Fleas are pretty talented at taking over your house, they easily attach themselves to your dog making themselves at home on your comfy cushions and soft furnishings. They’re greedy little parasites, and they’re probably one of the most annoying pests your dog will come into contact with.
You might spot the incessant itching first, or you might start to notice tiny little brown specks on your dog’s bed, whatever it is, it won’t take you long to realise that your poor pup has caught fleas. It would be surprising if your dog didn’t come across these irritating little insects at some point in their life, so it’s important to have a little know-how so you can get the fleas under control and soothe your dog’s scratching quickly.
We’re here to provide you with that know-how, so keep reading to find out more about what fleas are, what they do, how to spot them and how to get rid of them.
Fleas are one of the most common parasites that your dog will have to combat, they’re nothing but downright pests. They spend their days enjoying their new home (your dog’s warm, toasty fur) and laying eggs to produce even more fleas, spreading them around your home as a result.
Way over 2000 species of flea exist in the world, but most of the time it’s the Ctenocephalides felis type that will reside in your dog’s fur. Strangely enough, this is actually the ‘cat flea’. Ctenocephalides canis is what is referred to as the ‘dog flea’, but for some odd reason it seems to be the cat flea that more commonly infects our pooches.
Only about 1-2mm in size, fleas are tiny, but they can do a lot of damage if left for too long, having the potential to spread disease and cause significant blood loss. Even though fleas are wingless and are really tiny, they’ve got incredibly strong back legs to help them leap onto your dog’s body. They can actually leap more than a hundred times their own body length!
They’ve got super sharp mouthparts to pierce your pooch’s skin and draw plenty of blood from your dog, but they can only do this when they’re fully mature, adult fleas. They’ll live for about a week or two, laying plenty of white, oval-shaped eggs that are only about half a millimetre long, which will hatch ready to start the cycle again.
Fleas have one goal and one goal only, lay loads of eggs so that more fleas can reproduce and take over your home. A female flea can lay around 50 eggs a day, and they live for around 2 weeks in their adult stage, so imagine all the eggs that they can lay in that time period!
The complete life cycle can take anywhere from 14 days in ideal conditions to a full year if they’re patiently waiting for the right host to come by. This time will vary depending on various external factors, such as the temperature and humidity of the environment and how quickly an appropriate host becomes available.
So, the flea’s life cycle starts as an egg which will be dropped into the environment. The eggs then hatch into microscopic, worm-like larvae which burrow into warm spaces such as the carpet fibres, your dog’s bedding, other soft furnishings and down the cracks of the sofa. They can even live outside, tending to reside in any cracks and crevices they come across, feeding on whatever they find, most likely dead skin cells and even faeces from other fleas that are rich in sucked-up blood.
As the larvae continue to grow, they shed twice, forming a cocoon and entering the next stage of their life cycle, in which they become pupae. At this stage, the cocoon is sturdy and protective, so they can survive for many months without a host, so if they’re residing in your house, it’s unlikely that you’ll notice their presence until they grow into adult fleas.
The pupae will be lurking, waiting for their target to pass by. When they sense warmth, vibration and exhaled carbon dioxide, which are all signs that a host is in the vicinity, they’ll quickly emerge from their cocoon and leap onto the host as an adult flea. This is the final stage of the flea’s life cycle, the one in which they’ll be ready to start it all over again, with your dog depositing the flea’s eggs all around their surroundings every time they sit, lie down and shake their fur.
A warm-blooded animal is the flea’s desired host, none of the life cycle stages of the flea enjoy the cold. Knowledge of how the life cycle works is key in understanding why it’s so important to treat your entire environment for fleas, not just the host.
Fleas thrive in warmer temperatures, so late summer is the perfect time for fleas due to the hotter climate and high humidity. However, don’t be fooled into thinking there’ll be no fleas in the winter, when you up that cosy central heating it creates a perfect climate for those pesky parasites. Your canine’s thick, toasty fur also makes a great environment for fleas to get warm and snuggly in.
You might associate fleas with overpopulated, unhygienic and unkempt environments, but realistically, fleas can crop up in the cleanest of homes. Fleas are stealthy and try to infiltrate wherever they can, so it’s possible that your pet picked up the parasite from the park, a puppy playdate or just from the dormant larvae living in the cracks and crevices of the pavement on a street walk.
Although you might not be able to see them, they might still be hiding in there!
Without microscopic examination, it might be tricky to spot a flea infestation due to their small size, although it’s a lot easier on light-coloured fur.
Signs of a flea infestation include:
Biting the skin
Hair loss from excessive itching and biting
Spots or scars
Thickened skin areas (around ear edges)
Tiny, dark specks in the fur
Small, brown-black insects scurrying about on the skin
Eggs on bedding and soft furnishings
A flea’s favourite hangout spot is around the ears, base of the tail, the neck, the shoulder blades and the groin. They’re not that fond of bright lights, which is why you’re most likely to find them in hidden areas like the groin.
Sometimes you might see these creepy crawlies scurrying around on the skin, as they don’t embed themselves into the skin like mites and ticks do.
If your pooch has darker hair, they might be harder to spot, so if you do suspect a flea infestation, there’s a little test you can perform at home to check. Brush a fine-toothed comb through your dog’s hair, holding a piece of white tissue underneath, and any fleas or flea faeces will drop onto the tissue.
Then, drop a tiny bit of water onto the tissue and if the droppings turn a reddish-brown colour, this is a pretty definite indicator of fleas. The droppings turn this colour because of all the blood the fleas have stolen from your dog.
Not only are fleas annoying, causing irritated skin and itchiness, but they can also bring a load of other problems. For example:
Many pets can actually be super sensitive to flea saliva, resulting in an allergic reaction, which is referred to as flea allergy dermatitis.
Flea larvae can be contaminated with tapeworm eggs, and if your pet accidentally eats an infected egg they can become a host to this parasite too.
Diseases can also be passed to pets by fleas, for example, Bartonella infection which is passed on from a flea bite.
As fleas drink your dog’s blood, puppies and dogs with a weakened immune system may suffer from severe, even fatal consequences from significant blood loss, also called anaemia.
Hot spots are when the skin becomes moist, red and swollen as a result of allergies, excess moisture, infections or parasites, such as fleas.
Puppies are rapidly growing and developing their immune system, so if they catch fleas at a young age, they’ll suffer from the worst that these pests have to offer. Watch out for anaemia, bacterial infections and hot spots.
It’s essential that you treat fleas as soon as you spot them to prevent any further problems that these bothersome bugs can cause. And the idea of these creepy crawlies setting up camp in your cushions and carpets isn’t a very nice one either.
Treatment can vary, but your vet will suggest the best one for you and your pooch, possible flea treatment solutions include:
If you’ve got several pets, it’s important that you treat them all as fleas are invasive and will try to infest anywhere and everywhere.
Flea powders and medicated shampoos are good short-term solutions, getting rid of any adult fleas, however, they don’t work to stop the pests from redeveloping from the larvae. Powders are quite an old-fashioned, messy treatment type so they’re not used that much anymore, but the shampoos are good used in conjunction with another type of treatment.
Typically, spot on treatments and oral tablets will be used to totally kick those pesky parasites right out of your door. Spot on treatments come as a small bottle of liquid that you apply directly onto the skin on the back of your dog’s neck to kill adult fleas and stop the life cycle of more fleas right in its track. Oral tablets do the same thing, but spot on treatment seems to be the easiest to administer.
Flea collars are a collar that your dog wears around their neck that contains a substance within them to prevent fleas from growing and developing further.
Using this as the sole treatment method must be done with caution, as some of them only really treat around the neck, however, they have been developed further to ensure the flea-killing ingredient is distributed throughout the entire body. Also, they can sometimes cause irritation around the neck. Overall, flea collars are rarely recommended as they aren’t the most reliable form of treatment.
During your dog’s treatment, put a light-coloured blanket over where they sleep to see if any fleas or flea dirt falls off. Keep replacing this and then when you notice that there is nothing deposited on the blanket anymore, the fleas will probably be all gone.
Treating your home for fleas is just as important as treating your pet, fleas are definitely persistent, once they’ve found a lovely, cosy home like your own, they won’t want to budge anytime soon. As we know, the pupae can survive and chill out for several months without a host animal to feed from.
Use insecticide spray and clean and hoover your soft furnishings, floors, furniture and skirting boards to begin the process of destroying the fleas at every stage of their life cycle. You’ll want to dispose of the bag inside your hoover after each use too.
Think of anywhere that your dog commonly sleeps, their bed, the sofa, your bed, and this will all need cleaning down and replacing. If you often travel with your pooch up to the park, you’ll need to eradicate any signs of those pesky parasites in your car too.
To keep your dog’s other four-legged friends safe, prevent your dog from coming into contact with other dogs to stop contamination of other members of the pooch population.
Nobody wants their dog to encounter these blood-sucking bugs, so if you do everything you can to prevent them, both your dog and your household will be grateful for it. The hassle of eradicating fleas from the home is one hefty task.
Treat your dog regularly with an appropriate flea medication to prevent parasites all year round.
Other than flea preventative treatment, keeping up with your dog’s hygiene is the other number 1 way to avoid a flea infestation. Regular baths, washing their bedding frequently and brushing their coat will keep them not only looking their best, but as safe as can be from fleas too.
As we know, there’s tons of species of fleas, around 2,500, but only one of those can use humans as their host. Therefore, it’s extremely rare that you’ll experience a flea infestation like your pooch would.
However, even though it’s unlikely that you’ll catch fleas from your pooch, you’ll still suffer from some consequences of them if your pooch catches them, they’re good at invading your home.
Fleas are probably the peskiest parasite of the lot, but with the right treatment it shouldn’t be too long before they’re out of the door for good. Use flea treatment all year round to prevent an infestation to save both you and your dog some bother, nobody wants this pest taking over their home!
Written by: Dr Andrew Miller MRCVS
Andy graduated from Bristol University in 2010 and sees nutrition as a foundation for our pet's wellbeing and takes a common-sense approach. We are what we eat, and it shouldn't be any different for our pets.