The sound of Cricket's toenails digging into his belly woke me last night at 3:00 AM. How annoying. The little guy has a flea, and that means today's bath day. Our dogs recognize the bath day ritual pretty quickly. When their beds get stripped and everything goes into the washing machine, they both get that worried look. Then when I put on the red running shorts, they know the time has come. In the past, Cricket - the little scamp - would try to flee and we'd have to chase him down, corner him, scoop up his 30 pounds of indignation, and carry him into the shower. Kanga had a more Gandhi-esque approach to the whole thing. She would curl up on the couch and refuse to move. Since she weighs a full 60 pounds, we'd sometimes practically need a crowbar to get her up and prod her toward the bathroom. Now they seem to recognize the inevitability, so both dogs come - heads hanging low - and submit to the indignity. Afterwards they cavort in gleeful joy for having survived yet again. That night Cricket asks to hop up on the bed, and sometimes we let him because he's so clean, fresh and fluffy...not to mention cute.
Lots of people ask me how to control fleas on pets, and as a pet owner I can relate. I hate fleas. But a trip to the pet store can be a bewildering experience, with all kinds of pesticide products on the shelves marketed to protect our best friends from vermin. Over the past year or so, my team of researchers at NRDC has been looking at these products and we've learned a few things that made me go with my current shower plan.
First of all, just because a pesticide is legally on the shelves doesn't mean it's safe. Many of these products contain potent chemicals that can have adverse effects on pets and kids. I'm especially concerned about flea collars because many of them contain really toxic chemicals - such as tetrachlorvinphos and propoxur - that should probably not be on the market anymore. The collars are designed as a 'slow release' device for the pesticide, and spread a pesticide residue across the animal's fur for weeks. That's fine unless you ever touch your pet. The problem is that the residue gets on your hands (or worse still children's hands) and then can be absorbed through the skin or accidentally ingested.
Even some of the "natural" flea control products can be a problem, since some of these chemicals can cause allergic reactions such as dermatitis and even asthma in sensitive people. There are lots of products out there, but we found relatively few that we can really recommend as safe. For information about specific flea control products that you use, check out the product guide on the "Green Paws" website.
In medical school, I took a course on the history of medicine. I learned the disgusting fact that in the past people were routinely infested with vermin such as lice and fleas. All kinds of chemicals, including DDT, were used for de-lousing humans even within the past 50 years. Fortunately, vermin on people isn't generally a problem in the United States today. That's because most of us bathe and wash our clothes on a regular basis. So why not apply this same rule to our pets? In my house, every two weeks, the dogs get a bath and all of their bedding gets cleaned. Every week the carpets get vacuumed well to remove any possible flea eggs. Guess what - it works! Every so often one of them picks up a flea at the dog park, but as soon as we see the scratching, out comes the flea comb, and that little blood sucker is soon drowned in a cup of soapy water. It's really easy once the whole family has the routine down. And it's great to have dogs that smell and feel clean. Better still, it's great to have dogs that aren't covered with a toxic residue.
This article originally appeared on Gina Solomon's Blog on Switchboard, from the NRDC website, in Oct 2008.