How to Tell If You Have Fleas: 9 Unmistakable Signs of Fleas

I know. You didn’t think you’d find yourself Googling “how to tell if you have fleas” on a Sunday morning. Nobody ever does; which is why fleas can be such a persistent problem. They take advantage of the fact that you don’t want an embarrassing browser history, they feed on it.

That and your blood. Or your pets’ blood. Or anything’s blood. They’re kind of like disgusting little vampires, but not as cool.

So, the big problem: how do I tell if I actually do have fleas and there isn’t some other issue at work in my home or on my skin? Never fear, I’m here to help. Here are 9 signs of fleas to look out for!

Signs of Fleas #1. Scratching

Feel like you're scratching more than a neglected record lately? Explanation for Younger Readers: records were big plastic discs that predated mp3s and played superior/inferior music, depending on who you ask.

Yep. The obvious first and foremost: the biggest sign of a flea infestation is an upswing in the amount of scratching you or your pets are doing. Keep an eye out for any frustrated or unusual scratchy behavior in your domestic animals.

how to tell if your cat has fleas

Fleas tend to set up shop in thick fur and in really awkward places like armpits, back of the head and neck… the groin area…Poor things.

Even if your own hairless body is free of any itchy bites, your pet could be covered in them under that bundle of fur. Which is why observing to see if they're excessively scratching, chewing or biting themselves is one of the first signs of fleas.

Signs of Fleas #2. Restlessness

Coinciding with the incessant scratching and itching – if your cat is no longer getting its recommended 24 hours of sleep per day, or your usually docile dog is fidgeting and irritable, then it’s likely they’re suffering through the frustrations of a flea infestation.

Remember that for an animal with much thicker fur than you, and a more questionable adherence to hygiene, a flea infestation can be like a living nightmare: constantly scratching at places just out of your reach with no way to articulate the problem to your owner.

Behavioral signs can be more subtle with cats - check out the telltale signs your cat has fleas!​

Signs of Fleas #3. Powdered "deposits"

If you’re spotting any black/brown/white mounds of a strange compound in your pet’s or your own bedding, or even in and around quiet areas of carpet, then the chances are you’re dealing with a persistent flea problem.

The white stuff is flea eggs. Fleas lay eggs in order to keep their pestering lineage progressing through the years and often they’ll do so in places like bedding, thick carpet and rugs etc. As for the dark stuff, we hate to break it to you, but once a flea has digested and passed the blood it consumes, it leaves small deposits of pepper powdery looking stuff behind, otherwise known as flea poop.

how to tell if your dog has fleas

Tip: As you know now, the black deposits are flea droppings – but, of course, it’s difficult to differentiate between flea feces and any number of other ubiquitous rubbish that might be caught up in your pet’s fur or bedding.

A good test is to drop these small black pellets in water. If the water or dropping begins to turn a sort of reddish brown, then you’re looking at some freshly laid flea poo. Please wash your hands.

Signs of Fleas #4. Welts and bumps

When a flea bites, you’ll often feel the actual attack itself as a small sting or painful nip. However, the nasty little critters jump around so erratically and quickly that you’ll likely never catch the culprit red handed.

You will likely find that you become red handed yourself, though. A flea bite on humans tends to show up as raised red bumps or welts – it’s not uncommon to find the area quite itchy and irritated. Here's how to treat flea bites on humans and pets!

Generally speaking, there’s nothing too concerning about the bite itself, and usually the ‘wound’ will be quite small and temporary in its pain/annoyance. If you’re allergic to fleas, though, you might find that the bite can swell up to the size of a coin…Unfortunately, as far as I’m aware, no high-street stores will accept flea bites as a form of legal tender. Maybe in the post-apocalyptic future, when the fleas take over.

Note: If you are allergic to fleas, your immune system can overrreact to flea bites and release more histamine, which could lead to anaphylaxis. Symptoms of anaphylaxis include intense itching, rash or hives on various parts of your body, shortness or breath or wheezing as well as a swelling of your hands and face, especially the mouth and lips.

Anaphylaxis can be life threatening if it isn't immediately treated so take a Benadryl or use an EpiPen if you're having difficulties breathing and if it's severe - call 911 or go to the emergency room.

Signs of Fleas #5. Hair loss

signs of fleas

This one is a pet-only issue; sorry, you can’t pass off that male pattern baldness as a simple flea issue. It’s time to accept fate.

Some strains of flea can cause a funky reaction in animals: alopecia. This is one of the bigger signs of a concerning flea infection; you’ll want to get started on handling the problem as soon as you can to limit your poor pet’s discomfort and social standing amongst the other dogs in the neighborhood with their soap opera-esque flowing locks.

Although no less uncomfortable for the animal, hair loss may just be a sign that your pet has been scratching the area a little too much and accidentally pulled the hair in the process. No alopecia or severe allergic reaction, but still pretty horrible to suffer through. Make sure to treat any flea bites before it comes to that!

Signs of Fleas #6. Sock Riders

signs of fleas
how to tell if you have fleas

If you’re prone to walking through your home with socks or slippers on, then it’s worth taking a quick look now and again to inspect for any flea hitchhikers. The reason that most human flea bites are found in the lower leg/ankle region is that the flea in question will have jumped up from the thick carpet and taken a chunk out of you as you passed through its habitat.

By wearing socks/slippers, you’re not only protecting your feet from any unsolicited nibbles, but also providing a canvas for the fleas to pain themselves on to. White socks are best for this, as the dark color of the insects will show up better.

If, after wandering around the home for a while, you do notice black specks on your socks – you know what you’re facing. A roasting hot laundry load and the second Google search of your miserable Sunday: “How to Get Rid of Fleas”.

Signs of Fleas #7. Back yard specks

Similar to the indoor sock trick; you might find that darker, dingier and moister areas of your back yard or surrounding environment will deliver the same results, or worse, if you trample through with white socks on.

Fleas tend to thrive in locations like this, and it’s likely that this is actually where your pet caught the fleas in the first place: natural garden debris, overgrown plants, shaded areas under decking or trees etc.

If you find your clothing/footwear crawling with peppery specks after spending a bit of time in these places, then you’ve got yourself a bad flea problem.

Signs of Fleas #8. Anemia or pale gums

Anemia is a condition relating to the amount of red blood cells produced by the body – it can have all kinds of debilitating effects, not least is an increase in tiredness and listlessness. But this can be quite hard to identify, which is why vets will recommend you check your pets’ gums as well.

signs of fleas

Pale gums are a huge symptom of anemia – which in turn is usually a fairly substantive sign of a bad flea infestation. This means that the fleas are leeching off the new red blood cells to such a degree that the body can’t keep up with the demand. Pale gums = a trip to the vet ASAP.

Signs of Fleas #9. Dodgy colored dandruff

Flea bites and reactions to the dirt they carry show up differently on pets than they do with humans, generally speaking. Instead of subtle little red blotches or welts, your pet is more likely to exhibit scabs and flaking skin not unlike dandruff deposits.

The difference, obviously, is that this ‘dandruff’ will be a sort of red/black rust color, which will usually get caught in the thick fur or be found littering your pets’ bedding areas. It’s worth checking, thoroughly, at this point for signs of any active and live fleas living in the fur; try a flea comb and search through the hair.

With any luck, you’ll now be better suited to at least identify any fleas that might be loitering in your home or on your pets. The issue, now, is to begin the laborious process of eradicating them. Here's how to get rid of fleas once and for all!

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