When you have pets, you’ve likely had to deal with fleas before. Why do fleas attack dogs? Do they cause any health issues? What happens when too many fleas bite a dog? What do flea bites on dogs look like? Read on to learn more about the flea life cycle, the types of medications used to treat fleas, and the illnesses fleas can cause. Fleas on dogs are annoying, but the right treatment can prevent an itchy outcome.
Flea Bites on Dogs
While the most common type of flea on dogs is called the cat flea, these fleas are found on all pets. This is what most people are referring to when they spot a flea. Other common fleas include dog fleas, human fleas, and rat fleas. Fleas find their hosts by the body heat and vibrations dogs (and other mammals) give off while moving around. If they can’t find the correct host, fleas will still opportunistically feed on humans and other animals in the household regardless of species.
Fleas feed on your pet’s blood by biting the skin with their mouthparts. They then feed on the blood that pools in the wound. Fleas also have special tarsal claws that allow them to grip onto your dog’s hair without falling off. If disturbed, a flea can leap about a foot away, or about 200 times the size of their body. Fleas also have large abdomens for storing the blood they feed on, along with eggs in females. Female fleas can lay around a half dozen eggs after every meal.
Flea Life Cycle
Fleas have four major life stages, and it’s important to know the function of each. Adult fleas are what most owners commonly see hopping around on their dog or the environment. These fleas feed on your pet’s blood at the base of hair follicles along the skin. Your dog’s skin is also where they mate and can lay eggs.
Eggs are also commonly laid in dark spots such as baseboards, furniture crevices, and fabrics. Eggs generally hatch within 10 days but may go dormant in cooler months, re-emerging in spring and summer. After hatching, larval fleas feed on “flea dirt”, or the excrement of blood from adult fleas. After 5-20 days, they pupate and reemerge when conditions are right — usually with the presence of a human or canine host nearby. Adult fleas can feed, mate, and lay eggs within hours to days of hatching from their pupa in the right conditions.
How Flea Treatments for Dogs Work
These are some of the most common types of flea treatments for fleas on dogs. While this information is specifically for dogs, it is important to note to not use flea products designed for dogs on cats. The dosage and chemicals used in dog-only flea products can cause a toxic reaction in cats. This can lead to seizures, coma, and loss of life. If you accidentally use a dog flea product on a cat, seek emergency care from your veterinarian.
If your dog has any underlying allergies or health conditions, it is best to consult with your veterinarian before trying a specific product. Liver and kidney disease can affect your dog’s ability to break down and process some medications. Some breeds, such as collies, are also genetically unable to break down some medication ingredients, such as ivermectin which is used in treating internal parasites. Be sure to always check product ingredients before purchasing and using any.
Oral Medications For Flea Treatment
Oral medications, such as Capstar, are gradually taking hold as a popular flea treatment. However, they do have some drawbacks. Most were available as a prescription-only medication, however, oral Capstar has been approved for over the counter use. Most pet stores and some big box stores carry oral flea medications in their pet department.
Oral medications work by eliminating any fleas currently present on the body. They can be given in conjunction with a topical flea medication, or used with flea collars and sprays. However, these medications do not work as preventives, and will not damage flea eggs or any fleas that jump back on the body. They’re more useful as an emergency treatment option when dealing with a large flea infestation. When used with a regular topical medication and treatment of the environment, they are incredibly effective at removing fleas from the body, generally within 24 hours.
Flea Topical Medications
Topical flea medications are the most common and most popular type of flea medication on the market. Some brands are available as a prescription only, while others, such as Frontline, Advantage, and many generics of the same formulations are available in stores. These medications often also treat additional parasites such as ticks and biting lice. Other treatments for worms, heartworm, and mosquitoes are also often combined with flea treatment in one topical product.
A topical medication is absorbed and then distributed via the other oil glands on your dog’s body when applied to your dog’s skin. Because of this, it’s best to apply a topical medication three days prior to or after bathing your dog. This prevents the medication from accidentally being washed off before it has time to work and also lets the natural oils on your dog’s skin help distribute the medication.
Topical medications treat all stages of the flea life cycle, destroying any flea eggs, larvae, or adults on the body. Most topical medications work for three to four weeks and will eliminate any additional fleas that hatch from the environment and jump onto your dog. After a month, the product needs to be reapplied to continue working. Topical medications can be combined with oral medications, but owners should use caution when using them with sprays or collars, unless approved by a veterinarian.
Flea Collars, Sprays, and Shampoos
Flea collars, such as Seresto, also eliminate flea larvae and ticks. These collars are also designed to be water-resistant and longer-lasting for up to 6-8 months. The longer-lasting collars tend to be prescription-only, while over the counter versions may be less effective or need to be replaced monthly. Flea collars also have the potential drawback of chasing fleas toward the end of the body, such as the base of the tail, rather than eliminating all fleas on the body.
Flea shampoos also eliminate adult fleas on the body and flea larvae. This is useful in the case of a major flea infestation where all adult fleas need to be treated right away. However, flea shampoos do not usually repel or prevent further infestations, and should be used with a topical medication for flea prevention. Using a flea comb after bathing your dog in a flea shampoo can also remove any remaining fleas or flea eggs from the body to reduce reinfestation.
Flea sprays are similar to flea shampoos in that they treat adult fleas on contact. Like shampoos, most flea sprays do not have long-lasting effects and so must be reapplied. Use a flea comb when using a flea spray to remove any flea bodies and eggs from your dog’s body, and to more easily separate the hairs to expose skin for the spray to reach. It’s also important to check if the purchased spray is for use on your dog’s skin, or for spraying the environment, as they do not work the same and can cause illness if used incorrectly.
There are many popular natural remedies for treating fleas on dogs, however, they do have varying success, and in some cases, should be used with caution. What works on dogs can also be harmful to other pets, such as cats and smaller pocket pets, so it is best to avoid those treatments if you have them in your household.
Diatomaceous earth is a commonly used product for treating fleas. However, it should only be used in the environment such as furniture and baseboards. When used on your dog, it can cause respiratory distress and skin irritation, and you should avoid having any pets in the room when applying it. Diatomaceous earth works by dehydrating the flea’s exoskeleton, as well as through ingestion of the particles.
Another home remedy is the use of essential oils such as eucalyptus and peppermint oil. Again, these should be used in the environment as a repellent, rather than directly on your dog. These oils, especially concentrated, can cause skin irritation and respiratory distress in high concentrations and so should be used sparingly. Some flea sprays do contain these oils as part of their ingredient list, but they are generally diluted to safe amounts or are for use only on furniture in the home.
Other Natural Remedies
Luckily, there are many safe natural treatments you can use directly on your dog. Puppies that are too young for flea treatments can be bathed in dish soap as a safe home remedy without causing skin irritation. Avoid dish soap products with harsh antibacterial additives, or strong scents – products for sensitive skin would be best. Bathe your puppy in the dish soap as you would a regular pet shampoo. This will suffocate any fleas on the body which can then be removed with a flea comb. You can repeat this process as many times as needed, and it can also be used on adult dogs as well.
Diluted vinegar can also be used as a safe flea shampoo in the same way, but care should be taken to avoid getting it in your dog’s eyes. Drops of lemon juice can also be used on the skin as a safe flea repellent.
Treating Fleas in Your Home
Treating the home and environment is just as important as treating your dog when dealing with fleas. Even if you’ve treated your dog, fleas in the environment can hatch and hop back onto your dog’s body. Your dog can also pick up fleas if they frequent brushy or wooded areas, or are in contact with stray animals. General cleaning, such as washing all bedding, vacuuming carpet and baseboards, and wiping down nooks and crannies can help remove fleas and eggs from the environment. Additional products, such as flea bombs, sprays, and natural remedies can also help.
Flea sprays and flea bombs work by destroying flea eggs, larvae, and adult fleas in the environment. Sprays can be used in locations where it isn’t easy to clean or vacuum, such as large furniture or crevices. Flea bombs work similarly but are a time-release fogger that coats the entire room with the flea-eliminating product. These products can cause human and animal skin, eye, and respiratory irritation when used. Any pets and people should be removed from the room when applying a spray, and from the house entirely when using a fogger or flea bomb.
The natural remedies listed above, such as diatomaceous earth and essential oils, are great for use in the home. Since they can cause irritation to your dog and other pets with direct contact, any pets should be removed from the room before applying them. You can spray essential oils in nooks and crannies and on upholstered furniture. Diatomaceous earth can be sprinkled along baseboards and on carpets, and then vacuumed after letting it sit for 24-48 hours.
Diseases and Conditions Caused by Fleas on Dogs
Here are some of the most common conditions caused by fleas on dogs:
Flea Allergy Dermatitis
Flea Allergy Dermatitis (FAD) is one of the most common side effects of fleas. When a flea bites your dog, it injects some saliva under the skin, which can lead to an itchy red bump forming. While every dog does not react the same, some dogs will have a
more severe allergic reaction to the bite. Bites can become extremely itchy, bright red, and swell up. Your dog may also scratch or bite at the area, which can introduce more irritation and infection-causing bacteria. This creates a cascading effect that can lead to severe irritation.
Your vet can easily determine a flea allergy by examining your dog’s skin. As fleas tend to bite along the back, base of the tail, and belly, these areas will often have the most redness and irritation. Your vet may also take a skin scraping of any affected areas to check for secondary infections. Treating the fleas is the best course of action to stop the cycle of irritation.
In addition, your vet will prescribe medications to help stop the itch and reaction, such as over the counter antihistamines, prescription allergy medications, and in severe cases steroids such as prednisone. Other treatments such as medicated shampoos can help reduce irritation. Finally, your vet will likely prescribe an oral flea treatment to immediately eliminate any fleas on the body. In addition, regular monthly preventive medication can help decrease the chances of a recurrence.
Flea-bite Abscesses and Hot Spots
Abscesses and hot spots can be a result of flea bites that become infected. In most cases, dogs that have a flea bite allergy will also develop abscesses and hot spots in the affected area. These are characterized by open wounds that ooze pus and debris, have an off smell, and are painful and hot to the touch. In addition, hot spots can lead to hair loss around the affected area, as well as crusting and flaking of the skin.
As with flea allergies, visual inspection is the most common way of determining an abscess or hot spot. Your vet may also take a sample of the area to
rule out other causes such as fungal or yeast infections. Treatment involves thoroughly clipping and cleaning the area. With a very large abscess, a drain may also be placed to help reduce the buildup of debris. Oral medications such as antibiotics and pain meds can reduce the infection and any pain. Medicated shampoos can also be helpful in reducing skin irritation directly.
Since the abscess is related to an allergy, treating fleas preventively and using an antihistamine or other allergy medication can prevent a hot spot or abscess from forming. If your dog does have an allergic reaction to fleas, placing a T-shirt over the affected area or an Elizabethan (cone) collar on your dog can also keep them from licking and chewing the spot.
Fleas feed on your dog’s blood to survive. While one flea won’t take much blood, many fleas and chronic flea infestations can lead to anemia. With anemia, your dog may become lethargic or have a pale or white appearance to the gums, nose, and tongue. Your dog’s coat may also look scruffy or dull, or you may see flaking or dry skin. Puppies may fail to thrive and have poor or no growth.
Anemia is a serious medical condition that requires treatment right away. In severe cases, blood transfusions may be needed to replace the blood your dog has lost. Your vet will take a blood sample to determine the number of red blood cells in the body, known as packed cell volume (PCV) or hematocrit. In the case of flea anemias, there are usually enough fleas still present on the body to easily make a diagnosis.
Your vet will likely recommend an oral flea treatment to immediately start eliminating fleas, along with a bath to remove any fleas from the body while treating the anemia. IV fluids may also be recommended to replace nutrients and blood volume. From there, longer-term treatments such as medications to boost red blood cell production, a healthy diet, and regular flea prevention can help.
Internal parasites are often transmitted by the parasites that bite your dog. Fleas often carry tapeworm eggs as an intermediate host in the tapeworm life cycle. They are then transmitted when the flea bites your dog. From there, the eggs migrate to your dog’s digestive tract where they cling to the intestinal wall, feeding on what your dog eats. As the tapeworm grows, segments break off, exiting with your dog’s stool. If other fleas bite your dog, they can also pick up the tapeworm infection and spread it to other animals.
Minor tapeworm infections don’t cause symptoms. In larger infections, your dog may have digestive upset such as vomiting or diarrhea. Your dog will also pass tapeworm segments, which look like small, flat grains of rice in the stool. They can also become attached to the hairs around the base of your dog’s tail as they pass. Tapeworm segments can also be found in areas your dog frequents, such as bedding.
Luckily, treating tapeworms is very easy. An oral dewormer, such as Drontal, can be used to eliminate tapeworms. It’s important to note that not all dewormers work on tapeworms. They need to include the active ingredient praziquantel, as ivermectin will not affect them. After the worms are treated, they will pass through your dog’s digestive tract and be expelled with the stool. For severe infestations, deworming treatment should be repeated again in a month. Treating any fleas will also reduce the chances of another tapeworm infection.
Bartonella, Plague, and Other Diseases
There are some other less commonly transmitted diseases caused by fleas. These include Bartonellosis, Plague, Typhus, and a few other illnesses. Since these diseases are also transmissible to people, it’s important to treat them immediately in pets. Signs of these diseases include fever, heart issues, lymph node inflammation, lethargy, and the formation of pus-filled lesions. If your dog has had a recent flea infestation and suddenly starts to show signs of illness, a trip to your vet ASAP is best. Your vet will offer supportive treatment as needed, such as antibiotics, fluids, and other medications.
Spotting fleas on your dogs can be a scary and sometimes frustrating occurrence. By finding the right treatment that works for fleas on dogs, you can prevent an itchy annoyance and potential disease. As with any issue, if your dog has excessive fleas or is showing signs of an illness, a trip to the vet is best.