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Fleas: Confirmation and Elimination

Fleas are a visitor that no dog or owner welcomes. There are many species of fleas; all of them are minute insects that feed on the blood of mammals. The most common type of flea found on dogs is the Dog Flea (ctenocephalides canis), however other species that prefer to feed from other mammals will settle for dog blood when necessary. Any type of flea will multiply rapidly, especially in warm, humid weather.

Fleas cause dogs irritation and discomfort. Some dogs develop an allergy to flea saliva, known as flea allergy dermatitis. The saliva causes the dog to itch and bite itself, causing hair loss and skin infection. Fleas also carry tapeworms and can cause anemia.

Although small, fleas can be seen with the human eye. They are brown to black, with wingless, laterally compressed bodies. Adult fleas are extremely powerful jumpers. A human with a flea's jumping ability would be able to leap over a hundred story building in a single bound!

Infestation Confirmation

If you suspect fleas are troubling your dog, inspect places where your dog sleeps for flea dirt. Flea dirt appears as small, dark specks; it is actually flea excrement, consisting of digested blood. If in doubt as to whether it is flea dirt, add a few drops of water to the specks, the water will turn a reddish brown. Next, comb your dog with a (very fine toothed comb) particularly around the neck, belly and tail. If you've noticed flea dirt and your dog has been scratching, chances are very good you'll see some of the nasty critters squirming in between the teeth of the comb!

Now that you've confirmed a flea invasion, it's time to develop a flea control strategy. Your plan must involve more than just treating your dog, since most of flea's life cycle is spent off the dog. The fleas develop in four stages: egg, larva, pupa (cocoon) and adult. The adults live on your dog, gorging on blood and laying eggs. The eggs fall off the dog and into your yard, your carpet, your bed and into the crevices of your furniture.

If conditions are favorable for the eggs' survival, they hatch and pass into the larva and pupa stages. Eggs, larvae and pupae represent 95 percent of the flea population in your home and can lie dormant for months. When they become adults, the fleas jump onto your dog and start the cycle all over again. Since each female flea can lay more than 500 eggs, it only takes a few weeks before both your dog and your home have a serious problem. Even if you don't have fleas now, if you live in a flea friendly geographical area, you can be sure a flea battle is in your future.

Treatment & Control

Extensive measures will need to be taken in order to eliminate a flea problem. It will require treating your dog, your home and the outside environment.

The first part of the counter attack starts with your dog. A daily flea combing will capture some of the fleas -- just be careful they don't jump off the comb and back on to the dog. To kill a flea, drop it into a solution of hot water and dish soap.

You can also give your dog a bath with a formulated for canines (look for a product with synergised pyrethrins or permethrins). Read the directions carefully! Start by shampooing the dog's head, using your fingers to work the shampoo around the dog's chin, neck and ears. Work the soap back from the head, over the body, belly and legs and on to the tip of the tail. Rinse well with warm water and towel your dog dry. Drying should be done in a room that has already been treated for fleas.

Flea dips are also effective. As with all preparations containing insecticides, read the directions carefully. Sponge your dog with the dip, starting with the head and moving toward the tail. Be careful to avoid eyes and do not use dips if the dog has any open sores.

If you use a flea collar, remove it before the bath or dip and do not put it back on for 24 hours to avoid overexposure to insecticides. A new flea collar should be taken out of the package and aired for 24 hours before putting it on the dog to reduce the possibility of skin irritation; make sure it is the proper size for your dog. If the skin under the collar becomes irritated or the hair falls out, remove the collar. Some dogs will not be able to tolerate flea collars.

Remember when using flea shampoos, dips, sprays, powders and collars that all of these can be toxic to your dog and must be used with extreme caution. Using more than one product can result in overdosing and possibly poisoning your dog with insecticides. Read and follow label instructions.

A new solution to flea problems is a product called Program. Program functions by interrupting the flea's life cycle and consists of a pill made from lufenuron, which is a type of IGR (insect growth regulator). Available from your veterinarian, this pill is given to your dog once a month and is given with or immediately after a full meal. Female fleas that feed on the blood of dogs treated with Program produce nonviable eggs, or if the eggs do hatch, the larvae die within a few days. Program is safe for puppies as young as six weeks and can also be given to pregnant females. Although your dog may pick up new fleas outside, these fleas will not be able to reproduce and will soon die off.

Your home and possibly yard will also need to be treated. Start by cleaning your house thoroughly. Mop floors and vacuum carpets and upholstered furniture. After vacuuming, remove the bag and throw it away. Flea collars make an excellent addition to your vacuum cleaner bag because the collar will kill any fleas swept into the bag. All dog bedding, dog toys and throw rugs must be washed.

Although flea foggers and flea sprays made of chemical insecticides can be used to treat your home, there are less toxic solutions available that are effective and long lasting. Commercial services, such as Fleabusters, will come to your home and apply a non-toxic powder to your carpets. The white powder, consisting of something called a desiccant, kills fleas, pupae and eggs by abrading their outer coverings and drying them out. Diatomaceous Earth is a naturally occurring, nontoxic desiccant that is widely available. The powder is worked into your carpets with a stiff brush and is invisible after application. Within a few weeks, your dog and your home should be completely flea-free, with the exception of those fleas that are brought in from the outside, which are unable to reproduce once they are exposed to the desiccant. The service is guaranteed to be effective for one year and costs about $200 to $300, depending on the size of and amount of carpeting in your home.

A similar powder can be purchased at some hardware stores, cat and dog department stores or through mail order services. If you want to apply the powder yourself, you will save money and enjoy equal results (providing you are willing to do the work with the brush). Five pounds of powder will cover up to 1,300 square feet and costs about $30.00.

If you have hardwood or tile floors, you may want to try an IGR (insect growth regulator) made for application to the hard surfaces of your home. A common IGR for this purpose is methoprene, commonly sold under the brand name of Precor. It comes in a concentrated liquid form that can be diluted and used in mop water. Precor can also be put in a spray bottle for use on window sills and baseboards. Be sure to follow the instructions on labels and make sure that treated surfaces are completely dry before allowing your dog to come in contact with them.

You will also need to treat areas outside your home, including yards, porches and gardens. There are two types of outdoor products. One is a concentrate that is sprayed on with an applicator that attaches to your hose. Another is applied with a spreader followed by a thorough watering. Since these products contain dangerous pesticides, follow directions carefully and make sure treated areas are completely dry before allowing animals or people on the premises. It is important to remember that all substances used to repel and kill fleas can be poisonous if ingested by your dog or other household pets.

Any product that is applied directly to your dog should be made specifically for canines and directions should be followed explicitly. Products made for dogs should not be used on cats, and vice versa. Some dogs will have adverse reactions to flea preparations or will develop a cumulative toxic effect to insecticides that are used repeatedly. Although collars, dips and flea baths may seem to be a more economical way of treating flea infestations, in the long run they are more expensive since treatment must be repeated. Discuss options with your veterinarian or breeder and be willing to invest in effective, safe solutions.

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