Fleas are tiny parasites covered in spines they use to attach themselves to objects or living “hosts”. Adult fleas can lay hundreds of eggs within days which then fall from fur onto carpets, floors, bedding or even into soil in the garden.
Fleas have strong rear legs, which help them to leap from an object or host to another host - such as your pet. They’re an all-too common occurrence, but how do dogs get fleas - and how can you treat your pet?
Where Do Fleas Come From?
Dogs (and cats) can become infested with fleas via contact with other animals, or with other fleas nearby. Possible sources of flea infestation include:
● Human contact from visitors (or even people who live in your household) who have somehow managed to bring fleas into the home. This is a risk especially for people who spend lots of time outdoors.
● Other animals - although don’t let this stop you from visiting places that are beneficial to your dog’s wellbeing and socialisation (such as parks or the groomers).
How Do I Know If My Dog Has Fleas?
Common signs for dog owners include scratching, itching or chewing at themselves, as well as visible fleas or flea dirt (flea faeces). As unpleasant as this is for owners, flea bites can make dogs uncomfortable, itchy and unhappy.
In some cases, they can even cause red, irritated skin and even hair loss. In some cases, your dog may not show any obvious signs of flea infestation - however there may be other signs of discomfort such as restlessness or agitation.
Can Fleas Harm My Dog?
As well as causing skin and fur issues, fleas can cause serious health issues for dogs and cats, leading to FAD (flea allergy dermatitis) and in some cases, anaemia. In some situations, fleas also carry tapeworm larvae.
Left unchecked, a tapeworm infestation can make dogs feel very unwell and may lead to gastrointestinal issues, so if you suspect this is the case it’s important to get them treated as soon as possible.
Flea Treatment and Potential Risks
If your pet has fleas, it’s important to get treatment as soon as possible - both for your dog and for any other animals in the home. There are many products available to help treat fleas on your pets as well as on furniture (never use a flea product intended for furnishings on your pet as this could poison them).
Fleas can be persistent and may require more than one treatment. While some flea treatments can be highly effective, they may also carry a risk, which is before using any type of treatment on your pet it’s important to consult a vet first to discuss the following:
● Age appropriateness: some treatments are not suitable for young puppies - and some could affect older dogs.
● Condition: for example if your dog is pregnant or has an underlying health condition.
● Breed - especially if they have a thicker coat.
● Underlying health conditions or allergies.
● Any medications they are already taking and how these could interact with flea medicine.
● Lifestyle and home environment, i.e whether there are children and other pets about who could accidentally ingest toxic flea medication.
It can also help to know which parasites are common where you live (for example if you have moved to a rural area) - and whether resistance to particular preventative treatments is a common concern for other pet owners.
How To Treat Your Pet For Fleas
Instructions for pet flea treatment will vary depending on which product you use - so read the label carefully and use as instructed. There are several different types of treatment available for dogs, including:
Flea and Tick Collars
Flea and tick collars have progressed since the old days, when they tended not to be as effective. Using chemicals such as imidacloprid and flumethrin, these can kill fleas at multiple life stages, with effects lasting for eight months.
While this makes them a convenient form of flea treatment, their effectiveness may be reduced by water exposure (something to bear in mind if you own a dog who loves playing in water). The collar may also cause local skin irritation, so speak with your vet if you have any concerns about using one.
If you are using flea collars, be especially cautious around children and other pets who might accidentally ingest the medicine through contact with their mouths. Flea medicine can be toxic and could make them unwell.
Topical treatments are applied to the back of the neck, where your dog cannot reach - a process which can be a little more difficult for cat owners. This is to avoid ingestion - and while a couple of licks by your own pet shouldn’t do too much harm, it’s best to discourage this where possible.
Similarly to when using collars, exercise caution with these, especially around other pets and children. If you are unable to keep your pet away from them (or vice versa) you may find that a topical treatment isn’t the best solution.
These treatments come in chew or pill form and can have other benefits such as protection against heartworm and other parasites (ask your vet about this). These can be useful for households with children and other pets.
Like most medicines, oral flea medications are not without the risk of side effects, and may cause your dog to vomit - however this is far less dangerous than an untreated infection.
Other alternatives to conventional flea treatments include essential oils - however be very careful when using these around pets as they can be toxic if ingested, If you are in any doubt over how to treat your dog for fleas - or if you simply want to check first, consult your vet.
Treat Your Home
To fully take care of flea control, you will also need to treat your home. Vacuum the house thoroughly, including all hard surfaces. Do not add a flea collar to the vacuum cleaner or sprinkle your carpets with borax: while both might seem like a good idea, this can lead to accidental ingestion of chemicals by any pets or children in your home and is not advisable.
Once this is done, either seal your vacuum bag in plastic and dispose of it safely - or (if you have a bagless vacuum cleaner), rinse out the canister with hot water and pet-friendly detergent.
Next, wash your pet’s dog bed in hot water and (if you have one) dry in a heated dryer For synthetic dog beds (which can melt at high temperatures) and large dog beds that won’t fit in the machine, it may be better to replace the bed altogether.
If you continue to find fleas, you may need to call an exterminator. While DIY fog kits or sprays are available, they include chemicals which are hazardous to children and pets (including fish) - so to be on the safe side, it’s best to call a professional.
To prevent fleas longterm, the PDSA reccommends treating all pets in your home monthly (depending on dosage instructions), regularly washing their bedding at a hot temperature and using a long acting, petsafe household spray.