Does My Dog Have Fleas?

You suspect your dog has fleas because you have noticed one or more of the following telltale signs:

  • Your dog is restless, scratching itself, suddenly, often, and intensely

  • Your dog shakes itself as if trying to shake something off

  • You observe small flecks of “dirt” in your dog’s hair or on the skin

  • Your dog had or has tapeworms

If your dog is exhibiting any of these textbook flea symptoms, chances are pretty good that your dog has fleas. Without a regular flea preventive program, your dog will get fleas.

To confirm it, take a close look at your dog’s skin where the hair is thin, like on the belly, on the inner thighs, or around the eyebrows. You may observe red scaly patches where the skin has been irritated from bites and scratching. You may also notice particles of what looks like dirt or pepper.  If you dampen it, the dirt will turn red because it is dried blood. This is called “flea dirt” because it is flea excrement.  Gross.

See the fast-moving, small, oval-shaped brownish-black bugs scrambling through the dog’s hair? Yep, those are fleas. They are much easier to see when your dog is wet. If you have other pets, they likely have them, too.  But the bad news does not end there. You should expect that you also have fleas in your home because:

  • Your dog has fleas

Your lower legs and ankles may even have unexplained bites on them. Likely those are fleas bites.

What should you do if your dog has fleas? This article tells you how to get rid of fleas on your dog fast and effectively. It explains in detail the life cycle of a flea, why you really need to eliminate them, how your dog gets fleas in the first place, describes good flea treatment for your dog and your home, and how you can prevent an infestation in the future.

Understand the Lifecycle of a Flea

To help you eliminate fleas from your dog and your home, you need to understand the flea’s lifecycle. They can be tricky to eliminate unless you treat each stage of the flea’s lifecycle.

Description of the Flea

Fleas are tiny, flightless, bloodsucking, insects.  Fossil records show they have been around for about 65 million years.  With 1,830 different kinds of fleas known in the world, they are the most common of all parasites that afflict mammals. They feed on nearly every species of mammal, including dogs, cats, and humans.

Adult fleas are small, reaching only about 3 mm (0.12 in) long, and they are usually brownish black in color.  They attach to the host animal using strong claws that prevent them from being easily dislodged from the animal’s skin.

Fleas have mouthparts that pierce the host animal’s skin and suck the animal’s blood.  They feed only on the animal’s blood and nothing else. Another well-known fact is fleas are amazing jumpers.  Their hind legs are adapted for jumping. They can leap vertically a distance of about 150 times their body length or about 12 inches. This is the equivalent of a human leaping over 1,000 feet up.

Health Risks Posed by Fleas

Fleas and their bites are more than just an annoyance. Fleas are responsible for causing tapeworm infestations in your dog.  The lifecycle of tapeworms depends on fleas. A flea ingests worm eggs from a host animal’s blood. Your dog can ingest that flea while grooming itself, or simply by inhaling it into its mouth and swallowing it. Your dog can get the worms that were in the flea. Your dog can only get tapeworms from fleas. It cannot get tapeworms from contact with another worm-infested animal. You cannot control tapeworms in your dog unless the flea infestation is controlled.

Fleas also are vectors for serious diseases in dogs and humans. Fleas carry several viral and bacterial diseases, including murine typhus and bubonic plague. Fleas were and still are responsible for spreading plagues by ingesting the plague bacteria, Yersinia pestis, by biting infected rats. The bacteria multiply in the flea’s gut, and the flea then transmits the disease by biting humans.

During the 14th century, over 25 million people died of the plague in Europe, or one-third of the population. These are not just ancient outbreaks. By the end of 2014, a modern outbreak of bubonic plague that was resistant to antibiotics in Madagascar killed over 50 people. The disease was spread by rat fleas that contracted the bacteria from rats. According to the World Health Organization, the United States had about 999 “confirmed or probable” cases of plague during the years between 1900 and 2010. Today, the plague kills about one in ten of every person infected with it.

Can dog fleas live on humans?  The kind of fleas that live on dogs cannot live on humans.  However, they will live in your house, and they will feed on you if they have no dog or cat to feed on. They thrive in warm, humid environments.  When the weather turns cold, they will survive in your home.

Lifecycle of the Flea

Like most insects, the flea lifecycle consists of the egg, larva, pupa, and adult.

  • Eggs: Adult fleas lay tiny white oval eggs in batches of two to several dozens, depending on the species.   An adult can lay a total of several hundred to several thousand over its lifetime.  Eggs hatch in two days to two weeks, depending on the flea species and the environmental conditions.  If a flea lays eggs on your dog or cat, the eggs can drop off of your pet onto your floor or the pet’s bedding.  Pet bedding is the primary habitat for flea eggs and larva.

  • Larva: Flea larvae are hairy and worm-like with no limbs.  They resemble maggots.   They have chewing mouthparts and feed on organic debris, such as adult flea “dirt”, which is the feces of adult fleas.  Flea dirt consists of the dried blood of the host animal.  Larva also feeds on dead insects, dead flea eggs, vegetable matter, and any other organic material that may be available.  It could include bits of dog food or treats that have dropped on the floor, or bits of plant debris tracked in from outside. Flea larva is blind, and they inhabit dark crevices, such as under carpets or in dog bedding.  They go through three growth stages before pupating.

  • Pupa: Larvae weave silky cocoons.  Over a period of about four days, they metamorphose into adult form and emerge when the environmental conditions are optimal.

  • Adult: An adult flea lives on average two to three months if food is available, but they can live as long as 1-1/2 years if conditions are optimal.   The optimal temperature for fleas is 75-80 degrees, and the optimal humidity is 70%.   Once the adult flea emerges from its cocoon, its goal is to feed and then reproduce.   The new adult flea must feed on blood before it is able to reproduce.  It can start laying eggs within 24 hours of its first blood meal, and the female can lay about 40-50 eggs each day.  The adult flea will gorge on your dog’s blood until it nearly explodes.

The rapid lifecycle and rate of reproduction mean that a few fleas on your dog can become a serious infestation very quickly.

How Does Your Dog Get Fleas Anyway?

Dog fleas

As noted above, fleas can infest any mammal. Dogs are host to a species of flea called the cat flea. Dogs can get fleas in a number of ways.  One way is simply by coming into contact with another animal that has fleas.  Remember what we said earlier about a flea’s ability to jump? An adult flea can easily jump from an infested animal, whether another dog, a cat or a wild animal, onto your dog. This can happen anywhere your dog comes into contact with another animal, perhaps at the vet’s office, at the dog park, at the pet day care center, or around your neighborhood.

Another way your dog can get fleas is after flea eggs fall off of a host animal onto the ground, the floor of your home, or the animal’s bedding. After the eggs hatch and the larvae pupate, they emerge from their cocoon and wait for a suitable host, such as your dog or cat.

Once fleas attack your dog, they commonly concentrate themselves on the dog’s head, abdomen, and base of its tail. When an infestation becomes heavy, you can find them anywhere on the dog.

Fleas are a problem year-round in warmer climates. Flea infestations occur on a more seasonal basis in colder climates, but fleas will thrive indoors in warm or cold climates.

How Do You Get Rid of Fleas on Your Dog Fast?

Once you see fleas on your dog or cat, you may be wondering how to get fleas off my dog. You definitely need to act right away to get on top of it. Immediate treatment is very important because:

  • As mentioned above, fleas spread serious diseases and are the source of tapeworm infestation in your dog

  • Severe infestation can happen quickly, leading to anemia in your dog. Anemia compromises your dog’s immune system. Anemia can quickly become life-threatening, especially for puppies. If momma dog has fleas, her puppies will have them, too. The family is a breeding ground for a rampant flea infestation

  • Fleas cause extreme discomfort for your dog. Also, some dogs with sensitive skin or flea allergies have allergic reactions from the bites; they can also have hot spots, hair loss, and nasty sores which can become infected

Treatment

The first step to take is consulting your vet.  Your vet will help you determine the best and safest treatment for your dog and can recommend a range of treatments. If your dog is suffering from tapeworms, skin infections, or flea allergies (a condition that is not uncommon with fleas) the vet can treat that as well. Depending on your dog’s age and health, one or more prescription products may be necessary. If your dog is healthy, you can use over-the-counter products to eliminate the fleas.

Be aware that if your dog has fleas, you will have to treat your dog and all of the pets in your household for fleas and treat your home, also. Failing to do that will result in a re-infestation.

Treating fleas with over- the- counter remedies and products instead of prescription products will save you money.  Still, these over-the-counter products can be toxic, so it is important to follow the product directions. Combining some of these treatments without following the directions can make your dog sick. Also, some of them are not safe to use on puppies under a specified age or on infirm dogs. So, here’s what to do when your dog gets fleas:

  • Bathe Your Dog and Any Other Pets: A good bath is very important to get the bugs off of your dog. Bathe the dog with a good flea and tick shampoo. A great shampoo that is safe and effective for dogs, puppies, cats, and kittens is Adams Plus Flea and Tick Shampoo. Its active ingredients kill fleas at every stage of the flea lifecycle- adults, larva, and eggs. You know it’s working because you will see dead fleas in the bath water. The manufacturer states that this flea shampoo also provides 28 days of protection against larva before they become biting adults. This shampoo also kills ticks and lice. Other ingredients in this shampoo include oatmeal, coconut extract, lanolin, and aloe, so it nicely conditions your dog’s skin and hair.


Other top selling flea shampoos include:

For a flea shampoo with herbal ingredients, try top-seller Paws & Pals Natural Dog-Shampoo and Conditioner. The oils of lemongrass, cedarwood, cinnamon, clove, rosemary, vanilla, and sandalwood eliminate fleas and their eggs from your dog’s body on contact. This shampoo will clean, deodorize, moisturize, and soothe your dog’s skin and coat.

A popular all-natural flea shampoo is Arava Flea & Tick Control Dog, which features lemongrass, peppermint, cinnamon, thyme, clove, eastern red cedar, geranium, citronella, rosemary, castor, soybean and 26 Dead Sea minerals.  Also for every Arava product purchased, Arava donates to animal rights organizations. Arava offers a 30-day risk-free guarantee.  Another all natural shampoo is SynergyLabs Richard’s Organic combines 5 all-natural essential oils to kill fleas and ticks and repel mosquitoes and other pests.

For a homemade flea shampoo remedy, try adding lemon juice to dog’s regular shampoo. You can also use apple cider vinegar for fleas.  Mix a solution of apple cider vinegar and warm water in a sink or shallow tub and immerse your dog in it up to the dog’s neck. The fleas will die quickly, though some will crawl up to the dog’s dry face and head.  You can pick those off manually or use a flea comb to remove them. You can also add one teaspoon of apple cider vinegar to every quart of your dog’s drinking water to repel fleas, but take care not to add too much vinegar.

  • Oral Treatment: Flea tablets are meant to kill fleas fast. Give your dog a single flea tablet.  The flea tablet will make sure that all adult fleas on your dog are killed within four hours of ingesting the tablet.  The tablet only works for one day and only kills the adults.  You need to use this in combination with a flea collar or drops for ongoing treatment to kill all the fleas on your dog.  Novartis Capstar Flea Tablets is a reasonably priced flea tablet that you can buy without a prescription from your vet.  Sentry Capguard Oral Flea Control Medication and PetArmor 6 Count FastCaps are other effective tablets. All of these tablets contain nitenpyram, a veterinarian-recommended active ingredient. If your flea infestation is bad, you can give your dog a tablet every two or three days to get on top of it quickly.

  • Flea powder: Zodiac Flea is a top-selling flea powder. Sprinkle it on your dog after its bath, on your dog’s bedding, your carpets and around your home wherever fleas may be thriving. You can also place it in your vacuum cleaner bag to kill any fleas you vacuum up.  Another popular flea powder is Hartz Ultra Guard Flea which gets rid of fleas and lice for seven days.


One of the most effective all natural flea powders is diatomaceous earth. Diatomaceous earth is silica from fossils of freshwater organisms and crushed to a fine powder that resembles flour.  It is not a chemical.  It absorbs the oils and fats from the insect’s exoskeleton, causing it to dry out and die. Its sharp edges are abrasive, which speeds up the process.  It remains effective as a flea powder as long as it is kept dry.  You can sprinkle it on your dog, your dog’s bedding, and your carpets furniture, and floors.

  • Flea comb: After you have bathed your dog and sprinkled diatomaceous earth on its coat, comb your dog’s hair with a flea comb. This will help disperse the powder through the coat and remove any remaining parasites and debris. Have a paper towel soaked with flea shampoo handy to clean the comb of fleas and debris. Several good, inexpensive flea combs are available in different, easy-to-use styles. The metal Safari Flea Comb comes with teeth designed for short- or long-haired dogs, or with a double row of teeth, or you may prefer the set of plastic Honbay Double Sided Flea and Grooming Combs that most dogs tolerate pretty well.

  • Houseclean: You will never eliminate the fleas on your dog until you eliminate the fleas from your home.  Only 5% of the fleas in your dog’s environment are on your dog. The other 95% are living in your house – in your carpets, bedding, furniture, yard, and your dog bedding, whether in the form of eggs, larva, or adults! How do you get rid of fleas in your house? You must vacuum all of your floors and carpets. Place a flea collar inside your vacuum cleaner bag to kill any fleas that you vacuum up. Immediately dispose of the bag. You also need to get rid of the fleas on the dog bed. Wash all pet bedding with a strong detergent and hot water, then dry on high heat. Sprinkle the clean pet bedding, pet sleeping areas, upholstery, and carpet with diatomaceous earth or boric acid powder. Wash all human bedding with a strong detergent and hot water, and then dry on high heat. Vacuum daily for the next several days, dispose of the bag each time and sprinkle the powder on the pet bedding as before.

  • Flea spray: Using a flea spray to kill fleas in your home is important, too. Zoecon Precor 2000 Plus will kill fleas at each stage of the lifecycle. It has phenothrin and permethrin to kill the adults and precor to kill the eggs and larva.  This product also kills ticks, ants, and cockroaches. Follow the directions for safe and effective use. Another effective flea spray is Adams Plus Flea & Tick Carpet Spray. It kills adult fleas, hatching flea eggs, flea larvae, ticks, roaches, ants, water bugs, silverfish, crickets, spiders, sow bugs, and carpet beetles. One treatment can last for seven months.

If you prefer to spray with a natural remedy, try best-selling Vet’s Best Flea & Tick Pet & Home Spray. It kills fleas, flea eggs, and ticks on contact using certified natural essential oils and plant-based ingredients like peppermint oil and eugenol from clove plants. It also repels mosquitos. Spray it on the dog and massage it into its hair. It is safe to use on puppies 12 weeks or older, and on bedding, furniture, and other surfaces indoors and outdoors. Humans will enjoy the smell it leaves, but be aware that some dogs dislike the strong odor of these oils.

  • Topical Drops: Some people prefer to use drops instead of flea collars. The drops need to be applied once each month, and they are expensive compared to most flea collars.  The drops are applied to the back of the dog between its shoulder blades. The drops are absorbed into the dog’s system through the skin. The drops are oily and the liquid will disperse through the dog’s hair.

The benefits to using drops are several. One benefit is the drops do not lose their effectiveness when the dog gets wet. Another is the drops avoid the need for the dog to wear an additional collar on its neck. Collars can be lost, but they can also present a risk to the dog if they don’t break away when hung up on something.

A best-selling vet-recommended flea drop is Frontline Plus Flea and Tick Control. It controls fleas, flea larva, flea eggs, lice, and ticks for dogs and puppies older than eight weeks.  Apply the drops once each month.  Within 18 hours, any fleas and flea eggs on your dog will die. Frontline comes with a 3-dose supply to provide flea, lice, and tick relief for up to 3 months.

Another top selling flea drop is Bayer K9 Advantix II. It kills fleas, ticks, lice, and mosquitos within 12 hours of application. It comes with a six-month supply.

Be sure to buy the product that is suited for your dog’s weight, and then follow the product directions for safe and effective use. Again, use caution when combining flea drops with flea collars.

  • Flea collar: Flea collars are the subject of debate as to their safety and effectiveness. Talk to your vet to determine whether a flea collar makes sense for your dog. If you use a good flea collar on your dog, it can be effective for a several months. However, when a flea collar gets wet, its effectiveness is reduced.  Flea collars are made with flea and tick repellent chemicals that are continuously released from it. The chemicals disperse across the dog in the natural oils of the hair, coat and skin. These flea killing chemicals then adhere to the hair and skin and provide continuous protection.  Fleas do not have to bite the dog for the collar to work. A flea collar will kill fleas and ticks on the dog within a day.

Make sure you select one that is suitable for your dog’s size.  Do not use a cat flea collar on a dog, and vice versa. You have lots of options for flea collars. One is Bayer Seresto Flea and Tick Collar. It is a veterinarian recommended flea collar. This collar is expensive compared to others, but effective and water-resistant. It uses two active ingredients: imidacloprid and flumethrin for 8-month protection against fleas and ticks. After putting the collar on your dog, it quickly kills fleas within 24 hours. It kills reinfesting fleas within 2 hours.

You can find flea collars that do not use pesticides. A good choice for a natural remedy flea collar is XUS – Flea, Tick, and Mosquito Collar. It uses only essential oils to repel fleas. It will not kill them.  You may want to use drops in combination with an herbal flea collar.

If your dog is pregnant or nursing, senior or puppy, or infirm, you need to check with your vet before using a flea collar. Using a flea collar on these dogs may not be safe, so be sure to read the directions on the product you use to make sure it is safe for your dog. Also, using flea collars has declined somewhat with the availability of flea drops and tablets.  If you use a flea collar, you can use it along with drops, but you need to be careful that the chemical combinations you use are compatible and not toxic to your dog.  With the Seresto flea collar, in particular, you need to be careful about combining it with flea drops. Like humans, dogs can have sensitivities or allergies to certain drugs. Consult your vet before you do it.

Puppies

How do you get rid of fleas on your puppy? Eliminating fleas from your puppy presents a few challenges. Most flea collars and drops are unsafe for use on young puppies.  Also, you need to avoid harsh chemicals and insecticides which can be gravely toxic to puppies.  On the other hand, you must eliminate the fleas which also present life-threatening risks to puppies.  Here are a few tips to get rid of them safely and effectively.

Treat the mother dog and put down clean bedding first. Your vet may be able to prescribe or recommend flea drops or a flea tablet that will work immediately and is safe for nursing dogs. Then you can treat her puppies one by one.

Bathe the first puppy in warm water and Dawn dishwashing detergent, which is extremely mild yet will kill fleas.  Many canine and wildlife experts use Dawn to bathe animals. You can use your kitchen sink or any sink that is countertop high so that you can manage the puppy without bending over.

Fill the sink with water warm enough to bathe a human baby.  Gently immerse the puppy in the water up to its head. The fleas will try to crawl to the puppy’s head, which is the only part of its body that is out of the water. Wet the puppy’s head with a washcloth or towel, then lift it out of the water and wrap it in a towel.  Gently massage the soap all over its body, and on its head and ears, trying not to get soap in the eyes.  Then immerse the puppy back in the water up to its head and pick off any fleas that have crawled back onto its head.  If the puppy is not struggling too much, drain the water and gently rinse the puppy with warm water. Then wrap the puppy in a thirsty towel to dry and keep warm.

After the bath, you need to go over the puppy with a flea comb. You can rub a little Vaseline jelly on the comb to help keep the fleas trapped in it. You may also need to manually pick off any surviving fleas. Drop any living fleas into scalding hot or soapy water to make sure the flea is killed. Fleas will jump out of the plain cold water and potentially reinfest your dogs.

Repeat this bathing process for each puppy. Use fresh towels for each one. You will need to place the used towels into your washing machine immediately and launder them with a strong detergent and hot water. Then dry on your dryer’s high heat cycle.

You will need to repeat this process every two or three days until the fleas have been entirely eliminated.

Dogs with Sensitive Skin

To get rid of fleas on a dog with sensitive skin, try a medicated shampoo like SynergyLabs Veterinary Formula or Pro-Sense Itch Relief Hydrocortisone Shampoo. It won’t kill the fleas, but it will soothe the dog’s skin. Use oral flea tablets to kill the fleas, a flea comb to remove the dead ones, then a natural remedy flea spray. You may need to consult with your vet to determine the most effective way to eliminate the fleas without aggravating your dog’s sensitive skin.

What Are the Best Ways to Prevent Fleas?

Now that you have gotten rid of the fleas on your dog and treated your home, you probably never want to experience that again. Preventing a flea infestation is easy, but you must be diligent about it. Your vet can help you put your dog (and cat) on a safe, appropriate monthly flea preventive. Again, however, you can use over-the-counter products to save yourself money.

  • Use topical flea drops monthly. As mentioned above, flea drops will keep fleas from attacking your dog.  If you miss just one month, you could have a terrible infestation before you know it.

  • Use a flea collar. Put a flea collar on your dog before flea season starts. Keep a flea collar on your dog during warm weather. It can be worn year-round, even in colder climates, to prevent fleas from infesting your house in the winter months. As stated above, make sure the flea collar is compatible with any flea drops you are using.  Flea drops made from herbs or essential oils such as tea tree oil or lavender oil are compatible with most flea collars.

  • Bathe your dog regularly with a flea and tick shampoo. Weekly bathing with a good flea and tick shampoo along with weekly laundering of dog and cat bedding is a good way to make sure nothing is hitchhiking on your dog into your house.  Bathing your dog too often, however, can dull its hair and deplete the natural oils necessary for a healthy coat and skin.

  • Use a flea comb. Groom your dog with a flea comb to help ensure removal of all fleas, flea parts, and any other parasite.  If the potency of your flea collar or drops has worn off, using the flea comb is a good back-up. If you notice fleas, you know that it is past time to replenish the collar and drops.

  • Treat your house and yard for fleas. Even if you see no evidence of fleas, regular treatment of your house and yard will kill them before they gain a foothold.

  • Keep your dog well-fed and well-nourished. A healthy, well-fed dog does not attract and harbor as many fleas as malnourished dogs.

You can buy a healthy powder to add to your dog’s food. It consists of dark brewer’s yeast, garlic, B vitamins, minerals and special nutrients that work together synergistically. It causes your dog to emit an odor that fleas and ticks cannot stand, yet the odor is undetectable to humans. This unusual powder is called Earth Animal. Start your dog on this powder after eliminating the fleas and it should help prevent reinfestation.

Use one or more of these safe and effective preventives faithfully, and you will never have a flea problem again.