An itching, scratching dog conjures up nightmarish images of fleas hopping everywhere—especially onto our furniture, beds, and carpets. Fleas are prime suspects if your dog is scratching without any apparent reason, but before you can blame fleas for your dog’s discomfort you need to do a little more investigating.
The best way to find out if your dog has fleas is to look for symptoms of flea bites on dogs.
What Are Fleas?
Fleas are tiny parasites that feed off of the blood of their hosts. There are over 2, 200 species of fleas in the world, but the flea that most frequently infests dogs is not the dog flea, which is relatively rare, but the cat flea, scientifically known as Ctenocephalides felis.
While it might seem somewhat ironic that the fleas bothering your dog are "cat fleas," this flea species is known to infest more than 50 different mammals and birds throughout the world. In the United States, they prefer dogs, cats, wolves, foxes, raccoons, opossums, ferrets, and domestic rabbits. The widespread palette of fleas gives your dog plenty of opportunity to pick them up as she goes about her day.
Flea Life Cycle
Flea removal is tricky, and you need to have a basic knowledge of the flea life cycle to choose the right products for your dog. As gross as it might be to think about, you need to know how fleas feed and reproduce.
Adult fleas lay their eggs in the hair of their host—your dog. A female flea can lay as many as 50 eggs a day and an average of 27 eggs a day for up to 100 days. As far as I am concerned, that’s 27 eggs a day too many. These eggs fall to the ground every time your dog shakes, scratches, or lies down, infesting your home and yard.
The eggs hatch 1-to-6 days later into larvae. Indoors, the larvae burrow deep into the fibers of your carpet or outside into grass, leaves, or soil, where they then spin themselves a cocoon after a week or two. The larva matures into an adult flea inside the cocoon and waits for a potential host to pass by. Pre-emerged adults can survive for weeks and even months under the right conditions, which is one of the reasons why it is so hard to remove fleas from the home.
Symptoms of Flea Bites on Dogs
So what do flea bites look like? Fleas leave tiny, red, raised dots on your dog’s skin. They are typically smaller than other insect bites, although they can become inflamed after a dog scratches. Some dogs have a stronger reaction to flea bites than others, which creates a much larger red area.
Flea bites are much more obvious on humans, since we don’t have dense layers of fur. On humans, flea bites look like tiny red dots. If you have a flea bite, however, you probably won’t be worrying too much about what it looks like—you’ll be more concerned by how much it itches.
Here are some symptoms of flea bites on dogs to look for:
- Severe scratching and itching
- Biting and chewing at skin
- Hair loss
- Red, irritated skin
The problem with identifying fleas based solely on bites is that we can’t always see flea bites on dogs. That is why it is important to know the other signs of fleas on dogs.
Other Signs of Fleas on Dogs
Along with the symptoms of flea bites, the best way to determine if your dog has fleas is to look for fleas themselves or their droppings.
Fleas like to infest the neck, ears, lower back, abdomen, and base of the tail in dogs. These tiny parasites measure approximately 1-to-3 millimeters in length, but their dark brown or black bodies are relatively easy to see moving around, especially on light colored dog hair or skin.
If you don’t catch the fleas while they are active, you can always look for the most obvious sign of fleas—their droppings. “Flea dirt,” as flea droppings are commonly called, looks like flecks of pepper scattered over the infested area of your dog’s body. These specks are actually dried blood, and if you place them on a damp paper towel they will turn from black to brown and then to red as the blood rehydrates.
The best way to search for fleas and flea dirt is to comb your pet with a flea comb. These fine-toothed combs pick up fleas and flea dirt, making it easy for you to spot evidence of flea activity on your pet.
Flea Bite Complications
Fleas are irritating, but they can also cause some more serious complications in dogs, which is why flea control and prevention is so important. The three biggest concerns are:
- Flea allergy dermatitis
Flea allergy dermatitis is the most common skin disease in American dogs. The disease occurs when a dog has an allergic reaction to flea saliva, and leads to itchiness, irritation, hair loss, scaly skin, and secondary skin infections.
Fleas have voracious appetites. They can consume up to 15 times their own body weight in blood a day, which is basically the equivalent of a 100-pound human eating 1,500 pounds of food in 24 hours. Not surprisingly, this blood loss can lead to anemia in heavily infested dogs, especially puppies.
Dogs ingest fleas while biting at an itchy spot or grooming themselves or another dog. Unfortunately, these flea-sized snacks can contain another unwanted parasite: tapeworms. When a dog eats a flea containing tapeworm eggs, the eggs move into your dog’s small intestines, where they hatch and mature into adults. Luckily, tapeworms are easy to treat and are not usually harmful.
Treating Flea Bites on Dogs
If your dog has irritating flea bites, the first thing you should do is call your vet. Flea allergy dermatitis is very uncomfortable for dogs, and your vet will help control the symptoms of flea allergy dermatitis while you come up with a flea removal plan. Even if your dog does not have flea allergy dermatitis, the best way to treat flea bites is still, of course, to get rid of fleas.
Talk to your vet about the best flea removal plan for your dog and household. It could take some time for all of the fleas in your home to die off, so don’t wait too long to act. In the meantime, discourage your dog from getting on furniture and especially discourage him from sleeping in your bed, and do some research about the best ways to get rid of fleas.
Preventing Flea Bites on Dogs
When it comes to fleas, prevention is definitely your best option. There are many choices out there, from pills and collars to prescription applications. These preventatives protect your dog and home from flea infestations and are much easier (and cheaper) to deal with than a full-blown flea problem. Talk to your vet about the best preventative for your dog, especially if he shows signs of flea allergy dermatitis.
Hopefully, the insect bite that you feared was a flea bite turned out to just be the bite of something harmless, like an ant, giving you time to go to the vet and get your dog on a prescription flea and tick preventative. If it turns out that your dog does have fleas, call your vet and start your flea removal plan today.