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5 Ways to Tell If Your Pet Has Hidden Fleas

May 19, 2013

How to Tell if Your Pet Has Fleas

tabby cat lays on her side and attacks the corner of Doc Truli's exam room bench.

Happy Tabby

It’s almost Summer. Spring, Summer and Fall mean insects. If you have a furry pet, then you know fleas can be a big problem. You know what they look like, don’t you? 3-4 mm long, narrow, jumping, running, brown-black bugs on your pets and maybe on you, too. You know they spread disease, like the Plague. I mean, literally, Yersinia pestis, the agent that caused the Plague and killed 1 out of every 3 people on earth in the Middle Ages. (Yes, it still exists, especially in the American South West.)

You probably also know to look for flea excrement, also called “flea dirt.” Fleas eat blood, and their excrement is digested blood. It looks like clusters of black dirt by your pet’s skin, usually under the fur. It accumulates mostly by the base of the tail or behind the ears. If you comb out some flea dirt and you put it on white paper, it will run brown-red when water is added. You can even write your name with it!

We’re here to talk about hidden fleas – fleas you have not seen.

My 5 Tips for Knowing There Are Hidden Fleas

Short-haired guinea pig looks at camera winningly.

I’m cute and I know it!

Skin problems are most of my days’ work as a veterinarian. And half of the problems are caused by fleas. You can bet if they were easy to prove, people would have taken care of the problem without having to consult a veterinarian!

Here’s how I know a pet has fleas, even if I don’t see them:

5 Was to Tell If There are Hidden Fleas

  1. Sores and fur missing at the base of the tail
  2. Pet chewing frantically with nose smushed as if eating an ear of corn on the cob
  3. +History of a pet owner anywhere south of Anchorage, Alaska who is not using a flea product purchased from a veterinarian (like supermarket or pet store brands)
  4. Pet has tapeworms and does not hunt
  5. I pat the back and rub and then lift the tail quick and see the fleas under the tail.

8 week old maltese puppy passed out on his faut sheepskin dog bed right in the middle of his first exam!

Sleeping Maltese

5 Common Misconceptions that lead people to think fleas are not the problem

I hear these reasons why someone wants me to look further for another problem on a daily basis:

  1. “I never see a flea.” Your pet licks them off before you see them.
  2. “I have hardwood/ tile floors.” No carpet means easier to treat, not impossible to get fleas.
  3. “My pet never goes outside.” But I’ll bet you have screens, a screened porch, another pet who goes out, a crawl space under the house, relatives or friends who bring pets over, etc…
  4. “My other pet is allergic, and he/she is not itchy.” Patterns change throughout life.
  5. “I used to get fleas on me, but now there are none.” Wow! You have to have a ton of fleas for them to get on the humans! Now I really think you have a flea problem.

Doc Truli’s 5 Tips for Treating Fleas

There are websites and books and veterinarians and exterminators dedicated to helping you figure out how to eradicate fleas. I do have some tips to share based on common misunderstandings many people have about how to get rid of fleas.

  1. Fleas are survivors. They will hide under clutter. You must clean everything and declutter or you will never be rid of fleas.
  2. You must break the flea life cycle. This means targeting their egg and larval stages of development, which is 95% of the fleas. They look like dust and the larva move away from light. So you must treat deep into carpets, cracks, and under things. (Flea baths will never address the flea eggs and larva in the environment and you will fail.)
  3. If even one host pet stays untreated, the fleas will be able to continue to eat and lay eggs. You will have continual infestation.
  4. If you have carpet in only one room in the house, and you think that it’s okay to leave that room untouched because you keep the pets out of there.” You are dreaming! Fleas get out and pets get in. It’s just a fact. You have to treat the whole house.
  5. If your untreated pet visits a friend’s house where there are pets, or you move into a place that used to have pets, or you visit a dog park that is poorly managed, your pet will need a preventative against fleas.

Doc Truli’s favorite terrible flea comment while someone declines flea medicine for their pet, “I only see one once in a while and I don’t want to put chemicals on my pet.”

This strategy works for organic gardening, but not for fleas. If you see one, there are thousands, if not millions in your immediate environment. Good Luck! Call your local trusted veterinarian for help and advice about which products work best in your locale.

13 Comments leave one →
  1. August 21, 2015 4:00 pm

    I am so beyond frustrated with fleas, I feel as if I am fighting a losing battle and it upsets me so much because my Mikey is 12 years old and the thought of him spending his last years like this breaks my heart. I have tried so many different things and nothing works anymore. I have tried Frontline, Advantage 2, Revolution and Capstar. I have tried FleaBusters inside the house and outside. I have tried apple cider vinegar also with lemon and also Dawn Dish Soap. We bought a light with sticky paper to attract them. I have used Diatomaceous earth and Borax. We also have the exterminator spray outside once a month for fleas. I have followed directions and I use a flea comb on ALL of my cats every single day which is not easy let me tell you because I have more than a few cats. Some cats are strictly indoors like Mikey because he is deaf and I have another cat who is deaf also and I have some that stay totally outside and some that are indoor/outdoor. I have a flippin Cat House but most are rescues, it’s what I do.. They are all spayed/neutered and up to date on vaccinations and they are each adored. I never see actual fleas though and it’s driving me crazy. What I do see is a little bit of flea dirt here and there just to let me know they haven’t left. My Mikey is overweight which we are addressing with his slow but sure diet but he is 21 pounds and cannot reach his itches and it makes me sad. He does love to take a bath though so we do that often. He has long hair but I have even resorted to shaving him to make him more comfortable, he likes being shaved in the summer. If you have any advice at all, I would be forever grateful, These fleas are just relentless and my days are now consumed with cat grooming.

    • November 22, 2015 1:37 pm

      Dear Jennifer,
      Maybe this focusing on this concept will help (I did not hear you emphasize it in your comment):
      the flea life cycle is about 5% of the time on the animals and 95% in the environment. Focus your strategies on comfort and safety for the cats and focus on the environment for flea eradication measures.

      My friend who runs a holistic bug extermination company tells me 95% of what she does is assess the property, where bushes and trees and crawl spaces are. She targets the flea houses and advises about removing scrub, dry leaves, debris, cutting shrubs and trees back from the buildings where the animals live. That has the biggest effect.

      Plus, every medication you mentioned is very weak to noneffective against fleas in my area of Florida. You may have a similar issue where you are.

      Good luck!
      -Doc Truli

  2. Lisa permalink
    July 2, 2015 2:04 pm

    have you come across a preventative flea treatment that is safe around children? my daughter (currently 13mths) loves to touch and hold the dogs any time I turn my back. then she rubs her face in some way before I can get to her hands.

  3. May 21, 2013 8:30 pm

    Thanks! SIGH! It’s always something, isn’t it? LOL. Well, we soldier on with what we have to work with…

    • May 22, 2013 5:43 pm

      Why yes we do. And if we break the rules, the storm comes down and stops our existence. It’s a basic conduct of self preservation to serve another day and looking a client in the eye and offering the best advice I can. This is where stress comes from!!!

  4. May 20, 2013 12:10 pm

    This is good stuff. One thing I would add is that your friendly vacuum cleaner is one of the best flea treatment methods out there. Vacuum as much as you can, every day if possible. It sucks up adult fleas, and also breaks up the pupa before they turn into adults. Put a flea collar in the vacuum bag too.

  5. karen permalink
    May 20, 2013 6:32 am

    I had my encounter with “hidden fleas” while doing a practical at a vet some time ago. The owners came in with their cat, which had an itch. The vet carefully checked the cat, and asked strategic questions, coming to the conclusion that the cat had flee allergy. The owners were shocked and a bit embarrassed because they SURELY didn’t have fleas in their house or on the cat. And I was amazed that it really takes only ONE flea to cause a lot of problems!

  6. May 20, 2013 4:19 am

    Very cute pigture of a guinea pig there. Thankfully whee have never had fleas but mites are pretty common. Whee have had them in bad batches of hay before. The important thing is to treat quickly as it can be very uncomfortable for furries.

    Great article!

    Nibbles, Nutty, Buddy & Basil

  7. May 19, 2013 8:33 pm

    I am absolutely a proponent of flea prevention and continuous treatment of all my cats. And I, too, hear the arguments you’ve listed. One that I think irritates me the most is that “the cat never goes out” … I’ve had clients’ cats get fleas and they are honestly confused as to how the flea(s) got in the house. Yet they don’t question other insects or spiders found in the house all of the time. But I do have a question. My sister recently purchased Revolution for her four cats (purchased through her vet). She told me that she bought enough vials for 4 cats for 6 – 9 months (can’t remember the exact figure) and it cost $500! How can the average pet owner afford this? Right or wrong, THIS is why people seek alternatives through discount stores as well as questionable products over the Internet…and cats get the short end of the stick. The smaller vials of the exact same medication for cats costs as much or more than the larger vials for big dogs. In fact the issue seems to have led to something of a ‘black market’ for flea medications per a series of articles on VIN:

    • May 20, 2013 10:55 pm

      I agree, Molly. I have clients that handle fleas without monthly preventatives By treating their property quarterly and understanding how to break the flea life cycle. They are few. The products are expensive. And they carry no profit for the vet clinic, yet we all continue to sell the pharmaceutical industry’s stuff. The high bills make us look bad, while the pharmaceutical companies pocket the profits. I do not have a solution,except to say, a trusted veterinarian can save you a lot of money if you consult them first before buying a bunch of stuff.

      • May 21, 2013 11:47 am

        ^^ This.

      • May 21, 2013 12:56 pm

        There is a partial solution that trusted veterinarians might consider trying and that is circumventing the pharmaceutical companies who make them look bad by teaching responsible pet clients how to dole out the expensive flea products so that they last longer. It doesn’t take a medical degree to realize that animals at the small end of the spectrum are getting the maximum dose while animals at the heavy end are getting the minimum. All animals should be getting the minimum dose necessary for their weight. Extrapolating that just a little bit further, for those products with the same formulation for dogs AND cats, teach the cat owners how to dose from the larger dog vials which are less expensive and contain more medication than the vials for the largest cats. I know vets think clients are all idiots and maybe some are, but those are likely to be in denial about fleas in the first place, and if not, any vet would trust them to medicate a cat correctly with any other appropriately prescribed medication. With a little forethought, a good veterinarian might be able to save their clients a lot of money before they go out and buy a “bunch of stuff….”

      • May 21, 2013 7:22 pm

        You raise some good points. It’s more complex than that. First, the pills like Comfortis or Heartgard or whatever day they do not guarantee the medicine is evenly distributed in the flavor tab (unlike every other “pill.”) so I cannot tell a client to split without risking a patient. Then, the topical flea products like Frontline or Advantage or any of the other EPA approved products are treated differently legally than an FDA prescription product. If the product is FDA, I can prescribe it “off label” based on research and studies and experience. There is no legal loophole for “off label” use of an EPA product. So, on the United States, it is technically illegal for me to tell you that you can split a large dog Advantage can be split between many cats.🙂

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