How to Tell If a Dog Has Fleas or Ticks

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Scratching is an initial sign of tick or flea irritation.
Scratching is an initial sign of tick or flea irritation. (Image: Marlene Palamarek/iStock/Getty Images)

Dogs are favorite hosts of ticks and fleas. These miniscule blood-sucking parasites can cause itching, irritation, disease and can even infest your home. While prevention is the best defense against ticks and fleas, regular grooming and inspection of your dog can help you identify problem bugs before they get out of control.

Ticks and Dogs

Ticks are small, flat, brown parasites founded in tall, grassy areas. They attach themselves to your dog’s body by their mouth, burying their head into the animal’s flesh. The longer the tick stays on your dog, the more engorged with blood it becomes. Ticks that stay attached longer than 24 hours can transmit disease. Regularly brushing your dog and checking his skin for ticks -- especially after being in tick-heavy outdoor areas -- can help you find the critters. Remove the tick by pulling it away from your dog’s body with your fingers, tweezers or a commercial tick remover, keeping the head intact. Wash the area with antibacterial soap and apply an antibiotic ointment. The bite area will look like a small red welt and may itch for awhile.

Fleas and Dogs

Although they’re about as small as the head of a pin, you usually can identify copper-colored fleas jumping around on your dog’s body, particularly on his underside. You also may notice “flea dirt,” or tiny black spots on your dog’s body or bedding. This is flea excrement. Fleas can cause intense itching and leave behind inflamed skin, especially if your pet is sensitive to flea saliva. Because of the rapid life cycle of fleas, from eggs to adult, fleas can reproduce quickly and sometimes have to be eradicated in stages to ensure complete treatment.

Tick and Flea Treatment

If your dog is covered with ticks and fleas or you’re uncomfortable handling them, see your vet for a tick-and-flea bath or dip. You may be given a medicated shampoo to treat your dog again at a later date. Wash all bedding in hot, soapy water and clean and vacuum household areas where a flea-ridden dog has been to prevent another infestation. In severe cases, you may need to use a commercial flea fogger to treat your house.

Tick and Flea Prevention

Use a tick-and-flea collar or repellent recommended by your vet. Keep your dog out of tick-infested areas, keep your yard weeds trimmed and always check your pup’s body for parasites, especially if they start to itch or scratch. Don’t let your dog around other animals that have fleas and address parasite problems as soon as you notice them. The longer you wait, the harder the job and the more miserable your dog will be.

Bite Complications

Ticks can transmit disease such as Lyme disease and Rocky Mountain fever, which can be fatal if left untreated. Fleas can transmit tapeworms. Your dog can develop flea allergy dermatitis, which can lead to excessive itching. Heavy scratching, licking or chewing of bite areas can lead to hot spots, or wet, open sores, which are prone to infection. If your pup develops these problems, see your vet for a canine-appropriate antihistamine or topical anti-itch cream.

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