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Fleas: all you need to know

Summer months are great for your pet, allowing them to enjoy the outdoors and the warmer weather. But with summer comes one thing dreaded by cat and dog owners everywhere: fleas!

Fleas are by far the most common pest to irritate and infect both cats and dogs. Fleas are small, wingless, and parasitic, feeding on the blood of a host pet. What many pet owners don’t realize is that there are thousands of different species of flea, and no two are the same.

Most often, the flea affecting dogs is the common dog flea, or Ctenocephalides canis (canis indicating a dog-infecting critter), while the most common pest for cats is the domestic cat flea, or Ctenocephalides felis.

Despite their names, cat fleas can also affect dogs and vice-versa, and both varieties of flea will potentially make themselves at home on human skin too.

FACT FILE: 3 things to know

  • Cat fleas are very common in North America, while dog fleas are found primarily in Europe. If your pet is showing signs of flea infestation, it is likely to be cat fleas. 
  • Fleas can usually be spotted easily at home, using a flea comb. 
  • The best way to tackle fleas is to keep your home clean.

How do fleas infect?

Much like ticks and other external-body parasites, fleas are generally picked up through contact with an affected surface or other animal. Most pets who acquire fleas will do so in the garden, where long grass and shrubbery make perfect breeding grounds for the insects. Your car or dog may end up with fleas if they:

  • Spend a lot of time in the garden, among vegetation and wild animals 
  • Run free in parks and wild outdoor areas 
  • Make contact with other pets, either in the home or in public  

What are the symptoms of fleas?

In both cats and dogs, the most common symptom of fleas is irritation. Living on the skin of your pet and feeding through their skin, flea bites can range from mildly irritating to very painful. If your pet is frequently and obsessively scratching themselves with their paws or rubbing up against household objects, this could be a sign of a flea infestation. Fleas reproduce quickly, so it may not be long before your pet’s body is covered in the little pests.

Are fleas dangerous?

In general, a flea infestation does not pose a serious threat to your cat or dog’s health. However, if left untreated, open bites can become infected and lead to blood-borne viruses. Some animals are also allergic to flea saliva, a condition known as Flea Allergy Dermatitis (or FAD). In these cases, a single bite could cause serious discomfort, as well as visible scabs or lumps around bitten areas. A simple intradermal skin test can determine if your pet is suffering from FAD-related problems.

Another issue that may develop from a prolonged lack of treatment is anemia. As with any blood-feeding parasite, over a period of time your pet’s red blood cell count may decrease to the point of a medical blood deficiency. A single flea could bite your pet hundreds of times a day, which could lead to serious problems, and even death. If your cat or dog has been bitten and shows signs of lethargy, weakness or has pale gums, seek veterinary advice immediately.

How to get rid of fleas

Fleas are fairly easy to treat if the right steps are taken. The first thing to do is assess the extent of the infestation. Get your cat or dog comfortable on your lap or the floor in front of you, and groom them thoroughly with a flea comb. These fine-tooth combs are cheap to buy at most pet-supply stores, and will make it easy to find pests embedded in the hair and fur of your pet. Fleas are very small, though visible to the naked eye, and darkish brown in color.

To remove fleas quickly and efficiently, there are a range of pills and spot-on treatments available on the market which will have your pet pest-free in no time. However, if you prefer to take the non-chemical route, harmless anti-flea shampoos are available. If your pet doesn’t mind staying still and being thoroughly washed for ten minutes or more, these shampoos are a good way to wash away unwanted passengers. Be sure to apply the shampoo in a bathtub and rinse the bath thoroughly afterwards, as ‒ unlike chemical treatments ‒ the shampoo will not kill your fleas, only wash them away.

How to prevent fleas

There are a number of easy steps owners can take to minimize your pet’s chances of picking up fleas. Here’s our simple 4-step plan to keep them flea-free:

  1. CLEAN HOUSE, CLEAN PET: The most important step pet-owners can take to minimize flea infestation is to keep the house thoroughly cleaned and the garden tidy. Even if treated, pets will often pick up a flea infestation again due to pests remaining in the home. Vacuum carpets regularly and wash your pet’s bedding once a week. 
  2. TOPICALS & SPRAYS: A range of chemical topicals, sprays and dips are available as a regular preventative measure for your dog or cat. Usually applied monthly, these can be an effective prevention technique, but always check with your vet first. 
  3. FLEA COLLARS: Flea and tick collars emit a gas that repels pests from your pet. Some also seep medication into the animal’s skin to preventatively kill fleas before they bite. 
  4. MINIMIZE CONTACT: Pets ‒ dogs in particular ‒ will often catch fleas from other animals. This can be from other pets or wild animals. Discouraging your pet from mixing with other cats and dogs or chasing wildlife will reduce the risk of fleas.

This article is intended as an informative guide for pet owners, but is not a replacement for veterinary care. If you believe your pet may be infected with fleas, seek professional advice from a veterinarian. 

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