==> Seeing dog fleas symptoms?
Or suspecting your dog has fleas?
Best Flea Treatment For Dogs and Best Flea Control For Dogs
There seem to be two groups of dog owners: Those who readily buy into chemical solutions ("pesticides") to control dog pests like fleas, and those who seek biological solutions ("natural remedies" or "home remedies").
This Periodical is meant to help both groups: The first group to reconsider, and the second group to reassess.
As always, report your own experiences here. Whether or not you believe you found the best flea treatment for dogs or the best flea control for dogs (hint: it's not the same, no).
In this MYGERMANSHEPHERD PERIODICAL:
A lot to find out! Let's start.
What is a flea?
A flea is a ... VAMPIRE! Seriously, fleas are hematophagous, meaning they live on the blood they suck from their host (animal or human). Just like a vampire does - if I got it right from watching a few episodes of Buffy?
(And yes, just like Buffy, we need to slay these vampires too, see later)
A flea is considered an insect though, meaning it is an invertebrate with three pairs of legs (=6) and a body visibly segmented into head, thorax, and abdomen. Insects do not necessarily have wings, and fleas don't (did Buffy's blood-sucking sparring partners have wings? I don't think so. But they fed on all kinds of foods, right?). Well, fleas only feed on blood (human or animal).
Types of fleas
This is important to understand right from the start to appreciate the differences in the reported efficacy of flea remedies further below:
There exist an estimated 2,500 flea species in the world, and naturally some species are prevalent in some geographies but may even be non-existent in other geographies.
For example, the 'dog flea' (Ctenocephalides canis) is extremely rare in the state of Indiana in the USA. On cats and dogs the flea that's commonly found is the 'cat flea' (Ctenocephalides felis). Conversely, in some geographies in the world the dog flea is so prevalent that the cat flea is almost never found on a dog.
Further, of course many (if not all) flea species have a number of geographically different flea subspecies or strains.
Given the often very different reported experiences of dog owners with flea remedies, it is obvious that differences in the locally prevalent flea subspecies are a significant factor when trying to explain the often so different success that dog owners have with a particular flea remedy.
The widespread use of certain pesticides over the past decades has allowed many flea species and subspecies (and other insects!) to become increasingly tolerant to these chemicals: The fleas have built up resistance.
For example, there is now widespread global resistance amongst dog fleas and cat fleas (and ticks, mosquitoes, etc!) against carbamates (carbaryl, propoxur, etc) and pyrethroids (natural: Pyrethrin; and synthetic: Cyphenothrin, Cypermethrin, Permethrin, Phenothrin, Flumethrin, etc).
This resistance has led to an ever wilder cocktail of inactive ingredients in the flea remedies: Synergists (eg Piperonyl Butoxide) are added to "trick" the possible resistance of the parasites targeted.
This resistance is also the reason for a constant flow of new active ingredients ("pesticides"). A list of the currently used active ingredients for flea control is in the flea remedies table further below.
These three reasons are the core reasons why in terms of the efficacy of flea remedies our conclusion may be slightly unsatisfying for some dog owners:
In addition, some dog owners misapply a particular flea remedy (because they don't know enough).
But you will in just a moment.
A final reason for less-than-expected efficacy of a flea remedy is that some dogs (dog breeds) have some specific characteristics that make a particular flea remedy less effective - or even dangerous.
For some characteristics, adverse reactions of your dog (particularly to topical flea drops!) can be anticipated, because the reason for adverse reactions is well-known:
However, there are other dog-specific characteristics that are yet unknown, such that adverse reactions of your dog cannot be anticipated, because the reason for adverse reactions is not known:
What this all means: If you decide to administer your dog a flea remedy (particularly the vastly popular topical flea drops that are basically a cocktail of chemical pesticides), you quietly accept that it could be your dog that may suffer severe or even deadly adverse reactions!
"1%" chance may sound like a low risk you take, but consider that say if you play the lottery(?), you play (and pay) because you believe that the 0.00000002% chance to win the jackpot is worth it. If a 0.00000002% chance is "enough", then certainly 1% is more than enough.
Food for thought?
What do fleas look like?
Not handsome! See these:
Note that fleas are typically dark-brown to black, the last flea image shows this well: Consider that you'd only see the flea's black back (top of the image)! The rest is against a light source, hence it appears here light-brown but it wouldn't on your dog because your dog isn't a light-bulb.
The last flea picture is a close-up that clearly shows the blood-sucking mouth vessels and the backwards-pointing bristles on the flea's torso and legs that help the flea to stay put. Say when a heavy raindrop hits the tiny flea, or when the dog is shaking its body, or when you groom the dog with a standard comb - in all cases fleas are able to hold on tight to the dog's coat!
These bristles also allow the flea to sprint between the dog's hair shafts like Mo Farah sprints across the tartan track. Better: When you try to catch it, a flea can flee from you even through a GSD's dense long coat or plush coat as if the dog's skin was depilated like a turkey ready to eat on Thanksgiving. In short: Fleas are FAST and SKILLED! Even more than Mo.
Do fleas fly?
No, fleas don't have wings, so they cannot fly. BUT: Their long hind legs (see the flea pictures above) can catapult them with ease from say the dog's neck hair to the dog's tail hair! Even upwards from the dog's paw hair (where the flea may have latched onto the dog) to the dog's ear hair! - In the Skin Allergies Periodical was quite abit about fleas, you remember?
And all this faster than we can blink an eye! Thus, they seem to be flying through the air. To SEE them flying though (and much else in our fascinating world), we need a cheap high speed camera (helps to capture Mo too).
How do dogs get fleas?
The key ways dogs get fleas are:
- jumping over from other animals (dogs they play with, or a cat, squirrel, rabbit, fox, deer, bovine, etc)
- jumping over from flea-infested interior (bedding, rugs, blankets, plush toys, etc)
- caught in the vet's waiting room, at the dog groomer, boarding kennel, etc
- latching onto the dog during dog walks, from grasses, foliage, bushes, etc
Thus, if you don't manage fleas in any other way (see How to get rid of fleas), it would be wise to make it a routine to have a quick but thorough check of your dog's coat outside your house when you come home.
However, since fleas are so tiny (see the flea pictures above) and typically dark-brown to black, it will be almost impossible to see the fleas on the dog's coat itself (unless you have a solid white German Shepherd, like currently only 2.1% of our members have).
This is why a really good flea comb is essential when we have a dog (or cat). The best flea comb will catch the fleas inside it's double row of narrow teeth when you perform coat care. Our recommended flea comb catches far more fleas than any other comb we've seen or heard of.
Are fleas attracted to light?
Or: Are fleas attracted to white German Shepherds more than to black German Shepherds?
One of the most widely copied myths about fleas I've come across during my research for this topic is that white-coat dogs would attract more (or even all) of the fleas while black-coat dogs would attract less (or even none)!
This goes so far that many websites swear that you could set a bait for fleas using a "light trap": a desk lamp illuminating a dish of soapy water, such that "the fleas are attracted to the light, jump into the water, and drown".
It would be nice to get rid of fleas so easily, but sadly light traps seem to be a myth: On scientific sites (typically of universities and institutes) I could not find a single reference to fleas being attracted to light - while I found countless references that fleas avoid sunlight and seek dark hiding places wherever they can.
Similarly, no academic source mentions that fleas are attracted to soapy water, enjoy to jump into it, then find out they cannot swim, and thus drown right there! Conversely, scientific fact is that fleas have a waxy exoskeleton body, which makes it hard to drown given how light-weight fleas are (exoskeleton means the skeleton is outside the body/makes up the body).
You would need to use a LOT of soap in the water dish to get the flea to submerge (washing-up liquid reduces the surface tension of the water, thus makes it easier for the flea to submerge). More likely is that the flea would accidentally jump onto the water surface, and then jump right back or elsewhere.
This doesn't mean you can't find a couple of fleas in the water dish the next morning after setting up that "light trap": If there are a LOT of fleas jumping around, it's a simple statistical truth that a few unlucky ones will end up drowned in the water dish. But that's the point: If you happen to find a couple of fleas in the water dish under the "light trap", you can be sure that you have a full-blown flea infestation on your carpet (and that you were lucky enough to catch a couple of them, hurray!).
In short: Be careful with what you find on the typical copy-and-paste websites on the internet (this includes most vet sites since real vets don't have the time to fill websites, so they too outsource the content production to Bangladesh etc). Such "bloggers" rarely have the academic skill and interest to research first, before publishing anything. To copy-and-paste is so much easier for them!
Find out more: Click to save vet cost, training cost, and your nerves!
How fast do fleas feed on dogs?
Fleas latch onto a new host (your dog/you) when they are unsatisfied with the meal they receive from their current host (or when they haven't got a host yet).
This is why, when a flea latches onto your dog (and is pretty much undisturbed in the thick coat until you groom), the flea is already hungry (they eat A LOT, see next) and thus most fleas start feeding within 5 minutes (just finding a nice peaceful spot and getting the suction vessel ready).
Within an hour (at most) all fleas are feeding on their host, no matter how dense or shaggy, well-groomed or scruffy the coat.
Flea life cycle!
The adult female flea lays up to 20 eggs at a time, about 24 hours after the first meal (ie sucking blood from the dog). Some on the dog, but most in preferred "egg spots": dark and moist locations with little vibration (people or pets moving around), thus along walls, in corners, cracks, and deep between carpet fibers!
Fleas can suck blood 15 times their own body weight - PER DAY! The enormous amount of food allows fleas to lay eggs several times a day - a total of about 50 per day (not "an average two" as one popular "flea site" suggests).
These eggs are almost clear to white and about 0.5 mm long (thus, conversely, if you have good eyes the eggs can be seen on a black German Shepherd but not on white German Shepherds). In other words, good to know what you are looking for: smooth oval shape, clear-to-white, fixed - or rough flea shape blackish-brown, moving? Both! First the fleas, then the eggs (see How to get rid of fleas).
However, since the eggs have a smooth surface, any eggs on the dog would normally pretty quickly fall off the dog's coat and onto the carpet or into wood cracks (and soon you'll have a whole-house flea infestation).
Whitish larvae of 1-5 mm in length hatch from the eggs within 1(!) to 12 days. The larvae typically remains invisible since they immediately move into hiding places (cracks, folds, etc). The larvae feed on any organic matter they find (preferably the adult fleas' feces), and they quickly eat up reserves for cocooning.
The larvae seek moist and dark hiding places to mature. If you have sandy soil or a gravel driveway at your house, that's where the next generations of your looming flea infestation are hiding and emerging from (this is where the erroneous term 'sand fleas' comes from).
Within 7 to 15 days the larvae spin cocoons to become dark 2-4 mm long pupae (in dry conditions the larvae stage can extend to over 6 months). Thanks to the reserves accumulated for cocooning, the pupae does not need food: It doesn't eat, and it doesn't move around (worth to understand, see later under Diatomaceous Earth).
After another week, a fully developed adult flea may emerge from the cocoon. However, the pupae may rest in the cocoon for up to a year(!), they only emerge when they sense the presence of a suitable host (sound, movement, smell, or metabolic CO2 in the air).
This is why flea infestations are often noticed after returning home from vacation or when moving into a vacant house: The fleas emerge and are primed for their first meal. Just imagine that! The first meal after potentially months of 'hibernation'. Yippie, what a feast!
So, in good (moist) conditions you can have a new generation of fleas in the house in just 15 days. And then EVERY DAY another generation, because the flea lays eggs every day!
Conversely, a hot and dry summer lengthens the flea life cycle considerably, and thus reduces the number of fleas (remember, the quicker the reproduction the higher the population, see the incredibly insightful Periodical on Spaying and Neutering your dog).
The weather also influences the adult flea's life expectancy: In very hot and dry conditions, an adult flea may live no more than two to five days without a blood meal. But in warm and moist conditions (room temperature and the lack of a dehumidifier are ideal for fleas!) and with adequate blood meals, the adult flea may live up to a year (thus on top of the other flea life stages). At room temperature, the average lifespan of an adult flea without a blood meal is two months!
The female flea is reproductive about 3 months, and then dies. By that time - if she was on your dog or in your house from the beginning - she may have left you a BIG present:
Not just 4500 more fleas (90 days * 50 eggs), no, instead: 1,693,250 more fleas (make it 1.7 million)! From this one first flea, yes. Now you know why it's called flea infestation...
Obviously no one (?) ever has had so many fleas in the house. The reason is, there are multiple disruptions in the flea life cycle:
You vacuum-clean, steam-clean, or sweep, you use acidic or even strong chemical detergents, you wash the bedding and clothes, you shake out the cushions, you groom the dog. And many fleas will use your dog (or you) to hitch-hike and latch onto another host.
Do fleas bite?
No, not exactly. Although you read of "flea bites" everywhere, an hour of studying high-res flea bite images (after an equal amount of fruitless text research) made me conclude that the flea rather pierces the skin (like a sting, see the suction vessel here).
Anyway, the flea immediately injects saliva that contains an anti-blood-clotting agent (so that the blood flows easily) and a narcotic agent (so that the host doesn't immediately feel the sting and scratch the flea off!).
After the first blood intake (after emerging from pupae stage), fleas undergo a metabolic change and now need regularly new blood meals to survive: Typically fleas suck blood 10 - 15 times per day (a true parasite)!
Do flea bites hurt?
No, the bite/sting does not hurt, but a few hours later the narcotic is no more effective and then the dog (or we) feel an itch. With fleas, this itch can be so strong that it does truly hurt. And when our dog (or we) have many such itches (from many flea bites/stings) then it may become really uncomfortable for our dog (or us).
The above also means: When we feel the itch, the flea is long gone. While when our dog scratches, the flea is most likely still somewhere in the coat, because fleas like to hide and take a nap in the dense coat between their meals.
Flea bites pictures!
What do fleas do to dogs?
Fleas (precisely, the flea bites/stings) generally cause no more than a lot of itching and scratching. Fleas are more a nuisance than a danger (contrary to ticks, see the next Periodical). Transmission of diseases is rather rare (but possible, see Flea diseases).
When the fleas suck the dog's blood, their saliva irritates the skin, leaving a red itchy spot. The dog then scratches the itch, and the red spot becomes a 'hot spot', a skin inflammation. The open wound allows pathogens to enter the dog's body without the protection of the skin, and they don't even find that much resistance because the dog's immune system is already busy with the skin inflammation...
Thus, although a flea bite itself is unlikely to do harm, on dogs flea bites often cause a chain reaction: When something itches, dogs scratch until the skin is bloody (dogs do not have the human concern "I must stop scratching or my skin will bleed"). The lesion can then rather easily cause bacterial and/or viral infections.
In other words, on dogs fleas rather easily cause flea-mediated diseases. Hence best really is to protect the dog from fleas from the outset!
Dog fleas on humans?
When a dog flea (or cat flea) doesn't get a chance to dine from an animal host, but the flea senses the presence of a human host, then once the flea gets really hungry it will pester the human host, yes!
Although fleas do have their preference for a specific host, all flea species are known to thrive on human blood too. Obviously, children and babies are particularly affected (they are often low to the ground).
Human flea bites?
It is a fact that some humans are resistant or even immune to flea bites (they acquired 100% resistance). This means they can live with the fleas and not be aware that they share house and blood with them (and they don't get the red spots around the tiny flea bites either, so they don't notice anything at all)!
However, most modern citizens in the "developed world" (where we have little experience of real hardship) are sensitive to the tiny flea bites. If you find red spots like shown above on your legs or abdomen, then do give fleas some thought.
Equally, if it regularly itches you (I mean, without writing a Periodical on this subject, doh!), then get naked and do an intense peep show in the mirror: A red halo around a small red spot with a bit of swelling, that's likely a flea bite, not a pimple.
In addition to the chain reaction mentioned above, fleas can also directly cause and transmit diseases: When the dog has fleas and the fleas suck blood, small amounts of saliva and regurgitated infected blood enter the wound and can infect the dog (or us).
The least worrying flea disease is flea allergy dermatitis if your dog is allergic to flea saliva (some dogs are, but not before 6 months of age). However, although very rare, fleas can also transmit serious diseases, in particular typhus and plague.
Plague is a life-threatening infection caused by the bacteria Yersinia pestis, transmitted by fleas. So here we have one of those rare cases where antibiotics do make sense (life-threatening condition), and where they may even be necessary to get the disease under control.
Plague comes in different forms, and all forms can affect humans and animals (with cats being particularly susceptible). If a dog is bitten by a flea that carries the pathogen, the dog is likely to infect us too. The most serious form of plague is pneumonic plague, destroying the lungs. This plague is highly contagious as it is transmitted by microscopic droplets in the breath and coughs.
Both other forms of plague (bubonic plague and septicemic plague) can develop into pneumonic plague, so any plague has to be taken seriously immediately: Antibiotics within 12 hours of suspected infection. In the 14th century (when there were no antibiotics), the "Black Plague" (or "Black Death") wiped out an estimated quarter of the world population!
In recent decades, an average of 7 human plague cases are reported yearly in the USA. Worldwide however, the number of human plague cases is likely to be much higher than the 2000 cases reported to the WHO, because in developing countries there is no reporting mechanism.
Lastly, fleas can transmit the tapeworm (will be discussed in a few weeks).
As said, flea diseases are very rare. Nonetheless, for the reasons shown above, best really is to protect the dog from fleas from the outset.
Signs of fleas on dogs?
So what are the flea symptoms that we know we've got a flea problem in the house?
- When the dog scratches a lot
- When we find fleas in the flea comb during coat care
- When we notice some quick movement on top of (or within) the dog's coat
If we notice that the dog scratches a lot, it could be down to fleas, so an immediate coat check is advisable. If you can, do it outdoors and place your dog on a large piece of white or whitish paper (the silk-like packaging material you sometimes get when ordering items online is ideal).
With a German Shepherd (most coat types), obviously frequent deshedding is necessary anyway. When we then use the best flea comb with systematic strokes from top to bottom and from head to tail, we should find any fleas that are currently on the dog.
If we find any fleas this way, we know we've got a much bigger flea infestation on the floors (carpets, rugs, wood cracks, etc) where the majority of the fleas will be: in egg, larva, and pupa stage (see Flea life cycle). - If you've got a cat too, you know that checking the cat for fleas is even more important.
You can wet the paper with one of those plant spray bottles, so that the hair doesn't fly around that much. If you do, fleas and flea feces will be seen as dark red-brown dots on the paper, else as black dots. Wetting also helps to see the eggs (but there won't be many on the dog at any point in time).
Obviously, if we notice things moving over the coat of the dog, it's likely to be jumping fleas. To be sure, quick reactions like Michael Jordan (or the high speed camera) would help.
What to do if your dog has fleas
- Do nothing (BAD!)
- Tell a family member to take action (yeah!)
- Study this Periodical from beginning to end (OMG!)
- Visit the vet (and swap the fleas for an invoice)
- Get rid of the fleas (SOMEHOW)
- KILL the fleas (you know how?)
Where needed (5 and 6), we discuss this subsequently.
How to get rid of fleas?
This is something important to understand (but I assume most dog owners would know it): To kill the present flea population is not enough - but you treat your dog, hence it's called flea treatment (good hook hm?).
You also have to control the development of future flea generations in your house and garden/yard (or else you will have to kill fleas until after you retire...) - this is called flea control, flea prevention, or flea protection.
Don't get confused by the labels of some remedies: Labels (and the Retailer's product descriptions) aren't always accurate. It is the Active Ingredients that determine whether you are buying flea treatment or flea control.
For example Bayer got it wrong with this label:
The label says "Treatment" but then it says "Kills all flea life stages" - which by the way isn't true, it can't kill pupae, hardly anything can (an exception are Methoprene and Pyriproxyfen/Nylar, but they can't kill larvae).
Each means of flea management has its own set of remedies (with some overlaps), because different (biological or chemical) pesticides are needed to kill the different flea life stages. Particularly the flea pupae are as safe in their cocoon as Iron Man in his armoured suit!
Flea treatment for dogs
First things first: Forget the nonsense that your dog needs antihistamines or steroid creams "to help alleviate your pet's symptoms" - which appears to be widely copied from vet websites. Vets like to add such medication to the invoice, or the invoice would look rather "empty" (and then the whole visit would look "unnecessary").
Antihistamines are very rarely (if ever) necessary, and always detrimental: The body has a good reason for producing the histamine, and using an antagonist curtails immune system adaptations which are beneficial (and sometimes necessary).
"What doesn't kill you (or the dog), makes you stronger" - this is a good phrase to remember, because it may be just what you needed to successfully prevent the next allergy (or to become dependent on the drug!).
Likewise: NO, "Pets must [NOT] be treated with an insecticide from the pet shop or a veterinarian". There are other, and often better, Natural flea remedies.
Now let's look at the treatment options for an existing flea infestation. This is all about KILLING: the present adult fleas only.
How to kill fleas?
Also note: This Periodical on fleas is the first in a row of Periodicals on dog pests in our current health series (which started with the crucially important MYGERMANSHEPHERD PERIODICAL on Vaccinations).
Therefore, in the subsequent table you may already see some information relevant for the other dog pests, which we will discuss in detail later. This way, we can refer to the same table in future, and you will have all in one place.
Please don't forget: Flea remedies are constantly evolving.
- T - Treat flea infestation: These remedies kill fleas (typically but not always after they have bitten)
- C - Control flea population: These remedies kill fleas and life stages (before or after they have bitten)
- R - Repellent: These remedies repel fleas, ie they do not reduce flea population
- E - Electronic: These remedies use some electric or electromagnetic components to kill or repel fleas
- N - Natural: These remedies are herbal or other natural flea solutions
- P - Pesticide: These remedies are chemical flea solutions ("Pesticides" in the customary sense)
- a - adulticidal: These remedies kill the living adults of the named insects
- o - ovicidal: These remedies kill the eggs of the named insects (where applicable)
- l - larvicidal: These remedies kill the larvae of the named insects (where applicable)
- p - pupicidal: These remedies kill the pupae of the named insects (where applicable)
- Efficacy is summarized based on the median of reported dog owners' experiences - and based on my knowledge of resistance of dog flea and cat flea against the active ingredient!
- Risk is assessed based on the long-term effects of inhalation toxicity, dermal toxicity, neurotoxicity, reproductive toxicity, ecotoxicity, and oncogenicity - and it assumes that dog owners apply common sense!
For example: The chemical flea sprays get a "medium risk" applied only because you can (and should!) use a simple respirator and leave the sprayed room for at least 4 hrs with windows open (thus longer than the label may suggest).
While with the topical spot-on for dogs and the oral flea tablets for dogs (like Advantage, Biospot, Capstar & Co) you cannot reduce your dog's exposure to the pesticides (their whole purpose is to be absorbed into the dog's bloodstream)!
So why do the flea bombs get a "high risk" applied if they are neither topical nor oral? Because, human common sense ends where laziness starts: We just don't "clean all surfaces thoroughly before reusing the home" as required on the labels on all those foggers. Most people will just wipe a bit here and a bit there, and that's it, right?
Generic means it is cheaper than the brand remedy (but typically of similar quality, you just don't pay for the brand name, their research, their marketing).
The only reason why dog owners are legally allowed to administer pest treatment and pest control remedies to their pets themselves is that the government assumes that dog owners can apply common sense.
This hint shall also serve as a reminder: Dog owners are not allowed to administer vaccinations themselves (see the linked Periodical why).
Back to our topic here: The ideal flea remedies are of course those that kill all flea life stages. However, it is not necessarily helpful if a flea remedy also kills ticks, mosquitoes, worms, and lice: If those pests are not endemic in your geography or your dog's living environment, why subject your dog to additional pesticides?
Only get what is relevant in your geography (or travel destinations) and for your dog's particular living environment (eg roaming the woods, is on a farm, is near a lake, pure couch dog?...). - What?? A German Shepherd must not be a couch dog! Have him or her exercise like a shepherd's dog, okay?
Let's end this Periodical on this funny note, because it still itches me everywhere, oh dear! (only wondering if it itches you now too?)
Although the subsequent resources are primarily USA-based, all these websites do provide useful information much of which is relevant to dog owners all over the world (though not all info is up-to-date).
- National Pesticide Information Center (NPIC)
- United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)
- World Health Organization (WHO)
- Center for Disease Control (CDC)
- Households Products Database
- Companion Animal Parasite Council (CAPC)
- Drugs.com - Ingredients database (terrible search engine, visit via Google search)
Personal note: I've never had as much itching as during the preparation of this Periodical. When my leg or whatever itched, I inspected it for fleas. This topic clearly affected my nervous system. Or was it a neurotoxin??
Or was it a tick?
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