What to do if your dog has fleas

What to do if your dog has fleas - Vetster

If your dog has fleas, don’t waste time trying ineffective or unproven treatments or remedies. Using vet-recommended flea treatment products is the safest and most effective way to get rid of fleas on your dog and in your home. Here’s the steps to follow:

  • how to spot fleas
  • treatment plan to get rid of fleas
  • get rid of fleas for good

Unfortunately, flea infestations are common in dogs. They can also cause health issues and spread diseases to both pets and people. Fleas can transmit tapeworm, cause anemia and flea allergy dermatitis with its irritated skin and scabs. The good news is that with the proper treatment, you can safely and effectively get rid of fleas for good.

While adult fleas prefer to live and feed on animals, their eggs and larvae can be deposited in your carpet, furniture, and bedding in your home. Occasionally a flea may even jump over and take a bite of a nearby human. So how do you get rid of these blood-sucking parasites? Keep reading to find out all of the ways to get rid of fleas on your dog.

How to spot fleas

If you notice your dog scratching or biting and decide to inspect them for fleas, there are several clues to watch for. Adult fleas and flea dirt are the two easiest signs to spot on your dog. Adult fleas can look like small bugs and can run and jump through your dog’s fur. Flea dirt looks like small black specks and can appear on your dog's skin or show up on the bedding where they sleep.

If you aren’t sure if you’re spotting flea dirt or regular dirt, put some of it on a white paper towel and add a little water. Flea dirt is dried specks of blood and will turn reddish when wet. Flea eggs and larvae can be harder to spot and look like tiny off-white grains of salt or worms. They live deep in your carpet or other similar soft and deep surfaces, such as furniture, where you may not be able to see them or easily clean areas.

Treatment plan to get rid of fleas

Modern flea treatments will also address the fleas in your home and yard while they work on the ones on your pet. Some spot-on topical products, for example, remain active in the dead skin cells that normally fall off your dog every day, thereby treating the carpeting and bedding where your dog tends to go.

Getting rid of fleas can seem like a frustrating and time-consuming process. With the right course of consistent treatment, you can have peace of mind knowing your home will soon be flea-free. Generally, this includes:

  • Using an effective, veterinary-recommended flea treatment such as an oral or topical treatment or flea collar. Correctly applying the treatment and not washing it off is critical to success.
  • Repeating application on time for the specific product. This is every thirty days for many common products.
  • Using the recommended treatment for the full length of time. Even though it takes a minimum of three months to eliminate an existing flea problem, year-round use is necessary in most of North America to prevent immediate reinfestation.
  • Treating all pets that live in the house with the recommended treatment. Since fleas live in the environment as opposed to only on the pet, the population will thrive as long as there is at least one available host. Be cautious because flea treatments that are safe for dogs can be harmful to cats or other household pets.

A Vetster vet can help you formulate a safe plan to treat all animals in your house. Even if it seems like the fleas are gone, it is important to continue the full course of treatment to prevent further infestation.

How the flea life cycle affects treatment

Before modern methods of flea prevention and control were developed, fleas were famously hard to get rid of. Just when you think you’ve seen the last of them, your dog starts scratching again. But what is it that makes fleas so resistant to treatment? Well, fleas can be eliminated if you choose the correct type of treatment. Fleas are external parasites that have a life cycle with four separate stages and it can take up to three months to complete each stage of the life cycle. Some flea treatments only address the adult stage of the flea life cycle, while others work on all four. Keep in mind that the fleas on your dog may be at different stages of the life cycle. The four stages are:

1. Egg

One flea can lay about forty eggs on your pet's skin each day, allowing them to multiply rapidly. Within a couple of hours after the flea eggs are laid, they fall off in their environment as your pet moves and scratches. It can take between two days to two weeks for a flea egg to develop into a larva. In warm and humid conditions, flea eggs tend to hatch more quickly. Even the best flea treatments cannot kill eggs, but some disrupt their development. Approximately half of the fleas in an infestation are in the egg stage at any given time. If you use a treatment that only kills adult fleas, it’s important to keep using it consistently so you can quickly kill new fleas as they hatch, before they have the chance to lay new eggs.

2. Larva

In the larva stage, fleas are difficult to see. They are about one-quarter of an inch long, are semi-transparent, and white in color. The worm-like larvae stay in hiding so you won’t often see them. Effective flea treatments can prevent both eggs and larvae from developing further, helping to stop your flea infestation before it gets out of control.

3. Pupa

Between about one and three weeks from the egg stage, the flea larva goes into a cocoon called a pupa. The pupal stage is the last stage the flea goes through before the adult flea hatches. The pupal stage can last from several days up to months or even a year. The adult flea will not come out of its protective cocoon until the conditions are right for it to thrive and multiply. The sticky cocoon protects the flea from the atmosphere as well as vacuuming and even chemicals. This is why it’s so important to continue to treat for fleas even after they begin to go away. They could be hiding in their cocoons just waiting for the right time to come out and continue to feed on your pet and infest your home.

4. Adult

The adult stage of the flea life cycle lasts from a few weeks to a few months. Fleas are easiest to see in the adult stage. Adult fleas can range in appearance from small dark specks to brownish-grey oval shapes that can be spotted moving through your pet's fur close to the skin. Fleas do not have wings, but they can jump up to 8 inches to latch onto nearby animals. Adult fleas begin laying eggs within just a few days after they first feed on a host animal. Because adult fleas only make up about 5% of a typical flea infestation, treatments that only address the adult life cycle are relatively ineffective.

How dog owners handle flea infestations

Vetster surveyed U.S. dog owners asking what they would do if their dogs had fleas. The results showed that only 49% of dog owners choose to use effective commercial flea treatments, such as oral medicines, topical treatments, or a flea collar with a pesticide to prevent fleas or treat active flea infestations. This was closely followed by 37% of dog owners saying they prefer grooming their dogs more frequently to physically remove the fleas, even though this is not an effective way to get rid of fleas or keep your dog from getting them.

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  • 49% Use a safe and effective flea control program like oral meds, topical treatments, or flea collars.
  • 37% Groom their pet more frequently to try to physically remove the fleas, but fleas are experts at evading combs and shampoo.
  • 14% Try homeopathic remedies such as apple cider vinegar, dangerous essential oils*, or other ineffective and sometimes harmful methods.
  • Essential oils can be very dangerous to pets and should not be applied or fed to them, especially cats.

Once fleas take hold in your house, they become more difficult to get rid of and can require months of treatment to fully eradicate.

4 common mistakes when treating fleas

There are several mistakes dog owners make when treating fleas on their dogs, which contributes to the idea that fleas are difficult to get rid of. Not dealing with fleas effectively from the start allows them to continue their life cycle and increase in numbers over time. In the long run, it will save you both time and money to use a safe and effective product. Four of the common mistakes made when treating fleas are:

1. Not using flea control products correctly.

Common commercial flea products include oral medicines, topical treatments, and flea collars that contain a pesticide. These flea products can be incredibly effective and are recommended for most pets. However, instructions must be carefully followed to allow the product to work properly.

Common mistakes when using these products include:

  • Not treating all pets in the household
  • Not applying the product correctly or washing it off before it takes effect
  • Discontinuing use too soon or allowing too long between treatments. It takes a minimum of three months of proper treatment to fully eliminate fleas that have taken hold.
  • Not keeping up on treatment. Dogs are potentially re-exposed to fleas as soon as they step outside, at least when it’s above freezing.

It's important to speak to your Vetster online vet first to find the best solution for your pet. All flea products may come with the risk of side effects or contraindications for some pets, so it’s best to schedule an online virtual care appointment at your convenience to ensure these products are right for your pet and ensure you are using them in the right way.

2. Trusting homeopathic flea treatments.

Homeopathic flea treatments include natural treatments like apple cider vinegar, essential oils, and diatomaceous earth. However, just because something is natural doesn’t mean it’s safe for your dog! Many natural “treatments” can allow for your dog’s flea problem to get worse as they don’t address the root of the problem. And others may even harm your dog.

3. Relying on hygiene and physical removal of fleas.

Bathing your dog with a commercial flea shampoo that contains pesticides that can kill fleas on contact, using a flea comb, and physically removing the fleas may make you feel like you’re making headway, especially when you see the numbers of fleas you’re physically removing, but the numbers just don’t add up. When you comb and bathe a dog, you’ll remove at best only a large percentage of the adult fleas present. Even if you were able to get them all, that’s still only about 5% of the total flea population, so you aren’t even making a dent in the problem. More fleas will jump on as soon as you set your dog back down on the carpet. Fleas are experts at hiding out and will need to be treated consistently with products that are proven to address all life stages to be truly effective.

4. Treating the environment instead of the pets.

Whenever you spot one flea on your dog, that means there are many more hiding out in the background. But where do these fleas hide? Fleas can take up residence in your carpet, furniture, or any cozy materials in your home when not feeding on your dog. One flea can lay up to two thousand eggs and once they hatch and reach the pupa stage, they can wait in their cocoons for up to a year to come out and attach to a host animal.

To speed success in your war against fleas, you will need to wash all carpeting, bedding, bath mats, etc., regularly vacuum all surfaces, and throw away the vacuum bag or empty the vacuum container outdoors where the surviving fleas can’t find their way back into your home. In some cases you may be advised to treat your home and yard with a pesticide spray made for fleas, however, in most cases, the modern flea treatments that are made for your pet will also address the fleas in their environment. Enlisting the help of a professional exterminator is another way to make sure your approach is as thorough as possible.

Getting rid of fleas for good

Flea season is at its peak in the warmer months, depending on where you live. However, year-round flea treatment is recommended by vets for dogs in North America.

To fully eliminate fleas in all stages of their life cycle, your best strategy is to consult with a vet, create a plan and follow through. You’ll need to be diligent, here’s how:

  • Book a virtual vet appointment to customize a flea prevention and treatment plan to ensure that you get rid of the fleas on your pets, in your home and yard.
  • Use commercial flea products as directed - follow the instructions exactly as recommended for the full duration, this applies to all flea collars, oral meds and topical treatments.
  • Treat the environment – in your home, clean bedding (wash in hot water), vacuum mats and carpets regularly. Ask about a pesticide spray made for fleas to treat your home and yard or subscribe to a professional extermination service.

For your convenience, have flea medication delivered to your doorstep with the click of a button.

It takes several rounds of consistent flea treatment over a minimum of three months to fully eradicate a serious infestation. Continuing these efforts year-round is necessary in most locations to prevent immediate reinfestation. If you feel like you're losing control of the flea infestation or that your dog may be suffering from allergic reactions or secondary issues caused by fleas, contact Vetster to help you to come up with a plan that will work the best for you and your dog.

FAQ - What to do if your dog has fleas

What are some common signs that my dog has fleas?

Many dogs don’t show any symptoms at all, even though a close look will review large numbers of fleas.  If you see that your dog is biting, scratching, or licking more than usual, part the fur and look closely at the skin over their hips and lower back, especially near the base of the tail. Fleas are sometimes easier to see in thinly furred areas, like on the belly.  If you notice areas of inflammation, redness, or hair loss, have a close look for signs of fleas, such as flea bites, or flea dirt - the gritty, dark debris fleas leave behind. Flea larvae and eggs are found in bedding, upholstery, and carpet frequented by infested pets, but are much harder to find or identify.

How long will it take for fleas to die off after treating them?

The flea life cycle is about three months starting with flea eggs, larva, pupa, and adult fleas. To get rid of fleas and prevent future infestations, it’s important to use a veterinary-recommended flea treatment plan and follow the instructions through the full course of treatment. Maintaining ongoing treatment is necessary to prevent immediate reinfestation the next time your dog goes outdoors.

Which flea treatment works best for dogs?

Flea and tick treatments are available by prescription and over the counter, typically as oral medication, topical spot-ons, and collars. For the most effective and safest flea treatment, consult a veterinarian to help you decide what will work best for you and your dog.

The Vetster Editorial Team is comprised of seasoned writers and communicators dedicated to elevating stories about Vetster, pets and their owners.
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