Fleas in dogs: your ultimate guide

Get the lowdown on how to spot, treat and prevent dog fleas, with advice from our veterinary expert Brian Faulkner.

Fleas are very common parasites that can cause big problems for you and your dog. Luckily, there’s plenty you can do to prevent fleas giving you both the run-around.

Whenever you and your dog are out and about, there’s a risk they could be exposed to fleas. These insects can jump large distances from within the environment onto your dog. They can be transferred onto your clothing and shoes and brought home.

The flea life cycle consists of four stages: egg, larva, pupa and adult. Fleas are more common as temperatures start to rise, but if your house is centrally heated, they may be a problem year-round. Knowing what to look out for means you can get on top of an issue as soon as possible.

Signs of fleas in dogs

Fleas are small and move fast, so even when you look closely you might not spot them. Instead, look for these telltale signs your dog might have picked up fleas:

  • Scratching
  • Dog nibbling at fur
  • Hair loss or bald patches
  • Red or inflamed skin
  • Small spots or scars
  • Thickened skin, particularly around the edges of ears

As a flea infestation gets worse, you might spot more obvious signs, including:

  • Small black specks of ‘flea dirt’
  • Unexplained insect bites on family members’ arms and legs
  • Fleas moving around in your dog’s fur, particularly their bellies and back

If you suspect your dog does have fleas, groom them with a fine comb and shake the dirt from the brush onto a piece of damp kitchen towel. If the dirt turns a red-brown colour, this is flea dirt – also known as flea droppings!

In addition to causing discomfort, fleas can trigger a range of health issues. Some dogs suffer from a flea allergy where just one bite can cause an allergic reaction. Flea infestations are particularly dangerous for puppies and senior dogs, as the blood loss from multiple bites can cause weakness or even anaemia. Fleas can also transmit tapeworms to dogs – and if you have pet rabbits, be aware that myxomatosis can be spread by fleas, too.

Preventing fleas in dogs

Proactive flea prevention in dogs is always better than treating fleas after your dog and home are infested. Prescription-only parasiticides are the most effective option, and your vet will be able to recommend the best treatment to suit your dog.

Treatments for fleas in dogs include:

  • Spot-on products. These are liquids that come in small pipettes and are applied to the back of your dog’s neck. Some spot-on treatments kill adult fleas only, while others also disrupt the development of eggs and larvae.
  • Tablets. These work by stopping flea eggs from developing into adult fleas, breaking the flea life cycle. They’re a good option if your dog doesn’t like spot-on treatments.
  • Collars. These contain chemicals that prevent flea development, but they’re not always reliable, and can sometimes cause localised irritation around your dog’s neck.
  • Shampoo. Flea shampoo kills adult fleas, but won’t affect eggs and larvae, meaning you’ll have to complete follow-up treatments as these develop into adult fleas.

Because fleas can also transmit internal parasites, it’s best to treat your dog for worms at the same time as applying flea treatments. If you have other pets, including cats and rabbits, it is essential to treat them, too. Be sure to choose a specific product designed for each species, as some treatments designed for dogs can be toxic to cats, and vice versa.

While natural treatments for fleas in dogs are available, they’re rarely an effective long-term option, as they don’t contain the same active ingredients as prescription medication.

How to get rid of dog fleas in the house

When treating your dog for fleas, it’s important to treat your house as well – up to 95% of flea eggs, larvae and pupae can be found not on your pet, but elsewhere in the home. Flea pupae remain dormant for up to a year, emerging from their cocoon when conditions are right. Even clean homes and dogs can pick up fleas, but a regular spring clean will reduce the chances of any fleas surviving.

To remove as many fleas as possible, thoroughly vacuum all carpets and soft furnishings. You might also decide to wash cushions, dog beds and other fabrics that have come into contact with your dog.

Follow this up with an insecticide environmental spray designed specifically for fleas. One application should last up to a year.

Once you’re on top of a flea infestation, keep up with monthly treatments to keep your dog flea-free, healthy and happy.

For an overview of fleas on dogs, download our one-page info sheet – perfect for popping on your fridge or sharing with friends, family and dog-sitters.

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