Fleas are a nightmare for pet parents, but they can also be very hard to diagnose because of the way dogs grow their fur in – doubly so for thick-coated breeds.
Immediately, you start getting worried: is your dog in discomfort? Will the fleas start biting you too? What can you do to stop this nasty, worrisome infestation in its tracks? Does your dog even have fleas?
Don’t worry – help is on the way. Just take these easy steps to determine what you’re facing, whether fleas are present, and the best way to evict the bite-happy little freeloaders off your dog and out of your house.
Step 1: Check Their Environment
While you will eventually need to give your dog a good once-over from nose to tail, it’s just faster and easier to start with a spot-check of his environment. Fleas, particularly if they’ve made themselves at home on your dog, aren’t in the habit of cleaning up after themselves. Essentially, because they live off of biting their host (your dog, potentially), they eat and excrete blood, which dries and looks black to the naked eye. It’s very easy for dog owners to dismiss these excretions, called “flea dirt”, because they’re so small. Collectively, they’re easy to mistake for regular soil-dirt, particularly if your dog is an indoor/outdoor pet, but there’s are a few easy ways to tell dirt from flea dirt:
- The ‘paper towel’ test: If you suspect that black specks around your dog’s bedding, blankets, or favorite spot on the floor may be flea dirt, just dab the dirt with the edge of a barely-damp paper towel. The dampness will reconstitute the dried blood, making it appear as dark-to-bright red splotches against the white background of the paper towel. If the specks turn red on the paper towel, it’s a pretty safe bet that your pet does, unfortunately, have fleas.
- The ‘quick look’ test: Look very closely at the suspected flea dirt, ideally after sweeping some onto a bright white sheet of paper (printer paper is ideal) for contrast. Do any of the specks look like little curls? When flea dirt is excreted, it forms in one long thread that often curls. This curling is a very easy way to tell flea dirt from lookalike “outdoor” dirt, which will appear rounder, like grains of sand. You can also add a drop of water directly onto the dirt on the paper to see if there is any red coloring, similar to the paper towel test.
- The ‘tape’ test: If you’re a little squeamish, the tape test is ideal. Simply take a piece of clear packing tape (note: frosted or scotch tape won’t work very well for this test) and lightly press the middle onto your dog’s bedding or other frequented spot – carpet, couch, chair, etc. Then, fold the tape over itself, “sandwiching” the dirt between the layers. Now, you’re able to examine the dirt like a microscope slide against a light source or white paper – all without ever having to touch it. Look for the same curly threads mentioned in the quick look test.
Step 2: Checking Your Dog for Flea Bites and Fleas
- Once you’ve determined that fleas are present in the home, it’s time to see how bad your poor pup is being bitten. Fleas are extremely resilient little parasites, and very adept at hiding. Thankfully, dog owners have a few points in their favor: fleas are black, and most dogs have light or pale skin, even if their fur is dark. Flea bites are very distinctive, and tend to be clustered, making them easier to spot – it’s rare to see a lone flea bite, particularly because fleas reproduce so much and so quickly.
- Maneuver your dog into a comfortable position, ideally on your lap, and with his belly exposed. This may take bribery of a favorite treat or two, but it’s the best way to check for fleas.
- Gently pet your dog’s belly (if he normally allows you to) and try and get his legs to relax. Slowly, rhythmically pet his belly in the same direction to help him get comfortable.
- As much as you’re able to (each dog has different tolerance levels for body manipulation), start gently checking the crevices of the belly, the inside of the thighs, the “armpits”, under the neck and chin, and around the tail. Part the fur with your fingertips or gently blow against their skin to part the fur.
- If he or she has a large number of fleas, disturbing the fur or the area of their body the fleas are hiding in will cause them to move or scatter to “safe ground” elsewhere on your dog. If you don’t see any fleas physically moving, gently part the fur around the stomach, neck, and base of the tail and examine the skin for small, raised, red dots. They will look almost like large pinpricks, and will likely have irritation around them from your dog scratching or biting at the affected area.
- If you still aren’t sure, try purchasing a special flea comb from a pet supply store. These are typically very inexpensive and allow you to thoroughly brush through your dog’s coat, removing flea dirt and fleas along the way. If you place a white or light-colored cloth underneath your dog beforehand, it will also be easy to see any flea dirt that falls off while combing.
If your dog does have fleas, you can soothe him or her with a warm bath and a good wash. You may notice fleas floating off of your dog while washing them; this is normal. If you’re bathing your dog in the bathtub, put a drop or two of shampoo in your nearby toilet bowl, pinch any fleas that appear, and toss them in the toilet, flushing periodically. The shampoo will break the surface tension and cause fleas – which are otherwise notoriously good swimmers – to suffocate and drown. Every flea removed from your dog during a bath is one less flea delivering itchy, uncomfortable bites!
Step 3: Fighting Back Against Fleas
Fleas can thrive in a temperate indoor environment, and feed off of humans the same as they feed off of dogs – you may notice little red itchy spots on your ankles, too. When you’re ready to rid yourself of the little menaces, you’ll want to concentrate your flea-fighting efforts where they spend the most time: your dog. A good bath will help, but fleas are extremely resilient and can survive up to seven days submerged in water – and even the world’s most thorough dog bath won’t last a fraction of that time.
- Talk to your vet about flea-killing medicines: Your vet will be able to prescribe a variety of treatments for your dog, including oral pills that will quickly kill all fleas currently on him, and topical medications that will kill any fleas that try to hop back on board your dog. Flea collars are seldom effective in stopping existing infestations, and dogs can have skin sensitivities to them.
- Clean up the cloth: Take all bedding, blankets, pillows, and plush toys that your dog lays with and wash it all at the highest temperature available on your washing machine.
- Vacuum all carpeted & upholstered areas thoroughly: Each female flea on your dog can lay up to 27 eggs a day. Your dog sheds and shakes these eggs into carpeting and bedding, where they become little ticking time-bombs of the next flea generation. Even if you kill every adult flea on your dog, without cleaning up the environment, you could be mid-infestation in a matter of weeks!
- Don’t neglect other household pets: If your dog has fleas, chances are that other dogs, cats, or furry animals in and around your house have them too. Treating one animal will only force the fleas onto another until treatment wears off on the first. Remember, fleas are resilient and resourceful, so you’ll need to eliminate all their safe havens to get rid of them for good.
- Mow your lawn: Fleas prefer areas where they can safely hide, and tall outdoor grass is an ideal place to lay in wait for your dog. Mowing your lawn regularly greatly reduces the places that nasty bugs and parasites can hide while they’re waiting on their next host.
- Sprinkle some salt: Make sure your dog is safely in another room for this treatment, as they could potentially eat the salt or lick it off of their paws, making them ill. Liberally sprinkle generic table salt onto carpeted areas, anywhere in your home that is having issues with fleas. This can help cut back on flea larvae by dehydrating them. Sprinkle the salt, leave it on the carpet for several hours (or ideally overnight), then vacuum it up, taking care to empty the vacuum outside.
- Cut your pet’s nails: While this won’t actively help with your flea problem, it will keep your pup from tearing up their skin and causing more irritation while you get fleas off of them and out for good.
Why is Flea Control for Dogs Important?
While some pet parents may be tempted to shrug off fleas as something common that happens to “every dog” and hope they clear up on their own, fleas are actually a very big problem. In addition to being annoying, fleas can:
- Eat up to 15 times their body weight every day – and that spells major issues for smaller dogs and puppies. Large flea infestations mean lots of bites, and consequently, a lot of blood loss. That can cause anemia and even death, if left untreated long enough.
- Jump over 5 inches – which can cause problems with bedding. Fleas can get up into bedding from the floor in a single hop, getting into your bed or your children’s beds with relative ease. (Note: If your dog sleeps or rests on your bed, you almost definitely have fleas or flea eggs in your bedding – so wash it well in hot water!
- Turn to humans if their food source is unavailable: Even if your dog is washed thoroughly and treated for fleas at your vet, that doesn’t mean fleas will stop their assault. Expect the creepy little parasites to turn on your ankles if your dog is taken out of the house or boarded for any length of time – without food every four days, adult fleas will starve.
- Carry tapeworm eggs: As gross as fleas are, they get even more stomach-turning: many also carry tapeworm eggs inside them. When a dog bites or licks themselves to get rid of fleas or soothe flea bites, they ingest these fleas, sending those tapeworm eggs directly to the stomach. The eggs hatch inside your poor pup, giving them a bad case of tapeworms, which lead to unsightly and dirty tapeworm segments all over your house, and yet another health-threatening infestation problem for your dog.
- Survive just about anything: Fleas are excellent swimmers, one of the world’s best body-ratio jumpers, resistant to heat and cold, and even have slender, “flattened” bodies to resist crushing. It only takes one adult flea to kick off an infestation, so it’s important to be very thorough in your flea eradication – dog medication, dog bathing, vacuuming, and washing linens and bedding are all crucial steps that must be performed together to give fleas the boot. Otherwise, you’re susceptible to a never-ending cycle of one of nature’s most persistent parasites.
Flea bites on your dog (and your own body) are painful, itchy, and can be embarrassing, too. Learn to recognize these symptoms of flea bites in dogs and apply these simple remedies so you can stop the biting freeloaders in their tracks. You’ll not only keep fleas out of your home, you’ll be keeping your furry friend safe, happy, and healthy along the way.
- Burke, Anna. “What Do Flea Bites Look Like on Dogs?” AKC.org, November 9, 2016, https://www.akc.org/expert-advice/health/flea-bites-on-dogs. Accessed January 30, 2019.
- “Do fleas drown in water?” FleaScience.com, (no publish date), https://fleascience.com/flea-encyclopedia/life-cycle-of-fleas/adult-fleas/how-to-kill-fleas/do-fleas-drown-in-water. Accessed January 30, 2019.
- “Safe Use of Flea and Tick Preventive Products.” AVMA.org., (no publish date), https://www.avma.org/public/PetCare/Pages/Safe-use-o