Dogs And Fleas – A Complete Guide For Dog Owners

If you’ve kept dogs or cats in your life, then you’ve likely had a run-in at some time with these pesky pests.  Not only are they hard to get rid of, but they also spread quickly and can bite humans too. We’re talking about fleas. 

Nasty, jumping pests that suck your blood, spread disease and drive your pet nuts can be difficult to deal with.  Preventing dog fleas is essential to keeping a variety of diseases from having a chance to spread. And preventing dog fleas will also keep your pooch happy.

This complete guide about fleas provides an in-depth look at fleas, how to prevent them and how to get rid of them.  Everything you need to know about fleas and your pet, all in one place.

About Fleas

What Is A Flea?

Flea is the common name for a family of insects that are wingless, externally parasitic and includes about 2500 species.  These insects are very small (up to about 4mm) which can make them difficult to see and even harder to get rid of.  Preventing dog fleas is easy and a good way of stopping these pests before they start.

Brief Description

Fleas live off of feeding on the blood of their host.  They have evolved to me excellent parasites with claws to hang on to their host, powerful rear legs for jumping extreme distances and a mouth made for piercing the skin and sucking blood.  In essence, these parasites are insects that in my opinion are a cross between a vampire and an H.R. Giger creation (Alien circa 1979). Making preventing dog fleas one of my top priorities as a dog owner.

Fleas have flat bodies so they can easily maneuver between hairs or feathers of their victims.  This also helps the fleas in a defensive way. How so? Well, if you ever try to squish a flea, if you just press, often they survive as they are so thin.  To effectively squish fleas, you have to ‘roll them’ while squishing as squishing them from the side is often ineffective.

A picture of a flea scan.  Dogs and fleas are a problem.  How do you get rid of fleas.  Or is it How to get rid of fleas
A scan of a flea.

A Fleas Origins

Fleas are a group of about 2500 species, according to Wikipedia. These are of the order Siphonaptera.  These insects have been around for millions of years. The picture below is a fossil of a female (left) and male(right) from the Jurassic period.  Back then, they didn’t have big hind legs to jump, but they were several times larger than today’s common parasite.

A fossil of a male and female flea from the Jurassic Period.
Credit: D. Huang et al, Nature

Fleas have been the harbinger of death, indirectly, for a very long time.  Fleas can carry bacteria known as the Yersinia pestis. It’s this little bacteria that was responsible for some of the greatest disasters in human history.  One such infamous event was known as the Black Death. This occurred back in the 14th century. 

Trade Brought Fleas

At the time, human civilization was growing and trade routes were becoming more and more established.  Unbeknownst to the traders’ caravans, it was the tiny pests they were carrying with them that were the real deliveries – of death!  As trade routes carried supplies and goods from Asia to Europe, the fleas and their eggs went along for the ride. Some of these fleas were carrying what we know today was a bacteria that can infect humans and cause the plague. And it’s not like preventing dog fleas was actually possible for most people when the trade routes were in their infancy.

A Family of Blood-Suckers

According to Dr. John Meyer of NC State University, there are 7 families comprised of 325 species of fleas in North America alone.  As mentioned, there are many species of fleas that leave nasty flea bites. Some of the more common are cat fleas, dog fleas, human fleas, and oriental rat fleas.  The last of these is known for spreading the plague.

The Flea Lifecycle

A picture of the life stages of a dog flea.
Credit:
A dog flea (Ctenocephalides canis): adult, pupa, egg, and larva. Colored etching. Credit: Wellcome CollectionCC BY

Eggs

Females can lay up to 50 flea eggs per day, depending on the species.  For common dog and cat fleas, the eggs are white and very small making them extremely difficult to detect.  Common flea eggs take 2-5 days to hatch, typically. The eggs are usually laid by the adult and drop onto the ground into the surrounding environment.  Either that or the flea lays them directly on the ground, sometimes in a burrow. This depends upon the species of course.  However, the eggs can be killed as a part of preventing dog fleas. A spray is the typical means of spreading death to the eggs via a flea spray.

Larva

The flea larva emerges from the eggs and feeds on any organic matter they find in their environment.  In the case of your home, this would typically be organic matter like skin flakes, dead bugs or any other tiny bits of organic matter be it crumbs or anything else it finds in the area.  

The larva will tend to want to stay away from light, often living at the base of carpets and in crevices on the floor.  Outdoors they will live in the top undergrowth, sand or soil. They are blind and like humid conditions as well.  

Flea larva will go through several stages before they move into the next phase.

Pupa

During this phase, the flea larva spins a cocoon around itself.  Within the cocoon, the flea goes through a metamorphosis and changes into the final adult form.  This metamorphosis of the flea larva into adult form can take as little as four days. However, if conditions are not favorable, the flea can stay inside the cocoon and wait to emerge when conditions are more appropriate.  

Using this technique of selective emergence allows the flea to survive for an extended period, when the environmental conditions may not otherwise be favorable to the flea.  When the right conditions are met, the flea emerges from the cocoon in its final adult form.

Adult Flea

Now that the adult flea has emerged from its cocoon, it seeks out a viable host.  In adult form, the flea is fully equipped with its powerful rear legs that give it such a characteristic jumping action.  The flea has been known to be able to jump up to 7 inches up and 13 inches away. This can make preventing dog fleas difficult with little to no action taken.

In adult form, the flea is at it’s a most similar form to an actual vampire.  Its only true goal is to drink blood and reproduce. The flea will live for several months so it is able to wait until a suitable host walks past.  Then the flea jumps onto the host, burrowing its way through the fur (if any) and getting to the skin as soon as possible. Once on the skin, the flea clings on with the help of its claws and body hairs.  The flea bites its prey and so on.

Common House Flea Bodies Built For Blood and Survival

Flea Legs

Common house fleas, at least the dog and cat varieties have powerful rear legs.  They can jump like a miniature grasshopper. The rear legs are their largest feature, aside from their bodies themselves.  It is their great jumping ability that allows them to jump onto mammals or birds walking past.

Close up of a cat flea head.

[Cat Flea – Source]

Head

Fleas have simple eyes and a mouth designed specifically for extracting blood from its prey.  The mouth has several parts. The parts fit together to allow the flea to ‘saw’ its way into the skin.  They hold a straw-like structure called the epipharynx that then sucks up the blood once the laciniae have penetrated deep enough into the skin. The flea saliva gets into the wound and helps to thin the blood, like a mosquito, to aid in sucking up the blood.  This produces the itching sensation from the flea bite.

Armor

Fleas bodies have armor plates which make them quite difficult to kill.  They have evolved this armor in response to animals trying to groom and kill the fleas.  Anyone who has grabbed a flea and tried to squish it for the first time will usually testify to the fleas’ resilience.  Therefore, the correct motion is to ‘roll the flea’ between your fingers while applying as much force as possible in order to break the flea’s armor.  This is why grooming is an incredibly ineffective way to stop fleas.

Flea Claws and Hair

Fleas have claws that hook into the victim, latching on to their prey.  Fleas possess 3 pairs of legs, like other insects. These legs each carry a hook-like claw to latch onto their prey.  The common flea also has spikes around the head and hairs on the body that point back, away from the head. This helps them move forward through the hair (or feathers) of their victims. But preventing dog fleas isn’t that difficult. But, I digress, back to the fleas hair.

These hairs also act to hold the flea in place within the hair or feathers.  You will have experienced this first hand if you’ve ever seen a flea on your pet and tried to pull it out of the hair of your pet.  They seem to ‘stick’ in place.

Effects of Flea Bites

Flea bites tend to leave an itchy, slightly raised and often pink spot on the skin.  This can be itchy for weeks in extreme cases. Also, the bites are usually clustered or in a line so the region becomes of skin becomes itchy, not just a single bite location.  That’s why preventing dog fleas is such an important action.

Like a mosquito, the itch is caused by the saliva enzyme the flea uses to keep blood from clotting while it drinks it.  This causes the bite site to itch and sometimes causes an allergic response in the form of a rash near the site. The bite can also cause flea allergy dermatitis.  This shows as a red rash around the entire area where the bite or bites occurred. The rash looks similar to eczema.

Diseases and Parasites Spread By Fleas

Tapeworm 

Tapeworm is usually spread via dog and/or cat fleas.  According to the CDC, the cycle carries out as per the following image courtesy of the CDC.

A chart from the CDC which shows the stages of tapeworm and how it passes from host to host.

Tapeworms range between 4 and 28 inches long.  They start from the host ingesting eggs, usually by ingesting an adult flea.  This usually occurs from self-grooming due to the itching of the flea bites.  The tapeworm eggs stop in the intestine where they grow into worms and feed off the host.  Segments of the worm break off which carry eggs and leave the host along with the stool. And so the cycle continues.

Symptoms of having a tapeworm include a distended belly, lethargy, appetite beyond normal conditions, vomiting, and/or diarrhea.  Sometimes you see the small ‘mini worm’ segments wriggling around on the dogs’ feces or around the anus. If you suspect your dog has a tapeworm, consult your veterinarian for them to prescribe the treatment for your pet.

Typhus

Murine typhus is the form of typhus which is spread by fleas.  This disease is again a cause of bacterial infection within the victim.  This time, the culprit is Rickettsia typhi, a nasty little infectious bacteria.  Again, a good reason to make sure you are preventing dog fleas before they can come near.

The symptoms of typhus typically occur within a couple of weeks’ exposure and can include fever, headache and other flu-like symptoms.  These symptoms progress and within about 5-9 days after symptoms occur a rash develops. This continues over most of the body.  Next, the disease causes meningoencephalitis. This is inflammation and possible lesions within the meninges and brain. If left untreated, it is nearly always fatal.

Checking Your Pet For Fleas

Fleas can be spotted on your pet.  Typically, they tend to migrate to warm and tender areas where blood is easily accessible.  This includes the groin, belly, and neck. I have also found fleas on my dog’s feet. If a dog is dealing with fleas, they can often be found in these areas but might be found anywhere on the dog.  Fleas will often also make their way into the dog’s ears.  

Look for tiny black dots that move around.  Likely these are fleas. Sometimes you can also see the flea’s feces.  These are essentially tiny drops of dried blood. They will be even smaller than the fleas but can be seen upon close inspection.  It is these feces deposits left by adult fleas which help to feed the larval stage.

You can typically also see where the fleas have bitten you or your pet.  Flea bites are usually in clusters, leaving small red bumps or spots. These can be mildly inflamed and often are itchy for up to several weeks.

Flea Prevention

Floor Coverings

Carpet

The best way to prevent fleas from infesting your carpet is to clean and treat it.  It is important to do extremely thorough and regular vacuuming and even steam cleaning to remove any possible flea eggs or larva.  Next, treatment is recommended if there is a problem with fleas.

WARNING: Some ‘flea sprays’ you can buy at the pet store or hardware store may work, but can also be harmful to pets and children.  Always read and follow any directions and precautions provided.  

If you don’t want to go the chemical route, I’ve read that diatomaceous earth works beautifully to kill fleas.  It acts in a way that messes up their exoskeleton and causes them to dehydrate and die.  

A steam cleaner vacuum.
Steam cleaning and vacuuming regularly help fight the spread of fleas.

Tile or Plank Flooring

You can treat these types in the same way as a carpet for instance, except that steam cleaning is likely, not necessary.  The important thing is to keep everything clean and sanitized.  Maintaining a clean environment reduces the possibility of food for flea larva.  Remove the food source for a species and the species ceases to exist in that environment.

Beds & Furniture

With your furniture and bedding, the best solution is a full cleaning and disinfecting of all furniture.  

Again I tend to subscribe to the remove the food source theory.  Check any tags on your furniture that show special cleaning instructions and follow any manufacturers’ recommendations for cleaning methods.  Remember those eggs are tiny so start with a really, really thorough vacuuming.

Plants That Repel Fleas

The following list of plants helps to repel fleas and other pests.  Be sure to check out the article we have on plants that dogs hate and some they should hate for safety reasons.  I’ve put a link at the end of this article.

  1. Thyme
  2. Lavender
  3. Sage
  4. Lemon Eucalyptus
  5. Basil
  6. Mint
  7. Garlic
  8. Patchouli
  9. Marigold
  10. Catnip
  11. Citronella
  12. Lemon Balm
  13. Rosemary

Flea Removal

Pet Treatment

Naturally, preventing dog fleas is the best treatment for your dog. However, in the case that your dog is unfortunate enough to get infested with dog fleas, there are treatments that are quite effective.

  • Precautions and Warnings:
    • 1. Consult a veterinarian.  Call up your vet, ask them what is locally available for flea treatment for your pet.  As we are basically a dog oriented site here at Dog House Times, we’ll focus on the dogs.  Your vet can point out different treatment methods that are safe for your pooch.
    • 2. Follow all warnings and precautions SERIOUSLY.  Let me tell you a very sad story…

Treatment Gone Wrong

When I was in college, I had a friend who had adopted a cat from a shelter.  The cat snuck out one day and got herself a male and, well you can imagine. So this cat has a litter of kittens and this cat is as crafty as they come and sneaks out a lot.  My buddy, being a college student, is losing her mind because she doesn’t have the cash to cover getting the cat fixed. Some friends and I saved up and helped her out with that but in the interim, the cat had snuck out and brought home fleas.

Kittens Arrive

The kittens were born shortly after the fleas arrived.   The fleas went nuts and the entire litter was covered in bugs.  It was very, very sad to see them struggling. My friend washed them twice a day but couldn’t treat them because they were too young and the mother was also infested but feeding the newborn kittens so my friend was afraid to treat the adult cat also.

Flea Spray Applied

A flea spray was purchased and the cat and kittens were confined.  The flea spray was used in other parts of the apartment. While my friend was out in class, the mother cat got out of the enclosure and therefore moved the kittens out onto the freshly flea sprayed carpet.

After class, once back home to her apartment, my friend found half the kittens dead and the other half going into convulsions.  The entire litter was dead within a few hours. The mother cat survived and was later spayed after flea treatment. It was a very unfortunate situation that had happened with very serious results that kept the memory burned into her mind forever.  Use any chemicals with extreme caution and if you have any doubts or concerns, always discuss with your veterinarian first.

Dog Flea Treatment

There are several readily available treatments for pets to rid them of fleas.  I personally prefer the type that you apply to their skin and rub on. It’s simple, effective and won’t break the bank.  Ask your vet, they always have the stuff in stock.

Flea Combs Work Great

Pick up a flea comb.  This will remove the bulk of adult fleas and their droppings.  This can be quite tedious but works well when used in combination with other tactics.

Flea Collars NOT Recommended

Flea collars are known to help prevent as well as treat fleas.  They have also been found to contain dangerous chemicals which have negatively affected children and pets alike:

Our review of the safety of flea collars containing two dangerous pesticides, tetrachlorvinphos and propoxur, revealed seriously flawed assessments by the EPA, unsafe levels of residues on pet fur, and multiple incidents of poisoning experienced by young children and pets. The availability of less dangerous alternatives for flea and tick control render the continued use of hazardous pesticides in pet products an unnecessary risk to pets and family members, particularly children.

NRDC Issue Paper April 2009 Poison on Pets II Toxic Chemicals in Flea and Tick Collars Authors Miriam Rotkin-Ellman, MPH Gina Solomon, MD, MPH Contributing Authors Maria Minjares, MPH Harris Epstein 

If this study is accurate, then Dog House Times cannot and does not endorse the use of flea collars until such time that the safety of children and animals is placed into the highest of priorities and proven as such.  Again, your best option is to seek the advice of your veterinarian to find the safest method for treating your dog or other pet.

FAQ

1. Can fleas spread to my bird or my lizard from my dog or cat?

Fleas are known to primarily target mammals.  However, about 10% of flea species target birds.  I used to keep geckos and chameleons and had an issue with fleas on my cat, and in my carpet.  The fleas left the lizards alone. I believe the type and thickness of the skin have a huge weight upon whether or not a species is going to fall prey to fleas.  After all the research I have done, I did not find any account of a cat, dog, human or rat flea crossing over to lizards.

A parrot cannot get dog fleas, but it can get bird fleas.
A Macaw parrot can get bird fleas.

With a closer inspection of known cases of bird or avian fleas, these are much more common for ground-dwelling birds.  This would apply if you kept chickens, quail, ducks or any other type of bird that will spend time walking around on the ground.  Fleas are extremely rare in birds who spend most of their time in a tree or on a perch, as it were.

Either way, if you have a pet you suspect has a parasite, the best thing to do is always seek veterinary assistance.  

Leopard gecko with a meal worm in front.  Leopard geckos cannot get dog fleas.
Geckos typically do not get dog or cat fleas.

2. Can Fleas Fly?

No.  Fleas are wingless insects.  They can jump great distances compared to their size. However, the distance depends on the particular species.

3. Can Fleas Live In Clothing?

Yes.  Fleas can live in clothing for a time without food while waiting for prey.  If you have a flea problem with your dog or cat, be sure not to leave any clothing lying on the floor.  Keep your clothes put away and wash any you wear often. This will help prevent the fleas from spreading and also assist in the removal process.

4. Can Fleas Live In Grass?

Yes.  Fleas can live in the grass for a time waiting for prey mammals (or birds) to walk near enough for the flea to jump onto its prey.

5. Can Fleas Drown?

Yes.  However, it can take up to 24 hours for a submerged flea to drown and die.  Therefore, adding soap to water helps speed up the process but due to the length of time, a flea can stay submerged, simply bathing a dog or cat is often not enough to remove the fleas.  Try a flea killing shampoo that you can pick up at your local pet shop.

6. Is Flea An Insect?

Yes, fleas are insects.  They belong to the order Siphonaptera, under the class Insecta in the kingdom Animalia.  The flea family consists of around 2500 species found throughout most parts of the world.

7. Which Fleas Bite Humans?

Fleas have been around for a long time. They have helped to spread plague and disease. Preventing dog fleas and other parasites have always been an important aspect of dog ownership. With regard to the fleas that tend to bit humans, the most common flea species to bite human beings are:

  1. Cat Flea (Ctenocephalides felis)
  2. Chigoe Flea (Tunga penetrans) aka Jigger Flea
  3. Dog Flea (Ctenocephalides canis)
  4. Human flea (Pulex irritans)
  5. Oriental Rat Flea (Xenopsylla cheopis)

But, there are over 2300 species of fleas and many will bite humans.

8. Can Fleas Bite Through Clothes?

No.  Fleas cannot bite through clothes.  They can climb through clothes, however, depending on the density of the weave.  A knitted sweater, for example, is no match for a flea who would crawl through it with relative ease to reach your skin.  Synthetic fabric with a tight weave will pose more of a problem for a flea to try to penetrate but they can always crawl around the edges. The best way of preventing dog fleas is to have your dog treated.

9. Can Puppies Die From Fleas?

In rare cases, puppies can die of health issues related to the flea bites such as anemia or disease.  Very small and newborn puppies are at the greatest risk. Absolute care must be taken if a newborn or even older puppies have fleas.  Conventional treatments may be harmful and a veterinarian should be consulted immediately. Preventing dog fleas is the key to success with puppies. In other words, not getting fleas in the first place.

Interesting Facts and Related Questions

How many people died from the plague, carried by fleas?

It has been estimated that the plague, typically spread by fleas, has killed more than 50 million people worldwide.  It has become one of the most infamous of events, one such event we all know as the black death that spread through Europe in the 14th century.

A drawing of a jigger flea.

What are the Sand Fleas?

Sand fleas, also known as Jigger fleas, are a nasty parasitic flee species that burrows into the skin of the host.  These fleas burrow into the skin of the host. They start small, around 1mm when they burrow into the host. Then they can grow up to 1cm wide!  These jigger fleas are commonly found on beaches in tropical locations, living in the sand. Any unsuspecting barefooted victim can fall prey to these little burrowers. To be honest, I think I’d rather deal with preventing dog fleas than having to deal with getting these things in my foot.

A badly infected foot from sand fleas.
By R.Schuster – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=28890833

Bibliography – Part 1

Bibliography – Part 2

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Dog House Treats For Humans

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