How to Tell If Your Dog Has Fleas and What to Do Next
Fleas are extremely common, blood-sucking parasites that love to latch onto canine hosts. In addition to being gross, fleas can cause a lot of discomfort, not to mention health issues, in dogs.
Flea infestations are no joke and can be challenging to treat. Fortunately, there are a variety of safe and effective prevention products available for your furry BFF. Here are some important things to know about preventing and treating fleas on dogs.
How Do Dogs Get Fleas?
Fleas are common external parasites that feed off the blood of a variety of animals—not only domestic dogs and cats, but also wildlife such as raccoons, opossums, and rodents.
A dog might get fleas by being around other dogs or animals who have a flea infestation. But direct contact isn’t necessary. Fleas and their juvenile life stages (eggs, larvae, and pupae) can be found in the environment anywhere a flea-infested pet or wild animal has been. The pupae flea life stage—in which a cocoon-enclosed larva develops into an adult flea—is especially hardy. They can survive for several months waiting for a host.
Fleas reproduce very quickly. If your dog is exposed, that means hundreds or thousands of flea eggs can be deposited into the carpet, flooring, furniture, or bedding. This typically results in a flea infestation in the home.
SEE ALSO: Get Ready for Tick Season
How to Check Your Dog for Fleas
The most common type of flea seen on dogs in the US is Ctenocephalides felis, also known as the cat flea. They’re small insects, about 1-3 millimeters in length. They appear brown to reddish-brown and are fairly flat from side to side. Although they can’t fly, fleas can jump surprisingly far—up to 200 times their own body length!
Here are a few ways to check if a dog has fleas.
Look for fleas on your pet. It’s possible to spot fleas with the naked eye. Admittedly, this is much easier on pets with short, thin, light-colored fur and light skin, since the dark fleas will stand out more. Try parting your pet’s fur while someone shines a light. You might notice fleas scurrying away to hide. Use reading glasses or magnification if it helps. You can also comb your pup with a fine-tooth flea comb. Have a bowl of soapy water at the ready, to place any fleas so they won’t jump back onto your pet (or onto you). The base of the tail (rump) is a common spot for fleas. Also, check thinly furred areas like the belly and groin. But remember, fleas can be found anywhere on the skin.
Look for flea dirt. Flea dirt is another word for flea droppings or poop. It looks like finely ground black pepper or coffee grounds. You might see flea dirt on your pet, in their bedding, or anywhere your pooch spends time. Not sure if what you’re seeing is flea dirt or regular dirt? Simply place some on a white paper towel and spray with water. Wet flea dirt will turn red or reddish-brown.
Set a flea trap. Place a bowl of soapy water on the floor near a small night light. Fleas will be attracted to the light and fall into the bowl. Check the bowl for fleas in the morning. Note, this method doesn’t 100% rule out fleas if none are seen. However, if you do see fleas, then you have your answer.
Note your dog’s symptoms. The presence of flea-related symptoms could mean your dog has fleas—even if you never actually find a flea on them.
YOU are being bitten. Thankfully, fleas don’t tend to live on human skin like they do on dogs and cats. However, a hungry flea will absolutely bite a human if they can’t access a pet. Most commonly, this occurs on the legs and ankles. But any area of skin is fair game.
Schedule a veterinary appointment. Your veterinarian is very familiar with all the ways flea bites can present. They can help you determine if your pup might have fleas, rule out other skin conditions, treat any secondary skin lesions or infections, and get flea protection on board as quickly as possible.
Symptoms of Fleas in Dogs
The following are common signs that a dog has fleas:
A dog scratching, biting, or chewing their skin.
Skin irritation, redness, scabs, or other lesions. This might include wounds, hot spots, or skin infections.
Tapeworms (more on this below).
Common Conditions That May Be Related to Fleas on Dogs
The most common problems associated with fleas are skin issues. Dogs can be extremely itchy and uncomfortable. In fact, flea saliva is the most common allergen in dogs. This is known as flea allergy dermatitis, because it results in skin reactions or lesions following one or more flea bites. Sometimes, dogs lick, scratch, or bite their skin so much they develop wounds or secondary bacterial infections that require medical treatment.
Another common issue is a tapeworm infestation. Adult fleas often carry tapeworm eggs. When a dog bites an itchy spot, they might inadvertently swallow a flea, allowing tapeworms into their intestines. Usually, dog owners notice tapeworm segments (sacks of eggs) in their dog’s feces, hind end, furniture, bedding, etc. These tapeworm segments look like sesame seeds or cucumber seeds—and they might be moving or squirming around.
With severe flea infestations, anemia (low red blood cell count) can occur due to fleas feeding on blood. This presents the biggest risk to young puppies. But even adults can suffer from anemia if there are enough fleas present. In the most severe cases, this can be fatal.
Fleas are also known to carry infectious diseases. For example, some flea species carry the pathogens that cause plague, and some carry a disease called cat scratch fever. While uncommon, these diseases can affect people. So, it’s yet another reason to keep fleas under control.
How to Treat Your Dog for Fleas
Unfortunately, treating fleas isn’t a simple or overnight fix. Fleas reproduce rapidly, meaning an infestation of the home and/or yard often quickly follows the appearance of fleas on a dog. In order to truly get rid of fleas, a pet owner must treat both their pet and the environment.
Fortunately, there are many excellent, safe products available to treat and prevent fleas on dogs. Here are some common steps your veterinarian may recommend.
A product to get the fleas off your dog NOW. Most vets carry an effective pill that will start killing fleas within the hour after your dog takes it, but other products may be recommended based on your dog’s needs.
An effective flea prevention product. Common options for long-term control include topical liquids/spot on products, pills/tablets, or collars. Flea shampoos aren’t generally recommended, since they are only effective for a short time and might be harsh on a dog’s skin.
Treating flea-related conditions. Depending on what your pooch needs, this might include something to relieve itching, antibiotics for skin infections, ointments or creams, wound treatments, and medications to treat tapeworms.
How to Treat Your Home and Yard
For every adult flea you see, there might be at least 100 eggs or juvenile fleas present. So if you don’t treat the environment, a flea infestation can come right back in days, weeks, or months.
Here are some steps that can help:
Vacuum often. Throw away the vacuum bag, or clean it well if it is the reusable type. Consider steam cleaning or shampooing the carpet, too. The vibrations and warmth can even stimulate pupae to emerge, so they can’t lie in wait for so long.
Wash all bedding, linens, and furniture. Use hot water in the washing machine. If your pup’s bed isn’t washable, it’s probably best to replace it. Look for dog beds with removable, washable covers.
Treat all pets in the home, since fleas can easily spread from one dog to another—as well as to cats and even to other pets like ferrets.
Keep the yard mowed and trim overgrown plants. Board up crawl spaces or areas under patios. This discourages flea-carrying wildlife from hanging out. And open, sunny areas are less conducive to flea reproduction (fleas prefer dark, moist areas).
Seek professional pest control treatment of both your home and yard. Find a company who is familiar with pet safety (ask if your vet’s office has a recommendation) and explain you are seeking flea treatment specifically.
Unfortunately, due to the life cycle of fleas—including the large number of offspring and the hardiness of pupae in the environment—full flea eradication takes time, possibly up to three months. Keep your dog on good flea protection the whole time.
How to Prevent Fleas on Your Dog in the Future
Prevention is much easier, less stressful, and often less expensive than treating a flea infestation!
The Companion Animal Parasite Council recommends that dogs stay on flea prevention year round. This is especially crucial in warm, humid climates. But fleas can present a threat year round even in cold locales.
The right product (or combination of products) varies depending on a dog’s flea exposure risk, the climate in which they live, their medical history, and their individual sensitivity to fleas. Often a veterinarian will recommend products that not only kill adult fleas, but also have a flea growth inhibitor to help prevent any flea infestations before they start.
Certain over the counter products are far more likely to have side effects. Also, some dog products are extremely toxic to any cats in the home. So, it’s always a good idea to have a consultation with your veterinarian to decide what’s best for your individual pet.