If your dog or cat starts scratching excessively, the first thing most pet parents want to rule out is an unwelcome flea infestation. Unfortunately, these small, pesky parasites can be difficult to spot! It may be tempting to assume your pet is flea-free if you can’t find any actual bugs on their skin or coat. However, it’s important to keep your eyes peeled for another common telltale sign they leave behind: the presence of flea dirt.
Whether you find flea dirt disgusting or you’re not even sure what it is, we’ve got answers to all your questions about fleas, flea dirt, and how to remove both from your pets and your home right here.
What Is Flea Dirt?
Let’s start with the basics. Flea dirt may sound like something you’d expect a messy pest to leave behind. But it’s a bit more involved (and grosser) than that. Flea dirt is technically the fecal matter of adult fleas — so it’s just a nicer way of saying “flea poop.”
When adult fleas take up residence on your dog or cat, they consume your pet’s blood to survive. And when they defecate, they excrete mostly undigested blood in the form of dark pellets that remain in your pet’s coat.
These flea poop pellets also serve as a food source for flea larvae, which are baby fleas.
What Does Flea Dirt Look Like?
Perhaps unsurprisingly, flea dirt looks a lot like, well…dirt. The dark pellets are often described as looking like coffee grounds in your pet’s fur or little black dots on your pet’s skin. Typically, the pellets are reddish-black or dark brown.
It’s often easy for pet parents to mistake normal dirt, dandruff, or scabs for flea dirt. However, there’s a simple way to tell the difference between real flea dirt and other lookalikes. Best of all, it’s free and you can do it at home!
How to Conduct the Flea Dirt Test
Also known as the “paper towel flea dirt test,” this easy at-home method will reveal in an instant if those suspicious specks on your dog or cat are flea dirt or not.
Here’s how it works: Simply transfer the alleged flea dirt from your pet to a wet paper towel. If the dirt dissolves and leaves a reddish stain, it is most likely flea dirt. The blood component of the flea poop is responsible for the reddish hue. Normal dirt or skin scabs should not turn the paper towel red when wet.
Dangers of Fleas and Flea Dirt
If you find flea dirt on your dog or cat, it indicates the recent presence of adult fleas. Outside of finding actual fleas on your pet’s body, flea dirt is the clearest sign that your pet has a flea infestation.
That means you should take immediate action to treat the infestation and prevent re-infestation since fleas can pose health risks both for your pet and for your family.
The presence of fleas and flea dirt on your pets also increases your family’s risk of contracting flea-borne diseases that affect people, including:
- Cat scratch disease (Bartonella henselae), which is transmitted to cats by fleas and then transmitted to people when the infected cat bites or scratches a person
- Murine typhus (Rickettsia typhi), which is spread through the bite of an infected flea, or when flea dirt from an infected flea is inhaled or rubbed into wounds or eyes
- Tapeworms (Dipylidium caninum), which is transmitted to people who consume an infected flea, usually children
When and Where to Look for Flea Dirt
Now that you know what flea dirt looks like and why it should concern you, here are some guidelines to tell you when and where to look for it on your pet.
Excessive itching is one of the most common signs that you should examine your dog or cat for the presence of flea dirt. But it’s not the only indicator. You should also check for flea dirt on your pet if you notice these signs:
- Biting at the fur or skin
- Red bumps on your pet’s body, which often resemble pimples
- Crusting or scaling of the skin
- Developing “hot spots,” which are moist, inflamed areas of skin
- Hair loss, especially around the rump and thighs
- Brownish staining of the fur from excessive licking
- Presence of tapeworms
When searching for flea dirt on your pet, you can either part the fur and look around the base of the hair shafts for specks of flea dirt, or use a flea comb. If using a flea comb, comb in the direction of the fur. The flea comb may pick up both flea dirt and actual live fleas.
You may also find flea dirt in your pet’s bedding or in other areas where they like to rest — including your couch and your bed!
Though flea dirt looks the same on both dogs and cats, there are some differences to keep in mind when it comes to where you are most likely to find it. Fleas tend to congregate in different areas on dogs than they do on cats. Here are some pointers to aid your search:
Flea Dirt on Dogs
Flea dirt on dogs can be found anywhere on your dog’s body. However, dog flea dirt is most common around the rump, particularly the lower back, tail base, groin, underbelly, and thighs.
Flea Dirt on Cats
Like dogs, flea dirt can be found on any part of the cat’s body. However, cats tend to be fastidious groomers! Because of this, you may notice more fleas or flea dirt around a cat’s neck or other areas that are harder for them to groom themselves.
How to Get Rid of Flea Dirt
Unlike actual dirt, getting rid of flea dirt requires more than a deep cleaning session. You can remove every speck of flea dirt, but if there are still fleas living on your pet, they’re just going to poop out more. To fully rid your pet or home of flea dirt, you’ll also have to get rid of the fleas, themselves.
At the first sign of flea dirt, be sure to talk with your veterinarian about the best flea prevention and treatment plan for your dog or cat. Depending on your pet’s needs, your vet will likely recommend some combination of the following tactics to rid your pet and home of fleas and flea dirt.
Oral or topical flea medication
When it comes to flea medicine for dogs or cats, there’s no shortage of options to choose from…so many, it can feel overwhelming. That’s why it’s crucial to get guidance from your veterinarian, who can recommend the best option for your pet’s species, weight, age, and needs — both immediate and long-term.
Flea medications fall into two categories: Flea treatments are designed to eliminate an active flea infestation on your pet, while flea preventatives are designed to stop flea infestations from starting.
In pets with an active flea burden, a fast-acting oral medication like CAPSTAR (nitenpyram) may be in order to get rid of the fleas plaguing your pet. One dose of this flea treatment can start killing adult fleas in 30 minutes.
However, flea treatments are only effective for a short time. To prevent future infestations, your veterinarian may recommend a monthly oral flea preventative, such as Credelio (lotilaner) chewable tablets (which are also effective against ticks), as part of a long-term plan.
Some oral and topical flea preventatives, including Revolution Plus and Simparica TRIO, also offer broad-spectrum protection against other parasites that threaten pets, such as ticks, roundworms, hookworms, and heartworms. It’s important to note that your pet will have to be tested for heartworms before beginning this type of medication.
Whichever flea medication you administer, it’s extremely important to make sure you only give dog flea prevention to dogs and cat flea prevention to cats. Permethrin is a chemical in some topical flea products intended for dogs. If placed on a cat, this product can cause tremors and seizures.
Treatments intended to be put on the skin could also be toxic if ingested, so make sure you’re giving the medication correctly. If you have questions or concerns about oral or topical flea medications, make sure to speak with your veterinarian.
Bathe your pet
If your pet has a lot of flea dirt (and fleas) trapped in their coat or on their skin, bathing your dog or cat can help remove them and provide relief. But remember this is also a short-term solution that does nothing to prevent any larvae that survive the bath from reaching adulthood.
Be sure to use a gentle, pet-safe shampoo to remove the flea dirt and prevent skin irritation. You may have heard that using Dawn dish soap is a good idea for bathing pets with fleas. However, experts caution that the detergent isn’t any more effective than other shampoos and may be more irritating.
If you use Dawn dish soap, you may want to follow up with a soothing pet-safe shampoo. Keep in mind that you may need to do several rounds of shampoo if there is a lot of flea dirt trapped in your pet’s coat.
Vacuum pet beds, furniture, and carpets
Fleas can live in your pet’s bed, on furniture, and in your carpets. So if you want to get rid of fleas and flea dirt in your home, be sure to give your household some extra cleaning TLC, too.
Thoroughly vacuum soft surfaces and anywhere you spot flea dirt. Consider using a steam cleaner, as well. Don’t forget to consider other resting areas, such as favorite chairs or cat trees, while cleaning up!
When emptying your vacuum, be sure to dispose of the contents in a sealed bag placed into the trash outside of the home to prevent reinfestation.
Consider other pets
If one pet in your home has fleas, your other pets likely do, as well. Make sure to check them all. Regardless of what you find, all your pets should receive flea prevention to prevent flea infestations.
Tips for Preventing Flea Dirt on Dogs and Cats
As mentioned, the best way to keep flea dirt off your dog or cat is to prevent them from having the fleas that produce it. Work with your veterinarian to determine the right flea-prevention medication for your pet and stick with it.
However, medication isn’t the only weapon at your disposal in the fight against fleas and flea dirt. In addition to meds, you can reduce the risk of flea infestations even further with the following tactics:
- Avoid exposure to unknown animals, especially wild or stray animals
- Regularly spot-check your pet for signs of flea dirt, especially after your pet has spent time with other animals (e.g., boarding or dog parks)
- Check for fleas when brushing or combing your pet’s fur
- Wash your pet’s bedding regularly and vacuum high-risk areas
With consistent flea prevention and vigilant monitoring, you can help keep your pets — and your home — free of fleas and flea dirt!