Question from Tracey Newall

My dog Dexter gets Frontline flea treatment but recently he seems to scratch more. I haven’t found anything but his skin flakes, what should I do?

Answer from Shanika Online Vet

It is good to hear that you are treating Dexter; fleas are definitely high up on the list of causes for an itchy dog. Dry flaky skin may well be as a result of scratching due to flea infestation, but can also be affected by allergies and medical conditions.

It is really important to remember that a pet suffering from a flea allergy or irritation does not need to be full of fleas. All it takes is one flea to bite your pet to set off the allergic reaction cascade that leads to the skin being irritated.

What is a flea?

Ctenocephalides canis or felis (the dog and cat flea) are a small wingless parasitic insect that live on our pets and in the environment.  Fleas can jump but they can’t fly, they need blood feeds to survive and a large proportion of the flea population are in the environment as oppose to on your pet.

Where are the fleas coming from?

Fleas live on animals as well as in the environment. The flea population consists of adult fleas, immature larval stages, dormant pupae and then eggs, as you move down the list the numbers increase significantly which is why we refer to them as a pyramid.

Fleas in the environment, by this we mean anywhere a pet with fleas has been, the warmth of our homes provides a great breeding ground for fleas in carpets, pet bedding and just about any nook and cranny.

Cats can also carry the fleas and they do not even have to be your own cats, for example if a cat comes through your home or garden then the fleas can jump off or deposit eggs as they go. This is why we often advise treating the home environment and in-contact animals also.

So how can you tell if your pet has fleas?

Gently part your pets fur and search through close to the skin, fleas are a reddish/brown colour and quickly move away from the light. It can be easier to find fleas on the underside of your pet as the coat is naturally thinner here. It is often easier to see the flea dirt in your pet’s coat than the actual fleas.

So what is flea dirt and how can you tell if there is any on your pet?

Flea dirt is the waste product produced by fleas and when dry it looks like little black specs; however if you wet it these black specs turn red as they contain digested blood. This brings us to the ‘wet paper test’, we comb through your pet’s coat and collect the debris onto a piece of wet white paper, if there is flea dirt present there will be small red dots visible where the flea dirt has dissolved in the water. The wet paper test helps to distinguish between flea dirt and just dried mud that may be on your pet’s coat.

Can the fleas live on humans?

You will be relieved to hear that cat and dog fleas don’t tend to live on humans, fleas can however bite humans and cause an irritation at the site of such bites. Commonly humans find flea bites on their ankles, wrists or at their waist band as small itchy raised red areas on the skin.

How to treat the flea problem?

I would recommend using a veterinary flea product either in the form of a spot on (applied to skin at the base of the neck), impregnated collar or a spray directly on your dog. It is however really important to treat any in-contact animals not just dogs but cats too. Lastly do not forget to treat the environment; this is most easily done by use of an aerosol spray applied to the carpets, skirting boards and soft furnishing. Instructions often advise vacuuming carpets before you spray to help the chemicals to be more effective.

Always read the safety information as the chemicals may be harmful to fish or birds and it is important to allow good ventilation after spraying also. In my experience it is best to treat half the house at a time so as to leave somewhere for pets and people to hang out without having to breathe in the spray. The chemicals in the spray are designed to kill or prevent further development of the fleas and their various life stages. The effect of environmental sprays can last for a year.

Why is my pet still scratching even though I have treated him/her for fleas?

Provided a thorough approach to flea treatment using appropriate products has been undertaken then if your pet continues to scratch there are likely to be other factors contributing. These may include allergies or intolerances to food substances, cleaning products and or an underlying medical condition.

What medical conditions may be causing my pet to scratch?

The skin has its own inbuilt barrier to substances that can cause irritation this however can be weakened in conditions such as Hypothyroidism (underactive thyroid gland), Cushing’s disease (overproduction of natural steroids) and bacterial skin infection.

What should I do if after treating my pet, in-contact animal and the environment my pet is still scratching?

It is likely you will need to discuss further investigations into your pet’s skin condition with your vet, to try and rule out some of the conditions listed above. The investigations may involve blood and or skin tests. There is also the possibility that an exclusion diet or low allergy diet may be suggested if diet is suspected as a contributing factor to the skin problem.

So in conclusion an itchy pet may well need more than flea treatment. That is not to say that fleas are not very high up on the list of things to rule out by taking a thorough approach to flea treatment. If you are in any doubt always talk to your vet as we are here to help you and your pet.

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