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How to get rid of fleas, according to veterinarians

A step-by-step guide to getting rid of fleas, as well as prevention solutions to avoid future outbreaks
Dog running through a field with a stick in his mouth
Don't let fleas ruin your outdoor fun — here's are vet-advised procedures and products to help treat your pets against fleas. Getty Images

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As the weather starts to warm up, we can look forward to socially distanced walks, picnics and ultimately more time outdoors. However, warming temperatures often means increased flea activity, which is not as pleasant: “Fleas very much enjoy kind of a hot, humid environment,” said Douglas Kratt, DVM, president of the American Veterinary Medical Association. Flea infestations can be stressful, but by following a multi-step treatment plan and listening to your local veterinarian’s advice, you can efficiently stop an outbreak from happening in the first place.

“First of all, take a deep breath — there's a lot of really great products out there that are safe,” said Kratt, who works as a small animal practitioner at Central Animal Hospital. “Second of all, use your resources. Lean on the experience of the people that you're trusting the care with to give you a couple of good options.”

While it may be too late for anyone reading this article having experienced issues, “preventive care is far more preferable to treatment,” said Heidi Cooley, DVM, a veterinarian at Banfield Pet Hospital. So if you’re pet isn’t already on a flea control program, you may want to consider starting them on one to save time and money related to ridding your pet and home of a flea infestation. Another good practice they point out is regular baths in addition to frequently washing your pet’s bedding. Since hot water and soap kills fleas, regular washing is one the easiest ways to prevent fleas from spreading throughout the house. As for dealing with an existing flea infestation, we consulted experts on the best steps to take and some over the counter products to consider buying.

SKIP AHEAD How to get rid of fleas

How do fleas attach to your pet

Fleas can survive outdoors for up to two weeks without a host — your pets can come in contact with them in backyards, dog parks and kennels, not to mention contracting them from another animal that has fleas. Once an adult female flea attaches to your pet, she can lay as many as 50 eggs per day and live up to 100 days (depending on how old she was on attachment). Kratt explained that “when they jump on your pet, the female flea will honestly start laying eggs within the day.” Within two to 16 days, those eggs will hatch into larvae, which then grow into pupae.

How to get rid of fleas

Once you’ve identified your pet has fleas, the best approach involves multiple simultaneous steps that target fleas, larvae and eggs on your pet, in your house and yard. Always consult your veterinarian for recommendations on how to best treat your pet.

Step 1: Brush your pet with a flea comb

Vets recommend initially brushing your pet with a flea comb to remove any fleas. Pay extra attention to the neck area and the base of the tail.

Hartz Groomer’s Best Flea Comb

Designed for both cats and dogs, this Hartz brush is designed to easily remove fleas, flea eggs and other debris. Priced on the lower end for flea combs, this $3 comb also doubles as a grooming tool that can detangle knots in your pet’s hair. The extra-fine teeth comb has an average 4.7-star rating from almost 4,500 Amazon shoppers.

Step 2: Give your pet a bath

Wash your pet with soap and warm water. Keep in mind that shampoos can “have a drying effect on the skin and an extremely short-term period of effectiveness so are not recommended for long-term parasite prevention,” Cooley explained.

Vet’s Best Flea and Tick Dog Shampoo

Formulated with natural oils, this flea shampoo is designed to kill fleas, flea larva, flea eggs and even ticks on your pet within hours, according to the brand. This shampoo boasts a 4.3-star average rating from over 3,600 Amazon shoppers. Vet’s Best also has a plant-based formula for cats.

Sentry Flea & Tick Oatmeal Hawaiian Ginger Shampoo

This flea and tick shampoo from Sentry is meant for dogs with sensitive, dryer skin. Like Vet’s Best, this product by Sentry can treat both flea and ticks on contact. Garnering a 4.5-star average rating from over 2,700 shoppers, the brand claims is conditioning on the skin while being effective enough to get rid of fleas and ticks for up to ten days (then you would need to reapply). The pH-balanced formula can also kill the deer ticks that may carry Lyme disease, according to the brand.

Adams Plus Flea & Tick Shampoo

Notably, this Adams shampoo, with a 4.5-star average from over 8,800 shoppers, is designed specifically for cats (12 weeks and older). In addition to its natural ingredients, which include soothing aloe, coconut extract and oatmeal, this shampoo also contains an Insect Growth Regulator (IGR) that stunts flea development and is safe to use around pets and people (because they work to target insect hormones), according to the National Pesticide Information Center. The shampoo is most effective for up to 28 days until you need to reapply.

Step 3: Disinfect the house

After tending to the fleas on your pet, it’s time to get rid of an infestation in your home. In most cases, it takes three to four months to completely get rid of a flea infestation because it takes fleas this long to go through their life stages, according to the American Kennel Club — even more reason to practice preventive measures regularly.

“The real battle against fleas comes down to killing those that aren’t on your cat or dog,” said Cooley. “For every one flea you find on a pet, 99 others are likely hiding in your home, car, or yard.”

Seventh Generation Free & Clear Natural Laundry Detergent

This detergent from Seventh Generation is hypoallergenic, safe for pets and made for people with sensitive skin. As a natural laundry detergent, the brand said it’s a USDA-Certified Biobased Product that contains no dyes, fragrances or artificial brighteners.

Shark Navigator Lift-Away Upright Vacuum

This budget-friendly vacuum from Shark is powerful, lightweight (weighing 12.5 pounds) and one of the best vacuums. Rated an average 4.6-star from almost 13,000 shoppers, this vacuum also includes features like a detachable canister, HEPA filter, and the ability to transition between floor types.

Dyson V7 Motorhead Cordless Stick Vacuum

If you’re looking to invest in a vacuum cleaner that’s also cord-free, consider one that’s earned a 4.5-star average rating from almost 6,000 Amazon shoppers. With a runtime of up to 30 minutes on a single charge, this Dyson is designed to pick up fine dust and dirt in both hardwood and carpeting. Additionally, the vacuum has the ability to transfer into a handheld vacuum for smaller spaces.

iRobot Roomba 614 Robot Vacuum

Cooley recommended vacuuming your home several times a week to significantly reduce your pet’s risk of infestation and help prevent flea eggs from hatching. If you don’t have the time to vacuum periodically, consider using robot vacuums that automatically work on a timed schedule. Earning a 4.4-star average rating from over 6,700 Amazon shoppers, this iRobot grabs dust and dirt from carpet and hardwood floors.

Step 4: Prevent future infestations

Again, the best way to deal with fleas is through prevention. There are three main approaches in that regard: collars, topical applications and oral medications. Ultimately, Kratt said the best option for your pet depends on their lifestyle and your vet’s advice.

Seresto Flea Collar

A benefit of flea prevention collars — like this highly rated option from Seresto — is convenience. There is no messy application and as most collars have a shelf life of up to 8 months, you can put the collar on and not have to think about prevention every month. Earning a 4.5-star average rating from over 44,000 Amazon shoppers, it is designed to kill and repel fleas and ticks for 8 continuous months. Seresto also offers an option for cats boasting the same flea repelling properties.

NexGard Soft Chews for Dogs

This oral medication can be thrown in with their meals for flea prevention. According to the American Animal Hospital Association, NexGard's chews are FDA-approved to help kill adult fleas before they can lay eggs, providing protection from fleas and ticks for a full month. Unlike the other brands above that make products for both dogs and cats, NexGard is made for dogs only and boasts a 4.7-star rating from over 600 Chewy shoppers.

Advantage II Once-A-Month Topical Flea Treatment

Monthly topicals are applied directly to your pet’s skin, just below the fur. Unlike oral flea medication that circulates flea-fighting ingredients in your pet’s bloodstream, this topical treatment from Advantage II is designed to kill through contact and doesn’t require the flea to bite your pet for it to be effective. It has earned a 4.6-star average rating from over 2,800 Petco shoppers. The product should start working within 12 hours and keep working for 30 days (when you need to apply again), according to the brand. Likewise, Advantage II also sells an option just for dogs.

How to tell if your pet has fleas

Identifying the signs of a flea infestation is crucial. The veterinarians we spoke to outlined three signs to look out for.

  • Increased itching: Casual scratching or grooming is one thing, but if you notice your pet excessively scratching in a particular area, you’ll want to inspect further. You can do so by running your fingers or combing through their fur. “Flea bites are sharp and painful, and their salivary glands give off a substance that's irritating — or even allergic — to cats and dogs,” Cooley tells us.
  • Fleas on hair follicles: Adult fleas are reddish-brown and smaller than a grain of rice. Since fleas move fast through your pet’s hair, it is often easier to spot what is called “flea dirt.”
  • Presence of “flea dirt”: Also known as flea feces, “flea dirt” has been described as brownish-black dirt. If you are unsure whether it is real dirt or flea dirt, run it under water: If it turns red, then it’s flea dirt and you’ll have to treat it accordingly.

Otherwise, veterinarians recommended periodically scanning your pet’s bedding, carpets or other surfaces they hang out in or on for any signs of fleas.

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