While lice may not be as common as fleas, they can still cause aggravation in some animals, especially animals who are very young, old, or sick. There are two types of lice that affect cats and dogs: sucking lice (which suck blood) and chewing lice.
Chewing lice are tiny, flat, wingless insects that feed on the dead skin of pets. Unlike ticks and fleas, they are species-specific, so different species of lice will attack cats, dogs, and humans with no risk of cross-species transmission. Cat or dog lice are very different from human lice—they are 6-legged, and tend to stay in one place at the base of the fur. In addition to causing irritation, they can carry diseases or transmit tapeworms to pets.
Symptoms of Lice on Pets
Chewing lice infestations are much rarer than flea or tick problems, and are more commonly found on older, sick, or very dirty pets. Some healthy pets may get a couple lice but have no symptoms, because there is little irritation until there is a full infestation.
Cats or dogs with a lice infestation will bite or scratch a lot, especially around their heads, necks, tails, and anus. This scratching may cause them to lose fur in patches, or have a mangy appearance. Lice on skin and fur will be visible to the naked eye, but are so small they can often be mistaken for specs of dirt. The insects will appear as small brown spots and the eggs, or “nits,” will be white spots attached to the fur.
Steps to Get Rid of Lice
The good news is that chewing lice are usually easy to eradicate because they do not have resistance to insecticide.
- Isolate your infested pet: Especially if you have other pets, or want to avoid a great deal of cleaning indoors, it pays to isolate your pet to a room or area. This quarantine may help prevent your pet from transmitting lice to other dogs or cats in the house, and will reduce the area you have to clean or steam-treat.
- Visit the Vet: If you suspect your pet has lice, you should visit your veterinarian for examination and treatment recommendations. Your vet will likely suggest an insecticide treatment, but treatment may vary depending upon the size and health of your pet. Puppies or kittens can be more sensitive to insecticides.
- Insecticide Treatments: Treatment may include insecticide shampoos, combing out eggs, spot-on treatments, or powders. Because treatment does not affect the eggs, you may have to repeat the cycle a couple times to take care of all the newly hatched nits before they are old enough to lay eggs. Make sure to follow dosing directions carefully to avoid over-dose or harm to your pet. Using too little will fail to kill the lice.
- Treat Other Cats and Dogs: If your dog was infested and you have other dogs in the house, your vet may recommend you treat them as well, even if they haven't show any symptoms. The same goes for an infested cat with other cats in the house.
- Environmental Cleaning: You’ll need to high-temperature clean (or destroy and replace) any bedding, rugs, brushes, or combs used by the infested pet, as well as the clothes you wear while combing out eggs. You'll also need to clean carpets, couches, and anywhere else your pet spends time. If you can't clean an item, seal it in a plastic bag for a few weeks and the lice will die off.
You can help prevent chewing lice from targeting your pet by keeping them clean and healthy. Many spot on treatments will also target lice and can help with ongoing prevention efforts. With careful treatment and precautions, lice shouldn't bother your cat or dog again.
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This information is for informational purposes only and is not meant as a substitute for the professional advice of, or diagnosis or treatment by, your veterinarian with respect to your pet. It has, however, been verified by a licensed veterinarian for accuracy.