Let’s face it—they’re everywhere. Fleas, that is. They’re so tiny, they’re often undetectable at first. So how do you protect your dog from flea bites, especially if he’s allergic?
California veterinary dermatologist Dr. Nicole Eckholm sees flea-allergic dogs (and cats) all the time in her practice. She gives us the expert advice on how to deal with these pests.
We all know we should be giving our dogs flea prevention every month like clockwork, but some pet parents are skipping the meds. While that’s okay in the dead of winter in places like Chicago or Denver, those of us living in more mild climates need to be giving flea meds year-round.
But with so many options on the market, which is the right choice for your dog?
First, there are a number of topical treatments you squeeze onto your dog’s coat:
There are also oral flea-preventative pills which require a prescription:
It’s important to note, your dog can still have an allergic reaction even if you use flea preventatives.
“None of the flea products on the market act as a repellant,” Dr. Eckholm confirms. “You can’t repel the flea, they actually have to come in contact with the dog for the medicines to kill them.”
The biggest difference between all the products is the speed at which they kill flea.
“If you’re using an over-the-counter product like Hartz, it will take several days,” Dr. Eckholm points out. The topical preventative medicines like Frontline and K9 Advantix will take 24 to 48 hours to kill fleas. The oral preventatives work faster, though.
Of course, consult with your veterinarian to see which option is best for your pet.
Other Flea Control Tips
- Keeping your carpet clean is key to preventing infestations. Use a high-power vacuum or get your carpet professionally cleaned periodically. Or your could get rid of your carpet altogether!
- When moving into a new location, make sure it has been thoroughly cleaned and disinfected.
- Keeping your pet and his bedding clean can keep the fleas away. Wash beds and blankets in hot water and dry on high heat to kill flea eggs and larvae. But keep in mind, frequent bathing of your pet will reduce the length of effectiveness of topical flea medications.
- Don’t skimp on quality of flea-preventative meds. Since fleas lay eggs as early as 24 hours after latching onto your pet, you want to make sure your medication is working as quickly as possible to kill fleas and prevent them from spreading.
All about Fleas: What You Need to Know
Fleas have been around for thousands of years and have been responsible for some of the worst outbreaks of disease the world has ever seen—like the Modern Plague. These tiny, wingless, blood-sucking parasites would jump from dead rats to human hosts and transmit the bacteria, causing massive sickness and death.
“If there is a flea issue in the household, it’s usually the cat that’s the issue.”
Nowadays, fleas prefer our furry friends to humans, and also prefer cats to dogs. Keep this in mind if you live in a multi-pet household, especially with an outdoor cat.
“If there is a flea issue in the household, it’s usually the cat that’s the issue,” Dr. Eckholm explains. “If there are stray or feral cats in the neighborhood, they can be the source of the problem.”
The diseases fleas transmit can be highly contagious: Plague has a high mortality rate if left untreated but there have been fewer than 1000 confirmed cases in the U.S. in more than 100 years. Fortunately, it is treatable in humans with antibiotics, but it’s our responsibility as pet parents to makes sure our dogs are protected, too.
There are four stages in the life cycle of a flea: egg, larva, pupa, and adult. Fleas thrive in warm, humid conditions—long, cold winters are their nemesis. The prevalence of fleas really depends on the climate where you live.
“Any of the milder climates that have shorter winters will have more fleas in their environment,” Dr. Eckholm says. “Places like The South and California are more likely to have pets develop flea allergies than dogs who live in Michigan where the cold, cold winter kills the whole flea population.”
Mainly, fleas exist as eggs and larva, waiting protected in their cocoons for the optimal moments to hatch, which is usually when a dog or cat walks by. Just a single flea can cause problems, at least in flea-allergic dogs. One flea can bite 20 to 40 times per hour!
“It would take a huge number of fleas to cause problems in a dog that is not flea allergic,” Dr. Eckholm clarifies. “And if that’s the case, you are going to be seeing them on your dog.”
The increase of carpeting in homes has made flea problems worse, and infestations have been harder to eradicate. Regular washing of bedding in hot water and vacuuming with a powerful vacuum can help reduce the number of eggs and larvae around the house.
“Vacuuming is one of the most important things you can do,” Dr. Eckholm suggests. “If it gets beyond the point of vacuuming, I suggest calling an exterminator, but that would be extreme. Usually, it’s not filth, it’s just bad luck.”
Flea Allergy in Dogs
Flea allergy is one of the most common conditions afflicting dogs today, and one of four main types of allergies typically found in dogs. We’ve already detailed the signs and treatments of environmental allergies, but now we’re talking fleas.
The symptoms of flea allergy are similar to environment allergies:
But the biggest distinguishing factor between environmental allergies and flea allergies is the location and distribution of the itching. Look for flea dirt as another telltale sign.
“Generally, if your dog has fleas, you’re going to see the flea or you’re going to see flea droppings, which looks like black specks,” Dr. Eckholm clarifies. “The flea takes a bite of your dog and what you’re seeing is dried-up blood, so if you soak it on a white paper towel, the droppings will turn red.”
The Difference Between an Allergy and Regular Flea Bites
Dr. Eckholm points out there is a big difference between a dog with fleas and a flea-allergic dog with fleas.
“It takes a very low number of bites to cause a reaction in flea-allergic dogs,” Dr. Eckholm explains. “With flea-allergic dogs, you won’t necessarily ever see fleas or flea droppings because those dogs are allergic to the saliva from the flea bite and when the flea injects that saliva under the dog’s skin, it causes a hypersensitivity reaction.”
Studies show there are more than a dozen different antigens in flea saliva that your dog can react to. The biggest problem you’ll see with flea-allergic dogs is the itchiness, which makes them prone to secondary infections that require antibiotics to treat. But as previously mentioned, fleas can transmit disease to your pet, especially if he’s not protected.
“It’s possible but it’s much less likely for fleas to transmit disease if you are using flea control medication,” Dr. Eckholm states.
Dr. Eckholm does not think skin testing is necessary to diagnose or especially to treat flea allergies.
“A dog should never need allergy testing to look for flea allergy,” Dr. Eckholm says. “And I would never put flea extract in [environmental] allergy shots because flea control is going to work much better with prevention rather than trying to desensitize the dog to it.”
The Bottom Line
Fleas are a reality of life you can’t avoid. But you can help prevent infestations in your pet’s environment and keep him safe from flea-related diseases and allergic reactions by regularly using preventative medications, especially if you live in a high-risk area.
The information provided in this article is not a substitute for professional veterinary help.