As warmer weather slowly approaches, so do the things that accompany it… flip-flops, shorts and tanks, sunglasses, and… fleas? Yep, fleas. Those tiny parasites love warm weather, especially the summer months. If you happen to live somewhere that’s warm all year long, then you probably never really get a break from battle.
It can seem like a constant fight to keep fleas off your dog and out of your home and yard. Inevitably, no matter how religiously you give your dog flea meds or vacuum your carpet, fleas still find both. If you feel like your stand-off with fleas will never end, keep reading for a better understanding of the small bugs, how they proliferate, and what you can do to more effectively control them or eradicate them completely.
What Are Fleas?
Fleas are small parasites with six legs, with the back legs being longer to help them jump large distances. They don’t have wings and can’t fly, but boy can they jump! This makes it easy for fleas to jump from host to host with relative ease. Adult fleas measure roughly 3mm in length and are a brown to reddish brown color. Their bodies are thin and flat, and they have tiny mouth parts shaped like a siphon to help the jab their host victim (your dog) and suck their blood for nourishment.
There are over 2000 species of fleas, but the most common to affect dogs is the dog flea and the domestic cat flea, though that sounds like a misnomer. Fleas are basically equal opportunists.
They might have a preferred host animal, like a cat or a dog (thus their name) but if no preferred host is available, they will jump on whatever meat sack filled with blood they can find and dine on them instead. Which is why the domestic cat flea is so commonly found on dogs. There are even some species of fleas that search out human blood, although not all species can survive on humans.
Even one flea on your dog can make his life absolutely miserable, especially if your dog is sensitive or has an allergy to fleas and flea saliva.
Understanding a Flea’s Life Cycle
Obviously, prevention is always the best medicine for anything. But to effectively treat current fleas as well as prevent future fleas, you need to properly understand the life cycle of a flea and how they multiply. A flea goes through four stages of life.
They start out as an egg (laid from an adult flea), progress to larva, which is one of their most vulnerable states to kill them other than the adult flea stage, and then move on to the pupa. The pupa stage is where they wrap themselves in something similar to a cocoon and prepare to emerge as an adult flea.
The final stage is the adult flea that must feed within the first week of emerging, or it will most likely die. Once it feeds, it looks for a mate, breeds, and then the whole process begins again. Unfortunately, most people when fighting fleas are fighting them off during the egg, adult flea, and larva stages.
But a flea in the pupa stage can survive for months at a time with no sustenance, just waiting for the right time to come forth and begin the life cycle once again. You won’t even know they’re there in most cases, they will be so well-hidden in your carpet, clothing, and furniture. Usually, the trigger is warmth and vibrations. Both alert the pupae that it’s time to bust out of the cocoon and find a host.
This is one of the main reasons treating an infestation of fleas can be so difficult and frustrating. For every one adult flea you find on your dog, you can bet there are at least 99 more fleas in varying stages of the life cycle, just waiting to become adults and find their host.
Checking Your Dog for Fleas
If you suspect your dog has a flea problem, you’ll need to check them thoroughly. Also, just because you may not find a live flea, it doesn’t mean your dog doesn’t have fleas. Your dog could have one flea that bit them and died. That one single flea could have already laid upwards of 2000 eggs throughout your house and yard. And that one single flea bite could cause your dog a whole lot of angst if he has a canine allergey to fleas.
The best way to check your dog is to first inspect them visually. If they are badly infested, you will see live fleas crawling on them, often around areas that are warm and dark. Fleas love the groin area, the area on the inside of your dog’s hind legs, in their armpits, and around their neck and ears. Look for fleas on their belly too, where the hair or fur is sparse and makes it easier to see.
If you can’t find much using your eyes, you can also check them with a flea comb. Just comb those spots where fleas like to hang out, making sure to comb firmly so that you’re touching down to the dog’s skin. If there are fleas present, the comb will grab them as well as grab any flea eggs that may be hiding or flea “dirt” that fleas have left behind. Flea dirt is just feces, but it looks like dirt until you wet it. Then it turns red and you can see that it was dried blood the flea excreted as feces.
Another way to check for fleas and flea dirt is to brush or comb your dog while standing over a white towel. Flea dirt is dry. So are flea eggs unless they’ve only recently been laid. Both will fall out of your dog’s fur and the flea dirt will be very visible on the white background.
You can also check your dog for hot spots and areas where they are itchy and irritated. If they are biting and chewing constantly, it’s probably because of fleas.
Treating Your Dog for Fleas
Once you’ve confirmed your dog has fleas, you can begin treating the problem and hopefully eliminate it completely. Again, the best way to treat is prevent, so you should see your vet and get recommendations on the best flea medication to give your dog that fits with your dog’s needs. There are topical flea medications that you can apply to your dog’s shoulders, sometimes called “spot-ons” and the medication will work itself down through your dog’s glands to cover their entire body.
These flea medications are designed to kill live fleas, and some are designed to kill flea eggs and larvae too. Just be sure you let it sit for at least 48 hours before you attempt to bathe your dog. That will give the medication time to work and do its job. There are a lot of options when it comes to choosing a spot-on topical medication, so find one that works for you and your dog and then make sure you give it to them on a consistent schedule. Usually they are designed to be used monthly.
Another treatment method that is quite effective is medications give to your dog orally. These medications can come in tablet or liquid form and are designed to kill fleas when they bite your dog or sterilize the flea so that it can’t lay eggs. You could also try flea injections that help prevent flea eggs from developing, but you may still need to use a topical with it. Better to find a treatment option that is all-encompassing, rather than give your dog too many medications or treatments at once.
There are other topical flea treatments too, like sprays and powders, although they aren’t the most ideal. Powders can be accidentally inhaled and can get very messy. The same goes for sprays, they just aren’t as effective as other topicals.
Some pet owners like to use flea collars, but those are more ideal as an added preventative measure, especially if your dog is outside a lot. Just make sure you get the type of flea collar that helps to move the active ingredient through your dog’s whole body, rather than the old-fashioned kind that can cause irritation and loss of fur.
Once you have given your dog a flea medication to help kill current fleas and prevent future outbreaks, then it’s time to bathe your dog and remove all the dead fleas, eggs, and flea dirt that may be matted in their fur. If your dog has had a severe reaction to the fleas and has hot spots, irritation, or even scabbed or open sores, be gentle and use warm water.
There are several natural remedies that can lessen your dog’s discomfort while combating the side effects of a flea infestation. You could try a soothing oatmeal bath to help bring them some relief. Just make sure whatever shampoo you use, it’s designed to work with topical flea medications. If your dog has sores and hotspots, it’s also a good idea to let your vet check them out and make sure there are no secondary infections developing that may need treatment.
To treat open or oozing sores, vets will often prescribe some kind of antibacterial cream or an antibiotic to help combat these infections. Once your dog is clean and free of fleas, you can focus on cleaning your home and yard up.
Treating Your Home and Yard for Fleas
Treating your home and yard for fleas is a bit like treating for any other microscopic pest, such as lice or bedbugs. Since flea eggs, larvae, and pupae could be virtually anywhere and everywhere, even if you don’t see them, it’s important to go full-force on your home and yard. You will also need to exercise patience because getting rid of an infestation of fleas can take some time. You can expect the process to take anywhere from three to four months before seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, largely due to the flea’s life cycle.
The first step is gathering up all bedding and clothing to be washed. Make sure you use hot, soapy water and dry them on high heat if possible. Your dog’s bedding will need washing and any cloth or fibrous toys a flea or an egg could attach to. You will need to vacuum not only your carpet but your entire home, including tile and linoleum too. The vacuum will pick up all the flea eggs and flea dirt that may be scattered around. If you can, use a vacuum with a disposable vacuum bag, tie it up in plastic, then toss the vacuum bag in the trash outside.
Once you have cleaned your home thoroughly, you can either use a flea control yourself and treat your home or call in a professional to do it for you. If the fleas were bad, it may be a good idea to call in a professional, just to make sure it’s being done right and ensure your success. They can also treat your yard, just make sure you ask them to treat everything using something that is safe and non-toxic for your dog.
Once you’ve treated your home and yard, and you’ve cleaned and treated your dog, it then becomes a matter of patience and perseverance. Fleas are stubborn little bugs and they can be tough to get rid of completely.
But if you treat your dog faithfully each month with a good preventative and regularly treat your home and yard, you should begin to see a drastic improvement. Then it’s probably safe to give yourself a pat on the back for officially succeeding in getting rid of your dog’s flea problem.
- Burke, Anna. “How to Get Rid of Fleas on Dogs in 4 Steps.” American Kennel Club, 14 Nov. 2016, www.akc.org/expert-advice/health/how-to-get-rid-of-fleas/.
- “Fleas: Treatment & Prevention.” About Veterinarians and the Veterinary Team | Oregon Veterinary Medical Association, www.oregonvma.org/care-health/companion-animals/fleas.
- “How To Get Rid Of Fleas.” CanineJournal.com, CanineJournal.com, 4 May 2017, www.caninejournal.com/getting-rid-of-fleas/.
- petMD. “PetMD.” PetMD, 14 Dec. 2018, www.petmd.com/dog/care/evr_dg_fleas_on_dogs_and_what_you_can_do_about_them.
- “Recognising and Removing Fleas on Dogs.” Purina, www.purina.co.uk/dogs/health-and-nutrition/grooming-and-daily-care/spotting-and-treating-fleas.