Dog looking at camera with flea symptoms

How to manage fleas in dogs

Fleas are brown-black insects, about 2-4 mm in length and are just visible to the naked eye. They live in the environment and cannot fly but they can jump a long way. They feed on dogs, cats, rabbits (or even your ankles!) and can live both outside in grasses or in our homes, sheds etc. Fleas start feeding on an animal host within minutes of landing on them. Dog’s can pick them up whilst out on walks and other animals can bring them home after they have been out on an adventure! Fleas can also hitch a ride with us; they travel on our clothing, in our vehicles and on pet’s bedding.

This article was written by a FirstVet vet

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Often you will not see any fleas on your dog and this is because they hop on to feed and then hop off again so it may be hard to see the symptoms of fleas. You may see the telltale black spots (flea faeces) in their coat. If you wipe your dog’s coat with a damp piece of kitchen roll or brush them onto a white sheet of paper, and add a drop of water to these black spots they will turn red. This is because the flea dirt consists of digested blood. This is the best tip to see if your dog has fleas and is more reliable than looking for fleas in their coat. However, you will still see fleas if your dog has a high burden.

Before feeding, fleas apply saliva to the skin. During feeding they inject saliva into the skin to prevent the blood from clotting at the bite site. Proteins in the saliva can cause allergic reactions in some dogs, which is known as Flea Allergy Dermatitis (FAD).

Symptoms of fleas

  • Excessive scratching
  • Areas of hair loss or sore patches
  • Spots
  • Redness and irritation of the skin
  • Thickened or crusty skin, for example, around the ears
  • Dark specks in the fur, or visible fleas
  • Insect bites on people in your household, especially around the ankles

How to treat your dog

There are a lot of flea treatments on the market. The main thing to remember is that not all flea treatments or spot-ons are the same. Flea products either kill fleas on contact with the chemical in the dog’s coat, or through the flea ingesting the chemical from the bloodstream. Flea treatments sold in pet shops and supermarkets may contain different active ingredients and are often significantly less effective than those that are prescribed by vets. Most treatments require that you wait a set length of time before washing your dog because repeated shampooing or swimming will decrease the efficacy of a product. If in doubt, please ask one of our FirstVet vets or your registered vet for advice about which product is best for your dog.

Other pets that live in your house (or your garden if your dog has contact with them or their bedding) will also require regular flea treatments. You must use a treatment that has been developed specifically for that animal. For example, you must not use a dog product on a cat or rabbit, as this can cause severe, and sometimes fatal, toxic side effects.

Only 5% of a flea infestation is made up of adult fleas on your pets. The other 95% of the flea life cycle is in the home environment as eggs, larvae and pupae. This means that to control flea infestations, you need to treat both your dog (plus other pets) and your household. Fleas like to lay their eggs in cracks, crevices, and soft furnishings, and can survive for up to a year so treating your house is very important.

How to treat your house

We recommend that you treat your house when you first treat your dog. You should only need to do this once a year unless your pet(s) have a high flea burden. Household sprays must not be used on animals. They must only be used in the house and you must read the instructions prior to use. There are many brands on the market, for example Indorex Defence Household Flea Spray or R.I.P Fleas Extra.

Before using the spray please remove all people and pets from the area to be treated, including birds, reptiles, insects and spiders. Where possible, remove aquariums, vivariums and water storage tanks too. Once you have used the household spray, leave the room and wait for half an hour. The area should then be ventilated by opening windows and doors for at least an hour before allowing pets or children back into the room. If you have sprayed your dog’s bed then make sure it is dry before they use it again (at least one hour, ideally longer). Bedding can also be washed on a hot wash (60°C) to kill flea eggs and larvae.

It is vital that all floors and upholstered furniture are vacuumed for 14 consecutive days after using the treatment. The vibrations from the vacuum will attract larvae from within the carpet and ensure that any unhatched eggs hatch out and are killed by the chemical. Always empty the contents of the vacuum outside.

Fleas can be hard to get rid of completely because they hatch out in waves - it can take 3 months of rigorous flea treatment to control an infestation.

Reasons that it can take longer to get on top of a flea problem

  • Not using the correct treatment on your dog or in your house: make an appointment with one of our vets to discuss your current treatment plan
  • Not treating all the animals in the household
  • Not treating your car or other areas that your dog spends time in, for example a kennel
  • Washing your dog or letting them swim too soon after using a spot-on flea product

Still worried?

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