Fleas are incredibly common and are not only found in all 50 U.S. states but on every continent in the world. And although we might not always see these tiny terrors, you can bet they’re always around, just waiting to feed off our poor pups. While this may sound dramatic, fleas are quite literally a parasite and are picked up incredibly easily. So, what do dog fleas look like to the human eye, and how can you ensure your dog avoids an infestation? Let’s take a look.
What Does a Flea Look Like?
The species of flea called Ctenocephalides canis, otherwise known as the dog flea, is an ectoparasite that lives on mammals and is most commonly drawn to your domestic dog and cat. An ectoparasite lives outside the body and feeds on your pet through its skin. While fleas may be tiny, they are still noticeable to the human eye. An adult flea may be anywhere from 1.5 to 3.2 millimeters in length (about an eighth of an inch) and is dark black with a flat, oval body.
While fleas (thankfully) don’t have wings, they have six legs, with their back legs being more extended and powerful than their front legs. This allows them to jump up to eight inches into the air and travel up to 16 inches at once, quickly reaching and latching onto their poor unsuspecting prey (your pooch).
It should be noted that even though fleas are visible to the naked eye, you may not see them unless actively looking for them due to their small size. Knowing the signs of a flea infestation is key to determining the cause of your dog’s discomfort. Dogs are allergic not to the fleas as a whole but the protein in the fleas’ saliva. This will cause them to experience an allergic reaction in the form of extreme itchiness the moment a flea pierces their skin.
While excessive scratching is the most telltale sign of a flea bite, your dog may exhibit other symptoms. These include:
- Biting their skin
- Hair loss
- Raised red dots on the back of legs, tail, shoulder blades, neck, and/or groin
- Pale gums
- General distress
While a flea infestation is considered 20 fleas or more, your dog can experience irritation from a singular flea bite.
How to Inspect Your Dog For Fleas
The best way to tell if your dog has fleas is by inspecting their skin. Look for the dark brown, flat, smaller than ants, dog fleas scurrying around your dog’s skin by gently parting their fur. The armpit and groin areas are the best areas to start, as these areas are warm and generally well protected.
If your canine friend has a flea infestation, you will notice several raised red bumps and scabs from healing bites. You also may see adult fleas scurrying (or even jumping!) away and flea larvae and/or pupae.
If you do not see any fleas present, you may still notice the presence of flea dirt. Flea dirt is actually flea feces, which is a combination of flea waste and blood meal. Flea dirt will appear like fine black pepper and be fairly indistinguishable from regular dirt that you may find in your dog’s coat. If you can get a sample of the dirt in question, place it onto a white paper towel and sprinkle it with a few drops of water. Flea dirt, unlike regular dirt, will turn red/brown when wet.
Flea combs are incredibly fine-toothed metal combs that tiny fleas cannot escape through. Using a flea comb can not only be useful in parting your dog’s fur to check for fleas, but it can help capture some too. Fleas cannot survive in soapy water, so have a bucket nearby to dispose of them quickly.
While flea bites don’t cause internal tapeworms, swallowing a flea due to a flea infestation can. Adult fleas are considered an intermediate host to the Dipylidium caninum, otherwise known as the tapeworm. Watch out for small, white pieces that look like grains of rice in your dog’s bed or anywhere else they sit. These are pieces of this intestinal parasite, and your dog will need to be treated immediately.
Fleas are not picky in who they bite. If your dog has a flea infestation, it’s not unlikely that these blood-sucking bugs have also bitten you. Luckily, humans can’t get infested in the same way dogs can due to our lack of warm, cuddly fur, but we can get bitten just the same. Look for small, red bumps on your ankles or legs and your waist and armpits.
If you’ve confirmed your dog has fleas, you must treat them as soon as possible with a flea treatment. A good flea and tick shampoo are incredibly effective at killing adult fleas and flea eggs and repelling fleas to ensure more don’t return. Flea repelling spot sprays that can be sprayed directly on your dog and furniture sprays are also available to ensure that any trace of those pesky parasites is gone.
A flea collar is another great way to repel fleas away from your pup and can be used as a preventative measure following an infestation. Many flea collars are effective for up to eight months and release low concentrations of a flea deterring formula to stop fleas in their tracks before biting your dog.
Fleas are no doubt a nuisance, and they are, in fact, dangerous to your dog’s health and well-being. Not only can they cause severe irritation and drastically decrease your dog’s quality of life, they can also cause tapeworms, an internal parasitic infection. Avoid letting your dog roll in grass in the dog park or any highly trafficked areas, as this is where fleas live and thrive. Be sure to treat your dog at the first sign of a flea infestation to avoid painful and itchy flea bites!