Fleas & Your Dog (Ultimate Guide)

“They say a reasonable number of fleas is good for a dog - keeps him from broodin' over being' a dog.”
~ Edward Noyes Westcott

Far be it from us to disagree with Mr Westcott, but no dog – or owner for that matter – would likely agree that any number of fleas is good for them.

It’s the same sad song each year: “My dog has fleas and they are out of control!” Sound familiar?

Every time warm weather approaches, vets across the country will once again be overflowing with complaints and questions from worried dog and cat owners who are waging the recurrent battle against external parasites, particularly fleas and ticks.

The problem of parasites and the complications they cause is an extensive and serious one, but one that has been faced by nearly every pet owner at one time or another.

In an effort to spare your pet a great deal of suffering this coming summer, we would like to answer two questions that are most commonly asked by pet owners about those annoying parasites; fleas and ticks.

Let's see if our guide to canine flea control can be of some assistance...

What exactly are dog fleas and ticks?


Fleas are tiny insects that, as adults, must suck blood from another creature to sustain their own lives. Fleas are wingless, six-legged parasites, capable of jumping with surprising speed and may infest your pet alone by the thousands. The flea is a dark, reddish-brown color, similar to dried blood and is a common external parasite that causes many, many dogs a high level of discomfort and ill health all around the world.


The tick, a friend in misery to the flea, is generally dark in colour, several times larger than the flea, and when on your pet does not move about but rather attaches itself to your pet’s skin and remains at that spot until it has satisfied its hunger for blood.

The female tick, engorged with blood, may look like a large, grayish-white, puffy pea-sized object which, on closer inspection, is attached by its tiny mouth to the animal’s skin. Often in close proximity to the underbelly of the female lies another smaller tick, a male waiting to complete the breeding cycle.

How Will I Know If My Dog Has Fleas Or Ticks?

The most common reaction of an animal infested with external parasites is an insatiable desire to scratch or chew at his skin. Frequent periodic checks of your pet’s skin and coat are advisable, especially during warm spring and summer months when the parasite problem reaches its peak performance. Fleas are frequently spotted leaping from place to place across the animal’s body.

Warning: dogs can and do get fleas in winter as well as summer

If no fleas are readily apparent, part the animal’s fur close to the skin and check for flea excrement, which are specks of black, pepper-like dirt that, when wet, regain the colour of the blood ingested by the flea.

This discovery is a very good guarantee that fleas are present in your pet. On long-haired animals, checking the lower abdomen, genitals, and other areas of sparser hair growth will sometimes give clues when all else fails.

Ticks are more easily identified since they are easily seen by the naked eye. If long hair is in the way, a thorough stroking of the animal’s skin from head to toe will usually reveal the whereabouts of ticks by the feel of their tiny, hard-shelled bodies close to the skin.

Engorged female ticks are generally quite obvious because of their greatly enlarged size and distinctive appearance. Ticks frequently go unnoticed when lodged in ears, around the anus, on the tail, and in between paw pads, so be sure not to neglect those areas.

Do Different Parasites Prefer Certain Host Animals?

Yes, there are fleas that prefer cats and those that would rather have their meal on dogs. However, while some fleas do exhibit certain preferences, they are not usually host-specific. That is, in the absence of the preferred host, the flea will attack a less desirable host such as birds, rats, and even humans.

Ticks are more commonly associated with dogs but in areas of extremely heavy infestation, cats can be infested also. Ticks too, are not reluctant to dining out of humans when other hosts are not readily available or are already in great demand by other parasites.

Where Do Dogs Pick Up Fleas & Other Parasites?

There are several common ways for your pet to become infested with fleas and ticks. Animals living in wooded areas, or walked-in fields of tall grass, or near shrubbery, are likely targets for parasites lying, waiting to leap on the appropriate host.

Frequently, a new pet brought into the household introduces the parasite problem to other animals in that home. A visit to a grooming parlour, medical centre, boarding kennel, dog or cat show, or even a simple visit to a neighbours home can spread infestation from animal to animal if rigid preventive hygiene is not practised.

Furniture, bedding, rugs, walls and floors can retain parasite eggs for a long period of time and produce young fleas and ticks to attack pets newly arrived on the premises.

Why Are Fleas & Ticks Such A Complex Problem?

In addition to the purely mechanical irritation produced when a flea jumps from place to place along your dog’s body, and the tiny sting when he stops to take a meal, the mouth-parts of the flea contain saliva to which some unfortunate animals are highly allergic.

Such dogs and cats are in constant misery, biting and scratching incessantly, losing hair down their spines and rear legs, creating secondary bacterial infections from self-trauma, breaking the skin while biting or scratching themselves and allowing bacteria to enter, and occasionally losing enough blood to create a severe anaemia.

To make the situation even worse, the flea is the intermediate host for the tapeworm which can infest your pet after he swallows even a single flea. The flea might also be a suitable host for the heartworm.

The tick can create skin problems of his own as the irritation he causes may be the initial stimulus in the creation of the moist dermatitis or hot spot. In addition, certain types of ticks (Dermacentor Andersoni) can actually cause paralysis and spread the terrible disease, Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, that affects hundreds of people every year.

Does Living In The City Or A Cold Climate Reduce The Chance Of A Dog Having Fleas

Unfortunately, no. There are fleas and ticks that have adapted themselves to living in cold climates as well as in urban environments. In fact, most of the city parasites are the most difficult to get rid of, since they, like the common housefly or cockroach, have become quite resistant to chemicals used by exterminators.

Do Veterinary Prescribed Flea Treatments Actually Work?

Flea control products recommended by vets tend to work quickly and are effective for most dogs. In areas of heavy parasite concentration, constant supervision is necessary.

Flea collars are controversial. Not many vets recommend them. Use with extreme caution.

When Treating For Fleas, You Need To Treat The Home As Well As The Dog

Houses with rugs and carpets should consider flea stoppers. These products, when applied to rugs and carpeted areas, will kill flea eggs and larvae for up to one year. Vacuum the carpet at least twice a week, focusing in areas where your pet frequents.

For ticks or very heavy flea infestation, more extreme methods such as routine dipping, spraying, or powdering may be necessary to keep the situation from getting out of hand. In areas where Rocky Mountain spotted fever (non UK) is not widespread, individual ticks may be soaked with alcohol and removed with tweezers.

However, spraying and dipping act not only to kill ticks present on the pet’s body but serve also to prevent another infestation for at least ten days following treatment.

Oral medications are also available that work internally to kill any flea or tick that bites your pet but these medications must be given under strict veterinary supervision. In fact, before using any flea control product, especially pesticide, it is wise to consult your vet for suggestions and instructions to ensure safety applications of these potentially dangerous products.

What About Fleas & Ticks In The House?

This can be quite a problem. Many products have been used to try to prevent fleas and ticks from nesting and breeding in human living quarters, doghouses, and shrubbery. However, there are strains of fleas and ticks resistant to commonly used chemicals. Consult your vet for the best flea prevention product to use for your home. When applying a flea prevention product, special care should be taken that all window casings, wall boards, and door sills be thoroughly treated.

Since many of these products are toxic to your pet, as well as the fleas, humans and all pets should be removed from the area for several hours after treatment. This is an ideal time to treat the animals themselves so that no parasites are reintroduced into the house when they return. Many clients and pet owners find it easier to hire a professional exterminator to rid their homes, kennels, shrubbery, or cattery of fleas and ticks.

Keeping your dog free of fleas and ticks this summer may not be the easiest or most enjoyable task to accomplish, however, because of the many problems related to infestation with external parasites, eradication of fleas and ticks is an important goal, both for your dog’s health and comfort, as well as your own. Your vet can provide specific information and resources on controlling particular parasites common in your area.

Flea Allergies

The most common allergic skin disease in the dog develops when certain dogs become hypersensitive to flea bites. The allergic agent is contained in the saliva or mouth parts of the flea and is injected into the dog when the flea feeds. The disease usually occurs during the warm months and is commonly called “summer eczema”.

The disease begins near the tail-head of the rump of the dog. The animal will scratch or rub this area intensely, causing the hair to fall out and often ulcerating the skin. In severe cases the hair loss can become more generalized and involve large areas of the body.

Although the disease occurs more commonly in the summer months, many dogs will show signs constantly throughout the year. The flea can complete its life cycle in the home environment and thus can cause constant irritation to hypersensitive dogs.

Therapy is aimed at flea control on the dog, on other pets, and in the dog's environment. In addition, specific therapy can be instituted to control the signs and affected dogs. Cortisone-type drugs will relieve the symptoms of the allergic reaction. Injections of flea allergy extracts have also been useful in helping certain dogs with their flea allergy.

Flea Prevention: Chemicals & Natural Remedies – Which Work Best?

What are the best flea medications out there and are there any natural remedies that work? What natural ways can you use to prevent them altogether; before they spread throughout your dog's environment and your home?

These are very common questions that just about every dog owner asks when trying to keep their pets and homes flea-free.

Fleas are like roaches - they have been around for a very long time. There doesn’t seem to be a way to eliminate permanently. Every year, with every new season, the fleas like to come around for a long, annoying stay. And if you live in the tropical areas then they pretty much stay year-round.

So What Can You Do About It?

Your options to counter the flea problem vary. Here are the most common ways to deal with them:

1) Veterinary prescribed flea medications

2) Over the counter flea spot treatments

3) Insecticide dip

4) Flea collar

5) Flea-fighting shampoo

6) Flea powder

Unfortunately, just about all of these solutions contain harsh chemicals which may or may not work well for your situation. And the fact that some dogs are sensitive to many of these applications brings on its own additional complications. Keep in mind too that the age of your pet, be it puppy or an older dog, will determine what you can use.

Flea Advice For Puppies

Do not use flea collars on puppies (in general) and powder is usually out of the question if they are not even eight weeks old yet.

Flea Advice For Older Dogs

Use caution with chemicals on older dogs. Why? Because just like people, as dogs age they become extremely sensitive to chemicals. Old canines tend to get dermatitis too.

Dietary Flea Prevention: The Natural Way

Over the years Brewer's Yeast has been given to dogs to ward off fleas. You can take 1/2 teaspoon and mix it into your dog's food, then increase that dose over time. Fleas dislike the yeast. Brewer's yeast is also full of vitamins that are good for your dog.

Garlic is also a good alternative for flea prevention but you have to be creative with it and somehow grind or mix into food or treats for your dog. It should be fresh garlic, not powder or processed.

Veterinary Intervention

Your vet can provide spot treatments that kill fleas instantly after biting. You can also get some good over the counter options. Just keep in mind that many of these products may work on some dogs, but provide no benefit to others.

Non Chemical Approach To Treating Dog Fleas

We want to be very clear about our position on this.

When balancing the risks of a dog living with a flea infestation against the known bad reactions that some dogs get when being treated by veterinary prescribed anti-flea treatment, at K9 Magazine we have still used the commonly available flea treatment recommended for our dogs by our vet.

We do, however, understand that not everybody is comfortable treating their dog with chemicals. So in these circumstances we wanted to offer an alternative.

Try This Chemical-Free Soak

Wash your dog with normal shampoo, something gentle, and then change the water so that his entire body can be soaking for about 15 minutes.

Beforehand, mix of one teaspoon of the herb rosemary in boiled water in about one gallon. Let it cool, then add to the dog's water soak. Once the 15 minutes are up, wash the dog once again with a gentle shampoo and use the same rosemary water to rinse. It smells nice and does work.

Tip: Some people have used pennyroyal with good results in this soak treatment. Always consult your vet first if you believe your dog has fleas or any other parasite. Parasites can and do kill so take professional advice at the earliest opportunity. If you are concerned about the chemical components of your vet recommended flea treatment, discuss it with them. Many vets are open minded and will always want to ensure their patients are happy with the treatment they suggest.

Further Reading: Fleas & Your Dog

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