Ah, fleas – the scourge of any pet owner. These tiny parasites seem to get everywhere, and no matter how much effort you put into keeping your dog free of infestation, it seems that they will make the breakthrough from time to time.
Your dog will get fleas occasionally – that much is unavoidable. What matters is how you get rid of fleas, and how quickly you do so. Some dog owners make the mistake of slapping a flea collar or treatment onto Fido and assuming that their work is done, but there’s much more to it than that – not only in preventing fleas but more importantly, what to do when they do make their presence felt.
This guide will talk you through everything that you could want to know about fleas – and some further insights that will have you believe that ignorance is bliss. Forewarned is forearmed, however, so let’s take a look at the flea family, and ensure that you know your enemy.
Table of Contents:
Are All Fleas the Same?
The first thing that you should be aware of is that there are a great different species of flea, and the ones that sink their teeth into your dog are just a small part of the family.
ThoughtCo has looked at the many varieties of fleas that you may encounter, but the ones that you’ll need to concern yourself with are Ctenocephalides canis (aka dog fleas) and Ctenocephalides felis (aka cat fleas). Despite what you may be thinking, it’s the latter genus that will cause you the most problems.
Despite their name, dog and cat fleas are not fussy and will gleefully munch on either animal (we’ll discuss that in greater detail later) – and will also try to make a snack of a human. As cat fleas are the most common parasites that pet owners encounter, they are more likely to the ones that we end up dealing with.
They are identical to dog fleas in just about every way, however, and indistinguishable unless you are an expert. To this end, from now on, we will refer to dog fleas.
What Do Dog Fleas Look Like?
Despite what you may have been led to believe, fleas are not so tiny that they’re invisible to a human’s naked eye. They are small and brown, so if you look close enough, you’ll notice them crawling around in a dog’s fur, especially if the canine in question is white. Fleas are, however, lightning fast so you may struggle to keep an eye on them.
You will still be able to find traces of fleas by looking out for something known as ‘flea dirt,’ however. It’s gross, but this is flea poop. To find out if your dog’s coat contains traces of flea dirt, run a comb through their fur and empty the contents into a plain, white piece of kitchen towel – then crush it.
If the stains remain dark brown or black, it’s just common or garden-variety dirt that your dog has picked up during their adventures. If it fades to a shade of rust, however, then you have all the proof that you need that your dog is living with fleas and you’ll need to take action. The staining on the kitchen towel is the blood that the fleas have been munching on (or it may even have been a flea itself if it didn’t read the situation and jump free in time!)
What Do Dog Flea Bites Look Like?
A typical flea bite will manifest as a small red abrasion on your dog’s body. The most common places that you’ll find flea bites are a dog’s tail, their back legs and between the tail and the small of the back.
Arguably the defining characteristic of a flea bite will be their sheer quantity. Unlike bites from other bloodsucking parasites, such as those of a mosquito that will leave a solitary puncture wound, fleas will keep biting and nipping, leaving lots of marks behind.
What is the Life Cycle of a Dog Flea?
We may not like the idea of getting to know about fleas, but it can be pivotal information to prevent them from really taking hold of our beloved pets. PetMD is on hand to explain.
A flea life cycle begins with an egg that is roughly the size of a grain of sand. These eggs are laid by an adult female flea, who will usually feast on the blood of a dog and leave around 20 eggs behind as a souvenir – thought it might be up to 40. As your pet wanders around your home, the eggs will drop off and land in various locations.
After an unspecified period of time (whether that’s two days or over a week depends on the temperature and humidity of your home.) Once they are ready to hatch, larvae will emerge and, if they survive longer than a few days, they’ll weave a cocoon to wrap themselves in. This is known as the pupae stage.
It’s when the flea emerges from this cocoon (which might take several years!) that they become the adult parasite that we know and loathe. As soon as a flea surfaces they need to start feeding so they’ll start hunting for a host, and once they’ve done so, they will almost immediately begin laying eggs to start the whole process again.
This should make it clear why it’s so important to understand that eradicating a flea that’s found on your dog’s body isn’t enough to deal with an infestation; you’ll need to take all the necessary steps to nip the issue in the bud once and for all. Fortunately for you, we’ll be shortly discussing precisely what to do in such a situation!
Can Dog Fleas Lead to Other Health Problems?
Fleas are not just pests, but they’re genuine health hazards. Some of the concerns that can be caused by fleas include the following:
- Flea Allergy Dermatitis – if your dog is allergic to flea saliva, the result could be all kinds of nasty reactions. Take a look at our guides to how to recognize allergic reactions in dogs and what causes hives on a dog’s skin for further insights.
- Anemia. Fleas will be living off the blood of your dog, so if your pet is very young, old or otherwise not in perfect health, they may suffer a great deal as a result of this.
- Tapeworms. These parasites live inside the gut and can grow if your dog swallows a flea; quite likely, as the irritation caused by the biting of the bugs will likely leave Fido attempting to soothe himself by licking the affected area.
- Hot Spots. These small, red boils are warm to the touch, hence their name, and they’ll drive your poor dog crazy as they itch. What’s more, if Fido scratches a hot spot they could make it bleed, leading to a whole new range of complications – especially if a flea decides to hop inside the open wound.
- Bartonella Infection. This problem is more closely associated with felines, hence why it’s informal nickname of Cat Scratch Fever, but dogs can also be susceptible. Fleas that carry disease cause a Bartonella infection, and it could leave your pooch vomiting, suffering from diarrhea and even suffering from seizures.
Don’t ignore fleas as, “just a bit of scratching” as they can be so much more. Deal with the infestation as and when it arises – or better yet, prevent them from tucking into your dog in the first place!
How Do I Know if My Dog Has Fleas?
Dog flea symptoms are pretty simple to spot – they usually revolve around scratching, scratching and more scratching. This will be itchiness that doesn’t subside, lasting all day and night, and causing not insignificant levels of discomfort for your canine.
If your pet seems to be scratching up a storm while you’re trying to sleep when they would usually be snoring at your feet, or they are whining and crying while frantically rubbing at their skin, the chances are they are living with many fleas.
There are other symptoms of flea infestations that you should keep an eye out for, however. These include:
- Loss of hair around the areas that your dog keeps scratching.
- Constant rubbing against furniture or rolling around on the floor.
- Pale and discolored gums.
- Scabs and other scar tissue appearing on your dog’s skin.
If you have any reason to suspect that your dog has fleas, get to work on rectifying the problem using the techniques we will shortly be discussing. There is no need to call the vet as this is something that you can deal with yourself, but the sooner you start the lengthy process of eliminating the infestation from your pet and home the better.
How to Tell if a Dog Has Fleas or Dry Skin
Unfortunately, a flea infestation shares many of the same symptoms as a dog that is suffering from dry skin. Take a look at our guide into what causes dry skin in dogs for more information on this condition.
The core differences between fleas and dry skin are as follows:
- Dry skin tends to crack; skin that is infected by flea bites will retain its flexibility.
- Dry skin usually leaves behind dog dandruff. These are white flakes, while as we have discussed, flea dirt is darker and will turn to rust under duress.
- Dry skin may well be a result of infection, either of the yeast or bacterial variety. This will leave a dog licking their paws to excess in an attempt at self-soothing, while fleas will leave a canine focusing their scratching on one particular area.
- Dry skin may cause your dog’s skin to peel away like sunburn. Flea bites will not have this impact.
- Dry skin can be treated using a variety of different oils and generic household products. Most of these remedies will only serve to make your dog even tastier to a flea.
Dry skin is no picnic in itself, but it’s a very different set of circumstances to a flea infestation – with alternative treatments. Make sure you understand exactly what is bothering your pet and act accordingly, as reacting to a different ailment may end up causing more problems than it does provide solutions.
What is the Difference Between Fleas, Ticks, and Mites?
Fleas, ticks, and mites are often grouped together as an unholy trinity of animal parasites, with many remedies designed to counteract the impact of all three bugs. There are, however, very core differences between them.
- Fleas have already been covered in great detail and will be further in the paragraphs to follow.
- Ticks are particularly unpleasant little blighters. These parasites attach themselves to a dog and feast on their blood, much like a flea, but unlike fleas, they are usually very visible. The more blood a flea drinks, the most bloated they become. Horrible as they are to look at, you’ll have to deal with a tick. Use a pair of tweezers to prize them off your dog’s skin (you’ll need some serious elbow grease here, as they will be reluctant to come away). Place the bug in a piece of kitchen towel – being careful not to crush the tick as you do so as if they explode they’ll release a whole lot of blood that may contain infections or diseases. Flush this down the toilet bowl to ensure that there is no chance of the tick returning to finish their meal.
- Mites live within a dog’s ear and are identifiable by their brown coloring. The symptoms of mites are that your dog will often wander around cocking their head to one side, as though attempting to shake something annoying out of their ear. In some, more extreme cases this could also lead to bleeding – especially if your dog starts clawing at their ear in an attempt at clearing it of unwelcome invaders. If that’s the case, take a look at our guide to how to stop a cut bleeding on a dog’s ear. Mites are the one parasite that will typically require the assistance of a vet to deal with, as your dog will more than likely need a medical prescription to clear them out.
Of course, there are still other critters to take into consideration – including lice! We will discuss those in further detail later.
How Can I Prevent My Dog from Getting Fleas?
You’ll see the words, “prevention is better than cure” a great deal on this website while we’re discussing health concerns in canines, and it has never been truer than when dealing with flea infestations.
If you’re keen to avoid your dog ever suffering from fleas, then we have some bad news for you – it’s pretty much impossible. All dogs, from the mangiest mongrel on a street corner to a pedigree pooch that wins Best in Show, is at risk of attracting these parasitic invaders. However, there are many methods that you could employ in an attempt at preventing a major problem.
- Staying on Top of Preventative Treatments. There is a wide range of flea treatments available from any pet store that will theoretically prevent fleas from setting up home on your dog. These could take the form of a flea collar (which seeps a series of gentle chemicals into your dog’s body to repel and kill bugs), a chemical flea treatment that is administered to the bottom of a dog’s neck on a monthly basis, a spray or an oral medication. This is the most popular method of keeping a flea infestation at bay, and as long as you are consistent and regular with the treatments, you should find them to be impactful.
- Grooming Your Dog Regularly. There are countless reasons why it’s advisable to groom your dog regularly, not least because it will increase your bond. As we discussed in our section on how dog fleas look, however, you’re also much more likely to identify the bugs if you’re pushing a comb through your canine’s coat on a nightly basis.
- Bathe Your Dog. Dogs hate baths, that much is certain, but they may well hate fleas even more. If you keep your dog clean, you will not only be making them less appealing for opportunistic parasites, but you’ll also be able to keep an eye on what may or may not be living within their fur.
- Treat All Parasitic Infestations at the Same Time. If you live with more than one pet, unify and synchronize their flea treatments to prevent any bugs leaping from animal to animal.
- Clean Your Home. We’ll go into this in far more detail shortly in a segment dubbed How to Stop Dog Fleas from Returning, but needless to say, keeping a clean home is pivotal to battling flea infestations. This is particularly important if your dog does end up with fleas, as it only takes one infiltration to cause a permanent problem – remember the ever-looping life cycle of the flea!
As we have said, it may be impossible to prevent your flea from ever suffering from fleas, but there are many steps that you can take to minimize the risk.
Which Flea Treatment is the Most Effective?
This depends on who you ask, what breed of dog you have, how they react to various treatments, and what you find most convenient. Speak to a professional if necessary, whether that’s a vet or a pet store clerk, and gain some insights and advice.
It may be a matter of trial and error, but when you strike gold and find something that appears to work for both you and your dog, stick with it! Consistency is key with any kind of regular medical treatment, so once you find yourself getting into a routine, you’re likely to experience better results.
How to Get Fleas Off My Dog
So, fleas happen – we have accepted this. If you happen to spot them on your dog, you’ll have to ensure that you deal with the problem ASAP. If you happen to spot a flea infestation in your dog, you will be able to treat it using any of the techniques discussed above.
Alternatively, you could head to a pet store and pick up a specialist flea comb (which has extremely fine teeth that capture fleas within it and allows you to pop them into kitchen towel as previously discussed), or a flea-killing shampoo.
All of these steps will only deal with the initial problem though and potentially dispose of the fleas that are already crawling all over your dog. If you’re looking to get rid of the eggs and any other living bugs that are elsewhere in the house, you’ll need to follow the steps outlined below in the How to Stop Dog Fleas from Returning.
Some pooch parents may also prefer to avoid the use of conventional medications or chemical solutions that a store or vet will provide, and turn to natural remedies for dog fleas. If this applies to you, try any of the following techniques:
- Lemon Juice. This citrus fruit is anathema to dogs so you may find that your pooch runs away when you try to apply, but it kills fleas stone dead if they attempt to bite a dog that’s coated with it.
- Apple Cider Vinegar. This condiment gives your dog’s skin a naturally acidic quality, which will repel fleas and prevent them from biting.
- Salt and Baking Soda. A solution of these ingredients mixed with water will kill fleas, and could also be used on furniture. It will irritate your dog if ingested though, so wash it off once you’re confident that your pet is no longer infested.
- Essential Oils. Fleas are typically averse to essential oils, meaning that you could rub them over your dog’s coat (use a ratio of 3 drops per tbsp. of water) or apply a few drops to their conventional shampoo to boost its effectiveness. You can base your choice on what oils your dog prefers, provided they’re not toxic.
How you get rid of the fleas that are feasting upon Fido’s blood is entirely up to you. What matters is that you take action quickly, and do whatever you can to prevent the problem from reoccurring!
How to Stop Dog Fleas from Returning
Here’s a fun fact – 95% of all the fleas in your home are lurking somewhere in the house, not actually on your pet. This means that they’re just waiting for the opportunity to leap onto your dog at the earliest possible opportunity, and that’s why you really must maintain a clean home to prevent fleas from returning.
If ever you notice that your dog has fleas and you have taken the appropriate steps to rectify the problem, wash everything. We’re not exaggerating here – we do mean wash everything. That means washing all blankets and bedding on a high heat; all sofa cushions and other decorative soft furnishings; any clothing or shoes that may have had contact with your dog; you’ll even need to shampoo your carpets.
This is a lot of work, and you may be tempted to sell your house and move as it seems like less effort, but it is essential. If you don’t take these steps, the whole cycle will begin again, and fleas can be very patient. Although the bugs will only live for a month or two once hatched, there is every chance that the cocooned parasites are safe and well, laying on a carpet or under a sofa cushion. Washing everything, and hovering regularly, will prevent them from gaining the chance to emerge and wreak more havoc.
Can Dog Fleas Live on Humans?
A flea that has previously feasted upon your pets will not be able to attach themselves to a human body, no matter how hairy we may be. That’s the good news. The bad is that a dog or cat flea will munch on human blood if there is no furry food source to hand – even if they don’t even have the common manners to stick around afterward.
That’s right when it comes to humans, dog and cat fleas like to eat and run. They may still set up a nest in your house even if you don’t have animals of your own. Perhaps you have had a friend with a canine companion visit, or a neighbor’s cat likes to invite themselves into your home from time to time. That will ensure that you will be the next best thing for their meal. In this instance, you’ll have to go through the same through, deep cleaning process that we have previously outlined in this guide.
Can Dogs and Cats Exchange Fleas?
Oh yes – not only is it possible, but it’s hugely likely. Fleas are not fussy about what warm body they feast upon, and they will quite cheerfully leap from dog to cat and back again.
This is just another reason why it is so pivotal that you clear out your house of any signs of an infestation. You may be able to treat your dog using a variety of different methods and stop them scratching in the short term, but if Fido shares his space with a feline, the parasites may already have jumped ship. Equally, if unhatched flea eggs remain in place throughout your home, they’ll quickly attach themselves to a cat if your dog’s body proves to be inhospitable.
If you live with a dog and a cat (or multiple cats and dogs!), you should always make sure that you synchronize their flea treatments. Given half a chance, the irritating bugs will flourish in such a home, always dodging the medications that would kill them off by sticking to the untreated animal.
Can a Child’s Hair Lice Be Passed Onto a Dog?
Thankfully not. The lice that hive in your children’s hair and are traded among his or her schoolyard chums like itchy, wriggly baseball cards rely on human blood to survive. The fleas that feast upon Fido, meanwhile, look for dog blood to sustain themselves. It would be like trying to give fish food to a badger for sustenance – the nourishment is not compatible between different animals species.
Just because a dog cannot catch hair lice from a human, however, it doesn’t mean that they are immune from suffering from the problem. As the American Kennel Club explains, dogs can struggle with infestations of their own breed of hair lice, which differ from fleas. The symptoms remain similar, however, and include:
- Constant Scratching.
- Loss of Hair, Especially Around the Ears, Groin, Shoulders, Neck, and Genitals.
- Puncture Wounds.
- Sudden and Rapid Weight Loss.
- Bacterial and Parasitic Infections, including Tapeworms.
Dog hair lice are the opposite of their human counterparts, in the sense that they are attracted to shaggy, unkempt and unclean hair. If you wash your dog regularly, as well as cleaning their bed and other areas of the house that they tend to occupy, you shouldn’t have too many worries about an infestation.
Thankfully, most preventative treatments for fleas will also work on hair lice and prevent these critters from taking hold of your dog.
Should your pooch end up with lice, you’ll need to get them to a vet for treatment (it will be something simple, usually a special medicated shampoo and a carefully designed comb.) Have a proper conversation with your vet about some of these treatments if you have a multi-animal household though, as some of the medications provided will be toxic to cats.
Fleas on a dog may be the punchline of many jokes, but they’re nothing to laugh at – not for your pet, or for you as an owner. They may be an unfortunate fact of life for Fido and you as a pooch parent, but you owe it to yourself – and your dog – to prevent their onset as much as possible.
The most important thing is to be vigilant about keeping an eye out for any of the symptoms. Flea infestations will happen from time to time, so don’t beat yourself up over it. Just follow our advice to rectify the problem as soon as you notice them, and you‘ll find that it’s a long time before these parasites pluck up their courage and attempt to make a meal of your dog again.