Stopping the itch: Remove and kill fleas on your dog
Shelley Skopit, DVM
Doctor of Veterinary Medicine
Park Animal Hospital, Norwalk and Darien, Connecticut
Fleas are one of the more frequent problems encountered in animal hospitals. They are a common, external parasite that affect dogs. Many dogs are presented to their veterinarians every year not only because their owners see fleas, but because of the secondary flea allergy dermatitis and accompanying itching and hair loss that comes with a flea infestation.
Do use a veterinarian recommended product
There are many products labeled to kill fleas, and they come in a variety of forms, such as topically-applied liquid or spray, collars, and oral tablets. The flea preventatives that are available through your veterinarian are typically more effective in eradicating flea infestations, better at preventing recurrence of infestations, and safer for your pet. The wider safety margin seen with veterinarian-approved flea products means that they tend to cause less side effects and adverse reactions compared to the over-the-counter “bargain” products. Depending on your pet’s geographical location and lifestyle, your veterinarian can recommend the best product for your pet. The good news is that we have a variety of options that are effective in keeping fleas off your furry friend.
Do apply all topical products properly
If you follow product directions and use it properly, you will see better and safer results. Some products cannot be applied for up to 2 days before or after a bath, while other products can be applied as soon as your pet is dry. Most topical flea treatments can be removed by using certain soaps and shampoos, rendering the product ineffective and leaving opportunity for a flea infestation. In addition, many flea products may be only for cats and not dogs, and vice versa. Be sure you buy the right product for your pet.
Do know and understand the flea life cycle
If you are seeing adult fleas on your pet, not only are there more fleas elsewhere in your house, but there are also younger fleas and flea eggs present too. If you use a treatment that solely kills adult fleas, then the flea eggs will still hatch and the immature fleas will still live and grow, thus keeping the flea infestation going. Flea eggs hatch in weeks to months, so continuous flea preventative treatment is the key to not only eradicating an infestation, but also preventing a new infestation. Flea eggs are small and can be embedded in carpet fibers and fabrics, thus making cleaning and removing them very difficult.
Do treat all animals in the house
It is always surprising when people see a flea on one of their pets and only treats that one pet for fleas. If one pet in the household has fleas, every pet in the household has fleas—even if you don’t see them yet. As a result, all pets in the home should be treated for fleas and kept on flea preventative year-round. Fleas have legs and can easily jump from one pet to another, and they don’t mind if your indoor cat or dog goes outside or not; he is still a target.
Do consult your veterinarian
Visiting your veterinarian when you detect a flea problem is important for several reasons. He will assess the extent and severity of the problem, provide relief to your furry friend, and provide recommendations for the best product(s) to protect all the pets in your home. Common secondary problems often seen with fleas and other parasitic infections include skin infection and flea allergy dermatitis. Flea allergy dermatitis is an allergic reaction to a flea bite. Some animals may be so sensitive to flea saliva that one bite can lead to a severe reaction. Your veterinarian will provide proper treatments for not only the flea infestation, which is the primary underlying problem, but also for the secondary flea allergy dermatitis and skin infections. Without treating the primary and secondary issues, neither will resolve.
Do not think that your pet cannot get fleas
There is a common misconception that pets living in apartment buildings or living only indoors cannot get fleas. It is true that the risk of flea infestation for pets with an indoor lifestyle is lower than pets that frequent the great outdoors; however, fleas have the ability to jump quickly from one warm-blooded animal (e.g. people, animals passing through your property) to another (e.g. your indoor or outdoor dog or cat). This is especially true in apartment buildings or condos, where fleas can wind up in the common areas and be transferred from pet to pet. Indoor dogs are at risk too, especially if they lay near screen doors and open windows.
Do not cheap out on your flea control
Just like everything in life, you get what you pay for. Bargain flea control products are just not as effective or safe as the premium, veterinary-approved products. Adverse effects are higher with over-the-counter products because cheaper ingredients with narrower safety margins are often used. There is also a growing problem with some older topical flea and tick products being counterfeit, meaning that they don’t actually contain the parasite-killing ingredients they claim to carry. This problem can avoided by purchasing all your pet’s medications from a reliable, veterinary source.
Do not only use a flea medication if you see fleas
If you are seeing fleas, then the problem is already bigger than you think it is. Most veterinary-recommended products, if used properly and on a regular basis (as recommended on the product label) will prevent you from ever having a flea problem. So, once you’re seeing fleas, your pet is not only in discomfort from the biting, blood-sucking parasites, but he may also be suffering from flea allergy dermatitis and skin infection that often occurs secondary to flea bites.
Do not get frustrated
Severe flea infestations can be frustrating because they take time (typically months) to fully eradicate. This is because there are several generations of fleas that are trying to complete their natural life cycle, including flea eggs, which are the start of the life cycle, and mature fleas, which reproduce to lay eggs that eventually produce more fleas. In addition, fleas can survive off an animal host for 2 weeks, which means they can hide out in your furniture and rugs before eventually latching onto your furry friend.
All animals in the house must be treated; otherwise, the flea infestation will just continue on the pets that aren’t receiving any flea preventative medication. Consult your veterinarian about an appropriate parasite preventative program for your pets, and hopefully you can avoid the frustrations of treating a flea infestation.
Do not forget to consult your veterinarian
Flea control starts with your first exam with your veterinarian. Most of us are happy to recommend a treatment and preventative protocol for your pet(s), using safe and effective medications. There are treatment and product options for pets of all breeds and lifestyles. Since flea medications are readily available, most people believe that this is a simple problem to solve with the first product on the shelf. However, it never hurts to get the opinion and advice of a professional who kills fleas for a living!
Parasite prevention is one of the most important ways you can keep your furry friend happy and healthy. Risk factors for a flea outbreak vary from location to location and between individual animals. Consulting with your veterinarian about the best flea preventative product for your dog and applying that product properly, regularly, and year-round will greatly reduce the chance that you’ll have to experience the frustration of eradicating a flea outbreak. Preventing fleas from parasitizing your pet also keeps your dog free of the discomfort of secondary allergic skin reaction and infection and free of disease transmission from these blood-sucking parasites. When you take an active role in keeping fleas away, you’re providing the best quality of life for your best friend.