How do I know if my dog has fleas?

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How do I know if my dog has fleas?  - a dog sitting outside, itching at its neck

Fleas are a common complaint among pet parents. These pesky parasites can make dogs and their owners itchy and uncomfortable. Knowing how to spot the signs of fleas is essential for owners to ensure their dog’s health and comfort. Read on to learn:

  • What do fleas look like?
  • What are the common symptoms of fleas in dogs?
  • Can I check my dog for fleas?
  • How are fleas treated and prevented on dogs?

Fleas can be dangerous. They spread diseases, tapeworms, and are also one of the most common triggers for allergic skin disease. Year-round flea prevention is the best way to protect your entire family, but it’s still beneficial to know how to identify fleas on your dog.

What are fleas?

Fleas are small, parasitic insects that feed off mammalian hosts' blood. They can affect dogs, cats, and even people. While the tiny bugs are annoying, they can also be dangerous because they spread disease to dogs and pet owners. They are also the trigger for flea allergy dermatitis, which is the most common skin disorder in dogs in the US. Fleas breed rapidly in a dog’s fur, allowing infestations to grow quickly on your pet and in your home.

What do fleas and flea bites look like on dogs?

Fleas are tiny, about one to three millimeters in length, meaning their bites are even smaller and nearly impossible to see. Instead, dog owners should search for signs of adult fleas and flea dirt. Fleas are dark insects that can be difficult to see crawling around on dark fur. They are easiest to see where the fur is thin, such as on the stomach and ears. Flea dirt looks like black specks on the skin and does not move around as adult fleas do. Flea dirt refers to flea droppings, which are digested blood particles. When smeared on a wet paper towel, flea dirt leaves red or brown streaks behind.

What are common signs of fleas on dogs?

Dogs that do not have flea allergies often have no sign of fleas other than the presence of fleas and flea dirt in the fur. However, not finding adult fleas or flea dirt on a dog does not completely rule out the possibility of a flea infestation. If a dog is allergic to flea saliva, flea bites cause flea allergy dermatitis. Flea allergy dermatitis has symptoms such as:

Fleas are also a source of exposure to tapeworms for dogs, as they ingest infected fleas while grooming. In small dogs and puppies, heavy flea infestations can also cause anemia, which can be life-threatening due to blood loss as the fleas feed.

How do I check my dog for fleas?

To check for adult fleas, look where the fur is thinnest around the ears, face, and on the stomach and genital region where they are easiest to see. Part the hair so you can see down to the skin over the back and hips, near the base of the tail. Flea combs can be used to brush through the fur and find adult fleas or flea dirt. You can use your finger, brush, or paper towel to briskly rub the skin to check for flea dirt. Flea dirt will appear as black specks that smear red or brown when damp. Flea dirt is often easier to find than adult fleas because it does not move around the body.

How do I check my home for fleas?

“If your dog has fleas, your home does too,” explains Dr. Jo Myers, a Vetster veterinarian. “Fleas lay their eggs in a dog’s fur which then fall off into the environment, or in other words, your home. Once they hatch and mature into adult fleas they must find a host, whether that’s another pet in the home, or the same dog they dropped from as eggs.” Eggs that hatch in the carpet, soft furniture, and bedding, often thrive. Since fleas are so small, they are difficult to see, even in areas where the infestation may be dense. To check the home for fleas, try vacuuming with gauze over the nozzle. Inspect the gauze to see if any fleas or flea dirt were picked up. Wearing white socks and walking over the carpet may also entice them to become visible. Fleas are attracted to warm hosts, which include you!

A graphic of the quote above

How are flea infestations treated on dogs?

Talk to a veterinarian to learn which types of flea preventives are safe and effective for your dog. These flea treatments primarily target adult fleas, so continued use of the preventative is needed to interrupt the entire flea life cycle as the flea eggs, larvae, and pupae mature. All other pets in the home must be treated, even if no fleas are seen. If one pet has fleas, the house has fleas. This means all the pets living in an infested home are exposed. If a dog shows symptoms of flea allergy dermatitis, tapeworms, or anemia, these conditions are treated at the same time as the flea infestation.

Many veterinarian-recommended flea products also provide some degree of environmental treatment, but additional treatment specifically for the house may also be beneficial. You may help reduce the flea population by thoroughly vacuuming the carpet, furniture, and rugs and washing all bedding and soft toys. Be sure to dispose of the vacuum bag outdoors immediately to prevent the fleas from getting back into your home.

Can fleas on dogs be prevented?

Fleas can be prevented with the use of vet-recommended flea prevention. These preventatives are available as oral medications, topical products, and flea collars. Always consult a veterinarian before choosing a flea prevention product to prevent toxicities and ensure effectiveness. Many over-the-counter products contain unsafe ingredients or are ineffective. Natural or homeopathic remedies do not work and may be harmful to use on or around your dog. An online vet is an excellent resource for finding the right preventative medication for you and your dog.

My dog has itchy skin. Is it fleas?

Many dogs show no symptoms of flea infestations other than the presence of the fleas themselves. Checking an itchy pet for the presence of adult fleas is a good first step, but the inability to find fleas does not rule out an infestation. Another thing to keep in mind is that many conditions other than fleas can cause itchy skin. Other allergies, dry skin, infections, and other external parasites can all cause itchiness. If your dog is scratching, or if you have questions about checking your pet for fleas, consider making a virtual vet appointment to consult with a veterinarian about the health and comfort of your furry friend.

FAQ - How do I know if my dog has fleas?

How can I check my dog for fleas at home?

Use a flea comb to check for evidence of adult fleas and flea dirt in the fur. Adult fleas are easiest to see in thinly-haired areas such as the stomach and ears. Flea dirt, which resembles black pepper on the skin, can be found using your finger, a brush, or a white paper towel to gently rub the skin. Flea dirt will smear red or brown on a damp paper towel.

Can my dog have fleas if I don’t see them?

Fleas are small and can be easy to miss, especially on dogs with black fur. Just because you don’t see fleas on dogs does not mean fleas are not there. Check for evidence of flea dirt or symptoms of flea allergy dermatitis and consult a veterinarian to rule out a flea infestation.

How do I know if there are fleas in my house?

If your dog has fleas, your house has them too. Flea eggs are not sticky and fall off infested pets into your home, where they hatch and mature in the safety of your carpet or furniture. Year-round flea prevention on your dog and other mammalian pets is the best way to prevent fleas in your home.

How can you tell if a dog has fleas?

Many dogs with fleas show no symptoms other than the appearance of adult fleas or flea dirt. Symptoms such as itchiness, hair loss, and hot spots appear when a dog is allergic to fleas and develops skin infections and irritation from flea bites.