Reviewed for accuracy on March 18, 2019, by Dr. Katie Grzyb, DVM
Flea bites are naturally itchy and can cause even more discomfort if your pet is allergic to fleas.
“Flea bites are itchy because of antigens (chemical compounds) in flea saliva that dogs can have an allergic reaction to—this is the same mechanism that makes us itchy from a mosquito bite,” explains integrative veterinarian Dr. Gary Richter, DVM.
“Some dogs are more sensitive than others, and highly flea-allergic dogs can develop a systemic allergic reaction from flea bites that can last for weeks,” says Dr. Richter.
Even if you’ve already treated the flea infestation, chances are that your poor pup will continue to itch until the inflammation disappears and the skin heals, says Dr. Jennifer Kitchen, DVM, from VCA Animal Hospitals.
“The itching will also persist if the allergic reaction leads to a secondary skin infection called pyoderma,” says Dr. Kitchen. “The itch will continue until the infection is treated.”
Your veterinarian will determine the best course of treatment for the secondary skin infections. Here are a few options for helping soothe flea bites on dogs that you can discuss with your veterinarian.
Ask Your Veterinarian About Soothing Dog Shampoos
A cool bath with a mild, fragrance-free dog shampoo can be soothing and help decrease some of the inflammation, says Dr. Kitchen. “Pick a soap-free shampoo, if possible, and avoid ingredients such as fragrances, perfumes or insecticides,” she says.
According to Dr. Richter, dog shampoos containing oat proteins, aloe or tea tree oil can also be helpful for itching. Vet's Best flea itch relief shampoo and TropiClean flea and tick bite natural after bath treatment are good examples, as they contain ultra-soothing medicated ingredients that can provide relief.
When using itch-relief dog shampoos, Dr. Richter explains, “The key to bathing these dogs is to allow for 10 minutes of shampoo contact time before rinsing.”
If your dog is really suffering from itchy, inflamed skin, Dr. Kitchen recommends asking your vet about prescription skin and coat care shampoos that contain phytosphingosine (helps repair the skin), chlorhexidine (antibacterial) and climbazole (antifungal). All of these ingredients can be very helpful when it comes to soothing the itchiness and irritation of flea bites.
Talk to Your Veterinarian About Topical Medications
If the itching is concentrated on a particular spot, topical treatments can be highly effective, as they are easy to apply and can be washed off if the pet has a reaction to them, says Dr. Kitchen.
While there are many products out there for itching, Dr. Richter suggests starting with natural products containing antibacterial enzymes and then talking with your veterinarian about topical prescription pet medication like hydrocortisone if you don’t see results.
“Veterinarians are also able to prescribe topical medications containing steroids, antibiotics and/or antifungal medications,” says Dr. Richter.
Dr. Kitchen says that gels can provide relief, but they “are not going to be effective if the affected area is larger than the palm of your hand. If all of the skin looks red and your dog is itching in multiple places, pet owners should see their veterinarian for some systemic therapy to provide relief.”
Go to Your Vet for an Injection When Needed
If the inflammation is severe, corticosteroids are often needed, explains Dr. Kitchen. “Unfortunately they have many potentially life-threatening side effects and should be used with caution and only under a doctor's supervision,” Dr. Kitchen says.
Dr. Richter points out there are also many nonsteroidal options available from your veterinarian, such as Cytopoint and Apoquel. “These drugs often have fewer side effects than steroids, but they are not necessarily free of concern,” says Dr. Richter. “The goal is to use the least amount of medication possible while still relieving the itching.”
Treating Secondary Skin Infections
More serious cases of flea allergies in dogs don’t respond to localized treatment, so they often require a systemic approach to treatment and medication, says Dr. Kitchen. “If the itch is so severe the pet is injuring itself to stop it—pain is a deeper sensation than itch; if you feel pain, then you no longer feel itchy—they should be treated systemically,” says Dr. Kitchen.
Severe inflammation can lead to secondary bacterial or fungal infections, which might require dog antibiotics to treat, says Dr. Richter. “These infections might be due to the trauma from scratching or may be secondary to the inflamed skin,” Dr. Richter says. “Antibacterials and antifungals can be topically or orally administered based on the severity of the condition.”
Ideally, Dr. Kitchen says the infection should be confirmed with skin cytology (skin scraping sample) to identify and properly treat the bacteria and/or yeast found.
Maintaining an Itch-Free Dog
Keeping up with over-the-counter or prescription flea and tick preventives is the most effective way to combat fleas and keep your pet as itch-free as possible.
“Fortunately, there are now numerous safe and effective flea products to choose from—both topical and oral preparations, and even a long-acting oral medication that you only have to give every three months,” Dr. Kitchen says.
Dr. Kitchen recommends consulting with your veterinarian to decide which flea and tick medicine for dogs is the best option for your dog and their lifestyle. “A herding dog in the Northeast is going to need very different parasite control than an indoor pet in the Southwest,” says Dr. Kitchen.
It’s important to note that some topicals require application two days prior or two days following a bath because bathing will lessen the efficacy.
Also, keep in mind that preventives will also become less effective if you wait too long to reapply them. You should always check the labels and talk to your veterinarian to make sure you are following the most effective application schedule for your pet.
“Mark it on your calendar so you never forget a dose,” says Dr. Kitchen. “And remember, shampoos and topical products can help alleviate symptoms, but you must always control the underlying problem: fleas!”
By: Diana Bocco
Featured Image: iStock.com/Placebo365