I went outside just after sunrise to say good morning to my horses, Tess and Tomar, as they came for their usual early visit at the edge of the deck. It was good to feel the warm sun after so many weeks of California’s winter rain. The air smelled like spring, with the sweet lilacs blooming next to the driveway. As I stroked Tomar’s long, graceful neck, I found another early sign of spring. A few of the season’s first ticks had found their way to the soft skin, and were already filling their bellies at his expense.

In many parts of the country this year, an unusually mild or rainy winter has set the stage for a severe flea and tick season. There are lots of ads and information around touting chemical solutions to the problem. But too often those chemicals can add problems of their own. One indication is that most come in packages blazoned with warnings against contact with human skin. It stands to reason that if you and I need to be concerned about how these substances might affect us, we should also be concerned about how they’ll affect our animal friends. While aggressive treatments have their place, we can use them sparingly if necessary, and in most cases avoid chemicals altogether. Fortunately there are safer, more natural ways to prevent flea and tick infestations, or to treat them if they do occur. A good holistic approach works with our animal family member’s body, mind, spirit, and environment to support her natural defenses against parasites.

As with anything that threatens animals’ health, the first and best defense is their own vibrant good health. That starts with a happy environment, as free from stress as possible, and relies heavily on a wholesome diet that’s free from artificial additives. When the system is not taxed by anxiety, nor laden with the by-products of poor quality ingredients and chemical additives, the skin and coat bloom. Fleas and other parasites are less likely to thrive when the natural oils and the immune system are able to do their job.

Tess and Tomar are good examples of this principle. Of course, fleas aren’t an issue for horses, but ticks and flies certainly can be—and these tiny critters are choosy about their hosts. Tomar is a twenty-seven-year-old thoroughbred. He’s always been a worrier, first to get anxious when a storm is brewing, and ever fearful that another horse will come along and steal his dinner. It’s always been difficult to keep weight on him—he just seems to fret the calories away. Tess, on the other hand, appears to live on air—her body makes excellent use of every morsel of food. Her mom was part quarterhorse, her dad a powerful German warmblood; Tess is built something like a small tank, and has the strength of spirit to go along with it. Nothing worries her, but she’ll gladly snort and strut her stuff if someone dares to try. Both she and Tomar eat the same food and live in the same low-stress, fence-free environment, roaming acres of grassy ridge-top at will, and returning to the security of home for regular naps, snacks, and hugs. While Tomar had several ticks already feasting on him this morning, Tess didn’t have one. It’ll be like that all summer—she’ll have a fraction of the number of flies and ticks as he will. Her strong constitution seems to deter them, while his lesser vitality seems to project a welcome mat for opportunistic bugs.

I can’t change Tomar’s nature, but living a healthy, natural lifestyle with a minimum of stress certainly helps. And watching the two horses together reinforces the importance of good physical and mental health as the first lines of defense against parasites. Here are some easy steps you can take to maximize vitality and implement some basic deterrence for the dogs, cats, and horses in your life:
Create an emotionally safe environment, and minimize stress as much as possible. Minimize situations in which conflict arises among family members of all species. If a dog or a cat must spend long hours alone while the humans go off to work, provide nonhuman companionship if possible, or consider arranging for a neighbor to visit during the day. Provide plenty of praise and play time, and access to a quiet space to retreat to whenever they like.

Feed the best diet you can—not necessarily the most expensive, but one made from fresh, wholesome ingredients. For dogs and cats, prepare meals at home if possible from a variety of foods, or find a packaged formula made from all natural, human-grade ingredients, with no chemical additives. Be sure to change the brand frequently to ensure varied sources of nutrients.

Adding garlic and nutritional yeast to the diet may deter fleas and ticks by altering the smell of the skin and making it less attractive to parasites. Fresh raw garlic is best, but powdered or cooked is also helpful. A convenient option—and the most palatable one for most cats—is a yeast and garlic wafer; several brands are available, and most health food stores carry them in the “pet food” aisle. Believe it or not, the yeast and garlic approach is also viable for horses. I’ve seen a significant difference in the number of ticks on both Tess and Tomar when I feed them fresh crushed garlic and yeast with some grain. Most horses will eat nutritional (or brewers) yeast readily, but curl their lips at the first taste of garlic. Introduce it gradually, with a small amount hidden in grain sweetened with molasses. Increase the amount of garlic and reduce the molasses slowly over a period of a couple of weeks. (Your horses will be the only ones in the county whose breath smells like they’ve been eating pasta!)

Regular grooming will keep the skin and coat their healthiest, and maintain your best first line of defense. Grooming helps stimulate production of natural oils and spreads them throughout the coat, and significantly enhances the benefits of feeding yeast and garlic.

A flea comb is the most natural flea treatment you can find, and it will also remove ticks that have yet to attach. Make it’s use part of your grooming routine, or keep it handy for after a walk in the tall grass, wooded areas, or other places where fleas and ticks may be present.

A nose-to-tail exam after a walk outside is your dog’s and cat’s best protection against ticks and the diseases they may carry. In general, ticks must be attached for at least twenty-four hours before Lyme’s disease can be transmitted, so make every effort to remove them before or soon after they bite.

If you need a temporary defense on short notice, try mixing powdered garlic, nutritional yeast, and the dried powdered herbs rosemary and chamomile. Rub the mixture into the coat as close to the skin as possible just before heading out of doors.

Though I have no direct experience with it, I’ve heard many claims of success using white vinegar as a flea deterrent. Some use it topically, using a cloth to apply it all over the coat. (Be sure to avoid eyes or other sensitive areas.) Others add a small amount to the drinking water.

There are a variety of herbs and herbal formulas available as flea and tick deterrents. They include eucalyptus, citronella, pennyroyal, and others. These can be effective for short term use, but should be used with caution. Any strong aromatic oil can be toxic if ingested, and even inhaling them may be harmful for puppies or cats. Never use a formula designed for dogs on a cat.

No matter how healthy your animals are, or how effective your grooming practices are, if fleas and ticks are making themselves comfortable in and around your home you’ll be fighting a losing battle. Try these techniques to keep your environment parasite free:

  • Wash bedding in hot water weekly.
  • Vacuum carpets and upholstery weekly, and pay special attention to cracks, crevices, and areas under furniture and appliances. Seal and empty the vacuum bag immediately afterward, so fleas don’t crawl out and undo all your hard work.
  • If your home is carpeted, application of a borate-based powder is a highly effective, non-toxic way of eliminating fleas for weeks or months at a time. Professional services such as Fleabusters can apply the powder for you, or you can purchase it at feed supply stores, “pet” stores, and online. If you do it yourself be sure to follow application instructions, and work it well into the fiber of the carpet.
  • A tiny species of soil nematode, or worm, can be applied to your yard to reduce the population of fleas without harming you or other mammals. The beneficial nematodes are available at nurseries, feed supply stores, “pet” stores, or online.
  • Diatomaceous earth can be used in the yard or indoors as a more temporary alternative to borate powder or nematodes.

If your dog or cat is dealing with a severe flea infestation, or if his health is poor or he has flea allergies, you may need to consider a chemical treatment until you get the problem under control and restore your friend to good health. If so, work with your veterinarian rather than purchasing an over-the-counter product that may be less effective and more toxic than one you’ll get with a prescription. Products that contain insect growth regulators (IGRs) tend to be less toxic than some other formulas, because they are not true pesticides. Instead, they interrupt the fertility cycle of the fleas. Once the parasites are under control, you can work with diet and lifestyle to revitalize your friend and revert to natural flea control measures for the long term.

Finally, it’s important to keep things in perspective. Fleas and ticks have been around for millions of years. If you hope to find a way to eliminate them entirely from your home, hearth, and family, there just isn’t one. What’s more, a few fleas and ticks really aren’t the end of the world—in most cases they’re nothing more than little annoyances. After all, dogs, cats, and horses have evolved in a world they share with all kinds of other species, including parasites. The reality is that most get the occasional tick or flea and deal with it. Remember that the presence of these tiny beings is not a reflection on the quality of your care. Keep your eye on the big picture, offer the best environment and lifestyle you can, and celebrate your animal friends’ vitality—including her ability to manage the few little bites that life brings her way. Your holistic approach to dealing with fleas and ticks with an eye to body, mind, spirit, and beyond, will bring you closer to all those you care for, and ensure good health for many years to come.