Written by Camille Noe Pagán
Reviewed by Amy Flowers,DVM on October 21, 2021
Fleas are common pests that affect dogs, cats, and their owners. These small insects feed on the blood of their host. While wingless, fleas can jump as far as 13 inches, nearly 200 times the length of their bodies.
Not only are fleas tiny, but they’re also quick. You might not even know they’re there at first. Some pets are more sensitive to the bites than others. The insects’ saliva causes an allergic reaction, which leads to itchiness. You might notice your pet scratching more often. A closer look at your pet might show scabs, flea dirt, or what looks like salt and pepper in their bed.
Fleas don’t affect only animals. They may also bite you, leaving itchy welts on your skin. Some may also transmit diseases such as typhus and plague. They can infect cats with “cat scratch disease,” which your cat can then pass to you. Some fleas may also pass tapeworms to animals and people.
If your dog or cat has fleas, medication is a must. Getting the bugs off your pet is important, too. It cuts down the number of itchy, irritating bites your pet gets -- and helps keep fleas out of your home.
Remedies and Treatments for Fleas
If you notice fleas on your pet or in your home, you should take care of the issue quickly. They multiply fast, and a few can turn into a serious infestation, causing problems for you and your pets.
Here are a few remedies and treatments you can use to get rid of fleas.
1. Give Your Pet a Bath
One of the first solutions to get rid of fleas is to bathe your pet. Just lukewarm water, or water and a mild soap, can help get fleas off your pet’s fur and skin. The dish soap can help to drown adult fleas. If you’re thinking about using a flea shampoo or something similar, talk to your veterinarian first. It can strip oils from your pet’s fur and dry out their skin. If your pet is allergic to fleas (your vet may call it flea allergy dermatitis), its skin might be especially sensitive. That’s also true if your pet has any other open wounds or “raw spots” on its skin. Some of the chemicals in flea products can make irritation and infections worse.
While a bath can help your pet, it’s not a must. If you’re worried about how your pet will react, it’s OK to skip this step. You should avoid bathing your pet too often. Talk to your vet to determine what’s right for your pet. Some may need daily baths for severe infestations, where others will only need once a week. It may also depend on the kind of shampoo you use.
2. Comb Your Pet’s Hair Using a Fine-Tooth Flea Comb
Fleas are tiny, fast, and difficult to grab. One way to remove them from your pet’s fur is to use a flea comb. Dipping the comb in a mixture of water and dish soap will help to catch the insects, keeping them from jumping away. The teeth on a flea comb are spaced to trap fleas while they allow your pet’s fur to pass through. Flea combs also help remove flea poop, sometimes called “flea dirt” -- dark brown or black specks that look like pepper flakes. The comb can also help to remove eggs from your pet’s fur. Be sure to take special care while you comb around your pet’s neck and tail areas. That’s where fleas tend to feed.
3. Kill the Fleas
The little buggers are usually between the size of a poppy seed and a sesame seed, and they're brown or reddish brown. If you see a flea on the flea comb, dunk the comb into hot, soapy water to kill the flea. Don’t try to crush fleas. They jump quickly and can be hard to kill by hand.
4. Spray an Apple Cider Vinegar Solution on Your Pet
Apple cider vinegar can’t kill fleas, but it can help to repel them. Fleas don’t like the smell or taste of it, so they’re likely to avoid your pet if they have it on their fur. Dilute apple cider vinegar in water and add it to a spray bottle. If your pet doesn’t enjoy getting sprayed, dip a brush in the mixture and get it into their fur with a grooming session.
5. Do Regular Checks
If your pet has a history of fleas, comb your friend with a flea comb at least once a week until you’re sure that your home and pet are free of fleas.
6. Let Your Pet Groom Itself
Cats clean themselves more when they have fleas. They’re not just itching. Researchers say the extra work helps cats get rid of fleas. Many dogs also groom themselves more often when they have fleas. In most cases, that’s OK. But if your pet is nipping, chewing, or scratching at itself enough that you notice hair loss or red, inflamed, or bloody skin, call your vet right away. Your animal may have an infection or a flea allergy.
Keep in mind that you may not find fleas on your pet, even if your vet has confirmed your pet has been bitten by fleas. They live in carpets, bedding, and other surfaces in your home. They jump onto pets (and sometimes humans) to eat, but they usually don’t stay once they’re done eating.
If you're not sure if your pet has fleas, see your vet to make sure.
When to See a Veterinarian
Fleas generally aren’t a medical emergency. In many cases, you should be able to get rid of them without seeing your vet, although the best way to handle them is with a prescription flea medication such as a collar or an oral or topical treatment. You should schedule an appointment right away if:
- Your pet is lethargic.
- They lose weight unexpectedly.
- They are scooting across the floor.
- You notice tapeworm segments in their stool -- these are usually about a half-inch long and resemble grains of rice or cucumber seeds.
- Their gums are pale.
These symptoms may point to an issue such as a tapeworm. The sooner you address them, the sooner you can restore your pet’s health and quality of life.