Charles Dickens and Timber Doodle, the Flea-Ridden Dog

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

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.”

Sketch 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.

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 sulphur, 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!

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

Thus concludes another of my Friday features on Animals in Literature and History. If you are interested in adopting a dog or if you would like to donate your time or money to a rescue organization, I urge you to contact your local animal rescue foundation or city animal shelter.  The below links may also be useful as resources:

The Humane Society of the United States (USA)

Battersea Dogs & Cats Home (UK)

Mimi Matthews is the USA Today bestselling author of The Matrimonial Advertisement, The Pug Who Bit Napoleon, and A Victorian Lady’s Guide to Fashion and Beauty. She researches and writes on all aspects of nineteenth century history—from animals, art, and etiquette to fashion, beauty, feminism, and law.


Dogs in Disease: Their Management and Treatment. London: Sampson Low, Marston, Searle, & Rivington, 1885.

The Letters of Charles Dickens, Vol. I. London: Chapman and Hall, 1880.

Marzials, Frank T., Mamie Dickens, and Adolphus Ward. The Life of Charles Dickens. The University Society, Inc., 1908.

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Sarah Waldock
Sarah Waldock
3 years ago

Dogs, unlike cats, can tolerate garlic in their drinking water which fleas do not like. Many people used to use kerosene [paraffin] on a comb for headlice. Killing fleas in the house means fewer to feed on pets, and by putting out flattish pans of water with a nightlight mounted on an upturned cup or similar in the middle rids the worst of infestations over a week or so. Poor Timber Doodle!

Mimi Matthews
Mimi Matthews
3 years ago
Reply to  Sarah Waldock

Very interesting, Sarah. I hadn’t known that about fleas and water. For 19th century dogs who spent a lot of time outside, I think the battle against fleas was ongoing. No matter how clean the house or the dog, he would always carry in new pests. Thank goodness for modern flea control!

3 years ago

Beautiful pictures of dogs–I like them and the flea remedies, including Sarah’s.

Sarah Waldock
Sarah Waldock
3 years ago
Reply to  Angelyn

I turned to the trays of water in desperation in a severe infestation, 3 years ago in a hot august, having failed to control the little pests with sprays. First morning, water was black with fleas, it was gross. Took 2 full weeks to clear them all from every room but I’ve not had more than the odd single flea brought in from outside since.

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