Ask the RV Vet
With Dr. Deanna Tolliver, M.S., DVM
Dear Dr. Deanna — Help! Our dog sleeps on the bed in the RV with us and he’s scratching so much he’s keeping us awake at night. His name is Duke, and he’s a mutt, about four years old. We’ve tried flea treatments and nothing seems to help. What can we do next? —Marla G.
Hi Marla — Has Duke been scratching over the winter months or did he just start this spring? I’ll go over the causes of itching first and you can decide on your next step.
If he itches year-round, the possibilities include:
• flea bite allergy
• food allergy
• environmental allergy
If he itches seasonally, you can usually eliminate food allergy (which is a topic for another day).
When humans have seasonal allergies, mainly to pollen, their symptoms include runny nose, itchy eyes and sinus congestion. A dog’s symptoms are different and include mainly itchy skin and scratching.
If Duke’s symptoms are seasonal, the itching could be due to either fleas or seasonal allergies.
An easy way to distinguish them from each other is to use a flea comb. Here’s one from Amazon (it’s for both cats and dogs). The teeth on the comb are very close together and can pick up live fleas or “flea dirt,” which is flea excrement. Fleas suck blood, so their excrement is actually dried blood. I’ve given baths to flea-infested dogs and the water turned pinkish-red from the flea excrement getting dissolved in the water.
Because fleas bite to suck blood, you can also look for small red dots on the dog’s skin, especially on the abdomen. Sometimes owners find bites on themselves, as well. Both are diagnostic for flea allergy.
How to treat for fleas
The biggest obstacle to tackling a flea problem is that people don’t understand the flea life cycle and how critical that is. Here’s why: FLEAS DON’T LIVE ON THE DOG OR CAT!
Fleas only get on the dog (or cat) to suck blood, which is needed for the developing fleas. They jump on the dog (fleas don’t fly), have a blood-meal, and lay their eggs, either in the dog’s fur or in your carpet, cracks in the floor, or even in the furniture. If conditions are right, the eggs will hatch in two days or up to two weeks. They will spend up to three weeks as larvae, then they become pupae, which is a kind of cocoon stage. The outer layer of the cocoon has a sticky substance that makes it stick to carpet and difficult to vacuum up.
Once a flea emerges from its cocoon it is an adult, and the cycle starts all over again by feeding on a host. And they are not picky: dog, cat, human … blood is blood!
Now that you know the flea life cycle, you can see why it’s important to treat more than just the dog. Flea treatments on your pet will kill only the adults. Within days or weeks, young fleas will emerge and the flea problem is back again. YOU MUST ALSO TREAT THE ENVIRONMENT.
It’s my opinion that flea shampoos, powders, dips and flea collars not only do not work well, the ingredients can be harmful to dogs (and people!). We’ve come a long way from having to dip the dog. So here is my recommended flea treatment plan:
1. Day One: Give Nexgard (oral; dogs only) or apply Frontline Plus (topical; okay for cats, too), or the product your veterinarian recommends. Make sure it kills adult fleas within 24 hours (preferably within a few hours).
2. Day Two: Treat the RV with a “flea bomb.” To be successful, follow every instruction exactly.
• Before using the “flea bomb” give your dog (or cat) a Capstar or similar product that will kill all fleas on your pet, so you don’t bring live ones back into the RV. IMPORTANT: Capstar works only for a few hours, so don’t give it until you leave the RV after setting off the “flea bomb.” And yes, this is in addition to the product you gave on Day One.
• Use a “flea bomb” that specifically states it will kill all life stages of the flea. And one can will be enough; don’t overdo it!
• CAUTION: Follow the directions on the can that say you MUST EXTINGUISH ALL PILOT LIGHTS before using.
• Check to see if your CO detector can be turned off while the flea bomb is working. Otherwise, your unit may detect the aerosol and beep continuously!
• Stay out of your rig the required amount of time specified on the can (this is a good time to wash all your pet’s bedding and toys). Once back inside, open the windows and vacuum the carpet. Remove the vacuum bag and take it out to a dumpster.
If you’re confident Duke doesn’t have fleas, he could have a seasonal allergy. Take him to a veterinarian for diagnosis. Usually dogs just need medication to tide them over until the offending allergen is gone. These meds can be as simple as an antihistamine, such as Benadryl, or a newer drug called Apoquel. Many dogs that have previously needed a corticosteroid such as prednisone are now able to get better, safer relief from Apoquel. It’s prescription only, and a little pricey, but can improve your dog’s life considerably.
Dr. Deanna welcomes your questions. Email her at YourRVvet@gmail.com
Dr. Deanna Tolliver has been a full-time RVer for over 3 years, although she has been an RVer for several more. She travels with a fifth wheel and a 1-ton dually truck. Her travel companions include 4 small dogs and a 36-year-old Yellow-Naped Amazon Parrot. She has a BS and MS in biology and zoology, respectively, and a Doctorate of Veterinary Medicine from the University of Missouri, Columbia. She owned a veterinary hospital for many years and recently handed over the reins to a new owner.