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Fleas & Ticks: Who’s Feeling a Little “Itchy”

Flea in different life stages.
The war on fleas

Has Your Dog Been Perpetually Scratching?

If you find little bugs jumping around or little black specks in your dog’s fur, you should take a closer look to make sure they don’t have fleas or ticks.

How to Spot the Signs of Fleas

Dirt that fleas leave behind. Hint: it's poop!

The problem begins with some scratching here and there. Maybe you spot some tiny specks around the house that you might’ve missed before. Maybe that beautiful hair that was so thick is looking a tad thin these days. Before you know it … yep. It’s confirmed. Your dog has fleas.

Every pet owner should be aware of the signs of a possible flea infestation. They include:

Your dog is scratching the fleas off.

Cartoon dog scratching because it has fleas.

Even if you don’t catch fleas red-handed, if you see your pet scratching or biting at its fur, fleas may well be the culprit. That’s because not only can fleas cause a sharp pain when they bite, their salivary glands give off a substance that’s irritating to many dogs.

You can see the fleas.

Fleas on a flea comb from a dog that is infested with fleas.

Adult fleas are about an eighth of an inch long. They’re reddish-brown and very thin. It’s hard to really see what they look like without a microscope (though it’s easier on a light-colored fur), but they do have big back legs. They can jump, by some measurements, upward and outward at least 12 inches in a single leap. And one estimation finds that for every adult flea found on your pet, there are at least 100 immature ones hanging around.

You can see what fleas leave behind.

Dirt from fleas that they leave behind. Try dipping these specks in water, if it turns red then it's fleas.

It’s called “flea dirt,” and it looks a little like pepper. A good way to test is to put these specks onto some damp tissue paper. If it’s flea dirt, the specks will turn red because of the digested blood they contain. You can spot this “flea dirt” on your pet’s skin, or your pet could leave it someplace, like:

  • Its bedding
  • The carpet
  • That favorite chair they have been sleeping on even though you’ve ushered them off it a thousand times

You can see other suspicious stuff around your home from fleas.

Fleas lay eggs on your pet — tiny white ovals — that mostly fall off into the environment around it (your bed, the dog bed, the carpet, that favorite chair), only to hatch a few days later into flea larvae.

Flea larvae life stage.

You can see larvae, too. They’re little, squiggly, worm-looking things with brown heads that will feed on all those specks until they wrap themselves up into a cocoon called a pupa. From larva to pupa takes about 3-4 weeks. During this time, it’s very hard for any flea treatments to penetrate the cocoon.

This is why it’s important to do routine flea treatment around the house for a month!

Life stages of fleas.

After that, they’re fully grown fleas, looking for a ride and a little of your pet’s (or your) blood.

If you see tapeworms, (internal parasites that are white or pinkish white and look like small pieces of rice that often show up by slipping out of your pet’s rectum) that’s a sign your pet may have been having it out with fleas.

Fleas Cause Hair Loss From Scratching

Is your dog is losing its hair? It’s not from the fleas themselves, but from all the itching and biting. Fleas often gather at the neck and shoulder blades of your pets. The base of the tail and along the back of the legs is a favorite hangout for them, too. Those are also places animals will bite to get to the fleas. That can take its toll on a dog’s coat. With full-blown infestations, fleas are visible in the bare areas of a pet’s belly, too.

Does their skin looks irritated

Dog with hair loss and red skin due to scratching so much to get fleas off them.

If you can get past your pet’s fur and look at the skin, fleabites are usually small, raised red dots. Again, look for bites on the back and neck and on the base of the tail. Another problem with fleabites is they can lead to flea allergy dermatitis, also known as fleabite hypersensitivity. If your pet has this, their skin can become itchy, red, and scaly. It can lead to secondary skin infections, too.

Their gums are pale

Pale gums from having so many fleas feeding off it's blood supply.

With a large infestation of fleas, some pets (especially smaller pups) could be in danger of anemia, or a loss of red blood cells. Fleas can take in up to 15 times their body weight in blood. Pale gums often signal anemia.

Fleas are, in the strictest sense of the word, pests. But they can be way more than that. They can transmit disease (to humans, too) and cause life-threatening problems for your pet.

Treatment for Fleas

Your veterinarian may consider using flea treatments as a “dip” bath which is a deep cleaning with a special shampoo for fleas. Your vet may do the first treatment in the clinic. There are also shampoo for sale at pet stores that work if there aren’t a lot of fleas on your dog. Follow the instructions very carefully. There are “flea”combs that you can go through your dog’s fur to get the fleas out. Flea combs are metal combs close together.

Flea pill/topical medication

Frontline is the best known topical for fleas and ticks.

This is the best thing to have all year round. Fleas are always around. They usually disappear when it’s below 32o F. But as soon as it warms up, they’re back!

For your house

Household cleaners for fleas.

Clean, clean, and clean some more!! You should clean anywhere your do touches. That means carpet, sofa, chairs, bed, your own bed if you let them on there. There are sprays you can buy to spray in all the areas of the house at pet stores. Remember, the cocoon life stage last 3-4 weeks where the sprays won’t be able to penetrate.


What a tick looks like up close.

Ectoparasites are organisms that live on the outside of an animal. Ticks are fairly common ectoparasites of dogs. How often you see ticks on your dog and how severe a tick assault will be depends on:

  • the region of the country in which you live
  • the time of year (tick activity varies in warm and cool weather)
  • the habits of your dog
  • how and when you use tick control products

Some ticks can infest dogs that spend most of their time indoors, and even dogs that only spend brief periods of time outside can have ticks.

How will ticks affect my dog?

Pup with a ton of ticks in ear.

Ticks attach to your dog by inserting their mouthparts into your dog’s skin. Many ticks also produce a sticky, gluelike substance that helps them to remain attached. After attaching to your dog, ticks begin feeding on your dog’s blood. The places where ticks attach can become red and irritated.


Although rare, ticks can consume enough of your dog’s blood to cause a deficiency called anemia. Certain female ticks can also cause a rare paralysis in dogs as a result of a toxin they produce while feeding. More important, ticks are capable of causing many diseases in your pet. The disease with which most people are familiar is called Lyme disease. Another is Rocky Mountain spotted fever.

Lyme Disease

Lyme disease from ticks.

Lyme disease can cause arthritis and swelling of your dog’s joints, resulting in painful lameness. Rocky Mountain spotted fever can cause fever, lameness, and other signs. There are also other diseases that ticks can transmit to your dog. Your veterinarian can answer questions about the diseases that are important where you live. View forecasts for Lyme Disease, Ehrlichiosis and Anaplasmosis in your local area at

How do I prevent my dog from getting ticks?

It is very difficult to prevent your dog’s exposure to ticks. Ticks can attach to your dog when he or she goes with you on walks, hikes, or during any outdoor activities.

It’s best to buy these products from your veterinarian. Your veterinarian is up-to-date of any reactions and what is best for your dog. There are cheap products out there that have not been properly tested and may cause problems for your dog.

Seresto collar lasts up to 8 months to repel fleas and ticks.
Lasted for 8 months.
Bravecto is one pill every 3 months for fleas and ticks.
One pill every 3 months
Frontline is a pill given every month for fleas and ticks.

The best way to prevent ticks from attaching to your dog is by the regular use of tick control products. Your veterinarian can advise you about the best product for your dog and your situation. Your veterinarian is also aware of diseases that are common in your area and can pose a risk to your dog.

If you have a tick problem in your yard consider:

  • treating the outdoor environment (be sure to understand what products you are using and how they affect the environment)
  • making a landscape change to make the environment less tick friendly – this can be done by providing a 3 foot buffer between the lawn and any woods. Mulch, wood chips, or gravel work well, and help to decrease the migration of ticks into yards.
  • ridding your yard of wild animals
  • Often more ticks are present or they are more active at certain times of the year. Your veterinarian can tell you how to avoid locations where large numbers of ticks are found.

Can humans be harmed by ticks?

Tick on a human.

Ticks can attach to and feed on humans. The skin where ticks attach to humans can become red and irritated. Ticks that transmit diseases to your dog can also transmit many of the same diseases to people. It is important to realize that people do not get these diseases from their dogs. Both people and dogs get the diseases from ticks they come into contact with outdoors. Diseases, such as Lyme disease and Rocky Mountain spotted fever, which have already been described in dogs, can also be very serious in humans.

Removing the Tick

Using a pair of tweezers is the most common and effective way to remove a tick. But not just any tweezers will work. Most household tweezers have large, blunt tips. You should use fine-point tweezers, to avoid tearing the tick and spreading possible infections into the bite area.

How to remove tick with tweezers. Make sure you get the head!
Make sure to get the “mouth parts” out.

Spread your dog’s fur, then grasp the tick as close to the skin as possible. Very gently, pull straight upward, in a slow, steady motion. This will prevent the tick’s mouth from breaking off and remaining embedded in the skin. People often believe it’s the head of the tick that embeds in the skin. But ticks don’t have heads, in the conventional sense, so what gets inserted into your dog is known as “mouth parts.”

Another option that is even easier to master is the use of a tick removal hook. It’s especially useful if you live in a tick-dense area where your dog is frequently playing host to the vexing little critters. There are several types of hooks, like the Tick Twister or the Tick Stick. You simply put the prongs on either side of the tick and twist upward.

A gif showing how to take a tick off with a tick twister.

Never remove a tick with your fingers—it’s not only ineffective, but the squeezing may also further inject infectious material.

After you’ve removed the tick, make sure to wash your hands thoroughly, clean the bite site with rubbing alcohol, and rinse the tweezers or tool with disinfectant.

If you have questions about human diseases that are transmitted by ticks and how you can protect yourself, you should consult a doctor.

  • While ticks themselves cause only mild irritation, they can carry diseases that pose a serious threat to animals and humans.
  • Ticks can be prevented by regular use of tick control products.
  • Just pulling off a tick can leave body parts attached to your dog. Ask your veterinarian about proper tick removal and tick control.
  • Illnesses transmitted by ticks can case fever, anemia, paralysis, lameness, and other symptoms.
  • People can not catch Lyme disease or Rocky Mountain spotted fever from infected dogs, but the same ticks that bite dogs can cause these illnesses and others if they bite humans.
  • Adult ticks can live up to 3 years without blood meal.
  • Ticks live on three different animals during their life.
  • Most ticks spend most of their life OFF the host (animal) in the environment.
  • Ticks can’t jump and don’t “fall from trees” as most people think, but transfer onto hosts when animals or humans walk through long grass, bushes and brush.

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