A reader wrote in with a question about little black bugs on a dog:

“My dog has lost hair in spots and is scratching a lot. I see little black bugs on him. He is white and very fuzzy, what could this be?”

–Phyllis

Dear Phyllis,

Finding little black bugs crawling on your dog is never a nice surprise! There are many possibilities, but the most likely thing they could be is fleas. If you’ve never seen a flea, they’re about ⅛ of an inch long, sort of flat on the sides, dark brown and they tend to scurry and jump. They’re extremely common and often cause scratching that is worse right above the dog’s tail on his lower back area. 

One easy thing you can do right away to get rid of little black bugs is simply giving your dog a bath using regular dog shampoo. Bathing won’t get rid of ALL the bugs, but it should help decrease their number a bit until you can get to a veterinarian and find out exactly what those little critters are.

Even if the little black bugs on your dog are not fleas, rest assured most of these parasites are not too difficult to get rid of if you take the right approach.

Four Common Kinds of Little Black Bugs on Dogs

Fleas

Fleas are the most common dog skin parasite and are large enough to be seen without a microscope. If your dog only has a few fleas, it might be tough to find them. You can also look for flea “dirt” which looks like black sand in the fur which turns red if dabbed with a wet tissue (it’s actually flea poop).

Fleas cause a lot of scratching and are worse during warm seasons. There are many ways to get rid of them, including gentler natural methods. Don’t forget to treat all of your pets, your home and your yard if you want to beat fleas. Get more advice for fighting fleas naturally in my article on the topic linked at the end of this article.

little black bugs on dog
Fleas on a dog-they move around fast.

Ticks

Ticks range in size from about 1/32 of an inch all the way to 1+ inches when engorged. The small ones are often called “seed ticks” and I’ve seen dogs with literally dozens of them.

Ticks are probably the second most common external parasite we see on dogs. These creepy guys can transmit blood parasites to dogs and humans, so it’s really important to get rid of them A.S.A.P.!

You can remove them manually (use tweezers), use a topical medication or an oral medication. Frontline Plus and NexGard are popular with my clients. For a more natural approach to getting rid of ticks, read my article on Natural Flea and Tick Control.

little black bugs on dog
A tick attached to a dog. Can be smaller or larger than this.

Mites

There are a bunch of different kinds of mites that can infest dogs. One of the ones that are big enough to be seen without a microscope is Cheyletiella, also called “walking dandruff” as they are very tiny (less than 1/32 of an inch) but look like specks of dandruff moving among the dog’s fur.

I don’t have a photo of Cheyletiella mites on a dogs, but I can tell you they look more whitish than black. If you part the dog’s fur and watch closely, you’ll notice what looks like small flakes of dandruff but it moves a little bit. These mites do not race around like fleas, though. They move pretty slowly. Check out some Cheyletiella photos on Veterinary-Practice.com.

There are other mites that come from birds and rodents that look blacker than Cheyletiella. It’s possible they can infect your dog, but it is not a common occurrence.

Mites can make your dog really itchy. Plus they can infect humans. The good news is that they’re pretty easy to get rid of. Mites are much less common than fleas and ticks. Lime sulfur dip (make sure to dilute it) and Frontline Plus are both effective against Cheyletiella mites. You’ll want to clean your home and bedding really well and consider calling an exterminator, too.

Lice

Lice are tiny but they are visible to the naked eye. About 1/8 to 1/4 inch in length, lice are less common parasites of dogs in North America. They can appear whitish to dark brown in color.

Lice attach their eggs to the hair shaft and you can see these “nits” if you look closely at the base of your dog’s hair shaft.  They also cause a lot of scratching and are highly contagious to other dogs, but not to humans.

They’re relatively easy to get rid of, too, thank goodness! You can use Lime Sulfur dip, Neem oil shampoo, or Frontline Plus.

Below is a video from UC Davis of dog lice magnified by a microscope.

Non-Parasitic Little Black Bugs

There’s always a chance the little black bugs you’re seeing have just “hopped on” your dog but aren’t causing any problems. There are so many bugs in the environment, it’s impossible for me to list them all.

Your best bet is to collect one or more of the bugs (try using cellophane tape), put it in a closed container and take it to your vet. They can look at it with a microscope and probably identify it with some expert help.


Get some great ideas for Natural Flea and Tick Control


Getting Rid of “Bugs” on Your Dog

Modern science has developed dozens of chemicals used to kill and repel parasites on dogs. Most of them work by disrupting the parasite’s nervous system. Since parasite nervous systems are pretty different from dogs’ nervous systems, the chemicals have negligible effects on dogs. Still, some dogs are very sensitive and could have some side effects like a localized reaction to topical medications, lethargy, diarrhea, vomiting, or even seizures. 

Some of us don’t like the idea of putting any chemical in or on our dogs if more natural methods will work. Natural methods will work against parasites, but they’re not nearly as strong or as fast as typical anti-parasite drugs and chemicals. For natural methods of parasite control to work, you must be willing to put in the work and repeat it as often as necessary until all the bugs are gone!

Best Wishes,

Dr. Thompson


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