Chiggers are a skin mite found in wooded areas of the U.S. as well around the world, and they cause an extremely itchy skin infestation. They go by many other names including harvest mites, red bugs, itch mites, heel bugs, black soil itch mites, duck-shooters itch mites, bush mites, berry bugs, and scrub mites, and they all belong to the family of mites called Trombiculid mites.
Dogs usually come into contact with these mites when walking through tall grasses and other vegetation, and the mites attach and remain at the points of contact—most commonly on the paws, legs, belly, head, ears, and area under the tail. They are most active in the late summer and fall. Dogs are often infected when running around off-leash, and these infections tend to be more likely in working dogs such as hunting dogs and dogs that spend most of their time living outdoors.
The lifecycle of Trombiculid mites requires a vertebrate host for the larvae to feed on, and the larvae secrete digestive fluids which make the host extremely itchy. Humans and many other animals can also become infected with chiggers directly from the environment, but not from other hosts such as dogs. This most often happens when a human caregiver also walks in the same areas as their dog, or they are both in an infested environment and become infected at the same time.
Before You Begin Treating Your Dog for Chiggers
It is very important to have your veterinarian diagnose chiggers before you begin any treatment. Many other skin conditions in dogs such as mange, flea allergies, fungal infections, atopy, or autoimmune diseases can have similar signs including itchiness, crusting, hair loss, blisters, or bumps. These distinct conditions require very different treatments, so you need to know exactly what you are dealing with.
Most often, veterinarians will make the diagnosis based on a skin scraping, where a sterile blade is used to gently scrape skin cells and other debris from the surface of the body in order to examine them under a microscope to look for parasites and other abnormalities. In some cases, the mites may not be seen on a skin scrape and additional tests like a biopsy may be necessary.
What You Need to Treat Chiggers in Dogs
Listed below are some common treatments your vet may suggest:
- Medication: If your vet diagnoses your pup with chiggers, she will likely prescribe a specific medication to kill the mites. Usually the medications used to kill chiggers are topical products containing fipronil and/or permethrin, some of which may be purchased over-the-counter.
- Antibiotics: In many cases, dogs may also need antibiotics if they have a secondary skin infection, and/or steroids if they have severe inflammation of their skin. Follow your veterinarian's directions exactly and make sure to finish all courses of medications as directed to avoid complications.
- Baths: Soothing baths may also help to control the itch while you wait for the medication to take effect. Be sure to use water that is lukewarm and not too hot to prevent further drying of the skin. Use a gentle itch-relieving shampoo such as an oatmeal-based product and/or one containing phytosphingosine, which is a moisturizing ingredient that may also reduce inflammation and have antimicrobial properties. This can help strengthen the skin’s protective barrier. Your vet may recommend a medicated shampoo as well.
It is also important to prevent re-infection for your pup. This means keeping your pup away from areas where chiggers live and where it may have become infected in the first place.
How to Prevent Chiggers in Dogs
If you know where your dog became infected with chiggers, be sure to avoid this area from now on. In many cases, you may not know exactly where the chiggers are, so it is best to avoid taking walks through places with thick vegetation, especially in the summer and fall. Walk your pup on a leash if they can’t resist a romp in the woods or tall grasses, and try to keep your pup indoors whenever they aren't unsupervised.
Be sure to use a monthly preventative product, such as those containing fipronil or permethrin, to prevent skin parasites including mites, fleas, and ticks. Some monthly preventative products also kill intestinal parasites and/or prevent heartworm infection so speak with your vet to determine which products are most appropriate for your pup’s lifestyle and needs.
Chiggers Trombiculid Mites American Association of Veterinary Parasitologists
Lecru, Line-Alice, et al. Treatment of Harvest Mite Infestation in Dogs Using a Permethrin 54.5% and Fipronil 6.1% (Effitix) Topical Spot-On Formulation. Vet Sci, vol. 6, no. 4, 2019, pp 100., doi:10.3390/vetsci6040100.