Although you may be a dog owner that believes your pet is too cute and your home too clean to ever host a flea, you might want to reconsider if you have noticed your pup itching and scratching lately! Once you and your veterinarian have determined that your dog has fleas, or you just want to be sure you never have the unpleasant experience of dealing with a flea infestation, keep reading for some tips on how to treat and prevent fleas on dogs!
It has long been established that fleas are common external parasite pests that are constantly on the hunt to locate and feed on your dog and cat. If you are currently combatting a flea infestation, and especially if your dog has a flea allergy, you probably know that it can be quite unpleasant for both the pet and the pet’s family. Have no fear though, our AskVet veterinarians have extensive experience addressing flea issues all over the United States and are ready to discuss your questions!
Cover All Bases so Nothing is Missed!
First and foremost … once your family veterinarian has identified fleas as potentially being the culprit for your dog’s skin problem, they will also likely be considering some other common causes of itching too. Environmental allergies (or “atopy”), and cutaneous adverse food reactions (“food allergies”), can all cause intense itching and licking similar to what we see with fleas and a flea allergy in dogs. Some unlucky dogs even have multiple concurrent issues!
Also, much like we will pick and scratch at a mosquito bite often causing more inflammation and further damage to our skin, your dog wants to do the same thing when their skin is uncomfortable! The scabs, hair loss, and red spots that you may see resulting from days or weeks of itching are evidence of damaged skin. Your veterinarian will perform a series of tests like a skin scraping and fungal testing to rule out other common causes of skin issues.
Your family veterinarian will also want to check if bacteria and yeast, who both LOVE flourishing in moist inflamed skin, have capitalized on the opportunity to set up an infection. Should your veterinarian identify overgrowth of these opportunists, they will recommend treating your pet’s infection with the appropriate oral/topical antibiotic or antifungal medications and perhaps fasten the legendary “cone of shame” too (the best way to prevent your dog from licking and biting their inflamed skin!). Occasionally an itch will be so intense that medications like Cytopoint, Apoquel, or corticosteroids might be recommended to assist with immediate relief. Clearly, fleas can be responsible for a whole chain reaction (including the arrival of tapeworms!) that contributes to your pet feeling pretty miserable, but your family veterinarian will get them on the road back to comfort in no time!
Preventing Fleas with Flea Prevention Products
And now to the main event, what to do about those fleas? Combating fleas in 2021 for a dog owner is much easier than in 1985 … researchers have made HUGE strides in the development of many safe and effective flea prevention products that are readily available to purchase at the recommendation of your family veterinarian. The most important aspect of addressing fleas is to avoid them altogether! We want to prevent them from being able to bite your pets and set up their life cycle in your home environment.
Modern flea prevention products can work in several ways; they kill adult fleas as well as disrupt the growth of immature stages. There are topical products that you apply directly to the dog’s skin or are worn as a collar, and oral products that are absorbed through the intestines and distributed to the skin. Most products are still administered monthly, although longer-acting preventions are also now available. Your family veterinarian will recommend products based on the flea and tick activity in your region as well as your dog’s age, weight, breed, lifestyle, and health history.
Some products are combined with ingredients that also prevent other parasitic infections at the same time, such as heartworm disease, gastrointestinal parasites, and ticks. The cost associated with administering these products on a monthly basis can sometimes serve as a deterrent for Pet Parents, but when reminded of the true monetary and physical cost of treating the fallout from these infections, the benefits of prevention easily outweigh the monetary costs incurred. The old adage, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” really holds true when talking about pet parasites!
The following list contains some of the most popular, safe and effective prescription-grade flea prevention products on the market today:
- Vectra/First Shield
- Frontline Plus
Before applying or administering any flea prevention products, please consult your AskVet or family veterinarian to be sure the flea remedies you possess are safe and effective. There are several over-the-counter products that are commonly associated with skin burns and toxicity, on top of being ineffective in killing and preventing adult and immature fleas. We also do not recommend using dog products on cats as they can cause severe toxicity due to ingredients (pyrethrins/pyrethroids) that dogs can tolerate and cats cannot.
To be sure to take advantage of a product’s maximal efficacy, follow all administration directions on the packaging, treat all of the pets in the household (even indoor cats because they can act as a flea reservoir!), and be sure to administer it at the frequency recommended. We do not recommend flea shampoos, onion/garlic supplements, or essential oils as safe nor effective long-term flea prevention options. Your family veterinarian truly has the best stuff available for flea protection!
Cleaning Your Home Environment
Once you have treated all animals with a prescription-grade flea prevention, commence environmental decontamination mode! Typically, if adult fleas are seen on your dog, this also means that ALL of the flea life cycle stages also exist in your home. This includes your pet’s bedding, your bed (ew!), your couch, the hardwood floors, the carpeting, the car seats, piles of laundry … basically anywhere your pet spends time.
One adult female flea can lay 50+ eggs per day, and they thrive in the 70-80 degree interiors of our homes, quickly establishing an infestation! It could still take upwards of 2-3 months to rid the home environment of fleas due to the stability of the flea life cycle stages present, but cleaning will at least reduce the load by manually removing them. Here are some suggestions for a quicker eradication…
- Consider all of the areas where the pet spends most of its time and target those areas. You may even see the telltale signs – “flea dirt” (flea poop that resembles black sand), flea larvae, and maybe even tapeworm proglottids (tiny rice-looking objects should your dog have swallowed a flea resulting in a tapeworm infection).
- Launder pet bedding and blankets with warm water and detergent, followed by dryer heat.
- Vacuum carpets, hardwood floors, crevices, furniture, dog houses, kennels, and cars where pets are passengers. Empty the vacuum immediately outdoors.
- Home supply stores offer environmental insecticides and sprays for indoor and outdoor use. Use caution around humans and animals as these products can be harmful, and strictly adhere to the label directions for use.
Now that you have started an appropriate flea treatment and prevention program with all of the pets in the home, cleaned as best as you can (perhaps several times!), and finished any extra medications needed for a full recovery from skin issues brought on by itching and a flea allergy, fleas and their consequences should no longer be a part of your lives! Any lingering skin abnormalities should be rechecked by your family veterinarian, but oftentimes taking our recommended multifaceted approach to targeting and preventing fleas will be enough to remove them from your lives forever! Your AskVet Care Squad is always available to answer any questions you may have regarding fleas and treating your pet and your home!
Alexa Waltz, DVM
Dr. Waltz was raised near the beaches of Southern California but has spent her adult life living all over the beautiful United States while serving in the military and as a military spouse. She left California for the first time to pursue a career as a veterinarian at Louisiana State University School of Veterinary Medicine and graduated as a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine in 2006. She was accepted into the US Army Health Professionals Scholarship Program during vet school and upon graduation spent her military years as a veterinarian in San Diego working for the US Marine Corps and US Navy Military Working Dog programs as well as caring for pets of service members. After her military service, she became a civilian veterinarian and continued as a small animal general practitioner at clinics in California, Rhode Island, Colorado, and Maryland. Dr Waltz loves to see her “in person” patients just as much as communicating with and assisting pet parents virtually on AskVet. Dr Waltz is also a Mom to 3 humans, 2 guinea pigs, and 1 Australian Shepherd and in her spare time she loves traveling, adventures, exercising, and doing just about anything out in nature!