The best approach to controlling fleas is to start with the least toxic and most natural choices, resorting to stronger measures only if reasonable control is not achieved. As a prerequisite to any flea-control program, I recommend building up your animal's health and resistance as much as possible through a healthy diet and lifestyle. Along with that, it's important to practice thorough sanitation and cleaning.
Understanding the life cycle of the flea makes it clear why cleaning is so important. Adult fleas live about three to four months. During that time they are steadily laying tiny white eggs on your pet that look like dandruff or salt crystals. Flea eggs hatch out into larvae that live in the cracks and crevices of rugs, upholstery, blankets, floors, sand, earth, and the like.
Because these tiny larvae cannot jump or travel very far (less than an inch), they feed on the black specks of dried blood ("flea dirt") that fall off along with the eggs during grooming and scratching. After one to two weeks, the larvae go through a cocoon stage (pupa). A week or two later, they hatch out as small fleas that hop onto the nearest warm body passing by (usually your pet -- sometimes you!), bite it for a meal of blood, and then start the whole process all over again. This cycle takes anywhere from 2 to 20 weeks, depending on the temperature of the house or environment. During summer -- flea season -- the entire cycle is usually just 2 weeks long. That's why fleas increase so rapidly at that time.
The bad news is that, no matter how many adult fleas you manage to kill, numerous future fleas are developing in the environment simultaneously. The good news is that these eggs, larvae, pupa, and the flea dirt they feed upon can be sucked up by a vacuum cleaner or washed away in the laundry. And because the developing fleas are so immobile, they are most concentrated wherever your pet sleeps, so you know where to focus your efforts.
Your important ally in the battle against fleas is cleanliness, both for your pet and your home, particularly in your pet's sleeping areas. Regular cleaning interrupts the life cycles of the fleas and greatly cuts down on the number of adult fleas that end up on your pet, especially if you act before flea season begins. So start your program with these nontoxic steps.
Steam clean your carpets at the onset of flea season (or whenever you begin your flea-control program). Though it is somewhat expensive, steam cleaning is effective in killing flea eggs.
Thoroughly vacuum and clean floors and furniture at least once a week to pick up flea eggs, larvae, and pupae. Concentrate on areas where your pet sleeps and use an attachment to reach into crevices and corners and under heavy furniture. If there is a heavy infestation, you may want to put a flea collar (or part of a flea collar) in the vacuum bag to kill any adult fleas that get sucked up and might crawl away. Or else immediately dispose of the bag or its contents because it can provide a warm, moist, food-filled environment for developing eggs and larvae. Mop vinyl floors.
Launder your pet's bedding in hot, soapy water at least once a week. Dry on maximum heat. Heat will kill all stages of flea life, including the eggs. Remember that flea eggs are very slippery and easily fall off bedding or blankets. So carefully roll bedclothes up to keep all the flea eggs contained on the way to the washing machine.
Bathe the animal with a natural flea-control shampoo. Use a nontoxic shampoo as recommended above, such as one containing d-limonene (dogs only).
Use a flea comb to trap and kill fleas that are on your pet. Most pet stores carry special fine-toothed combs that trap fleas for easy disposal. Make a regular habit of flea-combing your pet while you watch TV or talk on the phone. Depending on the degree of infestation and the time of year, this might be daily (at the onset of the flea season), weekly, or monthly.
Gently but thoroughly comb as many areas as your pet will allow, especially around the head, neck, back, and hindquarters. As you trap the little buggers, pull them off the comb and plunge them into a container of hot, soapy water (or dip the comb and pull the flea off underwater). Cover your lap with an old towel to catch extra clumps of hair and flea dirt and to wipe the comb off as you work.
When you're finished, flush the soapy water and fleas down the toilet.