Unfortunately, fleas exist almost everywhere. It’s not surprising that you and your dog might run into fleas at dog parks or on the trail. But your dog can easily pick up a flea while taking a “break” in your backyard or walking alongside a neighborhood sidewalk.
Fleas and their bites can irritate your dog and not just in the “annoying” sense of the word. Fleas can spread diseases to dogs and affect the bond you share. After all, no one wants fleas inside their home. So just how big is the threat? Fleas on dogs can lead to health concerns.
1. Flea allergy dermatitis
Many dogs suffer from flea allergy dermatitis (FAD), an allergic condition caused by flea bites. In fact, it’s one of the most common reasons pet owners take their dogs to the veterinarian.
When fleas bite, substances in their saliva can enter your dog’s skin and trigger an immune response. This can cause intense skin irritation and itchiness that extends well beyond the location of the bites, resulting in hair loss and skin infections that can make the problem even worse. Dogs with FAD will continue to experience these miserable symptoms until the fleas are controlled.
While chewing at irritated skin from flea bites or even while licking a leg to remove dirt, dogs can swallow fleas. If those ingested fleas happen to be infected with tapeworms, there is a good chance the dog will become infected. Once in the dog's digestive system, the tapeworms will attach themselves to the intestinal lining using sharp, beak-like mouth parts. While tapeworms rarely cause noticeable signs of illness like vomiting, the thought of a tapeworm clinging to your dog’s insides is definitely unpleasant.
If your dog is infected with tapeworms, you may see pieces of the worms stuck around your dog’s anus. These pieces, which look like white grains of rice, are actually packets of tapeworm eggs. If you look closely, you might even see them moving. Once the outer casing of these packets dries out, eggs will be released into the environment where the cycle can be repeated.
While thought to be a concern only for cats, there’s increasing evidence that dogs too can be infected with a bacteria called bartonella. While the source of infection is not as clear cut as in the cat, infection with the bartonella bacteria in dogs has been linked to fleas. Veterinarians are finding more instances of the bacteria in dogs, and the resulting effects are being reported more often thanks to greater awareness and improved diagnostics. However, there are still a lot of unknowns (especially in dogs) about the related disease, called Bartonellosis. Affected dogs typically do not show any clinical signs. However, the bacteria has been linked to medical conditions associated with the heart, eyes and liver.
Thinking about just one flea being on your dog is terrible, let alone thinking about hundreds. But that’s just what happens if your dog ever has the unlucky experience of being infested with fleas. If a large number of fleas bite and take blood meals (yes, fleas drink your dog’s blood), your dog can develop anemia. This is a serious medical condition, especially in puppies, that must be promptly addressed through veterinary care. Symptoms include weakness, lethargy, rapid breathing and, potentially, death if the fleas are not killed. With severe infestations, we suggest treating the home and surrounding outdoor areas, as well as treating the pet for fleas.
How to help prevent fleas on dogs
Fleas can be just about anywhere, making it practically impossible to avoid them. Therefore, it is important to routinely treat your pet with an effective flea preventive. Choose a product that kills fleas through contact, so fleas do not have to bite your dog to die. Oral flea control products typically require the flea to bite your dog in order to be effective.