If your dog is scratching himself or acting restless, he might have fleas. Learn how to recognize the signs, prevent, and treat dog fleas with a few simple tips, so you can get rid of them fast.

By Kelly Helmick
August 24, 2020
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Credit: Jirakan / Getty

Fleas. The hidden anxiety that pops up every summer when your dog starts to scratch. But do you know how your dog gets fleas? Or more importantly, how to get rid of dog fleas? Below are tips for how to find, treat, and prevent these parasites from getting on your dog and in your home. 

How to Tell if Your Dog Has Fleas 

Try not to freak out, but the icky truth is that fleas (and their pesky eggs) can be found almost anywhere: in your yard, on nature walks, and even the dog park. That means your dog can pick up the annoying little bloodsuckers simply by walking out the door. As with most parasites that can affect your pet, prevention is usually easier than treatment—but if you already suspect a flea infestation in your home or on your dog, there are a few telltale signs your dog might have fleas.

Scratching, biting, or chewing

The biggest clue that could indicate your dog has fleas are changes in behavior. Is he scratching or chewing at his skin relentlessly? Acting restless or agitated? If so, it’s time to take a closer look and see what’s irritating him. 

To check for fleas, look for tiny brown spots on your dog’s skin. (No, not spots like a dalmatian!) If you’re petting or brushing your dog and come across a little brown speck on his skin or tucked into his fur, take a closer look. That could be a flea or the feces of a flea (also known as flea dirt). A metal flea comb can also help you identify the little bugs, which look like tiny brown specks with legs. You probably won’t see much more detail than that, and the only reason you’ll see their legs is because fleas have long, strong back legs that allow them to jump an entire foot in a single leap. Hence the reason why fleas are so contagious and hard to get rid of: they can cover a lot of distance (even hopping from animal to animal) in a matter of seconds. 

Check for Flea Dirt

Flea dirt can be another sign of an infestation, even if you don’t see the fleas themselves. Since fleas are parasites that feed on the blood of other animals, their droppings have some blood in them. You can tell the difference between normal dirt from a romp in the yard and flea dirt by getting it damp on a white tissue. If you see the black specks turn reddish-brown, you’ll know that fleas are to blame.

Check Your Home for Fleas

Hopefully you are able to catch them before this point, but if your dog’s fleas have gone unnoticed and untreated, it’s likely that your home will have fleas as well. When they’re not on your pet, fleas can be found in the carpet, on upholstered furniture like the couch and bed, and just about anywhere that’s dark and warm. If you suspect these uninvited house guests, the first thing you’ll want to do is grab the vacuum. “It’s estimated that only 5 percent of a flea infestation is on your pet,”  Susie Samuel, VetMB MRCVS and founder of VetHelpDirect says. “The other 95 percent are in the carpet.” 

Check Yourself for Bites

The parasites prefer to stay tucked away in your pup’s hair, but fleas can and will bite humans once they’ve infested a home. If your dog has fleas and sleeps in your bed, you’ll likely wake up to itchy red dots on your skin that look like mosquito bites. And while dog fleas are technically a different species from cat fleas, either type can affect the other animal—meaning your dog can get fleas from the cat, and vice versa. 

Treating and Preventing Dog Fleas

Now that you know how to spot fleas on your dog and in your home, it’s important to treat them immediately so your pup doesn’t develop a serious health problem like flea anemia or tapeworms

Keep in mind adult fleas will continue to reproduce and live in your home and on your dog until you break their life cycle—meaning you’ll need to eliminate them at each stage of their life cycle: eggs, larvae, pupae, and adult. Since there are no current treatments that can kill a pupae (which can stay in this life stage for up to 12 weeks), Samuel advises pet owners to continuously treat the dog to get rid of the infestation. Because not all flea products treat every life stage, you may need to use multiple products to properly get fleas treated and out of your home, including topical treatments like sprays and shampoos, as well as preventative medications like pills and flea collars. Here are a few options:

Oral flea medications

Several different types of oral medications can both treat and prevent fleas on dogs: fast-acting pills that last a few days (treatment only) and long-term medications that are given regularly (treatment and prevention). A study in Veterinary Parasitology shows that oral treatments are the most effective option for killing fleas compared to topical treatment options—99.9 percent effective compared to topical medications’ 88.4 percent effectiveness. Depending on the medication, these treatments could last between a few days up to 12 weeks in your dog’s system, and some oral medications pack a double parasitic punch, preventing ticks and heartworms, too. However, all oral medications currently on the market only kill adult fleas. They do not kill flea eggs or larvae—so if you’re already dealing with a flea infestation, you will need to incorporate additional tactics to be sure every stage of the flea life cycle is taken care of. Talk to your veterinarian about finding the right oral flea medication for your dog.

Topical flea medications

These are the medications that come in the little capsule that you apply to the back of your dog’s neck, between his shoulder blades. Once applied, a topical flea medication can take up to 24 hours to absorb into your dog’s system (don’t let him get wet during that time). Most topical flea medications kill adult fleas and their eggs, and stay in your pet’s bloodstream for up to 30 days preventing any new fleas from surviving on them.

Shampoos and flea baths

These are generally for treatment only when your dog has an active flea infestation. Shampoos contain chemicals that actually stay on your dog’s skin. Once you’ve applied the shampoo, you’ll wait several minutes for the soap and water to suffocate and drown the fleas. As you rinse, you’ll likely see the dead fleas float down the drain. Take note: flea shampoo is not the best option for prevention, since the medication only lasts a few days or until the dog gets wet. If you want to use it as prevention, you’ll need to get ready for a lot of dog washing!

Collars

Flea collars can work as a preventative for keeping fleas off your dog. The collar emits a pesticide to keep fleas away, and can also work to repel ticks. But a flea collar alone usually isn’t enough to treat your dog if he already has fleas. So while a convenient option—no pills or topical treatments to apply, just slip it on your dog’s neck!—it’s a good idea to check with your vet to see if a collar is enough to keep fleas off your dog.

Whichever treatment and preventative you decide on with your veterinarian, Samuel says it is important to stick with it. “Don’t keep switching products,” she warns, because different products can work against each other and stop fighting against the fleas.

How to Get Rid of Fleas in Your House

Any flea treatment in your house should start with a thorough vacuuming. Pick everything up off the floor, toss all fabrics in the laundry, remove or throw away dog beds and blankets. The pest control experts at Terminix say that vacuuming helps address fleas in their egg, larvae and pupae stage—not just the adults. It’s also important to do a thorough cleaning of pillows, bedding, couches, and other upholstery where they can burrow in. 

But sometimes, the vacuum isn’t enough. For those who prefer a home remedy for dog fleas or DIY option, you can usually find a fog treatment at the grocery or hardware store. Before using, you’ll need to clear the home of any children and pets. Then, place the fogger on the floor (typically in the middle of the room). Once you set it off (being careful to follow the instructions!) the chemicals will kill any fleas...but only fleas that are within the reach of the fogger. That means anything in the way of its mist—like the area under the couch—might still have fleas or flea eggs that survive. 

If you still have fleas even after trying the above options, it’s time to call in the big guns: a professional exterminator. An exterminator will be able to assess the infestation professionally and kill the fleas, their eggs, and their larvae…and sometimes they’ll have to come back more than once. That doesn’t mean the first treatment wasn’t successful. It just means there were fleas in your house who are very good at hiding.