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By Aleza Freeman, Pet Lifestyle Contributor

Good things may come in small packages, unless you’re talking about fleas. These parasitic little suckers are a major annoyance, especially for pet owners.

Their bites are itchy and irritating and can cause severe allergic reactions, tapeworms, anemia and infections. If fleas have you and your dog scratching your heads (him literally, you figuratively), it’s time to jump into action.

These freeloading pests won’t go away on their own, but the right combination of prevention and treatment will send them packing.

Here’s what you need to know:

What are fleas?

One of the most common pet care concerns in the United States, these annoying insects are persistent external parasites that thrive in warm, humid environments—everywhere in the world. Many dog owners struggle with flea and tick concerns twelve months a year.

We recommend checking with your vet or researching on your own to see what the flea populations are like in your area and if year-round prevention will benefit your dog’s healthcare routine.

How do I know if my dog has a flea problem?

Is Sir Barks-a-Lot scratching with the determination of an ‘80s hip-hop DJ? He might have a problem.

Signs of fleas include:

  • Severe itching and scratching
  • Biting and chewing at his skin
  • Red, irritated skin
  • Scabs
  • Hair loss
  • Presence of flea dirt
  • Tapeworms

For some pets the irritation caused by flea bites is a minor aggravation, but for those dogs and cats with flea allergy dermatitis (FAD)—the most common skin disease in American dogs, according to the American Kennel Club—it’s excruciating.

Flea bites occasionally cause anemia or lead to secondary bacterial infections (Bubonic plague, anyone?).

As if that isn’t enough, many fleas carry tapeworms. If a dog swallows an infected flea while grooming himself or his friends, he may end up with tapeworms too. Trust us, it isn’t pretty.

What are cat fleas vs. dog fleas?

While there are 2,500 species, the type most commonly found on dogs and around the world is the Ctenocephalides felis or cat flea. A recent UK study on flea pathogens notes that cat fleas are found on more than 50 different species of animals globally, including cats and dogs (and you thought cat people and dog people had nothing in common).

The Ctenocephalides canis, or dog flea, also bites both cats and dogs, but they are most frequently found on wild animals.

Only 0.12 inches long as an adult, these little suckers are wingless, but their hind legs enable them to jump at distances more than 50 times their body length. They can easily hop atop your dog where it will latch on to him with its strong claws and pierce his skin. Eek.

A cat or dog flea can also jump on and bite you or hitchhike on your clothing. It isn’t likely to stay on a human for long or lay very many eggs, though. Unlike your dog, you’d quickly find it and squish it into oblivion.

Understanding the flea life cycle

To effectively treat and eradicate these pests, it’s best to understand all four flea lifecycles:

  • Egg: The egg cycle starts with the miniscule flea egg, be it indoors or in warm, shady and moist outdoor environments.

  • Larva: The egg hatches into larva, grows and molts.

  • Pupa (cocoon): After molting, it forms a cocoon, where it develops into a pupa. There it lays in wait, sometimes for several months, until it detects the presence of heat, vibration and carbon dioxide (like that produced by a prancing, panting, tail-wagging dog).

  • Adult: The adult flea is triggered to emerge, jump onto the potential host and settle in, or jump from host to host, to live out the end of its bloodsucking days.

In other words, Spot is a flea’s dream retirement community. His body is warm and attractive for biting. His furry crevices are perfect for laying eggs (each female lays hundreds in her lifetime). Besides, without a host, the adult flea will starve to death within four days.

Where do fleas come from?

As your dog goes about his normal activities, multiple flea eggs roll into your carpet, couch, grass, garden, dog bed—pretty much everywhere he spends time. The eggs hatch, the cycle continues.

The timing of the flea’s lifecycle varies from two weeks to a year depending how long a flea stays dormant in its cocoon awaiting a nutritious host. But if all goes smoothly, fleas can live out their life (and multiply wildly) in only 14 days.

What is flea dirt?

Flea dirt is composed of digested blood and resembles dark grains of sand or pepper.

If your dog is suffering from an infestation, you may be able to see these droppings in their regular hangouts like their bed, your sofa, his favorite blanket, etc.

  • Pro Tip: For easy spotting, we suggest placing a light-colored blanket where your dog likes to sleep. Continue with this practice during treatment to ensure the fleas are gone.

Not sure if it’s flea dirt? Pet MD recommends picking some of it off your dog (or the blanket) and placing it on a wet paper towel. If it turns into a bloodstain, your dog has fleas.

Can I get fleas even if I don’t have a pet or have an indoor-only pet?

These parasites are nothing if not persistent. They’re like mini megalomaniacs hellbent on taking over the world (a.k.a. your home).

If you’re living a life without pets or with an indoor-only pet, and you’re wondering why your home is infested with these pesky bloodsuckers, consider the following from Pest Hacks:

  • Flea eggs sometimes bum a ride aboard second-hand furniture, like that random sofa on your neighbor’s curb. Keep in mind, free rhymes with flea.

  • If you’re not the first tenant or homeowner, the previous tenant or homeowner may have had pets (with fleas).

  • There’s a racoon, squirrel, stray cat or other wild animal living in your basement/attic. Surprise!

  • Extreme temperature changes may make fleas desperate and human flesh—albeit a temporary fix—is better than no flesh at all. You should be able to get rid of them pretty quickly.

How do you get rid of fleas?

First things first, call your vet to determine a plan for removal and prevention. Even though there are many over-the-counter products available like flea shampoo, on-spot treatment, pills, flea collars and more, your vet will know which option is best for your dog based on your location (in some regions, fleas have gained a tolerance to certain pesticides) and your dog’s individual health concerns.

Your vet can also evaluate if a certain treatment will have any potential side effects with other medications your dog might be taking.

Here are some other steps to take:

  • Vacuum everything in your house including carpet, floors and furniture. Throw the bag away immediately or empty the vacuum with care.

  • Steam clean your carpets and furniture once a month.

  • Groom your dog frequently with a flea comb.

  • Bathe your dog.

  • Wash everything (your dog’s bed, blanket; your own bedding, cushions) on the washing machine’s hot cycle. Dry on hot.

  • Talk to your vet about a monthly preventative for your dog, especially if you live in an area prone to flea infestations.

  • Talk to your exterminator about pet-safe environmental flea control.

Are there any home remedies for killing fleas?

Many flea-control products contain dangerous pesticides that you may be reluctant to use in your home or near your pet. If you’re seeking a natural remedy to keep your home flea-free, there are tons of excellent options.

Natural flea spray: Make an herbal flea spray by mixing together the following ingredients in a large spray bottle. After vacuuming, spray to your heart’s content on carpet, pet bedding, furniture and any other surfaces around our home.

  • 4 liters of vinegar
  • 2 liters of water
  • 500 ml of lemon juice
  • 250 ml of witch hazel

Flea-repelling plants: Plant an herb garden with strong smelling herbs like thyme, basil, clove, rosemary and mint near your doors and windows. Other flea-repelling plants include:

  • Penny Royal
  • Chrysanthemums
  • Lavender

Diatomaceous Earth: The food-grade version of this product is a natural and safe way to squeeze the life out of pesky fleas. Liberally sprinkle it outside wherever you think fleas are hiding. Y

ou can also sprinkle this on your carpets inside, then vacuum it up after 48 hours. It's not something you want to breathe in. So we recommend not using it in high traffic areas.

Natural Dog Shampoo: Add freshly-squeezed lemon juice or essential oils like tea tree, cedar-wood, rosemary or lavender to your dog shampoo. Follow-up with an apple cider vinegar rinse, which keeps your dog’s coat slightly acidic (a repellent to fleas).

Remember, it’s not your fault if your dog has fleas, but you’ll want to act fast to make those fleas flee. An itchy dog is a grouchy dog, and that isn’t fun for anyone.

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