You’re giving your dog a relaxing belly rub when suddenly you spot a tiny black-brown dot — and then another. It could be a speck of dirt or dust in your dog’s coat, except dirt doesn’t jump.
Most dog and cat owners will face fleas at some point during their pet’s lifetime, and while treating these pesky parasites on your pet is fairly simple, it can be tricky to completely eradicate them from your home.
Whether you live in the country or the city, things like dog parks, doggy day care or even a walk in the woods can provide these parasites the opportunity to hitch a ride on your dog and enter your home. And, yes, that means the humans in the household can get bitten, too.
Noticed one of these bugs on your dog? Here’s everything you need to know about the most common external parasite in the world — and, most importantly, how to get rid of it:
What is a flea?
These wingless bloodsuckers love to set up shop in an animal’s warm coat or between a bird’s feathers — meaning all companion animals are susceptible. A little bit bigger than a poppy seed, fleas can be seen with the naked eye, but that doesn’t make them easy to catch. Adult fleas’ bodies are thin and flat, with six little legs that can propel them great distances, should they need to jump from one host to another. Their bodies are covered in teeny tiny hairs that help them grip on to their chosen animals.
There are four developmental stages of the flea: egg, larvae, pupae and
adult, explains Dr. Judy Seltzer, a veterinary dermatologist at BluePearl Specialty Hospital in New York City. To successfully rid your home of fleas, you need to attack them at all life stages, which is why they’re so hard to get rid of (and a big pain in the butt).
Once an adult flea attaches to your dog or cat and takes a bite, they then will lay up to 50 eggs per day, according to Seltzer. Most eggs fall to the ground, where they hatch, producing larvae. The larvae can grow in carpeting, bedding and dark corners of the room, feeding on debris for about a week and a half, until they go into a cocoon and eventually emerge a full-grown flea that is once again in need of a host.
If you just see one flea, it can mean a number of things, Seltzer notes. “Sometimes one flea will mean you have a hundred fleas, just in different life stages — and other times, your dog simply picked up a single flea from being in contact with another dog,” Seltzer tells The Dodo.
How do I know if my pet has fleas?
If you notice your pets scratching, chewing, licking or biting themselves more than normal, it’s time to take a closer look at their fur. Fleas will typically congregate on the back half of your dog or cat’s body, inside the back legs, at the base of the tail or on the belly and groin — wherever is warm and protected.
Part your pet’s hair with a flea comb or your fingers to look for these high-jumping pests, and the detritus they leave behind. “Flea dirt” (brown specks on your dog’s skin or in their fur) can also be signs of an infestation, Seltzer notes. You can perform a “spot test” by collecting this dirt on a piece of white paper or a paper towel and adding a splash of water. If you see red staining when the water and brown specks mix, then this “dirt” is most likely a flea’s digested meal.
What if my pet is allergic to fleas?
If your dog gets especially itchy from flea bites, he’s not alone. Flea allergy dermatitis (FAD) is the most common allergic condition in dogs, according to the Merck Veterinary Manual, with symptoms developing at between 1 and 3 years of age. This reaction, caused by the flea’s saliva, can lead some dogs to experience itching, scratching and skin infections, while dogs without this sensitivity will be perfectly fine — similar to how people react differently to mosquito bites.
For a dog with FAD, just one bite can make him itchy for days. If you suspect your dog or cat is suffering, look for red, raised bumps, scabs, scaling, red skin and salivary staining (from licking), even missing fur, notes Dr. Seltzer.
What does a flea bite look like on me?
Flea bites on humans are not particularly distinctive. They can look like a group of raised red bumps, similar to bedbug bites or small red dots. They can also be itchy, if you happen to be allergic to the flea’s saliva.
How do I safely treat my pet?
Seltzer recommends that all dogs — no matter the season or where they live — should be on a good year-round flea control. “As a dermatologist, 75 percent of what I see are allergies, and for any environmentally allergic dog, a good proportion of them will have a flea allergy dermatitis,” Seltzer explains. “Fleas can live in the environment for a really long time. It can take 10 days of freezing temperatures for fleas to die, plus they like to live in households year-round.”
Quick-acting oral flea and tick control products, such as fluralaner (Bravecto), sarolaner (Simparica) and afoxolaner (NexGard), can kill adult fleas on an animal within 24 hours. There are also topical treatments and sprays, such as fipronil (Frontline), imidacloprid (Advantage) and selamectin (Revolution), Seltzer explains, though your veterinarian will prescribe the type of medicine that is right for your pet’s personality and lifestyle.
It’s also important to make sure you’re treating all animals in the household, not just the one showing symptoms. “I get plenty of owners who don’t want to treat cats because they don’t go outside,” Seltzer explained. “But if you have a dog who goes outside, you need to make sure you’re treating all in-contact animals, or you’re still getting exposure.” However, if you have other pets who aren’t cats or dogs, check with an experienced vet before treating them — some dog and cat flea medications can be deadly to other animals.
How do I get fleas out of my home?
If you spot a flea or two on your dog, starting her on a monthly flea control may not be enough to treat the pest problem completely.
“You need to give it about three months of treatment to really see how effective the flea control is,” Seltzer says. “So if you find fleas on your dog, and you start Frontline, for example, then using it for three months in conjunction with treating the environment — that’s the big thing. The problem is that a lot of people are reluctant to treat their household.”
Vacuuming carpets, couches and floors frequently and washing your pet’s bedding on a regular basis will help keep a flea infestation in check. Flea bombs and fogger sprays are also regularly available, but they won’t necessarily complete the job. “Fleas like to be in warm, dark places — so if a dog is on the couch and jumps off, that’s a great time for fleas to jump off and live under the couch, bed or chair,” Seltzer says. “Those are actually where the biggest problems are in the household — where you can’t reach.”
“If you use one of those fogger sprays, they may release in the air and drop straight down. It’s not getting under a couch,” Seltzer explains. “That’s why oftentimes we will recommend exterminators who can get into all these places.”
A professional exterminator will treat both your indoor and outdoor environment, usually in two sessions 10 to 14 days apart. Not sure if you have an infestation? “To check for fleas, put on a long pair of white socks. If they are there, you will see them jumping on the socks around your ankles,” Charles Kourbage of Kingsway Exterminating tells The Dodo. If you choose to administer the insecticide on your own, Seltzer warns that pet owners should be careful to follow directions and keep pets out of the rooms when applying the product.
Treating fleas takes vigilance and quite a few trips to the laundromat — but your house (and dog) will be sparkling after.