Fleas, which feed off their host’s blood, are the most common type of external parasite affecting dogs and cats. They’re the bane of any animal and pet owner, and are also of particular concern for people partnered with a working dog; an infestation easily interferes with your assistance dog’s ability to focus on her tasks.
There are about 2,000 species of fleas, which are generally dark brown and 1 to 3 millimeters long. Fleas have no wings and can’t fly, but they have three sets of powerful legs that give them amazing jumping abilities. In fact, they can jump up to 2 feet and about 10,000 times in a row. In other words, they’re capable of continuously leaping roughly the distance of three football fields, which is pretty impressive given their tiny size.
Fleas are very much a nuisance to their host and anyone who gets them in their home. They can be a real pain to deal with, and they do pose some health risks to your service dog.
How Can Your Service Dog Get Fleas?
Wherever you live, it’s likely there are fleas for at least part of the year. These parasites prefer temperate to warm temperatures (about 65 to 80 degrees Fahrenheit) and relatively high humidity (around 75 to 85 percent). So, in places like the southeastern US, fleas are a concern basically year-round; in many other places, problems peak in the summer.
As evidenced by their jumping abilities, fleas are highly mobile. If your service dog is near another infested animal—whether it’s another working dog, someone’s pet, or a wild critter—there’s a good chance some of its fleas will hop over to your dog. Fleas are also often found in natural environments and can be picked up simply by passing through an infested area.
Signs, Symptoms, and Complications of a Flea Infestation
Fleas are visible to the naked eye, as are their eggs and droppings (referred to as “flea dirt”). Seeing any of these on your service dog, on her bedding, or elsewhere in your home are sure signs of an infestation.
Flea dirt looks like dark specks, and it’s mostly comprised of digested blood. If you see matter that looks kind of like cracked pepper in your dog’s fur, comb some out and put it on a wet paper towel. If it dissolves and takes on the appearance of small blood stains, it’s flea dirt.
When fleas crawl around on your dog and bite her, they cause itching and irritation. If your dog has fleas, you’ll notice her scratching, licking, or biting her skin frequently. Flea allergy dermatitis is a common skin condition in which the host has an allergic reaction to the fleas’ saliva. It can cause itching, irritation, redness, and swelling. Also, excessive scratching, licking, and biting can lead to hair loss, self-inflicted injuries, hot spots, and secondary infections.
Because fleas feed off their host’s blood, anemia can be a concern. This is more likely in puppies than an adult assistance dog, though. However, a prolonged or heavy infestation does pose the risk.
Also, fleas are a source of tapeworm infections in dogs. Fleas are an intermediate host for tapeworms, and if your service dog ingests an infected flea while licking or biting at it, or while grooming, she may end up with an intestinal parasite problem as well.
Dealing with Your Service Dog’s Flea Infestation
As mentioned, treating and eliminating fleas can be tricky. It requires dealing with all the fleas at all stages of the life cycle, from egg to larva to adult. You also have to get rid of all the fleas in the environment. Reinfestation is a common and stubborn problem.
Start by talking to your veterinarian if you suspect your assistance dog has fleas. A number of safe and effective topical prescription medications are available that work on fleas in one or more stages of the life cycle. Over-the-counter products are also available, but are often less effective than prescriptions. Even if you use an OTC drug, check with your vet first. If you have other animals in your home, they should be treated too. Follow your vet’s instructions for application.
While trying to get the fleas under control, vacuum your floor, carpet, rug, and furniture surfaces daily. Empty the vacuum after each use, tightly sealing the contents and disposing of them out of the house. Also, frequently launder human, canine, and other pet bedding in hot, soapy water and the dryer. If the infestation is bad or you can’t seem to beat it, you may need to use a fogger or other chemical treatment for your home; there are also pesticide applications for outside.
Finally, talk to your veterinarian about a flea prevention regimen. Products are available to protect your assistance dog against infestations, but it’s important to get professional advice tailored to your dog and your location. The prevalence of fleas in your area—and what times of year they’re a concern—affect the recommended treatment schedule.