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Fleas and Lice: What's the Difference?

What Distinguishes These Two Pests

By Madeleine Burry. January 01, 2011 | See Comments

Fleas and Lice: What's the Difference?

Fleas and lice can be harmful to both you and your beloved pet. The first step in avoiding these annoying insects is to learn how they can be caught, passed, and most importantly, prevented.

Both fleas and lice are small, wingless, parasitic insects, capable of living on your pet (or on you). Fleas and lice cause great discomfort to their hosts—mainly in the form of itchy skin, irritated skin—but beyond these basic similarities, the two parasites do not have much in common. Where fleas are capable of jumping many inches in the air, lice are slow moving and sedentary. Of the two insects, lice are easier to eradicate; dealing with fleas is a much more intensive and frustrating experience.

Can You Catch Fleas and Lice from Your Pet?

Fleas bite any warm-blooded mammal, including humans as well as cats and dogs. If your pet has fleas, you may find bites on yourself as well. In contrast, lice are species specific. Children cannot pass lice to pets, and similarly, cats or dogs with lice cannot pass them along to people. 

Lice and Your Pet

Unlike humans, who catch and spread lice easily in social places like schools, cats and dogs who contract lice generally have bad nutrition and poor health and hygiene. Elderly pets, as well as puppies and kittens are also more vulnerable. In particular, cats at kitty mills are prone to lice.

Dogs can be afflicted by two varieties of lice: biting lice and sucking lice. A different variety of biting lice use cats as a host. Cats with lice will be itchy, and their skin may get scabs and lesions from scratching. Dogs will experience similar symptoms and skin irritations as a result of lice.

Lice are relatively easily to treat; cat- or dog-specific shampoos and powders with pyrethrin, an insecticide, can be applied. Note that human treatments for lice should not be used on pets--they won’t help, and can potentially cause harm. Lice can also be treated with Frontline or similar prescriptions from your veterinarian. Ask your vet before treatment. After topical treatments, preventative medications can help remove any eggs on your pet.

Run your pet’s bedding through the laundry, and wash any areas where your pet typically sits or rests. Remember, your pet’s lice are not contagious to you, so if your pet isn’t allowed on your couch or bed, you can skip cleaning those areas. Do sterilize any grooming tools that you use on your pet.

Fleas and Your Pet

Catching fleas is a matter of circumstance, contact, and bad luck—since fleas thrive in warm, humid environments, be particularly watchful for fleas during the summertime. Even indoor cats can get fleas when you, or other pets, track them inside the house.

Compared to lice, eradicating fleas is a challenge. You’ll need to rid your pets and home of the parasite. You can treat fleas on cats or dogs with shampoos, spot treatments, or oral medications. If fleas have spread throughout your house, you’ll need to carefully clean rugs and anything made from fabric, and use insecticide.

Prevention Is Key

Even lice, which are relatively easy to remove from your pet, are a pain to deal with, and both lice and fleas make your pet extremely uncomfortable. The best way to avoid these parasites is to use preventative treatments, like Frontline Plus k9 Advantix II or Advantage II.

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