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Dog itching from lice
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If you’re a parent or spend any time around young children, you are probably at least somewhat familiar with human lice. Even if you have never seen them, lice are a common source of anxiety for many families. 

These insect parasites can cause serious itching in kids and can easily spread to other individuals in the household, making them a tremendous headache (no pun intended!) for affected families.

Although dogs aren’t susceptible to our human lice, they can become infested with their own species of canine lice. Continue reading to learn more about these parasites, including how to diagnose, treat, and prevent canine lice. 

Do Dogs Get Lice?

Just like humans, dogs are susceptible to lice. Lice can also affect cats, birds, horses, and many other pet species. However, the type of lice that dogs get are different from those that affect humans.  

Can dogs get lice from humans? 

Fortunately, the answer is no. Lice are highly species-specific. This means that humans can only contract lice from other humans, and dogs can only contract lice from other dogs. 

Your dog cannot get lice from you or your human family members; similarly, you cannot contract lice from your dog. Cats and other pets have their own lice species, which also cannot be shared with dogs. 

What Exactly Are Lice?

Closeup of dog lice

Lice are small, flightless insects that are difficult to see with the naked eye. In dogs, lice are typically just 1-2 mm long, or about half the size of a flea. 

Adult lice live on their host’s skin, feeding and laying eggs. These eggs, called nits, typically become securely attached to the dog’s hair. Less commonly, nits and adult lice may fall off the dog into the surrounding environment, where they will wait for a new host.  

There are two separate categories of lice: chewing and blood-sucking lice. Chewing lice feed on dead skin cells and oils that are present on the surface of your dog’s skin. Blood-sucking lice, in contrast, attach firmly to the skin and feed on an animal’s blood.

There are three species of dog lice that can be found in North America: 

Linognathus setosus: This blood-sucking louse attaches securely to the skin and feeds on a dog’s blood. It is found worldwide, including in North America. 

Trichodectes canis: This species of chewing lice on dogs feeds on canine skin cells and oils. It is found worldwide, including in North America. 

Heterodoxus spiniger: This chewing louse is relatively rare. It is an uncommon cause of dog lice in North America, but it is occasionally reported.

What Are the Signs of Dog Lice?

Both chewing and blood-sucking lice can cause significant skin irritation in dogs. The lice themselves may be difficult to see, although chewing lice are often more active (and therefore more visible) than blood-sucking lice. In most cases, you will see the skin damage caused by lice before noticing the actual parasites. 

Signs of lice in dogs may include: 

  • Itching, scratching, chewing, or rubbing of the skin
  • Redness and irritation of the skin
  • Restlessness, inability to get comfortable
  • Matted fur
  • Rough, dry, dull coat
  • Small scabs on the skin
  • Hair loss (especially around the head, groin, and rectum)
  • Visible lice on the skin
  • Visible nits in the hair (translucent oval eggs attached near the base of the hair)
  • Anemia (with severe blood-sucking lice infestations)
  • Lethargy (with severe infestation)
  • Weight loss (with severe infestation)

The signs of lice can easily be confused with a number of other canine skin conditions and parasites.

How Do Dogs Get Lice?

Lice spreads among dogs that are in close contact with each other. They are most common in dogs that are living in large groups or crowded animal shelters. Lice can also be transmitted via close contact at dog parks, dog daycare centers, dog shows, or any other setting where dogs are permitted to interact closely. 

Lice can also be spread on contaminated bedding or other objects. Therefore, dogs can catch lice in boarding facilities, grooming facilities, and other locations where dogs are housed. It’s important to thoroughly clean bedding and other objects that are shared between dogs. 

In general, lice pose a greater risk to dogs with underlying health conditions and dogs living in unsanitary conditions. While any dog can contract lice, unhealthy dogs are more likely to develop serious, problematic lice infestations.  

Dog Lice Treatment

Veterinarian treating dog lice

Lice can be treated with a variety of topical medications. Once your veterinarian confirms that your dog is infested with lice, they will recommend the best treatment option for your dog. 

There are a variety of treatment options available for canine lice, including: 

While some of these treatments are available over-the-counter, it’s important to talk to your veterinarian before implementing any treatment at home. Using these products for lice may require different dosing instructions than what is recommended on the product label. This should be performed only under the guidance of a veterinarian. 

Here are some other steps for getting rid of canine lice:

Treat all dogs in your home. Your veterinarian will likely recommend treating all dogs who live with you, given the contagious nature of lice. Remember, lice are species-specific so there is no need to worry about humans or other non-canine pets in your home. 

Clip or shave your dog’s hair. If your dog has long hair, your veterinarian may recommend clipping or shaving your dog. Removing your dog’s long hair will allow you to reduce the number of nits on your dog, making it easier to treat a lice infestation. 

Do a deep clean. Additionally, it’s important to thoroughly disinfect your dog’s environment. Dog beds and blankets should be washed in hot water and dried on high heat. Brushes, toys, bowls, and other items should be soaked in hot water. Your couch and carpets should be vacuumed thoroughly, to remove adult lice and nits.  

How to Prevent Lice in Dogs

Closeup of lice on dog

The same parasite preventatives that you use to protect your dog against fleas and ticks can also protect your dog against lice. These parasite preventatives should be administered year-round, even during the winter. Talk to your veterinarian to determine the best parasite preventative for your pet. 

Also, remember that lice is most problematic in dogs that are in poor health. Good nutrition and regular veterinary care will help keep your dog healthy, reducing their risk of lice and other parasites. 

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