Fleas: How to Keep Your Pet and Home from Getting an Infestation

It may not be something you have given too much thought to but, let me tell you, having volunteered with a number of dog rescues across Europe, dealing with a flea infestation, is not only icky but it can be extremely detrimental to the health of your pet and possibly even your wider family.  They can quickly overrun your home and can be very difficult to completely eradicate.

That means that doing your research and looking at good preventative solutions is often the best and most effective option.

Fleas are not only a terrible pest but they can cause debilitating illness to your dog and they spread like wildfire 

The Four Stages of the Flea Life Cycle

To understand why fleas are so prolific and problematic, it helps to understand how their lifecycle works.  There are four distinct stages to the life of a flea.

1. Eggs

Flea eggs are not hatched on the body of the host.  They drop off and nestled into home bedding, carpets and around the grass and soil of your garden. They usually hatch within anything from 2 days up to a few weeks.  Warm, moist conditions generally result in a speedier hatching process.

Individual fleas can lay up to 50 eggs per day so this can mean that if you have an adult flea infestation there could soon be a heck of a lot of eggs around your home ready to hatch!

You can just see the eggs with the naked eye but they are tricky to spot as they are usually about half a millimetre wide and a whitish colour.

2. Larvae

When the eggs hatch they turn into tiny little transparent, white larvae with hairy bodies and they can be spotted moving in their environment, if you look closely enough, feeding off the organic matter found.

Again, depending on the environment, they will stay in this form from around 5 days to three weeks.

Carpets and soft furnishings can be havens for little flea larvae to nest within, eating on the organic debris that is found in them 

3. Pupae

The Larva will then spins itself into the cocooned form of the Pupa.  Sometimes you may be lulled into a false sense of security at the end of the summer thinking you have managed to get rid of a flea problem.  Actually, it could just be that if the environment the fleas are living in is particularly cold hey then often go into a hibernation state, waiting on optimal and warm conditions and suddenly, the next Spring, you are reinfested as all the pupae hatch.  They can hatch as quickly as five days after spinning their cocoon but they have been known to hatch over a year later.

4. Adult Fleas

And here we are back to the pesky adult flea.  They feed off their host’s blood and whilst the normal dog flea will not use a human as a host, we can still be bitten or used as a carrier, transferring them from one host to another.

They are usually a brown tone and, on close inspection, are visible to the naked eye.

They are prolific breeders and spreaders and a population can quickly grow out of control.  If you have had a flea bite and you have spotted some fleas on your dog and they are scratching frequently, it is likely that there are hundreds or even thousands more fleas lurking on your pet and in your home environment and you need to take proactive action.

Adult flea under the microscope

What Risk Do The Fleas Carry to Your Dog?

Apart from the fact that their biting and crawling is generally just pretty irritating and itchy, there are a number of more serious risks that fleas can pose, particularly if they are left untreated.

a) Flea Related Skin Conditions

Dogs and other animals, including humans, can have an allergic reaction to the saliva of a flea bite.  If your dog has a bad infestation this can then result in them developing skin problems like dermatitis and can result in hair loss too.

b) Tapeworms

Adult fleas can often be the carrier of tapeworm infection after the tapeworm eggs are eaten by the flea larvae.

Tapeworm can make your dog very ill if left untreated.  It is important to make sure that your dog is always up to date with a preventative worming treatment, especially puppies who can become sick very quickly.  If you do suspect your dog has contracted tapeworms take them to the vet and get an appropriate treatment straight away. Some symptoms are that your dog may have an upset tummy, loose stools, an itchy anus area (they may ‘scoot’ their bottom along the ground).  Pieces of the tapeworm can be passed via the dog’s stool and they can look like grains of rice. Even if you do not see any evidence in your dog’s faeces though, this does not mean that they are not infected as the tapeworm is only passed periodically.

If the worms make their way to your dog’s tummy they can cause vomiting and there is often then evidence of the worms in what they have thrown up.  In the most serious cases, tapeworms can cause intestinal blockages.

If you get a tapeworm treatment and then the worms come back, this is likely an indicator that the flea problem in your dog’s environment has not been completely eradicated as this is the most common way to be reinfected.

c) Anaemia

Because fleas feed off the blood of their host, if there is a serious and prolonged infestation they can actually cause anaemia.  This is a particular problem for puppies, that do not have such a strong immune system, and dogs that are already sick. In extreme cases, left untreated, it can cause death.

If you notice that your dog is lethargic, perhaps has extreme heat and exercise intolerance and a general lack of enthusiasm for life, this could be why.  To be honest, if your dog has anaemia because of fleas it means that the infestation would have to be very extreme and it would be unusual for it to get to that stage in a normal pet home without some intervention.

It is more commonly a problem for stray or street dogs.  It is something that is seen more regularly when dogs are brought into rescue.

Stray dogs can often become severely infested with fleas. It can make them anaemic and very ill.  Young puppies are particularly susceptible 

What Risk Do Fleas Pose to Humans?

Aside from the general discomfort and hygiene issues, there are other more serious problems that can occur for humans living in a flea-infested environment, and whilst some of these are rare, it is best to be aware.

a) Tapeworms, again

The tapeworms can also spread to humans.  This is a particular problem if there are young children in the house.  It is rare for this to happen but it can be serious and is another huge motivator to keep fleas at bay.  The worms are not passed on from your dog but, again, directly from the flea. Again, there are very effective treatments for this parasite so don’t panic.  Just make sure that you/ your family are seen by a doctor, treatment is prescribed, the flea problem is managed and that you keep up good cleaning and hygiene practice going forward.

b) Typhus

Again this is extremely rare but there have been cases of Typhus in humans that have been contracted from fleas.  Whilst early treatment of the condition with antibiotics is very effective, if left untreated it can be a very serious condition.

c) Rare Cases of the Bubonic Plague

Okay, again this is VERY rare but there have been recorded cases of humans in North America catching the bubonic plague from fleas.  It can also be contracted by your dog too. Treatment with antibiotics is very effective and the symptoms usually disappear after a couple of weeks.  Without treatment though, this disease can lead to death and it is also contagious so, whilst very rare, it is important to seek treatment if you are displaying corresponding symptoms.  These include very swollen and extremely painful lymph nodes, fatigue, fever, headaches and sickness.

d) Allergic Reactions

Like our dogs, humans can also have an allergic reaction to the saliva in flea bites.  If you suddenly come out with large nasty, itchy welts around your ankles and your dog is scratching a lot, it could be time to check if they need a flea treatment.

If your dog is itching a lot and you suddenly get some itchy bites around your feet/ankles, it could be an indicator of the arrival of fleas 

Regularly Inspect Your Pet for Fleas

Whilst we would always recommend using some sort of preventative product to keep fleas away, regardless of how proactive you are, sometimes you may get fleas on your dog or in your home environment regardless.

It is always good practice, particularly in the seasons when fleas are more prevalent (the hotter spring and summer months), to regularly inspect your dog for any evidence of fleas.

This can be done with the use of a flea comb to trap any that may be in the coat and also by parting their coat to look at the skin underneath.  Even if you do not see any actual fleas you may see the evidence of their faeces. It tends to be lots of little black spots.  If you are not sure if it is actually flea faeces, you can pop the debris on a white tissue and wet it slightly. Because the faeces is made up mostly of the blood of their host, the debris will turn a slightly reddish-brown, yuck, I know!.

Remember, flea combs are just useful for detection and removal of dead fleas.  It is not enough just to regularly use a flea comb to eradicate the problem.

It can be trickier to spot fleas on dark coated and long-haired breeds.  A flea comb can help to snag fleas on the coat. Whilst it will not rid your dog if they are infested it can help you identify that they are present 

Use a Preventative Treatment

There are a whole heap of preventative treatments out there and there are often strong opinions on what is most appropriate.  Do your research carefully, speak to your vet, speak to other experienced dog owners and come to a decision based on what you are comfortable with using on your dog and what the research available tells you.  Some treatments are also effective in helping to protect against ticks too.

1. Spot Ons

These are a liquid pipette containing a chemical that is applied to your dog’s neck and it is designed to act as a preventative, killing flea over a duration of anything from 4 weeks to 3 months before reapplication is required.

If you are using a spot on, a vet prescribed one is likely to have been more thoroughly tested and less of a risk than those bought over the counter.

The most popular and effective product for a number of years was Frontline.  It contains the active ingredient Fipronil. There is growing evidence to suggest that the efficacy of this ingredient has been lost as fleas are now becoming immune to it given it has been used for so long and by so many pet owners.  Many vets are turning to other products now instead.

Advantage is a commonly used spot on that does not have the known side effects of some of the tablets and the ingredients are not toxic to cats as some other products can be.

2. Tablets

A growing number of vets are now providing owners with ingestible tablets for their dogs. The chemicals in these products stay in your dog’s bloodstream, killing any fleas that bite and stopping the life cycle.

Whilst many of these are extremely effective there are a number of products that have recently been part of an FDA (Food and Drug Administration) warning about the dangers of using these products.  There have been growing reports of dogs having reactions to the strength of the chemicals in these products with some having serious neurological reactions including facial tremors and some even having seizures, they have been linked to potential fatalities.

The products that are included within this warning are Bravecto, Credelio, Nexgard, and Simparica.

Read the information available from the FDA to help you make a more informed choice.

3. Flea Collars

Flea collars can also be used.  Care must be taken that these will not cause problems if they come into contact with children or other pets, that they do not cause an allergic reaction and, again, that they are a properly tested product.  The Seresto Collar is one that is often recommended and it can provide protection for up to 8 months.

This has become my treatment of choice.  Whilst I would like to rely on purely natural treatments, I have found that living in the hot countries in mainland Europe where fleas can be rife, the natural remedies are not offering enough protection for my liking.

Because they offer such a long period of protection it also saves having to remember to treat every month, they can work out cheaper long term and they do not use high dosage of strong chemicals.  The fleas are killed on contact rather than through ingestion of toxins via the bloodstream.

It also provides protection against ticks and I have found it to be pretty effective for this too.

4. Natural Remedies

Using herbal and natural treatments is becoming increasingly popular as people wish to move away from using synthetic chemical products.  This is particularly relevant in the light of FDA warning.

Whilst there are no comprehensive scientific studies that have been done around the efficacy of these products, providing that you ensure that they do not contain any harmful ingredients and that you continue to regularly check your dog for signs of fleas, there is nothing to stop you trying these out.  Many owners claim that they work well for their dogs.

There are herbal sprinkles that can be put into your dog’s food, sprays that can be applied to your dog’s coat or collar, actual flea collars containing only natural ingredients and some owners also use Diatomaceous Earth.

Diatomaceous Earth is a sand-like powder that is made up of crushed marine and freshwater fossils. It is non-toxic and is often applied topically to the coat as a flea and tick preventative. Care must be taken not to apply too often or in too thick a quantity as it can become uncomfortable and irritating to a dogs skin if overused. It can also be useful to apply a thin layer to floorboards or areas of the garden that may be harbouring fleas.  When the fleas move over the DE it is sharp and can kill them. Always use the food grade quality DE, whilst it is more expensive it is much higher quality and less likely to cause irritation.

It is extremely important to do your research in advance and make sure that any product that claims to be safe for your dog is.  Some natural remedies can contain ingredients that can actually be harmful to your dog. Always check the ingredients first.

Lavender and Lemon oils, when diluted are regarded as safe and possibly useful repellants.

Some people swear by using collars with natural amber on them but it should be noted that currently there is no scientific evidence to support their efficacy.

DO NOT USE Pennyroyal. It is a product that is very effective at killing fleas but it is highly toxic to your dog.

If you have been trying natural remedies for some time and it is not working and the flea population is getting out of control then it may be time to investigate one of the stronger, proven treatment options available via your Vet.

Some owners choose to use a natural amber flea collar 

5. Flea Powders and Flea Shampoos

Most flea powders or flea shampoos are only really good at killing any fleas that are on your dog at the time of treatment.  It means that if, in a few days time, more fleas jump onto your dog the whole process is going to start again so, if you want to use these products, it is good to then follow them up with an appropriate preventative treatment too.  If your dog already has fleas then it is likely there are many more living in their environment.

Care also needs to be taken when using chemical based flea shampoos as these can often contain high quantities of toxic chemicals and, especially for smaller breed dogs, if they ingest or are overexposed to these chemicals it can make them ill.

Choose a natural shampoo or one recommended by your vet where possible.

If you are using a spot on treatment we would not recommend using flea shampoos.  Using them together can cancel out the efficacy of one or the other or, worse, they can react with one another and cause irritation or the possibility of overexposing your dog to toxins.

Treating Your Home If Your Dog Has Brought in Fleas

Treating your pet is the most important step you can take.  If the adult fleas do not have an active host to feed off in their environment then they will eventually die.

If your dog has had fleas though, it is also important to thoroughly clean your home too.  After all, who knows how many eggs could have dropped to the floor, ready to hatch and start another cycle all over again.

There are a number of very strong and effective home sprays or flea bombs that can be used.  It is very important that the rooms are left well ventilated after they have been used, that all humans and animals are out of the room for at least a few hours afterwards and that you hoover extremely thoroughly, hygienically disposing of the contents of the hoover bag, for a number of days after.  You should also wash all bedding and soft furnishings in as high temperature wash as possible.

Regular hoovering is the most crucial activity though.  Not only does the hoovering lift up any dead fleas and eggs after treatment but it also keeps the amount of organic debris in the home to a minimum.  This debris is what flea larvae will feast upon and if you have a dirty home then you are creating an optimal environment for them to proliferate and then hibernate as pupae.  Get right into the cracks in the floorboards, into all the nooks and crannies of your carpets and make sure you also hoover any soft furnishings like sofas (lifting up the cushions to get underneath too).

Some pest control experts recommend laying down a layer of baking soda in your carpet first and scrubbing it in with a brush before hoovering to lift it. Salt can also be used in a similar way.  Just make sure you pick up all remnants when hovering as it will not be good for your pets if they lick this up from the carpet.

Make sure that you also regularly wash any soft bedding your dog may have at a high temperature too.

Multiple treatments can sometimes be required to completely eradicate the problem.

It is extremely important to thoroughly hoover the entire house after a flea infestation

Be Aware of What Is Safe to Use Around Other Pets

Some home and dog treatments can be risky to other pets.  It is extremely important to check all the relevant information and small prints before using these products if you have other pets in the home.  We would always recommend taking any other pets out of a room before the treatment begins regardless and keeping them out for a prolonged period.

Certain sprays and collars can contain ingredients that are fatally toxic to cats and other small animals and even fish can be at risk from certain chemicals that can be in the air after using a home flea spray treatments.

Permethrin, which is used in certain dog spot ons, can be fatal for a cat if they are ingested.  Pyrethrin and other pyrethroids are also toxic to them.

Some treatments that are suitable for use on your dog or in your house are actually seriously toxic to other animals 

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