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Question. Our yard is a highway for stray cats;whenever we let our dogs out, they come back in the house with fleas.What can we do to get rid of fleas in our yard? Thanks!
----Marita and Michael; South Kensington,Philadelphia
Mike: My daughter's family just movedinto a new house they built in Oklahoma, and fleas have turned up. Theyneed organic ways to rid the house of these pests that will not beharmful to her children. Thanks for any help you can give.
---Concerned grandmother Karla
Mike: Our cat recently brought fleasin with him and we are now infested with the little buggers. Is thereany way we can execute them safely? Please help!
---Scratching Steve; Atco, NJ
Answer. Well, I assure you that I know what todo here, because I recently had to evict these unwelcome visitors frommy own home! So did our musical director, Kenn Kweder. And a weakenedkitty may have been the cause in both cases.
The McGrath home is Stray CatCentral; our current brood includes one rescued as an almost-deadkitten from a farm (Tigger, aka "Fat Boy"), one that was dropped on ourvet's doorstep at the age of one day and raised by us since Day Two(that's Squeeky, "the bad girl"), and a once-feral cat rescued during aVirginia vacation with the help of Alley Cat Allies, specialists inwild cat rescue and rehab (www.alleycat.org). That's "the baby", whose proper name isHoudini, but who we always call Dini; she vanished this summer and thenreappeared after two weeks, hungry, frazzled and talking up a storm. Afew days later, my son Max is asking what all these little black bugswere on his ankles.
The exact same thing happened toKenny a week or so later. His rescued stray disappears, reappears aweek later, ill and all shaken up, and before you know it, Kenny'sankles are also a blood donation center.
Last time I had fleas (way back incollege, when dinosaurs roamed the earth), I bombed the house withfoggers and now shuddered at the thought. Then I found a brand withvery acceptable ingredients—a natural, botanical insecticide and aninsect growth regulator. So we vacuumed, left while the foggers didtheir job, and aired the place out for a couple of hours before we wentback in, pleased that there was no residual smell whatsoever.
Well, the fleas didn't seem to mindit much either. So I called Common Sense Pest Control expert BillQuarles, Director of the Bio Integral Resource Center in Berkeley,California (www.birc.org). "Don't bother bombing the placewith foggers," he says right away; "people often tell me they don'twork very well" Waaa-waaaa! Wish I had known that Sixty dollars ago!And of course, he also has to add, "and you're probably exposingyourself to SOME kind of residue as well."
Go ahead, Bill—kick a guy when he'sdown. Just don't push me too far, fella; don't forget—I know about YOUand the ants…
Ahem. Anyway, then I found somethingthat does work: traps. Both Kenny and I tested a very simple andinexpensive store-bought trap made by Victor—the mousetrap people.(They're on the web at "Victor pest dot com".) It's a five-inch high dome about thesize of a dinner plate that looks like a little spaceship, with anightlight bulb in the ceiling and replaceable sticky sheets that fitin the bottom. http://www.victorpest.com/fleahome.htm. The results were amazing—once allthe other lights in the room were turned off, the fleas could not waitto jump to their doom! After an initial week-long surge, we changed thetrap paper and only caught a few more. But I knew there were eggs thatwould soon hatch, so we left the traps out and a few weeks later asecond wave hurled themselves to their doom. We replaced those sheetsand so far the new ones are still flea-free. As are our ankles.
The design is simple; it's easy tomake your own if you like. Just suspend a seven to 25 watt bulb overtopof a flea death trap—like a pan of soapy water or a sheet of stickypaper and turn off all other sources of light. The fleas jump right totheir doom.
Outdoors, you've got two goodnon-toxic bets. One is to spray the yard with an insectgrowth regulator. "IGR"s are anew type of insecticide that isn't a poison. These chemical compoundsprevent insects like fleas and termites from successfully molting, sothey can't become destructive adults. IGRs don't affect (non-molting)mammals, amphibians or earthworms, and I can't think of any beneficialinsects that spend their time in turf.
The other is beneficial nematodes. Now, some species of nematode are bad;the Southern root knot nematode is a nasty crop pest down below theMason-Dixon line. But there are also beneficial species, the mostcommon of which are sold to combat lawn pests like grubs. Applicationis easy—you just drop a sponge that contains anywhere from five totwenty five million of the microscopic worm-like little creatures intoa watering can and sprinkle it over the affected area, or use a sprayer that has NEVER held chemicals of anykind. The creatures work their way down into the soil where they seekout and destroy grubs and similar nasty things, and as a bonus, anyflea eggs and larvae they encounter.
And then there's the 'vector'—thepets themselves. You can keep fleas under control most of the time bywashing your pets and grooming them frequently with a flea comb, butBill Quarles warns that some sort of flea killer will eventually beneeded, and his research has led him to conclude that thetopically-applied product "Advantage" is the best and least toxic. Asynthetic form of nicotine, small drops are applied to the animals' furand disperse over their entire coat, killing fleas within 24 hours.Bill says it doesn't seem to harm the pets, and it's the only suchproduct his chemically sensitive subscribers can use.
But if you can't bring yourself touse it or something similar, I completely understand. Try adding someBrewer's yeast and garlic to your pets' food; many people swear itkeeps fleas and ticks at bay. And if your pet is ever stressed, injuredor ill, keep an especially close eye on them—and on your ankles. Fleas,like most pests, really do seem to be found around the weakest prey.
You Bet Your Garden ©2004 Mike McGrath