Dog Health
6 Minute Read

What To Do if Your Dog Has Fleas

Published on
August 18, 2023
Dog owner patting a golden retriever's head
Written By:
The Otis O
The Pet Experts
Reviewed By:
Dr. Ellen Russell
Dr. Ellen Russell DVM, MPH
Licensed Veterinarian
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If you’ve noticed your dog itching more than usual or small black specks in their fur, these may be early signs of a flea infestation. While these symptoms can seem minor at first, fleas can lead to more serious health concerns that can harm your dog and infest other pets and people in your house.

It’s important to recognize the signs that your dog may have fleas so you can treat them before they can cause more severe issues for you and your animals.

What Are Fleas

Fleas are tiny external parasites that primarily feed on the blood of mammals and birds, including household pets like cats and dogs. These miniature pests, barely visible to the naked eye, are around 1/16 to 1/8 of an inch long — a quarter of the size of a grain of rice! Their bodies are flat side-to-side allowing them to navigate effortlessly through the hair or feathers of their host.

Flea infestations are a common issue faced by pet owners, particularly those with dogs or cats. Fleas undergo a life cycle of four stages - egg, larva, pupa, and adult - with the entire process, under favorable conditions, taking as little as 2 to 3 weeks. The female flea can lay up to 50 eggs a day, making flea infestations hard to control once they have taken hold. Understanding and monitoring for signs of fleas are crucial elements in responsible pet care.

Flea image from the CDC
Flea, image courtesy of

Risks of Flea Infestations

Flea infestations in dogs can result in multiple health risks, starting with the immediate discomfort and irritation caused by flea bites. These insects do not merely latch on for a quick meal, but their frequent biting and feeding can cause severe itching, skin inflammation, and distress in your pet.

Beyond immediate discomfort, fleas can cause more substantial health issues in your dog. Fleas can serve as vectors for diseases and parasites, including tapeworms. If a dog ingests a flea while grooming, they may become infected with these intestinal parasites. Additionally, severe infestations can lead to flea bite anemia, particularly in young, elderly, or immunocompromised pets. This occurs when the amount of blood loss due to flea feeding surpasses the pet's ability to produce new red blood cells, potentially leading to lethargy, pale gums, and even life-threatening complications if left untreated.

Finally, the issue with flea infestations extends beyond the discomfort and health risk to your dog alone. Fleas can easily spread to other pets within the household, making the issue much more difficult to manage and increasing the risk of problems in other animals. Additionally, fleas can infest areas of the home such as furniture, carpets, and bedding, posing a risk of bites and irritation to humans.

How To Tell if Your Dog Has Fleas

It’s important to be able to recognize the signs that your dog has fleas early and address the issue as soon as possible. Early symptoms include:

  • Intense itching or biting themself, especially on their back or near their tail
  • Excessive fur loss
  • Agitation and restlessness
  • Small black specks in their fur and bedding - often called “Flea Dirt”

As a flea infestation progresses, the symptoms may grow more severe and require medical attention from a licensed veterinarian. These symptoms may include muscle loss, pale gums, and lethargy. If you notice any of these symptoms, you should take your dog to the vet. Additional medical care may be needed beyond simply treating the infestation.

Since fleas can also carry tapeworm, you should look for telltale signs that they may have picked up these digestive parasites as well. Tapeworm eggs look like rice grains and may be present in your dog’s stool, on their bed, or around their anus.

"Any time a dog is excessively itchy, fleas are on the radar as a culprit. It does not matter if flea dirt or live fleas are seen on the pet or not. We always ensure a pet is on a regularly administered, quality, flea prevention product before suspecting or treating another cause of itchiness, such as environmental or food allergies.
The recommended action if you feel your pet is excessively itchy is to first make sure they are consistently on a flea preventive. If there is hair loss or concern for a skin infection, the pet should also be taken to a veterinarian. If excessive itchiness persists despite a flea preventative, then they should also be taken to the vet to determine what else could be causing it." - Dr. Russell

How Do Dogs Get Fleas

Dogs can get fleas from their environment or from other infested animals. Fleas can leap over 150 times their own body length, meaning they can easily jump from one animal to another, or from tall grass and brush. Your dog is at risk of an infestation if they are playing with other animals that are carrying fleas, or if they’re in a space with an active infestation. This includes being in a home where fleas are present, or laying on the bed of another animal that has fleas.

Small dogs playing
Play dates can lead to fleas if your dog doesn't take a preventative

What To Do if Your Dog Has Fleas

There are several products that can help get rid of fleas if your dog already has them. Over-the-counter treatments such as shampoos, topical “spot-on” products, and pills can help kill these pests. However, some of these products only target the adult stage of the flea life cycle. This results in temporary relief for your pet by killing the adult fleas currently on them, but will ultimately not be effective in eliminating the flea infestation in the long-term. Juvenile fleas and eggs will continue to hatch and grow into adults that will bite your pet for about three months. 

You should read reviews of products thoroughly before using them on your dog, as some may be harsh on their skin. Many online sources suggest homemade remedies for eliminating fleas as well, but these may not be as effective as solutions that are specifically intended for treating flea issues. The safety of home remedies may also vary, so be careful that you aren’t using anything that could cause more harm than good.

Minor symptoms will typically resolve themself after the infestation is eliminated. If your dog experiences any of the more severe symptoms listed above, you should seek medical attention from a veterinarian. Muscle loss, anemia from blood loss, and lethargy are all serious concerns that may require their own treatment.

Just because your dog no longer has fleas does not mean that they aren’t present in your home. Thoroughly clean your dog’s bedding, carpet, furniture, and other areas where you dog lays. This will help to decrease the risk of future infestations.

How To Prevent Fleas

The single most effective way to prevent your dog from getting fleas is to give them year round flea and tick prevention. A common misconception is that these preventatives are only needed during summer months. Dogs can get fleas year round, particularly in warmer parts of the country. Visit our article on the most effective flea and tick prevention for dogs to learn more about the options available for your pet. Treating all the pets in your home is crucial since fleas can easily spread from one animal to another.

We deliver the highest quality, vet-prescribed flea and tick prevention monthly for just $25. Add your dog’s information and our licensed veterinarians will pair them with the right medication for their unique needs.

Controlling the environment where fleas thrive can help prevent infestations. Trimming overgrown brush and long grass, and cleaning your home’s carpet, bedding, and furniture regularly can eliminate fleas and their eggs before they can become an issue.

Preventing flea infestations in the first place is an essential step to ensuring your dog’s health. If you’re worried that your dog may have already picked up fleas then acting quickly will make sure the issue doesn’t have more serious health consequences.