Insect bites and stings on dogs: how to ID and treat

July 24, 2023 - 7 min read

The information in this article has been reviewed by Kirsten Ronngren, DVM MRCVS on July 22, 2023 . Although it may provide helpful guidance, it should not be substituted for professional veterinary advice.

insect bites on dogs

As a pet parent, you’re always thinking about your dog’s health and wellbeing, and sometimes big health risks come in small, creepy-crawly packages. Insect bites and stings are common threats to canine health, especially during the summer months.

These encounters can range from flea, spider, or mosquito bites to bee stings and more. Sometimes, insect bites or stings cause little more than temporary discomfort. But other times, they can cause serious or even life-threatening health issues for your beloved pup.

How to identify insect bites and stings on dogs

Pet parents should know how to recognize insect bites on dogs and understand what they mean. It’s not enough to know what a bug bite looks like; You should also be able to identify the signs of an allergic reaction or other health issue and know when to seek veterinary treatment.

Bug bites and stings can leave a variety of visible signs on your dog's skin. These may include redness, swelling, and sometimes a clear puncture mark. In some cases, you may even notice your dog scratching or biting at the affected area. It's important to monitor these signs closely, as they can point to the severity of the bite or sting and tell you whether a vet visit is necessary.

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Here are some signs to look out for:

Redness and swelling

Redness and mild swelling around the bite or sting site are common initial reactions to a bug bite or sting. The affected area might also be slightly raised and/or warm to the touch.

Redness and swelling often indicate the body's natural inflammatory reaction to an irritation or a foreign substance injected into the skin. The health risk might be moderate or mild, especially if no other symptoms are present.

In many cases, redness and swelling will resolve on their own within a day or two and can be managed at home with basic first aid. But make sure to monitor your pet for any signs of illness.

Puncture marks

Some insect bites, like those from spiders or ticks, may leave visible puncture marks, which indicate that the insect's mouthparts have penetrated the skin. These marks can help identify the culprit insect. It’s essential, when possible, to identify the specific insect for proper treatment.

Health outcomes in such situations can vary. The severity of the bite or sting will depend on the insect responsible and your dog's reaction. While some bites may be harmless, others may cause more significant health issues and require veterinary attention. Monitor your pet and seek out veterinary care if you notice symptoms of illness.

Scratching and biting

A black and white border collie scratching herself on a field in the summer

If your dog is scratching, licking, or biting at a specific area of their body, it may indicate discomfort or pain stemming from an insect bite or sting. This can become a vicious cycle: Constant scratching or biting can further irritate the affected area, leading to continual irritation, itching or even secondary infections.

The severity of symptoms in these cases can often range from mild to moderate. Keep a close eye on your pup. If your dog's scratching or biting is excessive or persistent, or if the area looks inflamed or infected, don’t hesitate to consult your veterinarian for appropriate treatment.

Allergic reactions

Allergic reactions to insect bites or stings may manifest as hives, swelling (including facial swelling), or — in severe cases involving anaphylaxis — difficulty breathing, vomiting, diarrhea, or collapse.

As with humans, allergic reactions from bug bites or stings can be severe and life-threatening for dogs. If you notice any signs of an allergic reaction, it's crucial that you seek immediate veterinary care. Take your pup to the nearest emergency clinic if need be; decisive action could save your dog’s life.

Behavioral changes

Aside from physical signs, your dog might exhibit behavioral changes if they’ve been bitten or stung by a bug. In addition to excessive scratching or biting at the affected area, these changes can include restlessness or unusual aggression.

Such behaviors can indicate discomfort or distress, and you shouldn’t ignore them. If you notice any sudden changes in your dog's behavior following a potential insect bite or sting, it's important to speak to your vet right away. And even if you don’t notice an insect-inflicted mark, take them to the vet anyway; your vet might find that mark, or your pet may be suffering from a different health condition altogether.

Bug Bites That Can Harm Dogs

There are several insects (and arachnids!) that can harm dogs, including fleas, mosquitoes, spiders, bees, and ticks. Each of these creepy-crawlies can cause unique symptoms.

Flea and Tick Bites

When it comes to canine bug bites, fleas and ticks are two of the most common (and harmful) culprits.

Fleas can cause an allergic reaction known as atopic dermatitis. They can also transmit tapeworm if your pet accidentally eats the infected flea while your dog is self-grooming. Fleas can even cause anemia if your dog is suffering from a severe infestation.

Meanwhile, ticks can transmit blood-borne illnesses like Lyme Disease, and some spider bites can cause irritation or illness.

The good news is that it’s very easy—and highly recommended—to buy over-the-counter preventative meds for parasite prevention. And the (non-insurance) ManyPets Wellness Plan can help ease your financial burden.

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The non-insurance ManyPets Wellness Plan can help reimburse you for the cost of routine and preventative care, including routine vet visits and certain over-the-counter products.

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Bee stings

Bee stings can be very uncomfortable, especially if they’re inflicted on sensitive parts of your dog’s body. Dogs can get stung on their paws if they walk on a bee or in their mouth if they accidentally eat one. Oral stings can be life-threatening, as they can lead to swelling in the mouth or throat, especially if your dog is having an allergic reaction.

If your dog’s been stung, you should consult your vet right away, even if it’s just by phone. Your vet may advise you to monitor your pup, to come into the office, or to visit an emergency clinic. In some severe cases, severe swelling can even necessitate emergency surgery. And an allergic reaction might require immediate treatment for anaphylaxis.

Home remedies for insect bites and stings

First things first: Always consult a vet before administering any home treatments to your pup. There are many types of pet allergies and many guidelines for treatment in different situations, so always consult a veterinarian.

That being said, there are some effective home remedies you may be able to employ (with directions from a vet). For instance, if your dog is bitten by a bee, there may be a stinger left in the wound. This small, sharp object can continue to release venom into your dog's skin, causing increased pain and swelling, so removing the stinger as soon as possible may prevent further harm. 

You may be able to accomplish this by gently scraping the skin with a credit card or similar object. Avoid using tweezers, as this can actually squeeze more venom out of the stinger.

Depending on the type of bug bite or sting, applying a cold compress to the affected area may help reduce swelling and provide some relief for your furry friend. You can use a bag of frozen peas or a cold, wet cloth, but be careful to apply them gently so as not to shock your dog.

It’s often not recommended to medicate your dog at home, but your vet may make an exception in some cases. For instance, some over-the-counter antihistamines can be safe to administer to your dog under a vet’s guidance. Just make sure you use an antihistamine that doesn’t contain unsafe ingredients like decongestants, and ask your vet for the right dosing instructions. Again, never give your dog medications at home without closely consulting a veterinarian.

When to head to the vet for a bug bite or sting

The truth is, there’s never a “wrong” time to seek veterinary care. Being safe rather than sorry has never hurt a pet parent! However, a vet visit may not be strictly necessary every time you notice a bug bite. If all you see is a minor irritation, it’s likely safe to care for your dog at home and cautiously monitor them for any signs of illness.  

But there are times when a vet visit is absolutely mandatory. If your dog is showing signs of illness like lethargy or extreme itching and irritation, visit the vet right away.

And if your pup is showing signs of anaphylaxis—a severe allergic reaction that can occur due to an insect bite or sting—an immediate trip to the vet may save their life. Look for signs like vomiting, difficulty breathing, swelling around the mouth and throat, and collapse.

Again, anaphylaxis is a tier-1 medical emergency; if you notice any of these signs, race to the nearest emergency clinic with your dog.

How pet insurance can help

At ManyPets, we understand that your pup is part of your family. That's why ManyPets dog insurance covers a range of health issues, including those caused by insect bites and stings.

ManyPets pet insurance can help reimburse you for the costs of veterinary care, and you can visit any licensed vet. This helps you get your dog the care they need, where and when they need it, instead of focusing solely on your bank account.

Whether it's a simple vet visit to examine a minor bite, or a costly trip to the emergency vet to treat a life-threatening allergic reaction, pet insurance may be the one tool that empowers you to seek out the treatment your pet needs in an emergency, even if it costs a leg and a paw. 

*This article is not intended to be a substitute for professional veterinary advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your veterinarian with any questions you may have regarding your pet’s care, treatment, or medical conditions.

David Teich
Lead Editor

David oversees content strategy and development at ManyPets. As Lead Editor, he focuses on delivering accurate information related to pet care and insurance. David’s editorial background spans more than a decade, including a pivotal role at Digiday, where he wrote content and managed relationships with media and tech companies. As an Associate Editor at Cynopsis Media, David wrote the Cynopsis Digital newsletter and interviewed executives and digital marketing experts in the TV industry. His background also includes film journalism. His diverse experiences in journalism and marketing underpins his role in shaping content within the pet care industry.