As a pet parent, you're probably aware of the threat that fleas pose to your furry friend's health. For starters, these itchy little parasites are more than just an irritating bug bite. Fleas feed off your pet’s blood and carry diseases that can be transmitted to animals, as well as humans. Once they’ve taken up residence in your home, they are difficult to get rid of—not to mention extremely irritating to you and your pet.
Identifying “flea dirt” on your pet is a telltale sign that your pet has fleas. But what is flea dirt? It's not just regular dirt—it's actual flea feces, a mix of blood meal and flea waste. Finding these little black specks on your pet’s skin means you must get your pet on flea medication as soon as possible to get rid of this pesky problem.
Keep reading to learn more about what flea dirt is, how to identify it, and most importantly, how you can prevent fleas and flea dirt from harming your pet.
Where To Look for Flea Dirt
Fleas and flea dirt can be found on various parts of your pet's body, but Stephanie Howe, DVM and veterinary advisor to PetMD, says that fleas tend to prefer certain spots on your pet. While flea dirt may initially look like regular dirt, it’s actually flea poop—meaning you’ll usually find it in the places where the little bloodsuckers gather on your pet’s body to feed.
If your pet is scratching themselves or biting at their skin and you suspect they have fleas, Dr. Howe says to run a flea comb in the opposite direction that their hair lies to reveal flea dirt or actual fleas on the skin.
If your dog shows signs of fleas, Dr. Howe recommends searching for evidence of fleas using a flea comb around their rear end, where the little bloodsuckers tend to hang out. She says that fleas on dogs can usually be found by searching the backs of their hind legs, around their tail, and lower back for signs of flea dirt on their skin.
As for cat fleas, Dr. Howe says that these pesky buggers tend to congregate around the neck, though they can be anywhere on your pet's body. If you notice symptoms of cat fleas such as scratching and biting at their skin and fur, search around their neck using a flea comb for signs of flea dirt. “You may also find scabs in that area from your pet scratching secondary to the flea bites,” Dr. Howe says.
Flea Dirt but No Fleas?
While fleas themselves are visible to the naked eye, you’ll probably be able to see signs of flea dirt before you actually catch one of the jumpy little pests in the act. Adult fleas are tiny—about one-eighth-inch long, and move so quickly that they’re hard to spot. But flea dirt shows up as tiny black spots against the skin, so it’s possible to find flea dirt even if you never see an actual flea.
“You can see flea dirt without seeing fleas, but if your pet is itching with redness or irritation noted around the tail or hind end, or around the neck, it is highly likely your pet could be dealing with fleas,” Dr. Howe says.
So even if you only find flea dirt on your pet but no fleas themselves, it could mean you've just caught the infestation early. You should still treat your pet immediately for fleas since flea dirt is an obvious sign of flea activity as the digested blood from the parasites feed on your pet. Just because you don’t see live fleas or larvae, discovering flea dirt means you need to take action as soon as possible and get your pet on flea medication.
Why Is Flea Dirt a Problem?
Because flea dirt from adult fleas becomes food for the newly-hatched flea larvae, removing flea dirt makes it harder for the young fleas to find their next meal. If untreated, fleas can lead to skin irritation, anemia, and even transmit diseases that are dangerous for humans.
The longer you wait for treatment, the more chances the fleas will keep feeding off your pet. Not only does this make your pet itchy and uncomfortable, but it also allows the parasites to transmit diseases and multiply. It won’t be long until you’re dealing with a full-blown flea infestation, which becomes more difficult to eliminate, the longer they’re allowed to stay on your pet and in your home.
How To Get Rid of Flea Dirt on Dogs and Cats
Getting rid of flea dirt on your dog or cat is just one of many steps needed to combat a flea problem. As with any parasites, prevention is the best way to keep your home flea-free. But if fleas do find a way onto your pet, here’s how to get rid of them.
Dr. Howe says a bath is generally the best way to remove the flea dirt immediately from your pet’s skin. She recommends soothing oatmeal shampoo as a good option for pets dealing with itchy flea bites, since flea shampoos tend to be more drying to the skin than they are beneficial.
“Using a prescription flea and tick prevention will get the pesky fleas off of your pet,” she says, “but a bath will wash the flea dirt off.” Dr. Howe also suggests using a flea comb during their bath to help get rid of flea dirt if there’s a large amount.
Flea And Tick Medications
Dr. Howe says that oral flea and tick medications are the “gold standard” for preventing and treating fleas. If you’re already dealing with a flea infestation, she says an oral medication will start working in the first 30 minutes to a few hours after administering to your pet. Topical flea and tick preventions can also be very effective, but the liquid application is more difficult to apply and keep on your pet. Topical medicines also take a little longer to start killing fleas, between 12–48 hours.
Dr. Howe recommends medications from the isoxazoline class, which work for both flea and tick prevention and treatment. Both kinds of parasites carry dangerous diseases that can make your pet sick, so doubling up on protection from both fleas and ticks is a smart investment. “Simparica®, NexGard®, Bravecto®, or Credelio® are great options for excellent tick prevention,” she says.
Keep in mind that you’ll need a prescription from a vet in order to purchase flea and tick medicine for dogs or cats, even from online retailers like Chewy. Call your veterinarian to determine the best treatment method, depending on the level of infestation. They’ll be able to prescribe a preventative that best fits the needs of your pet.
It's very important to never apply a dog product on a cat. Seizures and even death can occur if a canine flea and tick treatment is applied to a cat.
Flea And Tick Topical Shampoos, Sprays, And Wipes
Along with a flea and tick preventative medicine, flea and tick shampoos, sprays, and wipes may also help if you’re dealing with an active flea issue.
“Oral flea preventions are my go-to for flea infestations,” Dr. Howe says, “but there are other products that a pet parent may need to use in their home to treat fleas.” This can happen when your pet has a heavy infestation of fleas and ticks, or if they’re having an allergic reaction to the bites (known as flea allergy dermatitis).
Flea and tick shampoo can help to physically remove the fleas and ticks from the pet's coat while also providing relief from itching and irritation. But, as Dr. Howe points out, the ingredients in flea shampoo can dry out your pet’s skin, so you should consult with your vet before using a product that may make them more uncomfortable.
Flea and Tick Sprays
Flea sprays designed for the home and yard won’t help with any existing flea dirt on your dog or cat, since flea dirt will need to be washed away in a bath—but they can help eliminate fleas in the environments that your pet frequents. Dr. Howe says that area and furniture sprays from Advantage® may help with fleas in and around the spaces your pet frequents.
Vacuum Frequently and Wash Pet Bedding
Just as you carefully treat and remove fleas from your pet, you’ll also need to treat the rest of your home. Eliminating any flea dirt, fleas, or flea eggs from your house requires several days of cleaning. Vacuum all floors, carpets, rugs, baseboards, and cushioned furniture at least every other day to remove flea eggs before they hatch. Empty the vacuum each time you finish and dispose of its waste in a sealed bag and place it directly in the outside trash bin. Wash any pet bedding on the hot washing machine setting, or in hot soapy water. Because fleas also bite humans, it’s a good idea to wash and dry your bedding in hot water too.
Routine Flea Checks
After you’ve treated your pet for fleas, check their skin each day with a flea comb to ensure any medication and treatments are working. You may start finding dead fleas in their fur in the first 24 hours after administering an oral flea treatment, but continued daily flea checks are a must to ensure the medicine continues to work.
Oral flea and tick medications work faster than topical methods, and fleas will start to die off within two to four hours after administering an oral flea treatment. While you should expect to see some dead fleas relatively quickly following treatment, it may take a few days for the itching to decrease.
Even if you see dead fleas during your daily flea checks, keep an eye out for any new evidence of live fleas, like flea dirt or eggs. Pets dealing with a severe infestation may require multiple rounds of treatment over several months to eliminate the problem. This is because the life cycle of the flea (from egg to adult) is about three months—so they can hatch and begin feeding again, thus beginning the cycle all over. This is why a monthly preventative is so important.
Prevention of Flea Dirt on Dogs and Cats
Avoiding flea dirt means preventing fleas from feeding on your pet. A monthly flea and tick preventative medicine will stop fleas in the first place and kill any live fleas that may already be feeding on your pet. Not only do flea and tick preventatives protect your pet and home from a flea infestation, they also offer protection against the serious health risks associated with fleas and ticks, including tapeworms, anemia, Lyme disease, and Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever.
Work with your veterinarian to determine the best type of flea and tick prevention based on your pet's breed, age, lifestyle, and any medical conditions. Getting your pet on a monthly preventative helps ensure protection year-round, not just in warmer weather when fleas and ticks are most active.
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