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Fleas and dogs: how to keep your dog safe and itch-free

Fleas can affect any dog, but there’s no need to panic if you take the right precautions.

Let’s take a look at how to keep your dog protected against nasty fleas, and what to do if they catch them.

A brief summary...

What are fleas?

Fleas are a common parasite. They survive by nestling into animals’ fur, biting into the skin and feeding on their blood. They breed quickly too; in fact, an adult female flea can lay 50 eggs a day, or up to 2,000 within her lifetime!

This means that if a flea gets onto your dog’s fur and your dog is unprotected, you could soon be dealing with an infestation at home.

Fleas can affect my home as well as my dog?

Yes. Fleas lay eggs while they’re nice and comfortable on your dog. As your dog moves around the house, the eggs fall off their coat – think of your dog almost like a walking salt shaker, leaving tiny grains behind them wherever they go.

Flea eggs can survive in carpets and under furniture. As part of their natural life cycle, they’ll go from eggs to larvae, to pupae, and then will become fully grown adult fleas – ready to feast on your dog’s blood and lay their own eggs on their coat.

It’s estimated that during an infestation, only around 5% of the fleas will be on your dog – the rest will be elsewhere in your home. If the life cycle is not broken, a flea infestation can get out of hand very quickly.

What do fleas look like?

Fleas are usually no bigger than 3mm long and 1mm wide. They vary in colour but will usually have a reddish-brown appearance. Picture a glossy fleck of herb.

Fleas’ biggest characteristic is their long legs. You probably won’t see the legs on a live flea but you might spot them jumping. Adult fleas can jump up to 2 feet in a given direction. That’s almost 100 times their size, the equivalent of a human jumping the length of a football pitch!

Does my dog have fleas? What are the signs?

It’s perfectly possible for your dog to have fleas without you even noticing them – especially if they have thick or dark fur.

Signs of fleas include:

  • Chewing, biting or licking their fur
  • Hair loss
  • Restless behaviour
  • Sores on their skin
  • Flea dirt in their fur or on their skin
  • Excessive grooming

dog scratching

What does flea dirt look like?

Imagine a sprinkling of dark powder – almost like pepper. In some cases, flea dirt may be hard to tell apart from regular dirt, but there is a way!

Wet a paper towel and press it against the affected fur or the dirt itself. If you spot red stains (blood stains) on the wet paper, you can be sure it’s flea dirt.

Do fleas cause other health problems apart from itchiness? 

In some cases, fleas can cause further complications to your dog’s health. These include:

As with many health problems, elderly dogs, puppies and dogs with pre-existing health conditions are more susceptible than others. Certain conditions, such as tapeworm and Cat Scratch Disease, can also be passed on to humans.

What do flea bites look like on humans? 

If you’re bitten by a flea, small red spots may appear on your skin – most likely your lower leg, around the ankles. The bite will feel hot and incredibly itchy, similar to a mosquito bite.

What sort of environments do fleas thrive in?

Fleas are drawn to hot and damp climates. They’re most likely to invade your home during the colder months when the central heating’s on and everything is nice and cosy.

Fleas like to jump from dog to dog, so if one pet is affected, you can rest assured that any other dogs in your household will be affected soon after.

How do I keep my dog protected against fleas?

Thankfully, keeping your dog safe from fleas is easy. Flea treatments come in different forms – collars, spot-on solutions or tablets. Speak to your vet about the preventative flea treatment best suited to your dog.

My local supermarket sells flea treatment for dogs. Will that do?

Over-the-counter flea treatments aren’t always the most effective. Because catching fleas can cause severe itching and irritation – for dogs as well as humans – and because an infestation is so time-consuming to eliminate, we always recommend sourcing flea treatments from your local vet. That way, you can relax knowing your chosen product is approved by experts and will offer the best results.

It’s too late for prevention - how do you get rid of fleas on dogs?

If you’ve discovered that your dog has fleas despite your best efforts to keep them protected, don’t panic. Eliminating fleas is achievable if you go about it quickly and thoroughly.

To get rid of the fleas successfully, you’ll need to treat your dog and your home.

Treating your dog:

Bathe your dog, and brush their fur thoroughly with a special fine-toothed comb. This will get the fleas out of their fur, and the water will kill them.

Contact your vet and get your dog up-to-date with their flea treatment as soon as possible. Once you start, it’s important you continue to administer the medication when necessary – every month or three months depending on the product.

Treating your home:

Get cleaning! Vacuum your furniture and floors, clean skirting boards and wash bedding at a high temperature. Repeat these tasks every 1-2 days for 2 weeks, this will help make sure you kill adult fleas as well as flea larvae and pupae. Treat your home with a household flea spray too – your vet will be able to recommend further.

Are there any useful home remedies for flea control?

Some owners report great successes with home remedies, including trapping fleas with dish soap or filling spray bottles with household ingredients.

However, in lots of cases, home remedies prove to be unsuccessful and can end up delaying proper treatment. To successfully eradicate fleas and keep your dog protected, we recommend using the treatments listed above.

dog and vet outside practice

What do flea eggs look like?

Flea eggs are absolutely miniscule, no bigger than half a millimetre. They’re white, so if you do spot flea eggs, they may look like grains of salt or dead skin cells.

Flea eggs are hard to make out, so if you’ve reason to believe your dog may have fleas, it’s a better idea to look for flea dirt on their fur and to keep an eye out for signs of itchiness (e.g. scratching or restlessness).

Need more info?

For more help and advice on keeping your dog safe from fleas, have a chat with your local vet.

Use our Find a Vet page to locate your nearest My Family Vets practice.