There’s no denying it—fleas are gross. They can multiply quickly and infest your pet, causing him to feel uncomfortable for days or weeks on end until the infestation is properly treated.
If your dog or cat has never had fleas before, but you’ve noticed him scratching more than usual, one way to confirm a flea infestation is to look for the presence of flea dirt.
“Flea dirt is the feces of fleas, which is a mix of blood meal and flea waste product,” says Dr. Stephanie Liff, medical director of Pure Paws Veterinary Care of Clinton Hill and Hell's Kitchen in New York. Yes, fleas, and their dirt, are quite gross.
Where Should You Look for Flea Dirt?
Flea dirt resembles little black pepper-like specks that are typically roundish in shape. You can spot flea dirt within the fur or on the skin of your dog or cat. Run a flea comb, or your fingers, against the direction your pet’s hair grows to part the hair and better reveal flea dirt—or the actual fleas themselves.
“Usually, fleas prefer the back of your pet around his tail and up the center of the pet, as well as around the groin area and between the hind legs,” says Dr. Liff. “They will usually avoid the head and neck region, but not always.”
And sometimes you will see dirt and no fleas, she says. “This could mean that either the fleas have been eaten during grooming (more common in cats) or that the fleas have jumped off, but were once or recently present.” Fleas only spend a fraction of their life-cycle on pets, the rest of the time they are living in your yard or house.
You may also notice flea dirt around your house. Check your pet’s favorite spots for more evidence to determine if you will have to treat these areas along with your pet.
Why is Flea Dirt a Problem?
“Flea dirt suggests that fleas were recently present or are still present on your pet or in your home,” says Dr. Liff. Fleas can quickly become a big problem, as they will increase in numbers, critically infesting your pet and home environment.
Not only will repetitive flea bites irritate your pet and cause him to itch, but some pets may be allergic to flea saliva. A flea allergy can cause adverse reactions, including rashes and hair loss. Additionally, some fleas may carry diseases that can be passed on to your pet, and to you, too. So, if you spot flea dirt, there are fleas behind it and it’s important to take action quickly before your flea problem gets out of control.
How Can You Get Rid of Flea Dirt?
You can get rid of flea dirt for good by getting rid of the fleas that created it.
An appropriate treatment plan can depend on your pet’s health, size, and age. If possible, make an appointment to talk to your veterinarian first to come up with a comprehensive flea eradication and prevention plan, which may include a topical (external) or oral flea and tick medication for your pet, along with home treatment.
“Bathing is the best way to initially get rid of the dirt, but to prevent more flea dirt from developing you will have to get rid of any existing fleas and prevent future infestations,” says Dr. Liff. “I recommend washing your pet in either a veterinary specific shampoo (but not a flea shampoo) or using Ivory dish soap once—and only once—to remove the dirt.” Then, she adds, you should focus on getting rid of the bloodsucking fleas for good.
“There is an oral medication called Capstar, which kills any live fleas quickly and lasts for 24 hours,” said Dr. Liff. This can give you time to tackle your flea problem in the home so that you are less likely to confront fleas and their dirt again. Keep in mind that since the majority of fleas at any given point are juveniles that are maturing in the environment, you’ll need to put your pet on a long-term preventative program to prevent a reinfestation from occurring.
This article was verified and edited for accuracy by Dr. Jennifer Coates, DVM