Fleas are a common cause of itching and scratching in dogs; however, other medical problems can lead to similar symptoms. Other skin disorders can cause similar signs of flea infestation and should be ruled out before appropriate treatment can be given. Some disorders include: food allergy, atopy (hereditary allergy), trauma or other cause of local skin irritation, sarcoptic mange, cheyletiellosis, ear infections and primary keratinization defects.
Remember that many pets may have more than one problem. For example, in some dogs, scratching due to fleas can cause a skin sore which becomes infected with bacteria.
Diagnostic tests are often performed to confirm the diagnosis of fleas and exclude other diseases that may cause similar symptoms. A complete medical history can often help differentiate fleas from other causes of skin disease. Be prepared to answer the following questions:
Does your pet itch?
Which areas of the body does he/she scratch or chew?
Is there a prior history of skin problems?
Has there been a response to therapy?
Does your pet have any concurrent medical conditions?
In addition to a medical history, a complete physical examination will be performed, including a thorough examination of the skin.
Additional tests may include:
Fecal analysis can be performed to determine the presence of concurrent gastrointestinal (stomach or intestine) parasites or the evidence of tapeworms (which are transmitted via fleas).
Complete blood count (CBC) and blood biochemistry tests may be indicated if symptoms are recurrent or there are signs of another illness.
Skin scrapings may be done to determine the presence of mites (mange).
Allergy testing with radioallergosorbent test (RAST) and/or the enzyme linked immunosrobent asay (ELISA) are sometimes used. These tests have variable accuracy.
Intradermal allergy testing to identify the cause of the allergy (most flea allergic pets will react to the flea antigen).
Ear slide/cytology may be recommended to evaluate for mites or infectious organisms.
Treatments for fleas will depend on the following:
The degree of infestation
Whether you have both cats and dogs
The time of the year
Area of exposure (yard vs. park)
Whether your pet has an allergy to the fleas
Prescription flea control products are superior and include prevention products such as Program® (lufenuron) that prevent development of fleas that attack your pet and topical treatments that both kill and prevent fleas and ticks. Some topical treatments include Frontline® (fipronil) and Advantage® (imidacloprid). The new topical treatment, Revolution® (selamectin), prevents fleas, heartworms and some intestinal parasites.
If your pet already has fleas, then you need to kill them first with a product like Capstar® (nitenpyram), Frontline® or Advantage®. Capstar® is an oral tablet that will result in flea death within 4 hours after administration.
Local and regional needs and recommendations vary and there are a number of excellent product options. There are new and better products available all the time, so see your veterinarian for current recommendations. In difficult cases, a comprehensive flea control program may be needed requiring treatment of the pet, yard and house.