The Story Of Charles Dickens’ Beloved Flea-Ridden Dog

by Mimi Matthews

In the mid-nineteenth century, Charles Dickens had a small, shaggy Havana spaniel named Timber Doodle. Dickens had acquired Timber during a visit to America and the little dog soon became his constant companion, even accompanying him on his travels. It was during one of these foreign excursions that Timber suffered from a very severe infestation of fleas. The solution was extreme. As Dickens relates in an 1844 letter:

“Timber has had every hair upon his body cut off because of the fleas, and he looks like the ghost of a drowned dog come out of a pond after a week or so. It is very awful to see him slide into a room. He knows the change upon him, and is always turning round and round to look for himself. I think he’ll die of grief.”

In a few short weeks, Timber’s hair began to grow back. The fleas quickly resumed residence, though not with the severity that they had before. As Dickens writes:

“The fleas only keep three of his legs off the ground now, and he sometimes moves of his own accord towards some place where they don’t want to go.”

dickensSketch of Dickens in 1842 during his American Tour. Sketch of Dickens’s sister Fanny, bottom left.

Cutting off a dog’s hair was just one way to deal with fleas in the nineteenth century. According to the 1885 edition of Dogs in Disease, a pet owner might also employ a liberal application of whale oil. This was a rather impractical remedy as the oil was required to be thoroughly worked into the dog’s coat “from tip to tip” and then left on for several hours. Afterward, it could be washed out with an egg shampoo or soap and water. The pet owner was then advised to give their dog “a persistent combing.”

Quassia chips were another possible flea treatment. Quassia was a shrub or small tree often used as an insecticide. For flea treatment, pet owners were advised to boil chips of bark “to a strong infusion.” It could then be sponged onto the dog’s coat.

dogportraitPortrait of a Dog by Carl Reichert, (1836-1918)

Carbolic acid or soaps in which carbolic acid was a component were also an option. However, pet owners were warned to exercise caution when treating their dog with preparations containing carbolic acid. If the mixture was made too strong, it could harm the dog. The same warning applied to “sulphuret of lime.” A popular Belgian treatment for itching, it was made from sulfur, unslaked lime, and water. If not sufficiently diluted, it could burn the dog right along with the fleas.

Perhaps one of the most popular flea treatments of the nineteenth century was kerosene. Kerosene could not be applied directly to the hair and skin without causing severe irritation. Instead, many Victorians simply dipped a comb into a container of kerosene or crude petroleum and then combed through the dog’s hair, careful not to touch its skin. This method was reportedly a great favorite of many Victorian era kennels.

Today, flea control is much less fuss. A monthly application of a topical flea treatment is all the average dog or cat needs to be flea-free. If only such an invention had been available to ease the suffering of poor Timber!

Top image: Dog of the Havana Breed by Jean-Jacques Bachelier, (1724–1806). (Bowes Museum)

This post originally appeared on and is reprinted here with permission.

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