Identifying Fleas on Dogs and Cats

Is your pet scratching more than usual? Fleas could be the cause. Read our tips for identifying fleas.

Scratching can be a sign of fleas. By: Frostdragon

Every dog or cat owner knows that fleas can be an irritating problem, but not everyone realizes they are harmful for your pet’s health as well.

The problem is that fleas reproduce fairly quickly (laying 50 eggs a day), so a small infestation can quickly spread, covering your furry friend as well as other pets and even other areas of your home such as the carpet and bedding.

Because of this, as well as the irritation fleas cause on your pets, it is important to catch an infestation early. This can be difficult as the insects themselves are tiny and their eggs are even smaller, making identifying fleas very difficult. Here are some tips to help you find fleas on dogs or cats.

Go to the Vet?

If you are at a loss and think your dog or cat may have fleas but can’t tell, the easiest option is to go to the vet and ask them to look. They will be able to tell you instantly.

The only problem with this is that if your pet does indeed have fleas, they can expose other pets to them at the office. Therefore it may be best to go with this option only as a last resort — and always keep your pet separate from other animals in the vet office if you think they may have fleas.


The most obvious sign that your furry friend has fleas is if they are scratching more than normal.

Keep in mind that both dogs and cats will occasionally get itches and scratch their skin, so if this happens only every once in a while, it is probably not fleas. If it happens multiple times a day and they scratch for a long time, however, you should check their fur closely to see if fleas are hiding.

Flea Bites

Here is what the Ctenocephalides felis looks like up close, magnified many times. Yuck.
Here’s what Ctenocephalides felis looks like up close, magnified many times. Click for larger image. Ick.

If your pet is scratching or you simply think they have fleas, one of the first things you want to look for to identify fleas is the bites. These bites will be small areas of irritated, broken and red skin.

Because fleas prefer furrier areas such as the hindquarters, belly, ears and neck, you should check these areas carefully. They are also good at hiding in small spaces, so be sure to check neck folds and joints as well as the base of their tail.

If you see any small red areas, chances are your pet has fleas.

Look at the Fur

After you have found flea bites on your dog or cat’s skin, it is time to check their fur for the fleas themselves. Keep in mind that they are incredibly small; the adults are usually less than 1/8 of an inch. This means that you will have to look very carefully to find them.

Fleas are reddish-brown in color, so while they are fairly easy to spot on a light-furred animal (especially white ones), they can be challenging to find on darker ones. They will burrow down — so if your pet’s fur is very fluffy, you will have to move it out of the way carefully.

Flea Combs

Flea comb from Pets Adviser
Flea comb from Pets Adviser. Click for more info.

If simply looking at your pet’s fur isn’t enough to recognize fleas, it’s time to invest in a flea comb.

These are combs with very fine teeth; they are available at most pet stores and some vet offices as well. Pets Adviser also sells a flea comb that is safe and effective for both dogs and cats.

Tips for using a flea comb:

  • Simply run the comb through your pet’s fur, going from the back to the front.
  • Be sure to check all over the body, especially areas with thicker fur or nooks the fleas can hide in.
  • Sometimes you might not be able to tell if something is a flea or dirt, but a sure sign of a flea is if it moves.

Flea Dirt or Flea Eggs

Flea dirt
Flea dirt

My last tip to help you identify fleas on your dog or cat is by finding flea dirt. This is flea feces and is composed of digested blood.

Flea dirt is even smaller than fleas. The eggs are also very small, around 1/12 the size of an adult flea. Although both flea dirt and flea eggs are incredibly difficult to spot, they are sure signs of fleas. The best way to find them is by using a flea comb; the teeth will be close enough together to pick them out.

There is one important piece of advice if you find fleas: Don’t freak out!

Fleas are treatable, so you don’t have to live with them forever and neither does your pet.

This video shows fleas in action on a pet and provides an example of what you might see:

If you choose to treat your pet yourself, pay special attention to the medicine you buy. Using flea medication made for a dog on a cat can be fatal, and smaller pets may have adverse reactions to flea collars. Puppies and kittens will have different dosages, and some may be too young for medications. When in doubt, ask your vet before buying and/or applying any medications on your pet’s coat.

Keep in mind that pets (and people) should be removed from your home before you apply any type of flea treatment to your home’s interior surfaces or if you decide to use foggers.

For additional information, review the links below.

Additional Resources

Jet Perreault

View posts by Jet Perreault
Jet Perreault, a professional dog groomer of 18 years, graduated from Michigan State University, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in English. She has spent time on the dog show circuit, working groomer trade shows, and managing grooming salons and pet shops.

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