You may have noticed little specs of what you suspect to be flea droppings on your dog without seeing any live fleas. But why would you see one and not the other?
There may be no live adult fleas on your dog, even with the presence of flea droppings. Treatment will still be necessary, as flea pupae can survive in cocoons for quite a while. It is also plausible that the live specimens are currently living in bedding or other similar material in the household.
If the latter is the case, there’s no need for concern; this is actually quite common for pet owners who pride themselves on keeping the home clean. For that reason, there are various time-testing solutions for getting rid of potential—or existing—flea problems, and we’ll discuss all these methods below.
Finding Flea Dirt on Dogs
It can be pretty challenging to spot fleas on dogs. Most dog owners will notice their pets scratching themselves excessively before seeing the insects themselves. Upon close inspection, you may notice flea dirt, or droppings, on your dog. Flea waste will appear as dark, pepper-like specs on the fur of your animal.
How to Tell Flea Dirt Apart from Other Debris
You can distinguish flea dirt from other types of dust and debris by brushing your dog. If the dirt breaks up into reddish dust after brushing, then you will know that it is flea dirt. Another way to tell that it is flea dirt is to bathe your dog. If it is flea dirt, then there will be a twinge of red in the water from the dried-up blood.
Flea dirt will be particularly prevalent during the times when feeding is unusually high. The biggest feeders are adult female fleas that are in the reproduction stage.
Reasons Why You Can See Flea Waste, But Not Fleas
It is possible to see flea dirt without there being any live specimens, and sometimes, you will notice the waste before you see any of the insects appear at all. But why?
For one, fleas are relatively small, making them barely visible to the human eye, even on a short-haired dog. It should be noted that the adult insects measure about ⅛ of an inch (3.1mm) in length, oval in shape, and reddish-brown in color.
However, this isn’t the only reason why you may notice flea dirt before the fleas; the following are a few other reasons why this may be the case:
1. Most Fleas Are Not Visible Due to Their Life Cycle
Fleas do move through their life cycle quite rapidly. The current life stage of most of the existing population will largely determine whether you can see live insects.
Dog fleas go through four different life stages:
- Oval, pearl-white color
- Are laid continuously by adult females
- 3-7 days to hatch
- 06 inches to 0.2 inches depending upon time since hatch
- Take 2-3 weeks to develop into pupae
- Live in camouflaged cocoons for seven days, but can live for up to 5 months if hatching conditions are not ideal
- Can live up to one year if they are fed plenty, but will only last 1-2 weeks if conditions become much less ideal
Without the aid of some kind of microscope or magnifying glass, only the adult flea will be readily visible to the human eye. The eggs and larvae are exceedingly small, and the pupae cocoons are typically disguised against the background.
There should be some adults in the population, as the entire group does not go through the same life cycle stage at once. However, it is possible that there may not be very many adults, though, making it seem like there are no fleas.
2. Your Dog’s Coat Makes It Harder to See Fleas
Naturally, it will be more challenging to see fleas on some dog breeds than it will be with others. Dogs with long furs, like English Shepherds, will make it more difficult for you as an owner to be proactive about checking for fleas. This is why you are encouraged to routinely brush your dog’s hair to protect your friend from unwelcome guests.
Regularly bathing your dog is also strongly encouraged. This can be difficult with some dogs who really don’t like to be near water and don’t appreciate what you are doing for them. A good time to bathe your dog is after you are finishing brushing his or her coat. This ensures that the fur does not become an entangled mess if your dog happens to be a long hair breed.
Also, avoid using harsh chemicals that can be skin irritants. If your dog already has fleas, then you are encouraged to use a flea treatment shampoo.
For routine cleaning, hypoallergenic soaps formulated for pets come highly recommended. One such product that fits the bill is 4-Legger USDA Certified Organic Dog Shampoo. This shampoo avoids using harsh chemicals that may contribute to further problems.
3. The Fleas Are Inhabiting Another Host or Material
Another reason why you may be seeing flea waste but not the fleas themselves is that they may not actually be there.
Fleas can be elusive, as they can live on a variety of hosts, including yourself. The larvae themselves can often be found where your dog spends most of his or her time lying down. As such, any treatment for fleas requires that you take no half-measures. Just because you can’t find live fleas on your dog doesn’t mean that they are gone for good.
Treatment of the entire house would certainly be prudent. If you are unsure of what to do, you should consider seeking a professional exterminator’s help. There is a set of procedures that you can follow yourself to rid the home of these unwelcome guests. Please be advised that it may take a couple of rounds of treatment to fully rid the home of fleas.
Here are some tips for fully getting rid of fleas:
- Affected pets should be quarantined to one section of the home after being treated.
- Wash all bedding, blankets, rugs, clothing, and such in soapy water.
- Vacuum clean your entire home.
- Ensure that you are not harboring any fleas.
4. It’s Not Actually Flea Dirt
It may be possible that the pepper-like specs you noticed on your dog are actually not waste from fleas after all.
First of all, make sure that the dirt actually fits the description of flea droppings. If you don’t notice any marked change in your pet’s behavior, then it certainly is possible that fleas are not the problem.
However, it certainly does not hurt to try a flea treatment anyways. You are highly encouraged to give your dog preventative flea treatment medications, like this one, periodically. Many of these treatments operate on a monthly re-application plan.
But, if these tiny specs aren’t flea droppings, what could they be? There is no telling what kind of mischief your dog can happen upon during his or her adventures. It’s what they do best. Fortunately, there are many possibilities that are less worrisome than fleas.
Rather than flea droppings, the specs may be one of the following:
- Actual dirt: dogs like to roll around in grass and soil
- Remnants of dark-colored plants or even flowers
- Sticky burrs from plants
- A symptom from an allergic reaction
Regardless of the material, it is still advisable to play it safe and assume that it is flea dirt. If it happens not to be flea droppings, then you can consider yourself lucky. If you wash your dog and the dirt disappears for good the first time, then there is a good chance that it wasn’t actually flea dirt. Fleas, by comparison, are persistent little insects.
It’s Just Allergies
Usually, if you notice a bunch of flea dirt on your dog, then a flea infestation is probably well underway. It would be a little unusual for you to take a close look with a magnifying glass or microscope and not actually see any live insects. However, you may be mistaking signs of an allergic reaction for flea dirt.
These types of spots are commonly referred to as lichenification. These spots can occur pretty much anywhere on a dog’s body. If you don’t notice any inflammation or excess scratching with the spots, then there is likely no reason to be concerned. However, you should still be on the lookout for worsening conditions in the future.
Allergic reactions are commonly a result of a food allergy. If the response seems bad, you are certainly encouraged to ask a veterinarian about getting your dog tested for allergies. In the meantime, there are ways to treat the black dots that you see on the skin:
- Medicated shampoos can soothe skin that has become damaged due to allergies
- Antihistamines in relatively low doses
- Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids
- A hypoallergenic diet that involves routinely switching up the primary sources of proteins and carbohydrates
How to Check for the Actual Presence of Fleas
To properly check your dog for fleas, you are encouraged to use a microscope or magnifying glass to search from them as you brush or bathe your dog. A magnifying glass, like the one found here, is probably the cheapest and easiest tool that you could have on hand for performing this task.
Also, use the tool to inspect your pet’s bedding for larvae that look like white worms. This will be a clear sign that fleas are present in the home, if not already on your pet.
However, there is really no need to spend too much time looking for invisible fleas. Home treatments are inexpensive and should serve to give you immediate peace of mind rather than leaving you wondering if you missed anything during your inspection. When it comes to treating pets for fleas, you will be able to choose between oral treatments or special shampoos.
Using Flea Treatments as a Preventative or Solution
Patience is a virtue when it comes to treating your pet for fleas. No matter the treatment, there will be a duration of time between the application and termination of the flea population. The speed of the treatment will largely depend upon which specific treatment solution you use.
- Oral medications for fleas require the fleas to bite to take effect. They can begin killing fleas in as little as 30 minutes and remain active for up to 30 days.
- Insecticides containing Imidacloprid, found in many chewable treatments like this one, can kill fleas within 24 hours
- Preventive topical treatments usually need to be re-applied every 30 days.
- Heavy flea home infestations may require repeated treatments, even to the extent of 2-3 different treatments at two-week intervals.
- It can take 12 hours or even more for topical treatments to kill all the adult fleas.
- Shampoos don’t offer long-term protection, as they will cease being effective as soon as the solution is washed away.
According to one of the prominent pest control companies, flea insecticides can start reducing the population immediately. However, it is not uncommon to see more fleas appear within 7 to 14 days of the first initial treatment.
Flea collars are the longest-acting treatments. They can hold back flea infestations for up to 8 months. You can find a flea collar for your dog here. Please be advised that the flea collar will not harm the fleas found elsewhere throughout the house, such as on bedding and clothing.
What if Flea Treatment is Not Effective?
Ineffective treatment can result from not performing a thorough treatment, to begin with. Alternatively, it is possible that you went through all the right steps only to find out that the chemicals themselves were not fully-effective.
According to the University of Kentucky, oral treatments and topical liquid treatments are the most effective treatments for fleas. Be sure to find a properly-sized dosage for the weight of your pet. For example, the flea medication found here is for dogs weighing 21-55 pounds.
Before using a specific flea treatment product:
- Consult a veterinarian for the most appropriate treatment for your pet.
- Often flea populations will develop resistance to one particular insecticide; local veterinarians should know which treatment is most effective in your area.
- Avoid applying insecticides that are designed for carpeting or other surfaces directly on your pet.
- Again, make sure that you are giving your dog the right dosages. This is really important!
Treatment Worked, But Some Flea Dirt Still Remains
It is also possible that some flea dirt will remain after you have treated your dog for fleas. In this case, either the treatment has not kicked in yet, or it has been completed, and you just need to give your pet a good bath.
Remember, some flea treatments do not actually kill fleas. Instead, they act to make it so that the insects are unable to reproduce. The insect development inhibitor lufenuron is known for doing just this. Be sure to read the packaging of flea treatments for active ingredients and set your expectations accordingly.
There is nothing wrong with using a development inhibitor like lufenuron to treat fleas, but you will need to find a way to exterminate the live specimens. A simple bath will tell you a lot about how much further you need to go with your treatment, as no flea dirt should appear after the bath if the development inhibitor was the only treatment required.
To properly bathe your dog and rid their skin of remaining flea dirt:
- Turn the water coming out of the faucet to lukewarm, then lather soap/shampoo onto your dog. Use a shampoo that doesn’t have harsh chemicals that will only further irritate your dog’s skin. You may use a shampoo that is designed for killing fleas.
- You should start with the neck, by where their collar usually is.
- Then proceed to lather your dog for at least 15 minutes.
- Follow this up with a good rinsing with lukewarm water, lasting several minutes. This should ensure that all the fleas on your dog are killed.
As we mentioned before, some dogs aren’t a fan of baths, so it may be tempting to rush through the process for their comfort. However, it is essential that you are not hasty with bath time if you suspect fleas to be a problem.
If you have trouble getting your dog to stay in the bathtub, you may very well find success if you give them a favorite toy to play with in the tub, like this waterproof toy.
Just because you can’t see any fleas on your dog, that doesn’t mean that there shouldn’t be a cause for concern. The telltale sign that a flea infestation is underway is the presence of black specks of dirt on your pet’s fur. You will notice that the particles have a reddish hue once you brush or wash them off.
For the full eradication of fleas, you will probably need to combine a medicinal treatment for your pet with thorough house-wide treatment. You are encouraged to use the treatment solutions mentioned above. Fortunately, monthly preventative treatments should prevent serious outbreaks, so you’re less likely to find flea dirt—or fleas—in the future!
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