Yes, dogs can get lice, or more properly speaking, develop an infestation of this relatively uncommon parasite. We associate lice most frequently with human children who are sent home from schools and subjected to dramatic and unflattering haircuts. However, unless you are living in a particularly bad episode of Hoarders — or, heaven forfend, operating a puppy mill — chances are that your pet’s risk of developing a dog lice problem is minimal.
As far as parasites in dogs go, canine lice occupy a spot in the rankings far below that of other insectoid pests such as fleas and ticks. Dog lice are classified as ectoparasites, and while that may sound like some gooey phantasm from Ghostbusters, the only call you should make is to your veterinarian. An ectoparasite reproduces, lives, and feeds on the outside of a dog — specifically, they feed on the skin or suck the blood, similar to the way mange or ear mites operate — rather than invading the body’s interior, like heartworms or tapeworms.
Whereas many dog parasites have complex, multi-host life cycles, lice can go through entire generations on a single dog. Unlike fleas and ticks, lice do not travel well. Their primary mode of transmission is through physical contact. Dog lice spread either through direct physical contact with other dogs or with shared grooming accessories or bedding, particularly in multi-dog households. Sanitation and quality of life play a huge role as well. Dog lice infestations occur primarily in places that are exceptionally filthy and where there are a number of dogs living in close quarters.
The two major groups of lice that afflict dogs are colloquially known as “chewing lice” and “sucking lice,” colorful terms that describe their primary method of feeding. Chewing lice have broad heads and feed on a dog’s skin, while sucking lice have narrow heads and feed on a dog’s lifeblood. Female lice deposit and affix their eggs, also known as nits, to a dog’s hair with a powerful adhesive. Once hatched, the feet of lice are strong enough to withstand a dog’s biting and scratching. The entire life cycle of a dog louse, from egg to adult, takes about a month.
The symptoms of dog lice are similar to those you might see in a dog with mange. Like mange, the infestation must be truly severe before the most noticeable signs present themselves. Mild cases of dog lice have the same sorts of signs you recognize from childhood lice in humans: persistent scratching and rubbing of the affected areas. Dog lice are mostly found between the shoulders and ears, as well as around the genitals. Like mange, when a real lice infestation is in full swing, you may notice hair loss, most often with chewing lice, or the dog may be anemic from the blood loss that accompanies sucking lice.
At-risk dog populations include puppies, whose immune systems are not fully established, elderly dogs, and dogs who are neglected, mistreated, or malnourished. Since lice infestations are less frequent for dogs, it is easy to mistake another problem for lice. Differentiate between lice and dandruff by mussing or combing a dog’s coat. Dandruff will fall away easily, while nits remain stubbornly affixed to a dog’s hair. You can tell the difference between lice and fleas by their agility. Fleas move very quickly and are difficult to pin down, while lice move much more deliberately when they can be bothered to move at all.
Exterminating dog lice is a time-consuming process. Although shampoos, dips, and other treatments are readily available at your local pet store, and many flea treatments are equally effective against lice, none of these are particularly useful against nits. Louse eggs are persistent and difficult to displace, particularly if your dog has a long or dense coat. A full course of treatment can take several treatments and up to a month before all lice and nits are eradicated. A dog being treated for lice should be isolated from other dogs, as well as other pets, to whom topical treatments may be poisonous.
The best course of action for dog lice is prevention. A dog who is well-fed, properly groomed, and lives in a clean home should have little to fear from lice. The most important things you can do for your dog are to keep your dog’s bedding and grooming accessories clean and disinfected. Vacuum, mop, and wash the areas in your home where your dog spends the most time, including rugs, carpeting, and furniture he has frequent contact with.
Even regularly cleaning bedding and grooming products like brushes and combs may not be sufficient. You may want to consider pitching, destroying, or otherwise disposing of well-used grooming products or bedding to maintain a louse-free home, especially in multi-dog households. Puppies who are going through crate training should also be sure to have their crates regularly cleaned and disinfected.
For anyone who is concerned, your family is not at risk from dog lice. Lice are species-specific ectoparasites, and therefore not zoonotic. That is to say, neither you, your children, nor your cat can catch lice from an infected dog. Nor can a dog get lice from your kids.
Have you or your dogs ever dealt with lice? Let us know how you handled the little beasts in the comments!
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