Everyone at Rincon-Vitova loves Duchess, the official Bug Farm dog, especially the fleas. Treating fleas on a bug farm is a little bit complicated, though. The standard treatment is insect growth regulators like Advantage, but using a long lasting insect growth regulator on a dog who wanders around the farm freely, getting pet by everyone, could spell trouble for the bug breeding operations going on.
It’s hard not to feel sympathy for Duchess when she noses her head between your knees, begging for some help scratching, so when I saw neem mentioned as a flea remedy I decided it was time for a product test.
Neem oil comes from the seed of Azadirachta indica, an Indian tree that has been used for pest control and medicine for around 3000 years. One chemical constituent of neem is azadiractin, a natural insect growth regulator. Unlike synthetic insect growth regulators, azadirachtin is completely biodegradable and breaks down in water after about a day. This meant that we could bathe Duchess with neem oil and not worry about someone petting her and contaminating one of our fly parasite or Lindorus production rooms.
I got instructions on making a neem shampoo from Discover Neem. I mixed up some neem oil with shampoo, then Jan and I took Duchess to the employee shower along with Bryce, our multitalented photographer extrordinaire. Duchess didn’t quite like the bath, but she was patient as we tried to saturate her fur with neem shampoo, then rinsed and rubbed her down with some straight neem oil for good measure. We had read that neem oil is also supposed to help flea irritated skin. Finally, we toweled her off and set her free. When she was dry, Duchess’ coat felt much softer and she was scratching a lot less.
One important detail to remember is that neem’s main action is insect growth regulation, which means it can stop immature fleas from maturing and mature fleas from reproducing. It can potentially suffocate insects, however, it doesn’t always kill adult fleas. In warm weather, the flea life cycle from egg to adult can be as short as a week. The best way to stop fleas from bugging your pet is to attack the fleas once every week or two, breaking the flea life cycle. A flea bath once a month is generally not enough to eradicate a flea infestation. In the weeks after Duchess’ bath we got side tracked by other projects and didn’t get to bathe her enough times to completely de-flea her, but the bath she got did cut down her flea population and gave her a break from itching.
I brought some neem oil home and tried it out on my indoor cat, Samus. Since she likes to hang out on my lap and give me her fleas, I had extra incentive to bathe her more regularly. She got 3 neem shampoo treatments, one every two weeks, and her fleas were under control – at least, until she escaped one day and got reinfested. Vaccumming throughly once a week and powdering my carpet with boric acid helped a lot, too.
In any honest discussion of neem I have to mention the smell. Neem oil is powerfully pungent, smelling vaguely but not quite like really strong Thai food. Besides inhibiting insect growth, neem is also repellent to many insects, and it’s not hard to see why. Duchess didn’t seem to mind the smell, but Samus is so offended by it that she ignores me for days when I neem her.
-Alia Tsang, Bug Farm intern