It’s the nightmare of every dog-owner: Your pooch can’t walk across the room without stopping several times for vigorous scratches. His fur starts getting patchy–from rubbing himself raw, sure, but maybe also because of a pronounced dermatitis. A flea infestation seems likely.
What can you do to relieve your dog’s misery–and keep those miniscule bloodsuckers off yourself? Here we’ll run down three major approaches, but there’s an important caveat to establish right from the start: Consult a veterinarian if your dog’s having flea troubles. She can give you authoritative counsel especially catered to your animal’s specific situation, and instruct you on the proper use–and potential harmful side effects–of chemical treatments. The last thing you want to do when trying to get rid of fleas is worsen your dog’s health through the inappropriate use of bug-fighting products.
Before we dive into some of the potential solutions, we should know our enemy. Entomologists have identified better than 2,000 species of fleas, which are parasitic insects that feast on mammalian and avian blood. They’re tiny, which certainly adds to the problem of identifying and controlling them: Most varieties are just 1 to 3 millimeters (1/13 to 1/18 inches) long. Fleas lack wings: They launch themselves onto hosts with impressive jumping abilities, and their spiky, sliver-thin bodies allow them to penetrate stubbornly into fur, hair, and feathers.
Understanding a flea’s reproductive cycle is essential for successful mitigation. Adult fleas, fueling themselves on the blood of your poor Fido, can be frighteningly fertile: Females may deposit up to 50 eggs a day, many of which fall from the host and become ensconced in the micro-jungle of carpeting or fabrics. Once hatched, larvae feed on bits of dried blood and feces derived from adult fleas as well as other organic leavings. Eventually–a week or two after they emerge–they spin themselves into a cocoon to mature into adults.
That’s the discouraging background information on flea infestations: If you see a flea leap off your dog, you can rest assured there’s a likely hefty population established in your home. So–what to do?
1. Oral and Topical Chemicals
A wide variety of anti-flea products meant to be ingested by your dog or applied topically are available these days; choosing one (as we’ve said) should be done in consultation with a veterinarian, and some drugs are only available with a prescription. Leading active ingredients include dinotefuran, fipronil, pyriprole, and spinosad.
Some of the oral treatments aren’t designed to kill fleas outright. Instead, the adult fleas ingest blood laden with the chemical–lufenuron, for instance–which then prevents eggs laid by those fleas from hatching. With such approaches, therefore, you shouldn’t be surprised to see fleas on your dog even as it undergoes treatment: What you’re doing, ideally, is ensuring new populations won’t become established.
Spot-on topical treatments are typically applied between the dog’s shoulder blades and ultimately absorb into the skin. Again, a veterinarian should advise if you’re thinking of purchasing a special flea-targeting shampoo or using some other kind of detergent. Some formulations can adversely affect a dog’s skin.
It goes without saying that you should be sure to rigorously follow all instructions for any oral or topical chemicals–these are potent treatments, and your pet’s health is your number-one priority
2. Natural Approaches
Some dog-owners find success treating fleas without resorting to artificial chemicals. One natural method is to steep a couple of cups of fresh rosemary leaves in boiling water for a half an hour, then strain out the leaves and add the boiled liquid to one gallon of warm water. This can then be poured over your dog, who should be allowed to air-dry. Others recommend lightly applying lemon-steeped water to her fur.
Another approach that may or may not be effective is the incorporation of brewer’s yeast into your dog’s food. Some even suggest it can be rubbed directly onto his skin–allegedly, fleas detest the taste.
Remember: Just because these kinds of methods don’t involve synthetic chemicals doesn’t mean you shouldn’t clear them with a veterinarian.
3. Using a Flea Comb
A potentially effective mechanical approach to relieving your dog’s flea problems is employing a flea comb, a specially manufactured tool that can sieve out those pernicious little buggers and provide some luxuriating itch-relief for your pet in the process. Douse the dislodged fleas you collect in a detergent/water solution to kill them.
4. Other Considerations
Getting fleas off your dog is one thing, but there may still be thousands of flea eggs scattered around your house. You’ll want to investigate and pursue thorough cleaning methods for carpeting, fabrics, and hard floors to minimize the chances that your dog will be quickly reinfected with the parasites.
Also keep in mind that any of these treatments may take a few rounds to get rid of the flea problem, so be patient–take some lessons in tenacity from the fleas themselves.