Most bug bites are just an itchy nuisance, but in rare cases, they can be life-threatening. In this guide, we cover how to identify and treat the most common types of bug bites. You’ll also learn to spot the clinical signs of a serious allergic reaction.
What to check for: firm, irregularly shaped bumps that occur in random, isolated spots. Since mosquito needles are so small (there are actually six of them), it’s usually impossible to see the point of penetration, even if the bite is on a hairless patch of skin like the belly.
Another telling clue is that mosquito bites become itchy much quicker than other bugs. So if your pup starts scratching immediately after a quick trip outside, a whirring bloodsucker is likely to blame. (In contrast, dogs will often lick or chew bites that are more painful than itchy.)
Mosquitoes are usually nothing to worry about
Heartworm disease is a commonly cited concern for mosquito bites. But dogs on monthly heartworm preventatives are completely protected against the disease.
The only exception is if your dog was infected about a month before starting medication. After about 50 days heartworms reach their adult stage and cannot be eliminated by preventative medication.
There’s one other scenario to watch out for: Like humans, some dogs are allergic to mosquito bites. Swelling and itchiness may be more severe. But your pup’s in no danger unless swelling in the face, nose, or throat interferes with breathing.
What to check for: clusters of small, red bumps usually found around the paws, belly, or folds of skin. There’s often a red halo around the bite center. The presence of small black pepper-like specs called flea dirt (or flea dust) provide a sure-fire diagnosis. Note: you may observe more intense redness and swelling if your dog has a flea allergy.
Fleas are active year-round, but they’re most aggressive in warmer months. Check the AKC’s guide to see your state’s official flea and tick season.
Fleas spend very little of their life on your pet. A majority of the time they’re bounding around your yard or home. So if you find clusters of red bumps on your dog in the winter, and you aren’t getting bit yourself, it’s possible you’re dealing with a mite infestation instead. (Fun fact: Mites are much more resilient against colder weather than ticks.)
What to check for: It’s easy to identify tick bites if the bug is still attached. Otherwise, it can be pretty difficult to distinguish the mark of a tick from a mosquito: a small red bump.
Ticks can be active in any season or weather as long as the temperature is above freezing. Check the AKC’s guide to learn about your state’s official flea and tick season.
How to get a tick off a dog
The key to safely removing a tick is using a tick removal hook or fine-point tweezers. Grasp the tick as close to your dog’s skin as possible and gently pull up until the tick releases.
Never use your fingers or blunt-tip household tweezers because you might end up squeezing more infectious material into the bite. You could also tear the mouth (which most people incorrectly believe is the tick’s head), leaving parts of it embedded in the skin.
Ticks and Lyme disease
Lyme disease is a common concern for dogs all over the US. It’s also a somewhat controversial topic in the world of veterinary medicine because the diagnosis can be tricky.
The bacteria responsible, Borrelia burgdorferi, is spread only through tick bites. Initially, a tick bite looks like your average mosquito bite. But if your pup is infected, a circular rash may appear anywhere from 3 to 30 days after the bite. The catch is that the rash only shows up for around 80% of infectees, leaving the other 20% with no visible signs of infection.
Even though traditional blood tests have been replaced by two much more effective methods (the Snap 4Dx and QC6), many dogs that test positive aren’t clinically ill and don’t need treatment. If a dog tests positive, the next step is to check whether the levels of a specific antibody (C6) are high enough to warrant treatment. Even then, some veterinarians may want to run additional blood and urine tests before making a decision.
Most spiders are relatively harmless for dogs. Mild swelling and tenderness are usually the worst symptoms you’ll see. However, there are two types of spiders that can inflict serious harm on curious pups: Loxosceles (recluses) and Latrodectus (widows).
Identifying venomous bites
Widow and Recluse are primarily diagnosed based on clinical signs that may take hours (even days) to develop. Intense pain and lesions around the bite center are two of the most telling signs that your dog was poisoned. Seizures, muscle stiffness, lethargy, paralysis, vomiting, and fever are also big indicators. If your dog experiences any of these symptoms at any point we recommend seeing your vet.
Venomous spider bites can manifest in two ways: local reactions and systemic reactions. This is important because in systemic reactions bite marks don’t always change in color or appearance. In other words, it’s possible your dog has been poisoned even if you don’t see a gnarly black lesion.
Hornet, Wasp, and Bee Stings
What to check for: Swelling is the biggest identifier for stings. Insects like bees and hornets are quick to retaliate, so most stings occur on the face, head, or paws after you dog accidentally disturbs a nest of a hive.
How to get a bee stinger out of a dog
If your dog is stung by a bee, there’s a chance the stinger might still be embedded in the wound. Don’t use tweezers to remove the stinger because squeezing it will release more venom. Instead, scrape a credit card over your pup’s coat until it pops out, then flick the stinger away.
What to check for: small red bumps with a rounded raised center. If fire ants are the culprit, bites will often turn into pus-filled blisters that look a lot like pimples. Dog’s often pick up ants after they step in a mound, so make sure to check for stragglers roaming around the fur.
What they look like: a flat, red splotch. Sometimes these bites will have an outline and other times the entire splotch will be a dark red. Black flies and Horseflies are the most aggressive types of flies and can even draw blood.
Small, annoying flies, like yellow flies and no-see-ums, leave a much smaller mark. Black flies and Horseflies are primarily found buzzing around large farm animals. So if you live near or on a farm, the likelihood that the bite you’re looking at came from a larger fly is much higher.
Ways to Soothe Insect Bites and Stings
No matter the variety of bite, there are two things you can almost always count on are redness and itching. If you’ve been a dog owner for any amount of time, you know how miserable that can make your pup. All that scratching and licking can even make the wound worse.
Here simple treatments that can help relieve itchy bug bites:
Skin Soother is an all-natural topical treatment that’s perfect to keep handy at home or while you’re on the go. It’s super easy to apply (no mixing, no hassle) and it’s packed with antibacterial herbs that reduce inflammation and relieve the affected areas.
Try Skin Soother risk-free today.
Other natural treatments to try:
- Oatmeal baths
- Ice the bite with a cold pack
- Epsom salt
- Baking Soda paste
Remember: Do not use calamine lotion on dogs because zine can be toxic.
Canine Allergic Reactions: How Do I Know If It’s an Emergency?
There are four different types of allergic reactions that your dog might experience after an insect bite. The good news is that only two have the potential to be life-threatening, and the symptoms are easy to identify.
Types of allergic reactions seen in dogs
|Anaphylactic||It’s the most severe type of allergic reaction and is fatal without treatment. Symptoms can reach a life-threatening stage in as little as 20 minutes.|
|Edema||You’ll see significant swelling in the face or throat, but it’s easily treatable and only fatal if the swelling interferes with your pup’s ability to breathe. Vets usually treat this with an antihistamine injection, but untreated, it will subside in a couple of days.|
|Hives (Urticaria)||Hives are incredibly annoying and itchy, but there’s no threat to life.|
|Allergic Dermatitis||Your dog will have itchy, flaky skin.|
Clinical signs of a serious allergic reaction
In extremely rare cases, insect bites can trigger anaphylaxis. Anaphylaxis is a rapidly occurring emergency can affect major organs, restrict blood flow to the brain (sometimes causing seizures), and prevent your dog from breathing.
If you observe any combination of these symptoms in your dog, see your veterinarian immediately.
- Hives or swelling in areas other than the bite
- Dizziness or disorientation
- Excessive drooling
With anaphylaxis, one of the most important things to look for (outside of a seizure, of course) is swelling in areas other than the bite. Anaphylaxis is a systemic reaction that erupts all over the body and in multiple organs.
How to tell if your dog can’t breathe
Reactions that cause a face or throat edema are generally much less serious than anaphylaxis, but they can be fatal if they constrict the airway. Check for any of the symptoms below to determine whether your dog is having trouble breathing.
- Flaring nostrils when breathing
- Breathing with an open mouth
- Breathing with the elbows jutted out from the body
- The belly expands and moves much more than normal during each breath
- Noisy and scratchy breathing
Can I give my dog Benadryl?
Benadryl is a great medication for dogs with mild allergies, but it should never be self-prescribed. Always consult with your vet before trying an allergy medication out on your dog. Depending on your pooch’s health, Benadryl might actually make things worse.