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All About Fleas on Dogs

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All About Fleas on Dogs
Fleas are more than just a nuisance. Fleas pose a significant risk to dogs and other animals, even humans. These tiny external parasites live off of the blood of mammals, and their bites can lead to major health issues. None of us wants to find fleas on our dogs, other pets or ourselves. As a dog owner, there are some basics you should know about the risks, prevention and treatment of fleas. With proper knowledge, you can help protect your dog from the threat of fleas.

About the Flea:

The flea is a tiny wingless insect with a hard and laterally flat body designed to easily navigate through pet hair. The flea also has legs designed for jumping great distances and mouthparts designed to suck blood. This external parasite feeds upon the blood of a host, usually a mammal. There are several species of fleas, but the one that most commonly affects dogs, cats and other house pets in North America is the cat flea, also known as Ctenocephalides felis. While this type of flea can bite humans, it does not infest us, as the human is not an ideal host. This flea prefers cats, dogs, rabbits and similar small mammals.

The Life Cycle of Fleas:

The flea's life cycle is comprised of four stages:
  • Egg: An adult female flea can lay up to 40 eggs a day. The eggs are laid on the host, but will dry and fall off that host into the environment (pet bedding, carpet, etc). Eggs typically hatch within about two days.
  • Larva: When the eggs hats, larvae emerge. These tiny worm-like creatures feed upon flea feces (basically dried animal blood) in the environment. The larva goes through three molts before it becomes able to spin a cocoon and enter the pupal stage. The larval stage typically lasts from 5 to 15 days.
  • Pupa: Once in the cocoon, the larva begins its transformation into the adult flea. The cocoons are nearly indestructible and attract dirt and debris that camouflage them. Pupa can remain dormant in the environment for many months. Fleas in the pupa stage will not emerge until they sense a host. They are able to do this by sensing factors like warmth, vibration and carbon dioxide
  • Adult flea: A fully-developed flea only emerges from its cocoon when a host is available. The newly-emerged flea jumps on the host right away and begins the blood meal. A female flea will begin to lay eggs within 24-48 hours of her first blood meal. She defecates blood from her host that will fall off the host along with the eggs, re-starting the life cycle. Adult fleas can live for about 4-6 weeks depending on the environment.

The Dangers of Fleas:

Beyond the obvious fact that a flea infestation is "gross," fleas also pose various health risks to you and your pets.
  • Flea Allergic Dermatitis: Itching due to fleas is the result of a localized allergic reaction. Some animals are more sensitive than others, so flea bites can lead to severe itching, irritation, major skin infections in some pets.
  • Tapeworm infection (Dipylidium caninum): This type of tapeworm can be contracted by animals or humans after accidental ingestion of an infected flea. Flea larva often ingest the microscopic tapeworm eggs, causing adult fleas to be carriers.
  • Anemia: If enough fleas infest the host, it is possible for the host animal to lose enough blood to become anemic. Small puppies and weak or sickly dogs are especially at risk. If not caught soon enough, a dog can easily die or suffer other medical complications as a result of anemia.

How to Find Fleas:

If you suspect you have a flea problem, you probably do. For every flea you see, there are most likely at least 50 you don't see. If you have flea bites on yourself, remember that humans are not ideal hosts and imagine how many bites your pets likely have.

The best way to detect fleas is by using a flea comb. The teeth on these small combs are very close together and designed to travel through hair, picking up everything on the coat. Use the comb all over your dog's body, but pay close attention to the lower back around the tail, as this is a common "flea-zone."

If you find no fleas but do see tiny pieces of black debris, this may be flea dirt. Flea dirt is the fecal material of fleas and consists mainly of dried animal blood. On close examination, flea dirt will have a reddish-black appearance. To confirm it is actually flea dirt, try putting the debris on a white paper towel and wetting it slightly. You will see that it runs reddish-brown.

Flea Treatment and Prevention:

When it comes to fleas, prevention is the best method. However, when fleas are detected, swift action will help prevent a major infestation. Fortunately, in this day and age, even a major infestation can be dealt with.

Flea prevention is seen in many forms. Some work better than others. Some work well together, while others work against one another and should not be used at the same time. Some are only available with a prescription, while other come over-the-counter. Many years ago, flea shampoos, dips and sprays used to be the standard treatments for fleas. Now, the better products come in the form of a pill or a small topical application. As science advances, there will surely be many new and improved ways to prevent fleas. Educate yourself about the many flea prevention products on the market. Then, talk to your vet about the best options for you and your pet.

Treating the Environment

Three out of four stages in the flea's life cycle are spent off of the host. Usually the eggs, larvae and pupae are in your carpets, hardwood floors, upholstery and pet bedding. In order to prevent infestations (and especially re-infestations) it is important to treat the environment for fleas.

Once you have treated your dog with one of the above prevention products, the next thing you'll need to do is clean your home thoroughly. Machine wash as much as you can in hot water, using bleach when possible. Thoroughly vacuum the carpets and floors, immediately emptying the dust bin or discarding the bag outside. For better results, try sprinkling boric acid on carpets and upholstery. Let it sit for an hour or more, then thoroughly vacuum. Boric acid desiccates flea eggs, larva and pupae, making it easier to vacuum them up.

Flea bombs and household sprays are typically not necessary, though some prefer them for major infestations. Remember that the host (your dog) is what allows the fleas to continue the life cycle. Treating your dog with affective flea prevention is the most important measure.

Some people choose to also treat the exteriors of their homes and yards for fleas. When doing so, please remember to use products deemed non-toxic to dogs. Because of the flea life cycle, exterior treatment should be done once a week for four weeks, then monthly for maintenance. Remember that your dog may still pick up random fleas.

Above all, keep in mind that a flea infestation is more than just a nuisance - it is a risk to your dog's health. The time to take action is before you ever see a flea.

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