How To Handle Fleas on Dogs

April Saylor
By April Saylor. Reviewed by Veronica Higgs, DVM on May 8, 2023
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For their itty-bitty size, fleas are a huge problem once they invade your home. These tiny, wingless insects feed on the blood of their hosts, causing enough irritation and itching to drive you and your dog crazy.

Just the thought of fleas hitchhiking indoors on your dog can make your skin crawl—but these pesky parasites can do even more damage than just making us itchy. Fleas carry dangerous diseases that can be transmitted to all kinds of animals (and humans), and they can cause serious health problems for dogs.

But what’s the best way to get rid of fleas? Removing fleas from your dog is a multi-step process that requires medication, bathing, and lots of vacuuming.

How To Spot Fleas on Dogs

If your dog has been scratching and biting at their skin, most notably around their backside and hind legs, it’s possible you’re dealing with fleas. The first step in treating the issue is to confirm the presence of fleas and rule out other possible reasons your dog is scratching.

While it is possible to see live fleas themselves, these tiny bugs jump and move around very quickly, meaning it’s difficult to find them on your dog. It’s more likely you’ll be able to spot signs of fleas, like “flea dirt” that shows up on the skin in places where the little bloodsuckers have been feeding.

“Flea dirt is actually flea poop,” says Dr. Stephanie Howe, DVM and veterinary advisor to PetMD. “These are nuggets of digested blood that look like little black pepper specks.” Flea dirt is evidence that fleas have been using Fido as their food source, and that you’ll need to take action to remove them from your dog.

Use a flea comb to search for little black specks on your dog’s skin, typically around their rear end. Find flea dirt? It’s time to call your vet and get your pooch on flea medication as soon as possible.

How To Get Rid of Fleas Fast

There are countless products on the market that promise to treat your dog for fleas but getting rid of a full-blown flea infestation is a multi-step process that can take weeks or even months depending on the severity. This is why prevention is so important. Giving your pet a monthly flea and tick preventative is much easier than trying to get rid of fleas once they’ve invaded your home.

But it is possible to get rid of fleas fast. You’ll need a handful of products to treat your pet and home quickly and efficiently.

Flea Comb

While an effective medication can start killing adult fleas in a matter of hours, you’ll still need to perform daily flea checks using a fine-toothed metal flea comb to remove them at every stage in their life cycle. This isn’t a regular brushing, since the goal of using a flea comb is to knock the parasites off your dog.

Sarah Wooten, DVM, suggests using the flea comb in the bathtub, where flea eggs and flea dirt can be washed down the drain (and not take hold and hatch in your carpet later). After every few strokes, dip the comb into soapy water to drown any fleas or eggs you’ve removed.

Serious infestations will require continued sessions with the flea comb to ensure all eggs are removed from your pet, so set an alarm on your phone to remind yourself when it’s time for Fido’s daily flea check. Ask your vet if you have questions about how to use a flea comb or how often you should perform flea checks, once your dog is on a regular preventive schedule.

Medications

Several types of flea medications are designed to kill the fleas feasting on your pet. These are administered in different ways, and some offer combined protection against several other parasites in addition to fleas, such as ticks, heartworm, hookworm, and tapeworm. Your vet can help determine the best medication for your dog depending on their health, size, and the level of infestation.

Oral Flea Medications

Dr. Howe says oral prescription flea prevention medications are her “gold standard” for treating dogs for fleas. These medicines come in chewable tablets that work quickly and efficiently, usually within the first 30 minutes to a few hours after administration. She recommends monthly preventative products that also protect against ticks, such as:

Your vet can help you choose an oral flea and tick medication that will keep fleas from coming back, and provide protection against tick-borne illnesses as well.

If you’re in a pinch and need a quick flea treatment (for instance, if you’re caring for a stray or the vet clinic is closed), Capstar® and Advantus® are oral flea medicines that are available without a prescription. Both medications will work quickly but only kill adult fleas, meaning monthly flea prevention will still be needed to control infestations but these medications may provide temporary relief. 

Topical Flea Medications

Topical flea and tick preventions can also be very effective, but the liquid application is more difficult to apply and takes longer to start killing fleas (between 12–48 hours). These are applied on the back of your dog’s neck to keep them from ingesting the medication while it’s still wet. Be sure to allow all topical medications to fully dry before allowing the dog around other pets (such as cats) or small children in the household.

Certain topical treatments for dogs, like Frontline Plus®, are available without a prescription. But prescription options like the following will be more effective:

Natural Flea Medications

Stay away from using flea treatments that claim to be natural or homeopathic. So-called natural flea treatments are not proven to work effectively against fleas, and they can even be dangerous for dogs, or further irritate their already-itchy skin. An FDA-approved flea medication is your best bet in protecting your pet against fleas.

“There are no ‘natural’ products that will prevent fleas on dogs,” Dr. Howe says. Some popular claims about natural flea treatments include ingredients like garlic, which is toxic for dogs and very harmful, if consumed.

Dr. Howe points out that some flea medications, like Simparica, are derived from a natural molecule found in dirt. Pet parents who are searching for a more natural option—than some of the other products—can ask their vet about whether Simparica is right for their dog.

Dog Flea Shampoo and Sprays

Along with a prescription medicine, flea shampoos and sprays can help get an active flea problem under control and bring your dog quick relief. As you bathe your dog, use a flea comb in the bath to remove any flea dirt or eggs from their coat.

Active ingredients in medicated flea shampoos are designed to kill the parasites that are on your dog instantly, but won’t necessarily provide lasting protection against reinfestation later. Combining a prescription-strength oral flea medication with a medicated shampoo or spray will achieve instant relief, along with long-term preventative power, though Dr. Howe points out that a soothing oatmeal shampoo may be just as effective (and less drying on the skin) than a flea shampoo.

Treating the Home for Fleas

Just as you carefully treat and remove fleas from your pet, you’ll also need to clean your home frequently, vacuuming at least every other day. Room sprays, powders, and other products may be used in combination with medication to help eliminate fleas and flea eggs in the places your dog hangs out. Look for products designed to kill fleas in the home and yard that won’t harm pets, such as:

Getting rid of all flea dirt, fleas, and flea eggs from your house requires several days of cleaning. Vacuum all upholstered furniture (couch, chairs, mattress) and all floors, carpets, rugs, and baseboards to remove eggs that fall off pets and lodge in crevices. Carefully empty the vacuum each time you finish into a sealed bag and dispose of the waste far from your house in an outside rubbish bin. Frequently wash any pet bedding on hot and dry on high heat or in direct sunlight.

Preventing Fleas on Dogs

While it’s possible to get rid of fleas once they’re in your home, the best way to fight off fleas is to stop them before they start infesting. Battling a flea infestation requires lots of time, energy, and attention to keep eggs from hatching and reinfesting your pooch. Keeping your dog and home flea-free requires regular monthly preventative medication that works continually to protect your pet from the inside out. “Using year-round flea, tick, and heartworm medicine is essential to keep these pests from harming your pet,” Dr. Howe says.

Though fleas tend to be more common during warmer seasons and in humid climates, most vets recommend having your dog on a flea and tick preventative throughout the year to protect them at all times—especially if they’re prone to allergic reactions to flea bites (known as flea allergy dermatitis). Talk to your vet to determine what type of flea and tick prevention is best for your dog, since they’ll be able to make a recommendation that’s right for your needs.

Featured Image: iStock.com/ArtistGNDphotography


April Saylor

WRITTEN BY

April Saylor

Freelance Writer


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