They leap, they hop, and dealing with them is no circus. But as pet owners, fleas are a problem that most of us eventually have to face.
Fleas are tiny brown insects that have a very impressive jump, and they love to find a home on our furry friends. They feed off the blood of our dogs and cats, creating an unpleasant, itchy situation.
Fleas prefer warm, humid conditions, and you'll usually find them thriving in temperatures between 60 and 85 degrees Fahrenheit. Their life cycles allow them to remain dormant for several weeks as well, to give them time to wait for the right conditions, so needless to say, fleas can be extremely frustrating parasites. They are extremely hardy and can be tough to kill. However, with the right prevention and elimination methods, you can and will take control of fleas. Here, we've compiled everything we know into a comprehensive guide to for how to take charge of fleas.
How to prevent fleas on cats and dogs
The best way to deal with fleas is to never get them. Every pet owner should be using a regular flea protection regimen, and there are a lot of options to choose from.
Flea Collars: flea collars include chemicals to keep fleas at bay. Your dog or cat wears it all the time, and usually changes it at regular intervals. But be cautious, because chemicals that are bad for fleas are also dangerous for pets, particularly cats.
Topical Treatments: Topical flea treatments involve applying a flea medication usually about once a month on your pet's back. Talk to your vet about the best option for your pat, and make sure to read the instructions and ingredients. You don't want to select something that won't be effective or that could be dangerous.
Oral Treatments: Oral flea preventatives can be very effective for both cats and dogs (but may be easier to give to dogs, who are usually more willing to take medicine orally). Ask your vet about the best oral flea medication for your pet. Your vet can prescribe one, or may recommend an over-the-counter option.
Flea Shampoo: Rinsing your dog or cat regularly with flea shampoo can also be an effective flea treatment, although that may be a challenge if your pet dislikes water. Bathe your pet regularly using a formula designed to eliminate fleas. Or, try one of our recipes, like this one that uses Dawn dish soap and white vinegar.
How to spot when your pet has fleas
Fleas aren't the only pests that could cause your pets distress, so you'll need to know how to identify them. Here are some clear signs that your fluffy pal has a flea problem.
Itching: the telltale sign of a pest problem is excessive itching and restlessness.
Flea dirt: you won't just find fleas on your dog or cat, but what is known as "flea dirt." Fleas leave behind little black dots that are essentially their flea doodie, so if you notice tiny black flecks all over your animal, they might have fleas. If you have a dark-haired pet, use a fine-toothed comb to comb their hair then tap it onto a white paper towel, so you can sea the dirt.
Tiny black fleas: fleas move quickly, and they look like little black ovals. You'll usually find them on your pet's belly or nether regions, because fleas don't like being exposed to light. However, you may not spot that many actual fleas, because they jump and move so fast.
Flea eggs: another way to spot fleas is by their eggs. Flea eggs are small white ovals, and they often fall off your pet, so you might find them on furniture or floors.
Set a soapy flea trap: set a trap for fleas by filling a small bowl with soapy water. Leave it overnight under a desk lamp to attract fleas, and if you find fleas in the water the next morning, your pet probably has more.
Give your pet a bath: if you still aren't sure about whether your pet has fleas, another way to tell is by giving them a bath. If your pet has fleas, you'll likely see them float up in the bath water.
Natural ways to get rid of fleas once your pet has them
Nobody, including our pets, wants to be infested with fleas. However, chemical flea treatments, while effective, can be harsh on our furry friends. Luckily, there are a number of natural ways that you can get rid of fleas without too many chemicals.
Rubbing alcohol: create a solution of half rubbing alcohol and half water to spray on your pet and your house. The smell and taste helps to repel fleas.
Cedar shavings: cedar shavings stuffed into pillowcases around the house can help to repel fleas. Also add cedar shavings to the garden to help keep fleas away.
Essential oils: the smell and tastes of essential oils can also work to prevent and repel fleas. Eucalyptus, cedar, and lavender oils are all great options. You can either apply the oils to your pet's coat or bathe your pet in a bath that includes the oil. However, cat owners pay attention – because cats lack an enzyme to process these oils, you should only use essential oils for flea prevention under the supervision of a vet.
Diatomaceous earth: diatomaceous earth (DE) is not soil – it's the fossilized skeletons of various organisms found in bodies of water. These tiny skeletons have sharp edges that pierce into fleas and dehydrate them. To get rid of fleas on your pet, rub the DE on their skin once per day. Also, apply it inside to carpets and other living areas. Make sure to use DE labeled "food grade" just in case, because it won't harm your pet if it's ingested. Also, be careful around your pet's eyes and nasal passages when applying it, because inhaling DE or getting it into the eyes can cause a lot irritation.
For more extreme cases
In some cases, natural flea remedies are not enough. If your pets seem to keep getting fleas after you've taken all of the above steps, ask your vet about using Capstar, an oral medication that kills adult fleas, on your pets.
Capstar is different from oral flea preventatives because it kills fully-formed adult fleas, rather than flea eggs, so it can be used in conjunction with an oral flea preventative. Giving your pets a dose of Capstar and a flea bath is usually an effective treatment for persistent flea infestations.
Other important flea prevention steps
After you get rid of fleas on your pets, you'll also need to get rid of fleas in your home and your pet's bed, so they're gone for good.
Make sure to use flea prevention tools throughout your home. If you're using some of the natural flea prevention we've mentioned, don't stop at your pets. Use any sprays or other treatments on the other areas of your house that your pet frequents.
Vacuum everything. Fleas lay a LOT of eggs, so you need to get rid of them before they hatch. Make sure to vacuum your whole house and furniture, and then immediately throw away the vacuum bag. Also, using a water-based vacuum like Bissell is very effective on ridding fleas from carpets.
Wash your pet's bedding. Make sure to take care of fleas in the places your pet frequents most. Wash their bedding thoroughly in the washing machine to get rid of any lingering pests.
Side effects of fleas to watch out for
Fleas aren't just a problem because they cause itchiness and discomfort. They can also carry other problems that you should watch for.
Tapeworms: if your cat or dog accidentally ingests a flea that is carrying tapeworm eggs, they could ingest a tapeworm. Keep an eye on your pet's anal area as well as their feces to watch for signs of tapeworms.
Allergic Dermatitis: both cats and dogs are susceptible to an allergic reaction from flea bites. The skin can become inflamed and can cause excessive itching, scabs, and even hair loss.
Skin Infections: because our pets are itching too much trying to eliminate fleas, they can break the skin and increase the chances of an infection. Bacteria like staphylococcus intermedius and malassezia pachydermatis can get in there and infect a pet's skin.
With proper attention and treatment, you can make sure your pet has a flea-free life.
Your pets, your home, and your family will thank you for keeping those jumping critters away.
Always check with your veterinarian before changing your pet’s diet, medication, or physical activity routines. This information is not a substitute for a vet’s opinion.