Did you find black spots that look like bits of black pepper on your cat or dog? Can those black spots be rinsed or wiped away but then quickly return? Unfortunately, that is very likely "flea dirt" and you may have a flea infestation to deal with. No one likes to hear this news because it means you have a battle ahead of you, but there are ways to take care of it and prevent it in the future.
What Is Flea Dirt?
What is often call flea dirt is actually flea feces, which is the partially digested blood meal left behind by the fleas who have been dining on your pet. These feces look crumbly and dark, resembling tiny pieces of black dandruff or flakes as if someone peppered your pet's fur and skin with black specks. It is often the first sign pet owners notice of fleas.
Flea dirt is most often found around the tail and belly areas of animals, areas where it's relatively difficult for pets to self-groom. You might notice it anywhere on your pet's body, however.
Even if you don't see the adult fleas themselves, the parasites are still around. Fleas don't live on animals throughout their entire lifecycle, and pets can be quite good at removing adult fleas through their scratching, licking, and chewing. Juvenile fleas in the environment will soon mature and hop aboard to continue the infestation though.
The Flea Dirt Test
A first glance, you may not be able to distinguish flea dirt from regular old dirt your pet may have picked up while playing outside. To test the black specks on your pet, wet a cotton ball or paper towel and drop some of the "black pepper" on it. If it dissolves into a reddish-brown stain, it is almost certainly flea dirt and an indication of a flea problem for your pet.
Checking for Fleas
It's smart to get into the habit of regularly checking for fleas and flea dirt on your pet. Brush your dog or cat regularly and watch for any signs of fleas. It's easier to spot on light-colored, thin fur, so you'll have to look very closely if your animals have dark, black, or very thick fur.
You can use a specialty flea comb to go through your dog's coat over a white paper towel to identify any flea dirt that may fall off. Your fingers can do just fine if you don't have a flea comb. Simply brush against the fur so the hairs part and you can inspect the skin. Check a few spots on their body just in case and be sure to inspect your pet's bed and favorite spots around the house for signs of fleas.
In addition to causing skin irritation, fleas can spread tapeworms and several infections. Some animals are allergic to fleas as well.
If your pet constantly scratches, licks, or chews, it might be an indication of fleas. Irritated skin or patches of missing fur also warrant close investigation. You may not always see the fleas, though. They only grow to about 1/8-inch at full size and can move very quickly.
The Great Infestation Fight
Fleas flourish in warm, humid environments, but they can survive year-round inside your home. Immature fleas also can go "dormant" and wait for the right conditions for a couple of months before they emerge.
Typically females lay around 25-30 eggs per day but can almost double that under the right conditions. It doesn't take long for a couple of fleas to turn into an infestation. This makes the battle against fleas a daunting task.
The life cycle of a flea takes it from egg to larva to pupa to an adult that is capable of reproducing in the space of a few weeks under ideal conditions. During an infestation, it's common to find fleas in all stages of development.
Giving your pet a simple flea bath or using a flea collar won't solve the problem. You will need to attack an infestation from several directions, both on your pet and in your home, getting rid of the immature fleas as well as the adults.
Your cleaning should include washing all pet bedding and anything else your pet sleeps on as well as thorough vacuuming of floors and furniture. Keep in mind that fleas can "wake up" weeks or months down the road. Be consistent in your cleaning: Do it at least once a week, reach spots you may not think of, and don't forget to clean out the vacuum.
At the same time, take measures to protect your pets. Your vet can recommend an appropriate flea treatment, both for immediate and long-term, preventative use.