It may still feel like it’s winter around here, but flea and tick season is right around the corner! It’s never too soon to think about how to protect your furry family members from these biting pests.
(Image from Diagnostic Imaging Atlas.)
How did my pet get fleas?
Dogs and cats pick up fleas from their environment. When animals that have fleas walk through your yard (other dogs and cats, raccoons, possums, even those cute fluffy squirrels), they drop fleas and flea eggs onto the ground. The flea eggs hatch into a larvae (sort of like a teeny worm). The larvae matures into a pupae (a teenage flea), and the pupae finally matures into the adult flea. The next time your dog or cat goes outside, the adult fleas can find your pet, jump on, and have a quick snack.
If your pet has fleas, he will also drop eggs onto the floor in your house. These eggs will go through the same life cycle inside, and the adults will re-infect your pet.
Even indoor-only cats can get fleas. You can bring fleas into the house on your socks or pants. If any critters (like mice) get into your house, they can also bring fleas with them.
How can I tell if my pet has fleas?
While it might seem like the best way to tell if your pet has fleas is to see one of the crawly critters, that’s not always as easy as you might think. Cats are especially good groomers, and will do a very good job of eating the adult fleas before you can find them. Fleas are also good at hiding. The best place to look for fleas is often on your pet’s belly. Gently roll them on their backs and part the hair on their belly so you can see the skin. You might be able to see little black specks (fleas) running around.
Adult flea. (Image from Diagnostic Imaging Atlas.)
Just because you don’t see fleas doesn’t mean you’re in the clear. The best way to tell if your pet has fleas is to look for “flea dirt.” This is actually flea poop that is left on your pet’s skin and in their coat. Again, because cats are such good groomers, it might be hard to find this evidence on a cat. Brush your pet, or part the fur to look close to the skin. Flea dirt will look like black dandruff that is on the skin or caught in the hair. If you put a drop of water on the black “dandruff”, it will dissolve and turn the water red. That’s flea dirt, and it means your pet has fleas.
Flea dirt in loose pet hair. (Image from Diagnostic Imaging Atlas.)
How do fleas hurt my pet?
There are a few ways that fleas can hurt your pets.
- Flea bites can be painful, and very itchy. While this might be a minor annoyance to most pets, it can drive some pets crazy with itching.
- Some pets develop an allergy to fleas, and will get flea bite dermatitis. This is an allergic reaction in your pet’s skin to the flea saliva. It is common to see flea bite dermatitis on the head, face, and neck, or at the base of the tail. Pets with flea bite dermatitis will be very itchy, may lose hair on the affected areas (from all the licking and scratching), and may have red skin or raised nodules and scabs on the itchy areas. Not all animals will become allergic to fleas, but some animals may be so sensitive that they start showing signs of this allergic reaction with the first flea bite.
- When fleas bite your pet, they take a little drink of it’s blood (just like when mosquitos bite you). While a few snacks here and there are not a big deal (except for the “ick” factor), a severe flea infestation on an animal can result in a very large amount of blood loss and anemia. In anemia, your pet is losing blood (to the fleas) faster than he can make new blood. This can be life-threatening if not quickly treated by a veterinarian. This is more common in cats, but can also occur in puppies and small dogs.
- All fleas carry tapeworms. When your pet is grooming and eats the adult fleas (remember how good cats are at this?) they also eat the tapeworms. The tapeworms love to live in your pets’ intestines and can cause problems with nutrient absorption. Over time, the tapeworms shed eggs that you might notice as small grains of rice in your pet’s stool or on their fur around their backside. While most of the heartworm prevention medications do treat many kinds of intestinal parasites, they do not treat tapeworms. Tapeworms are easy to treat with a different medication from your veterinarian.
Check out our Fleas Resource Page for even more information about fleas!