pet flea treatment

How to Safely Manage Fleas in Pets

Is your pet scratching more than usual? Are you seeing live fleas on your pet? Are you seeing black spots or flecks in your pets’ hair coat? Your pet likely has fleas. Continue reading to learn how to safely treat your pet for fleas and prevent future flea infestations.

This article was written by a FirstVet vet

Did you know that FirstVet offers video calls with experienced vets? You can get a consultation within 30 minutes by downloading the FirstVet app for free from the Apple App Store or Google Play.

What are fleas?

Fleas are tiny black-brown insects, about 2-4 mm in length (about the size of a sesame seed). We mistakenly think that fleas live on our pets but actually they live in the environment. This includes our home or back yard. Fleas only visit our pets or wildlife (or us) to feed. They can jump 200 times their own body length - up to 13 inches!

When fleas jump on our pets, they apply saliva to the skin which prevents the animals’ blood from clotting while they feed. Some pets develop allergic reactions known as Flea Allergy Dermatitis (FAD), from the proteins in the flea saliva.

How does my pet get fleas?

Fleas hop on our pets when they are out in the back yard or on a walk or hike. Fleas find many ways to reach our pets, often traveling on our clothing, in our cars, on other pets in the household, and on pet’s bedding.

How can I tell if my pet has fleas?

You don’t usually see fleas on your dog or cat because they live in the environment, NOTon your pet. Fleas hop on your pets only to feed, then hop off again. Often you’ll see black dirt that looks like pepper in your pets’ hair coat. This material, often called “flea dirt”, is actually flea feces composed of digested blood.

A simple way to determine if the black dirt is flea poop is to wipe your pet’s fur with a damp paper towel, add a drop of water and the flea dirt will turn red. This is the easiest way to determine if your pet has fleas as it can be challenging to find fleas in their fur unless your pet is heavily infested with fleas.

Signs Your Pet May Have Fleas:

  • Scratching more than normal
  • Areas of hair loss
  • Red and irritated skin
  • Thickened or crusty skin, for example, around the ears or at the base of the tail
  • Black flea dirt in the fur or visible fleas
  • Insect bites on you or others in your home, especially on the ankles

Can fleas make my pet sick?

Fleas in large numbers on small dogs or cats can cause life-threatening blood loss also known as anemia. Fleas are blood-sucking insects and in large numbers can quickly deplete a small dog or cat of their blood supply. Check your pets often for signs of fleas and if you notice your pet is sleeping more than normal, less active, or appears weak, contact your vet right away.

Dogs and cats regularly groom themselves by licking and often ingest hair and adult fleas in the process. Adult fleas carry and transmit tapeworms to dogs and cats when ingested. Often our pets experience no signs or symptoms. However, tapeworm infections can cause upset stomach, vomiting, weight loss, decreased appetite, and diarrhea. In rare cases, tapeworms can be indirectly transmitted to humans.

Some pets develop allergic reactions known as Flea Allergy Dermatitis (FAD), from the proteins in the flea saliva when fleas bite our pets for a blood meal.

While uncommon, there is a risk of transmission to humans of a highly contagious bacteria called Yersinia pestis, commonly known as the Bubonic plague. This disease can be carried by rodent fleas. Cats, dogs, and other pets may carry infected fleas, which pose a direct and life-threatening risk to humans.

It is unknown but suspected that fleas may transmit Hemotropic Mycoplasmosis, also known as Feline Infectious Anemia (FIA) to cats. Signs range from mild to life-threatening. Again, check your cats often for signs of fleas and if you notice your cat is sleeping more than normal, less active, or appears weak, contact your vet right away.

What is the best way to treat my pet for fleas?

The best way to manage fleas is to understand the flea life cycle. If you treat just your pet(s) for fleas, you’re only treating a small percentage of the flea life cycle. Only 5% of adult fleas live on your pet(s). The other 95% of the flea life cycle lives in the environment (home, back yard, etc.) as eggs, larvae, pupae, and adult fleas.

To manage and control flea infestations, treatment must include ALL pets in your household, and your home environment both inside and outside. Fleas lay their eggs in cracks, crevices, and soft furnishings and can survive up to a year. So treating your pets’ environment is a key part of flea control.

There are many options when it comes to treating your pet for fleas. Not all flea treatments are the same or safe for your pets. The best resource for picking a safe and effective flea treatment and management plan for your pet is a licensed vet.

Flea treatments work by killing fleas on contact with the chemical in the pet’s fur or when the flea ingests the chemical from your pet’s bloodstream during a blood meal. Over-the-counter flea treatments sold in pet stores, on-line, and in the grocery store often contain ingredients that may not be safe. They are typically much less effective than those prescribed by your vet.

Remember to treat all the pets in your household for fleas, including any pets that live outdoors. Talk to your vet for recommendations regarding flea treatment that has been developed specifically for your dog, cat, or rabbit.

NOTE: Flea treatments labeled for dogs should NEVER be used on a cat or rabbit, as this can cause severe and sometimes fatal side effects.

Treating the Environment for Fleas

Treatment and management of a flea infestation can be frustrating. It often takes 3 months of intensive flea treatment to control and manage a flea infestation. This is due to the flea life cycle. The eggs are usually the most difficult part of the cycle to kill. Learn more about the flea lifecycle by clicking here!

Treat the environment inside/outside at the same time as you treat your pets. Household/outdoor flea treatment sprays must NEVER be used on animals as they contain toxic ingredients that can cause severe and sometimes fatal side effects. Read all instructions for household/outdoor flea treatment sprays before using. These products can be found at local hardware stores.

Before using household flea treatment sprays, all people and pets including birds, reptiles, insects, and spiders should be removed from the home. This includes aquariums, vivariums, and water storage tanks if possible. Follow all instructions for household flea treatment sprays before using. After waiting the instructed amount of time after use, ventilate the home by opening windows and doors for at least an hour before allowing children or pets back inside. Wash your pets’ bedding in hot water (140 F/60 C) to kill flea eggs and larvae.

Consider calling an exterminator with experience treating homes and outdoor environments for fleas, especially if you have a severe flea infestation.

Vacuum all floors, especially floorboards and under beds/furniture, and upholstered furniture every day for 14 days after your home has been treated. The vibrations from vacuuming attract larvae from within the carpet, and unhatched eggs hatch out and die from the chemical treatment. Remember to throw away or empty the vacuum cleaner bag outside, or place the contents of the vacuum cleaner in a plastic bag, tie it up and dispose of it away from your home.

Still seeing fleas after treating your pet and your home?

Managing flea infestations can be frustrating. Reasons why you may still be seeing fleas after treating both your pet and your home include:

  • Not treating all the animals in the household
  • Not treating your car or other areas where your pet spends time, like a kennel for example
  • Washing your pet or letting them swim too soon after using a spot-on/topical flea product
  • Using the wrong flea product on your pet or your house, or not treating long enough

Read more:

Deworming Your Dog - Q&A

How to Apply “Spot On” Medication to Your Dog or Cat

Have more questions about managing fleas in dogs and cats?

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This article was written by a FirstVet vet

Did you know that FirstVet offers video calls with experienced vets? You can get a consultation within 30 minutes by downloading the FirstVet app for free from the Apple App Store or Google Play.

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