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Fleas are a serious concern for people and pets in the United States, especially those living in warm or humid environments—though many places are vulnerable at different times of the year. Fortunately, flea treatments and preventives for dogs are getting better and better, making it easier than ever to keep the pests at bay or rid yourself of an infestation.
We’ve rounded up the best options on the market for keeping your dog—and your home—flea-free.
How Do I Know If My Dog Has Fleas?
A dog with fleas will be itchy—very itchy. Because most pups are covered in fur, you’re more likely to notice behavioral changes than bite marks. Watch for the following symptoms:
- Frequent scratching
- Biting at itchy spots, especially on the back, stomach, and hind quarters
- Red or enflamed skin
- Patchy fur and hair loss
- Scabs or “flea dirt”—small black flakes that look like ground pepper
If you’re seeing the above signs, then it’s time to get out a flea comb—an inexpensive fine-toothed comb that works well to pick up fleas and their eggs. Slowly run the comb against the hair pattern and keep an eye out for flea dirt and/or actual fleas. Find a small black critter? Dip the comb in a glass of water with dish soap or rubbing alcohol to drown them.
It’s pretty hard to end a flea infestation just by combing, so we recommend investing in a flea treatment—which can take a lot of different forms, including oral and topical medications and shampoos.
It’s also important not to delay, since fleas aren’t just uncomfortable; in serious cases, they can cause anemia, especially in small dogs and puppies. If you have a small or very young dog with fleas, it’s a good idea to reach out to your vet immediately.
Are Flea Treatments Safe for Dogs?
The Food and Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency regulate flea products and conduct reviews of a product’s safety for the animal, people in contact with the animal, and the environment. These two agencies must approve flea products before they can be sold or marketed.
There are, however, some important precautions you can take to make sure a treatment is safe for your particular pet.
First, make sure the flea medicine you choose is specifically for dogs. Flea medicines for cats can be toxic for dogs and vice versa—so double-check the box in your cart when you’re shopping, and keep a close eye on your household pets to make sure they’re not licking a fellow pet wearing a topical treatment. (If that’s a concern, try an oral flea treatment instead.)
Next, it’s important to make sure you have the correct dosage for your dog’s weight. Medications are typically packaged in color-coded boxes that show the appropriate weight range for the product.
It’s also a good idea to check with your veterinarian to make sure the treatment you’re using is suitable for your particular dog, especially if your pup has any allergies or health conditions, is taking other medication, or is a puppy.
The Different Kinds of Flea Treatment Available for Dogs
There are a number of different kinds of flea treatments available on the market. The most effective are oral and topical treatments—the latter of which also functions as a preventive.
Oral Flea Treatments
Oral flea treatments (flea treatment in pill form) are typically the quickest way to clear up an infestation on your dog, offering fast relief. They go right into your dog’s bloodstream to start killing fleas in hours. They don’t pose a danger to other pets in the household in the same way topical medications can, but it’s important to check the dosage on your chosen product—dogs of different sizes will need different medications.
Capstar Flea Oral Treatment Tablets (active ingredient nitenpyram) are a popular choice. This medication comes in dosages suitable for dogs 2 to 25 pounds and dogs over 25 pounds, and one tablet can kill adult fleas in just 4 hours. It’s safe to give one pill per day until fleas at all stages of the lifecycle are gone, and no prescription is required. It’s not a long-term preventive—but for clearing up an active infestation, it’s hard to beat.
If your dog does better with soft chews, there’s Advantus Flea Soft Chews, which is available for dogs 4 to 22 pounds and dogs 23 to 110 pounds Its active ingredient is imidacloprid, an insect neurotoxin that starts working to kill fleas within one hour. It’s also compatible with other medications your dog might be taking, including heartworm preventives, antibiotics, and de-worming medications (though it’s a good idea to double-check with your vet to be safe). Like Capstar, Advantus doesn’t require a prescription, and it’s not meant for long-term prevention.
You can also try a prescription flea treatment like one of the below options:
- Comfortis (spinosad)
- Nexgard (afoxolaner)
- Trifexis (spinosad and milbemycin oxime)
- Sentinel (milbemycin oxime and lufenuron)
Topical Flea Treatments and Preventives
Topical flea treatments are also effective, though a little slower, as veterinary dermatologist Dr. Nicole Eckholm points out. “If you’re using an over-the-counter product like Hartz, it will take several days.”
They can, however, offer a range of additional benefits unavailable in most oral treatments. A small dab at the base of your dog’s neck can treat an existing infestation and offer protection against fleas for up to 30 days. Topical formulations sometimes also include defense against heartworm and ticks, making them a good preventive for a number of your dog’s least favorite pests.
If you have other pets in your home, keep an eye out to make sure none of them lick your dog’s treated spot—cats in particular are at risk—and make sure you have the right dosage for your dog’s weight.
Frontline is a popular topical treatment and preventive. Fipronil and methoprene work to kill fleas at all stages of the lifecycle and offers protection against them for 30 days. It’s safe to use once a month as a preventive (so you never have to deal with fleas again), and it dries in 24 hours, minimizing the risk to other household pets who might be tempted to lick. It also works to protect against ticks and chewing lice.
K9 Advantix is another common topical flea treatment for dogs. Imidacloprid, permethrin, and pyriproxyfen start working in 12 hours to treat an active infestation—without waiting for fleas to bite. Like frontline, it dries in 24 hours, after which your pet is approved for bathing and swimming. As an added bonus, it repels fleas, ticks, mosquitos, and biting flies for a full for weeks, at which point you can reapply.
Alternative and Natural Flea Treatments
Natural solutions and sprays involving essential oils get a lot of press, and they may be tempting alternatives. But while some pet parents have met with anecdotal success, most natural remedies and flea repellants lack the power of prescription medications—and trying to mix up a concoction yourself can be dangerous for your pet.
If your heart is set on a natural solution, you can try:
- Natural flea shampoo: A full flea-treatment bath may force the fleas to abandon ship.
- Natural flea spray: Sprays with organic ingredients can be applied directly to your dog, as well as to beds, carpets, and other areas your dog lingers.
- Try diluting apple cider vinegar with water and using it as a flea treatment rinse for your dog. Be careful not to get it in their eyes, mouth, or ears.
- Supplement your dog’s diet with brewer’s yeast and Vitamin B complex.
Flea shampoos are a more reliable option. They require a little more work from the human, since you may need to bathe your pet every seven to ten days while an infestation persists to target fleas at every stage of the life cycle (or to prevent re-infestation from pests lingering around the house). But with a good flea shampoo, you’ll have the satisfaction of killing off adult fleas in one washing. Adams Flea and Tick Shampoo is a popular choice.
Flea collars give off chemicals designed to either repel fleas or kill them even before they bite your pet. They’ve come under scrutiny in recent years, which has made many pet parents wary.
Dr. David Littlejohn of Pawscessories says that flea collars are generally safe but species-dependent; dogs should never wear flea collars designed for cats and vice versa.
It’s possible that your dog could have an allergy to the chemicals used on a flea collar—but that’s true of almost any flea treatment or medication, which is why it’s a good idea to check in with your vet before starting a course of treatment or choosing a preventative.
The bigger issue with flea collars, Dr. Littlejohn told us, is that they’re typically not very effective. Their affordability makes them attractive to pet parents, but they offer a false sense of security. “How well they actually protect pets from fleas is up for debate,” Dr. Littlejohn says, “but over time they’re becoming increasingly obsolete compared to oral or topical treatments.”
Those oral and topical treatments may be more expensive—but according to Dr. Littlejohn, they’re also much more effective.
How To Rid Your Home of Fleas
The final step to rid your dog of fleas is cleaning. Since fleas can live in both your house and your yard, leaving these areas unattended can result in a re-infestation for your pup. A quick, deep clean will make sure the problem doesn’t come back.
Flea Treatments for Your House
To get rid of an infestation, you’ll want to vacuum carpets and furniture weekly, wash rugs and quilts, and clean pet beds with hot water to kill eggs and larvae. Flea-specific spray treatments for rugs and furniture can help.
- Adding a flea and tick control product like this natural flea and tick home spray to your arsenal is handy to spray down bedding or carpets. Sprays, both natural and medicated, are great because they destroy fleas and ticks in all life stages. The active ingredients here are peppermint oil, clove extract, and soap, so you can use this near your pets.
- If you have carpets and fleas, consider a powdered flea preventative like Fleabusters, a boric acid–based product you sprinkle and brush into carpets and furniture, leave 24 to 48 hours, then vacuum away.
- Wash all bedding in hot, soapy water.
- Keeping your floors clean, especially if they’re carpet, is key to preventing infestations. Use a high-powered vacuum or get your carpet professionally cleaned periodically. Make sure you throw away the vacuum bag once you’re done.
- If all else fails, call in the professionals—flea exterminators are pros at safely cleaning your house.
Flea Treatments for Your Yard
Fleas are great at concealing themselves in long grasses, which makes the yard an oft-missed hiding spot.
- A flea and tick yard spray can help control fleas, ticks, and mosquitoes without harming your plants, garden, or lawn.
- Mow your lawn—it keeps flea hiding spots to a minimum.
- Spray your yard with flea-killing nematodes, which control garden pests and eat fleas.
- Spread diatomaceous earth in areas of the yard where your dog plays or rests. This non-toxic powder composed of fossilized organisms breaks and dries flea eggs.
The Bottom Line
Where fleas are concerned, an ounce of prevention can be worth a pound of cure. It can take some extra work up front, but investing in a long-term preventive will save you lots of time, money, and headaches in the long run. The cost of flea prevention is far less than the cost of flea treatment—flea and tick prevention costs anywhere from $50 to $200, according to our Cost of Pet Parenthood Survey Data.
Pro-tip: Most flea preventives give you the option to buy monthly or in bulk with 6- or 12-packs. Buying monthly may cost less up front but more annually. If you’re looking for ways to save, consider a 6- or 12-pack.