How to Identify and Treat Flea Bites on Humans & Dogs

dog with fleas scratching itself

If you notice tiny red bites on yourself or your pet, you may wonder what the culprit could be. Flea infestations are more common and serious than one might think. And unfortunately, both you and your dog can suffer from flea bites.

Flea Infestation Cycle

Flea Lifecycle Infographic

Without understanding why and how fleas function, pet owners can easily fall victim to the vicious cycle of flea infestations. Most fleas are brought into the house by unprotected pets. Those animals not on monthly flea prevention make ideal hosts for fleas to feed and reproduce on.

But fleas don't just confine themselves to your pet. As soon as they enter your home, they lay eggs in warm places, such as your pet's bedding, your couch, and even your carpet. The visible fleas you see are just a tiny portion of the flea population brewing in your household -- adult fleas make up less than 5 percent of the entire infestation.

Humans are not ideal hosts for fleas -- they don't want to live on you -- but you are still susceptible to bites. So, while trying to find your dog or cat to feed on, they may jump onto your body and bite you before jumping to another potential host.

How to Identify Flea Bites

Because humans don't possess fur, a flea won't stay long after biting. So, how do you know if what you're seeing is truly flea bites? It's important first to understand what flea bites look like.

On Humans

woman with flea bite

Flea bites on humans resemble a tiny, red, raised welt that is typically no bigger than the head of a pin. Usually, these bites are found in rash-like clusters on the body where your skin is the warmest. They tend to gravitate to places where your clothes contact your body, such as underneath waistbands or sock elastic.

Common locations include:

  • Around the waistline
  • In the armpits
  • Around the ankles
  • In the groin
  • Under the breasts
  • Behind the knees
  • In the elbow folds
  • On the back of the neck

On Dogs

Damaged dog skin after flea bite

Bites on dogs look very similar to the raised red dots on humans, but they can be challenging to see, given a pet's fur. You may notice your dog itching or scratching excessively, biting at their skin, or you might find areas of thin or missing hair. "Flea dirt" is also a telltale sign of fleas on your pet.

Common locations include:

  • On the back of the neck
  • Behind the ears
  • Around the shoulder blades
  • On the back of the legs
  • Under armpits
  • On the belly/underside
  • In the groin area
  • At the base of the tail

Adverse Health Effects of Fleas

Not only do these parasites pose as an itchy annoyance, but they are also a considerable health risk. You and your pet can both experience negative consequences if your household is not protected against fleas.

Flea Allergy Dermatitis

The most common adverse health effect of fleas is flea allergy dermatitis (FAD). Humans and dogs with this condition are hypersensitive to the flea's saliva and develop a reaction every time they experience a flea bite. Affected individuals might notice hives, welts, or a widespread rash near the bite site. Chronic FAD in pets can lead to hyperpigmentation, alopecia, or secondary yeast or bacterial infections of the skin. Eradication of the fleas is the first step in treating flea allergy dermatitis.

Anemia

Fleas feed on the blood of their victims, and in cases of large flea infestations, pets can become anemic from blood loss. Small puppies have a lower blood volume and are therefore at higher risk for flea anemia. Affected animals can exhibit weakness, pale gums, spontaneous bruising, and collapse. Flea anemia can be fatal if not treated with supportive care and possible blood transfusions.

Plague

Unfortunately, the Bubonic Plague is alive and well in our present day. Fleas can carry plague bacteria from infected rodents and pass it to pets and humans. If your pet likes to chase rabbits or catch mice, they're at particularly high risk. After sustaining a flea bite, the infected individual typically develops signs of the illness within a few days. Symptoms include fever, lethargy, muscle aches, and swollen lymph nodes. It's critical to seek medical care for your pet or yourself if any of these signs are noted, and hospitalization with antibiotics is necessary.

Tapeworms

Fleas act as an intermediate host for tapeworms by carrying their eggs and larvae. Therefore, the ingestion of an infected flea can lead to tapeworm transmission. This occurs more commonly in pets when they experience a flea bite, then chew at the area and unintentionally swallow a flea. However, humans are susceptible, as well. There are reported cases of children in close proximity to unprotected dogs and cats becoming infected with tapeworms. Tapeworms can be treated in both pets and humans with oral medications.

How to Treat Flea Bites

What actions should you take if fleas are present in your home and you have sustained bites? There are a few ways to treat flea bites on yourself and your pets.

On Humans

It's important to resist the urge to scratch any flea bites. This will only trigger the release of more histamine from your immune system, perpetuating the itch. You could also introduce bacteria and cause a secondary infection.

  • Wash the bites with soap and water.
  • Apply an ice pack to help minimize pain surrounding the irritated areas and reduce the swelling.
  • Apply a topical anti-itch cream or Calamine lotion to each bite.
  • Over-the-counter antihistamines such as Benadryl may also stop the reaction, but it's a good idea to check with your physician before you take any medication.
  • If you have a severe flea bite allergy and experience swelling of the face, difficulty breathing, or nausea, seek medical care immediately.

On Dogs

The best way to treat fleas on your dog is to prevent future bites. Be sure to see your veterinarian if your dog is in distress due to the itching or has severely irritated skin.

Vet Combing Dog's Hair
  • Start your pet on vet-approved flea prevention. An oral product such as CapStar starts killing the fleas on your dog within 30 minutes to prevent future bites. CapStar is only effective for 24 hours, so it's important to begin your pet on monthly flea prevention for long-term treatment, but this product is used frequently in the vet hospital to get a head start on flea infestations.
  • You can brush your pet with a fine-toothed flea comb to remove adult fleas and any eggs hiding in their fur. Focus on the neck and hind end areas.
  • Consider bathing your dog. This is particularly helpful to wash away any dead fleas after using a product such as CapStar. Ask your veterinarian if they have a flea shampoo recommendation or use your dog's regular shampoo. (Note, if you used a topical flea product such as Frontline, you cannot bathe your dog for 48 hours following the application.)
  • If your dog has irritated skin from the bites, your veterinarian may suggest an oral steroid to bring down the inflammation and relieve the itching. Severe cases may require the use of a cone to prevent further scratching.

In The Home

Unfortunately, if you don't treat your environment for fleas, they'll continue to reproduce and reinfect your pet.

  • Wash all bedding -- yours and your pet's -- with hot, soapy water.
  • Thoroughly vacuum your home, paying extra attention to the carpets, couch, and under furniture, or anywhere your pet spends the most time. Some people like to place a few mothballs in the vacuum bag to kill the fleas and eggs. Empty the vacuum immediately after vacuuming and dispose of the contents in your outside trash.
  • Repeat these steps twice or more within 5 to 10 days after the initial cleaning to ensure that you kill all flea life stages.
  • If the flea infestation is severe or you cannot eradicate them despite treating your pets and your home, you may need to call a professional pest service.

Flea Prevention Options for Dogs

There are numerous safe and effective methods to protect your household from fleas. The first step is putting your pets on a flea preventive. Some over-the-counter products can contain toxic ingredients, so always go with a product recommended and prescribed by your veterinarian. By keeping fleas off your dog, you can keep them from infecting your home.

Topical

Most pet owners are familiar with topical flea preventions, whereby you apply a small amount of medication to the skin between your dog's shoulder blades. The skin then absorbs the liquid, which gradually spreads across your pet's body over a roughly 24-hour period. Most products kill adult fleas as well as flea eggs and must be applied monthly. Some veterinarian-recommended brands include Frontline, Revolution, Advantage, and Vectra.

Oral

If you'd prefer not to apply anything to your dog, you can elect for an oral preventive medication. These chews work in much the same way as topical prevention by killing any flea that bites your protected pet. Some products are incredibly fast-acting and kill fleas within 30 minutes, whereas others take effect in as little as 8 hours. Most are given monthly. Popular brands include NexGard, Comfortis, CapStar, Simparica, and Bravecto.

Flea Collars

Although flea collars have developed a bad rap over the years, veterinarian-approved flea collars are on the market today. The Seresto collar kills and repels fleas continuously for 8 months. These are pricy at around $80 a pop, but they last almost all year.

Break the Flea Cycle

When addressing a flea problem, it's critical to treat yourself, your pets, and your environment. This is the only way to break the flea infestation cycle. These pesky parasites can reproduce quickly, right under your nose. But by keeping your dog on monthly flea prevention, you can avoid bringing fleas into your household and keep your entire family safe.

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How to Identify and Treat Flea Bites on Humans & Dogs