Fleas are a common external parasite that can cause extreme itching. You may initially notice that your dog has fleas because she’s scratching, licking or chewing at her skin. You may also see fleas moving around on the dog’s body especially if it is a severe infestation.
Signs of itching in a dog include scratching, chewing, licking, shaking and irritability. A dog may have bumps, scratches or other skin lesions from injuring herself with excessive scratching. Scabs on the inner ear and other delicate areas are also a common sign of itchiness and excessive scratching.
Because fleas are not the only thing that can cause a dog to be itchy, it’s a good idea to investigate further whenever you notice your dog scratching more than usual. If your dog has long, thick fur, identifying fleas may be more difficult as the bugs like to burrow down against the skin where they can easily access the blood they feed on.
The easiest place to spot fleas on a dog is the armpit or groin area. These are warm, protected areas of the dog that are attractive to fleas. They also tend to have the thinnest fur. Other places to check for signs of a flea infestation include the ear and base of the tail.
You may see tiny brown or black bugs moving around on the dog’s body when you part her fur. You may also see dark specks that somewhat resemble coffee grounds. When wiped with a damp cloth, these specks may turn red. These specks are called “flea dirt,” and they are the droppings of the bugs after they’ve finished digesting the blood they feed on.
One thing that can help with identifying fleas on your dog is a flea comb. This is a special type of comb with very closely set teeth. Run it through the hair on your dog’s back or legs, taking care to get it as close to the skin as possible. The comb is designed to catch and pull fleas from the skin’s surface. It may also dislodge flea dirt.
What Are Fleas?
Fleas are flat-bodied wingless insects that feed on blood. They are tiny, about the size of a pinhead, and can jump several feet in the air. Jumping is a flea’s primary form of movement. A flea infestation usually begins when an adult flea jumps onto an animal. Fleas are attracted to warmth and can travel from one warm-blooded host to another, so a flea infestation in one pet can quickly spread to all members of a household.
Once a flea has jumped on a dog, it will begin to feed. Female fleas will lay their eggs on the host, but the eggs are not sticky and will often fall off. The eggs will then accumulate in the environment, often in the animal’s bedding or in the carpet. The eggs hatch into larvae that feed primarily on the feces (flea dirt) of adult fleas. These larvae will then spin cocoons for themselves before developing into egg-laying adults.
An adult flea can live for two to three months. In that time, it may lay between 10 and 50 eggs per day or more than 2,000 eggs in her lifetime. This means that a flea infestation can quickly get out of hand!
Can Fleas Spread Disease?
Fleas are more than an irritating pest. They can be dangerous to your health and the health of your pet.
Because fleas feed on blood and can inhabit any type of warm-blooded host, fleas can spread disease and parasites. Some diseases transmitted by flas can be very serious:
- Bubonic Plague
- Murine Typhus
Fortunately, most of these diseases are fairly rare in the U.S. However, international travel and exposure to wild animals can increase a pet’s risk of contracting and spreading these flea-borne illnesses.
A more common flea-related problem is the spread of parasites. Adult fleas are known to become infected with tapeworms which can then spread to a dog or cat if the infected flea is eaten. If your pet has fleas, it’s a good idea to have her checked or treated for worms as well.
Another problem that some dogs have is flea allergy dermatitis. Fleas frequently makes dog itchy, but dogs with flea allergies have an even stronger reaction. This hypersensitivity can lead to hair loss, skin lesions and secondary infections caused by excessive scratching and self-injury.
Dogs that are old, sick, immunocompromised or subjected to a very severe flea infestation may become anemic due to the quantity of blood being consumed by the fleas. This anemia can be life-threatening and requires lots of hands-on care to treat while the animal recovers.
How Do I Get Rid of Fleas?
Fleas are hardy bugs that can be very difficult to eradicate once they’ve settled in your home. Prevention is the best method for keeping fleas at bay. Oral and topical flea preventative treatments from your vet are the best way to keep your dog flea-free. These treatments will kill any fleas that jump on your dog and prevent them from laying eggs and spreading an infestation.
Once your pet has fleas, you’ll need to treat both the pet and the environment of your home. Start by treating the pet with a vet-recommended product that will kill the fleas on the dog. Be sure you’re providing treatments on the recommended schedule as many treatments only kill adult fleas, so you’ll need to re-treat as any eggs and larvae come to adulthood.
To kill fleas in the home, you’ll need to use a multi-pronged approach. Start by washing all of the bedding and plush toys in hot, soapy water. Thoroughly sweep and mop all tile and wood floors. Vacuum carpets, rugs and furniture. Use a carpet spray for upholstery and carpet. Be sure to throw away the vacuum bag between vacuumings.
A “flea bomb” or fogger may also be helpful.
This releases a pesticidal aerosol into the home that can be effective to kill fleas. A single fogger can continue to kill fleas for several months. However, you will need the house to be empty while using the fogger and for a few hours afterward while the fumes dissipate, so only use this treatment when you and your pets have another place to stay for an afternoon.
Pesticide sprays for the yard can also help with reducing fleas outside. Keeping the yard tidy and free of weeds also eliminates places for fleas and other pests to hide.
Because fleas can be difficult to get rid of, you may wish to consult with a professional pest control company for help in eradicating a serious flea infestation problem.
Can Fleas Transmit Heartworm?
A common and very serious disease for dogs is heartworm, which is a bloodborne parasite that infects the heart and can lead to death. However, heartworm cannot be transmitted by fleas. The heartworm parasite is carried only by mosquitoes.
The conditions that favor fleas can also favor mosquitoes. Both pests prefer warm, damp climates and are most active during the summer. However, flea treatments will not ward off mosquitoes. This is why it’s important to keep your pet on a regular heartworm medication in addition to routine flea treatments.
Another disease you may worry about is Lyme Disease. This is a bloodborne illness that can affect dogs and people alike. However, Lyme Disease is transmitted by ticks, not fleas. Ticks are blood-sucking external parasites that latch onto an animal and feed on its blood. However, they are much larger than fleas and can be seen fairly easily with the naked eye. Ticks feed by burrowing their heads under an animal’s skin and gorging themselves on blood.
Although ticks are a different type of bug than fleas, they are susceptible to the same sort of treatments. Most topical and oral flea treatments work against ticks as well. Speak with your veterinarian about specific recommendations for flea and tick treatment and prevention in your area as well as heartworm treatments and preventative care for any other parasites that may live in your area.