How many times have you heard or said the following:
My dog is always scratching but I can’t find any fleas.
Fleas are very adept at avoiding detection, it is often easier to look for flea dirt on your dog than the fleas themselves.
Flea dirt is actually flea droppings which consist mainly of dried, digested dog blood. These droppings appear in the coat as small black specks close to the skin. If you are still having difficulty, then give your dog a good brush while it stands on a white sheet of paper to collect the dirt, if you then spray this dirt with a little water the paper will be stained red from the dried blood in the flea droppings.
The favourite places for fleas to hide on the dog is at the base of the tail, around the genitals, and the neck.
Fleas spend about 10% of their life cycle on the dog, this is why environmental flea control is so important (see flea control).
People often say that their dogs have two types of fleas: ‘big fat, brownish ones, and small, black ones’, this however is not the case both these types are the same species – the cat flea, which infests both dogs and cats. The big, fat brown fleas are normally mature females with a belly full of eggs. It is often possible to see these eggs if the flea is squashed (and you have good eyesight). The small black fleas are therefore usually males or young females.
Apart from flea allergy which will be covered later fleas can carry and cause other diseases. Fleas carry the dog tapeworm and it is therefore important to use a worming preparation effective against tapeworm frequently if you have a flea problem.
It is vital to avoid fleas on newborn and young puppies. A heavy infestation, apart from the risk of tapeworm, can cause anaemia from the fleas feeding on the puppies blood. There is also so anecdotal evidence of heavily infested puppies having reduced blood clotting ability possibly due to anticoagulants injected when the flea bites.
Some dogs can tolerate large numbers of fleas without clinical signs. Others, however, may be itchy for days from a single flea bite. These dogs are allergic to the fleas’ saliva which is injected by the flea as it feeds. Dogs that are allergic to flea bites can cause extreme damage to their skin usually at the sites most frequented by fleas – the base of the tail for example. The amount of damage an allergic dog can do to itself is often out of proportion to the numbers of fleas present. In addition, old bite sites may be reactivated by subsequent flea bites and medication will be needed to stop the itch-scratch cycle.
It is possible for your Vet to arrange for skin tests to be done to definitively confirm flea allergy, but as flea allergy is such a common problem and reduction or elimination of the fleas can produce a cure, this is usually not necessary.
STRATEGIES FOR FLEA CONTROL
1. Cats are the main carriers of fleas onto a property.
Therefore, all dogs and cats must be treated regularly with a residual spray or dip.
2. Treat the house with one of the range of flea bombs available, that contains an insect growth regulator, at the manufacturer’s recommended frequency.
3. Treat the yards, kennels, all other areas frequented by your dog, concentrate on those areas that your dog lies most often, with a suitable yard spray.
4. Change your flea control products at regular intervals to avoid the fleas developing a resistance to one particular chemical.
5. Make sure that your flea control products are not past their use by dates.
6. Ensure that the product is suitable for the age and type of animal it is to be applied to.
As fleas cause more skin problems in dogs than anything else, new products are constantly being developed. Keep an open mind on these products and trial them carefully before using on all your own dogs. Some dogs are very sensitive to certain chemicals.
Some flea rinses can make the coat harsh or oily, others act almost like a conditioner; find those products that suit your dogs’ coat type.
Research has commenced to define the actual allergens in flea saliva that cause flea allergy, in the future it may be possible to vaccinate or desensitize dogs against flea allergy permanently, current products work for only about five months.