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Dog Flea Allergy and What To Do About It

If your dog has fleas, the first thing you may notice is hair loss along their neck, spine, and thighs. Their skin can become flecked with scabs and hot to the touch. Then, of course, there’s the frequent scratching. You may - or may not - see live fleas; you may only see flea dirt (specks of digested blood).

Often, a client will say to me, “But my other cat/dog is just fine.” That’s because not all pets are allergic to fleas. But for the ones who are, the suffering can be severe. Anyone who’s experienced mosquito bites knows that itching can be highly irritating. 

The good news is that it’s pretty simple to prevent and treat fleas. Here’s how.

First of all, what is flea allergy in dogs? 

Flea allergy dermatitis (FAD) arises when your dog’s immune system overreacts to flea saliva. The severity of the itching doesn’t necessarily correlate to the number of flea bites your dog has; sometimes, it only takes a few to generate a lot of scratching. Many dogs will also have secondary bacterial and yeast infections and environmental allergies, all of which aggravate the itch.

Flea Allergy Symptoms:

  • Itchy skin causing excessive scratching
  • Fur loss
  • Thickened skin
  • Redness
  • Hot spots
  • Restlessness
  • Scabs or crusts.

How do you prevent flea allergy dermatitis in ogs?

According to vet and dermatologist Dr. William Oldenhoff, you need to take several steps. The first is to use a flea preventative year-round, which can take a while to resolve infestations because the flea life cycle ranges from one to two months, depending on environmental conditions, and pupa can survive for up to a year before becoming adults.

Dr. Oldenhoff also recommends cleaning your house thoroughly. “Vacuum all surfaces, paying particular attention to the areas adjacent to walls and corners and under furniture,” he says. “Be sure to clean the furniture as well, and launder any bedding the dog sleeps on.” He does not recommend having the house itself sprayed or otherwise treated since flea preventives, and meticulous environmental cleaning are usually enough to keep fleas at bay.

How do you treat flea allergy dermatitis in dogs?

Dr. Oldenhoff recommends oral medication to relieve itching; speak to your vet to find out what is most suitable for your dog. However, he cautions that just because your dog stops their mad scratching doesn’t mean the fleas are gone. “When these therapies are prescribed, your pet will be feeling much more comfortable, but the flea infestation is still present, and thus flea control must still continue,” he notes.

Other flea-allergy dermatitis treatment options include medications for secondary bacterial and yeast infections and a dewormer for tapeworms. Fleas harbour dipylidium caninum larvae (aka, the flea tapeworm). If an infected flea is ingested - as the dog grooms themself - the larvae develop into adult tapeworms in the dog’s intestines. The good news is that tapeworm treatment is simple and effective (your vet will probably prescribe an oral medication called praziquantel). 

Can fleas become resistant to flea products? 

If flea control depends on flea products used for many years, do fleas develop resistance? Hypothetically, they could. “In theory, resistance would be more likely with the products that have been on the market longer,” Dr. Oldenhoff says. Dr. Oldenhoff recommends using the latest products because they tend to be the most effective and easy to use. Be sure to speak to your vet to ensure that you’re using the most appropriate product for your dog. 

A dog’s perceived resistance to flea products may also result from their exposure to feral cats and urban wildlife or other pets in the household (all of whom should be treated with flea medicine year-round).

Are there natural ways to treat flea allergy in dogs?

If you’re looking for a natural solution to a flea infestation, know that ‘natural’ does not necessarily mean ‘non-toxic’ or effective. Some people use diatomaceous earth or boric acid in their homes, particularly on carpets. These pesticides may kill some larvae to reduce the overall flea population, but they won’t be enough to gain complete control of an infestation. The products can also be harmful if applied directly to animals.

Both diatomaceous earth and boric acid have effects on humans and animals. Diatomaceous earth, a type of silica, can irritate the eyes, skin, and respiratory tract. Boric acid can be corrosive to the eyes and skin, cause vomiting and diarrhoea, respiratory difficulties, and (in large quantities) seizures and coma. You can take steps to reduce exposure to these natural pesticides during their application, but ultimately, basic house cleaning is your best tool against fleas.

Before buying a flea collar, always speak to your vet; some are very effective, and many don’t work well.

Other integrative options include allergy shots and fish oil. Because they’re based on your dog’s specific tested allergens, allergy injections may help with their concurrent atopy (the likely genetic tendency to develop allergic diseases) - but they will not directly affect flea allergy dermatitis. 

After initial treatments, adding fish oil to a dog’s diet may help control flea allergy dermatitis by reducing inflammation. But applying oils - such as coconut oil - directly to the skin isn’t recommended. “I have seen animals with microbial overgrowth that I suspect was exacerbated by coconut oil application,” Dr. Oldenhoff says.

A flea infestation can cause physical and emotional stress to everyone. No one wants fleas - neither you nor your dogs. 

To keep your home flea-free, the best thing you can do is clean often.

If you have questions, you can always talk to a veterinary expert here.

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Written by:
SARA GREENSLIT Sara Greenslit
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