a primer on lice in pets

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Dr. Kim Smyth
Posted by Dr. Kim Smyth on Mar 07 2013
Young puppy dog scratching | Lice in pets | Petplan

Nothing strikes more fear into the hearts of parents than a lice scare at their child’s school. I know this because I was recently one of those panic-stricken parents. Luckily, the outbreak was fairly contained and my son escaped unscathed, but it got me thinking about lice in cats and dogs.

Though relatively uncommon in cats and dogs, our pets are not safe from external parasites. Generally, they affect animals who are housed in crowded, unkempt facilities or pets who are not closely monitored, like outdoor dogs who don’t get much human contact. However, lice can infest any dog or cat who comes into contact with it, so this blog is essential information for everyone to know.

First, it is important to remember that lice are host-specific. This means that dog bugs infest dogs, cat bugs infest cats, and human bugs infect humans. While a dog lice may find itself on a cat, it certainly won’t stay there for long. So, rest assured that if your child comes home from school with a few hitchhikers, your pets will be safe (although the same can’t be said for you!).

What are lice?

Lice are flat, six legged insects with no wings. They can be seen with the naked eye, which makes diagnosis a snap. Infested pets will also have nits attached to their fur. These nits are eggs, and a female can lay several eggs each day, so their numbers will be obvious.

There is only one kind of louse that infects cats: a chewing louse that uses its claws or mandible to attach to the base of a hair. Dogs can get both a chewing louse and a sucking louse, which uses its needle like mouth parts to suck blood. Sucking lice are particularly dangerous to puppies, who may suffer from anemia when heavily infested.

How are lice transmitted?

Lice are transmitted by direct contact with animals who are infested, or through contaminated bedding and grooming tools. Without a host, the insects will die within 3 to 7 days.

As I mentioned, lice is easily diagnosed. You or your vet will notice both adult insects and nits upon examination of the skin and fur. Symptoms include itching and a dry, patchy coat that may or may not have bald patches.

How do you get rid of lice in pets?

Luckily, there is very little insecticide resistance in lice. Upon diagnosis, your vet may give your pet an insecticide bath to kill the adults and then apply a topical preparation, such as Frontline or Revolution. Generally, these treatments are recommended every two weeks for three or four treatments to cover the bugs that will be hatching from their eggs. Your pet’s bedding should be disposed of or washed in very hot water.

Lice tend to incite the heebie jeebies like no other parasite. In fact, in just writing this blog I’ve found myself scratching my head more than a few times! But, really, they are not that big of a deal; it’s uncommon, easy to find, and easy to fix. I wish I could say the same for lots of other veterinary problems!