Are you noticing your dog nibbling on their rump throughout the day and night, chewing their thighs and abdomen, or perhaps you see thinning hair around their lower back and tail? Is it possible that your dog has fleas? Despite the advancements and widespread use of flea prevention products for pets during the last several decades, fleas on dogs and cats remain a fact of life for pet parents. But how do dogs get fleas? We’re here to answer that and more!
What Are Fleas?
Fleas are a common external parasite that uses your pet as its host to survive. Not only will adult fleas remain living on your pet and continue to lay eggs to reproduce, but it will also now be living in your home. It is important to search your dog for fleas because if left untreated, flea bites could lead to severe diseases and infections.
How Do I Check My Dog for Fleas?
Fleas are clever little pests that have evolved to remain in our lives, but our veterinarians are experts in helping pet parents recognize common signs that their dog might have fleas. Any age dog, all breeds and both males and females are equally at risk for developing a flea infestation that can be uncomfortable and irritating. The prevalence of fleas is still so common that they remain high on the list of potential diagnoses for any dog with constant itching and skin problems.
- Visual Check: Most pet parents feel that the presence of fleas on their dog should be pretty easy to spot, where in fact, it can be very difficult! Fleas on pets look like tiny black insects that will dart away quickly or jump when the cat or dog’s fur is parted down to the skin. To check your dog for fleas, lay your dog on its side and examine its skin where it has thin hair. Most common areas to check are its abdomen area and inside its hindquarters.
- Flea Comb: A quick brush over your dog’s body with a flea comb (a specialized fine tooth flea comb for pets) can also trap fleas, “flea dirt” (a name for flea feces that looks like small pieces of black sand), and eggs, proving that they could be the instigators behind the itch.
- White Towel Test: Have your dog stand over a white towel and brush or rub its fur. If you start to see black droppings on the towel that look like tiny grains of sand, then you know that flea dirt is present.
Of course, seeing fleas and flea dirt confirms the presence of a flea infestation, so that is pretty straightforward, right? However, oftentimes, unless there is a severe infestation, finding an actual flea on your pet is very difficult! Fleas are small, clever and FAST – often evading human eyes! And, as you can imagine, little bugs biting and running around on a dog’s skin makes the dog even faster at locating them, chewing them off and destroying the evidence. A flea allergy in dogs (a severe allergic reaction to the protein in a flea’s saliva) makes dogs even faster due to the intense skin reaction that they are feeling because of even just one flea bite. So yes, it is entirely possible that you will not see a single flea on your flea-infested or flea-allergic dog!!!
What are the Symptoms of Fleas?
So how do you really know your dog has fleas if you can’t see them? Fleas are clever, but not enough to trick us! They leave some pretty telltale signs that your veterinarians are experts at recognizing.
The classic symptoms of fleas are:
- excessive self-grooming
- dry skin caused by itching, licking, nibbling, and scratching
- thinning and broken hairs
- hair loss
- the creation of scabs, “hotspots” (red, painful sores) and red bumps/rashes on the skin
Most commonly, dogs will target the skin of the lower back, inner and outer thighs, tailhead and abdomen, although skin lesions and scratching can occur anywhere (ears, neck, etc., too!). Also, when pet parents report strange behavior changes, like unusual restlessness or incidences where their dog seems to dart or jolt quickly out of nowhere, act startled and turn around to stare or look at their rump area before going in for a nibble or prolonged aggressive grooming session, we instantly consider the possibility of fleas!
How to Target Fleas
Once we assemble the pieces of the puzzle and it is looking strongly like fleas could be feasting on your dog and potentially cohabitating with you in your home, the final clue that fleas are the culprit usually comes with the answer to this question: Is your pet current on their monthly prescription-strength flea prevention? Fleas are so gifted at finding unprotected pets that when we see these classic signs and link them to the absence of using an effective monthly flea prevention product, fleas almost always jump to the top of our list! Final confirmation comes when your veterinarian establishes a flea prevention program for your dog, and the issues improve and resolve, never to return again!
Talk to a Trusted Vet
If any of these signs sound all too familiar to you and your dog is suffering from excessive itching and licking, with some skin abnormalities on the side, please consult our AskVet Veterinarians for some advice or follow up with your family veterinarian for a full physical exam and some advice for how to treat and prevent fleas in your home. Your Vet can recommend you the appropriate flea shampoo, prescription cream, and other flea treatments to help prevent and kill any of the adult fleas that are currently living on your dog. Life’s too short to be bugged by fleas! Even if they’re out there, they do not need to be a part of you and your dog’s daily life, so consult with your family veterinarian and start a prevention program today!
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!