benign-seeming as essential oils can be fatal if the wrong oil is applied the wrong way or to the wrong species. In contrast, medications have gone through years of rigorous testing to make sure they’re safe, and those that aren’t don’t make it to market.
But, that aside, wouldn’t it be great if we found a plant that prevented fleas? While there’s plenty of anecdotal reports (“I gave my pet X and they never got fleas”) this is unfortunately not good evidence – that pet may have a genetic reason that fleas don’t like them, or they may just not have come into contact with fleas – there are too many variables to sort through, and concluding it’s the supplement or oil used isn’t good science.
Rest assured, people are doing proper studies to try to find a supplement or natural solution to the flea problem, but there’s nothing concrete yet. We’ll link some of the latest studies below, so you can see what’s happening in this field – but we’ll also explain why (even when the studies show a good result) they aren’t necessarily the silver bullet we might hope for.
To be considered effective, at least 95% of fleas should be killed. The product needs to be safe to apply and ingest (since pets will often lick it off). It needs to be safe for all breeds of pet in the species it’s designed for. And it needs to not effect other species the pet might share a home with, with minimal environmental contamination when the pet is outside the house.
That’s a big ask, and there’s emerging evidence that the non-prescription products avaiable have been contaminating the environment for years!
A quick search says that Brewer’s yeast supplements are “widely recognised as an effective natural treatment”, but this isn’t true. There’s some poor evidence that it may be something to look at in more detail, but there’s also evidence it doesn’t work – one study showed that Brewer’s Yeast in the food had no impact on fleas.
Despite widespread belief that garlic treats and repels fleas, there’s currently no scientific evidence that it does so in pets. One study showed that it can kill fleas when applied to filter paper, but that’s a long way from being useable in pets. In addition, garlic is toxic to pets, and has a cumulative effect, meaning it isn’t a good choice for flea treatments.
Several essential oils have been found to be toxic to fleas when applied to filter paper. The difficulty comes in safely applying them to pets – cats and dogs can get side effects from topical applications of essential oils, and some cases in cats proved to be fatal. Getting high enough concentrations to kill or repel the fleas but low enough to avoid toxicity in the pet is difficult. So far, no products made from essential oils have proved they’re both safe and effective.
The most promising essential oil appears to be neem oil. A study in 1998 found that a high concentration of the oil could reduce flea numbers for 7 days, and that the dose needed was lower if the neem was combined with DEET and citronella. However, further studies into the safety of neem are lacking, and accidental ingestion could cause reproductive problems, so it’s not necessarily safe. It would also need regular application, which might be difficult. Nevertheless, neem shampoos are available and you could try using them for your pet.
One study investigated using a plant-based food supplement that contained thyme and rosemary extracts, among others. Although it reports the results as positive, a few things should be considered:
Although natural products may seem like a good idea, they’re not always safe and not always effective. Generally, they’re best avoided – especially with unknown side effects and toxicity. It’s an area with much research and development, so it’s something to watch out for in future though!
There are currently no natural products that have been proven to be both safe and effective, so they’re best avoided.