Getting lice as a kid is practically a rite of passage. We all have memories of going to the nurse’s office and having our hair carefully combed in search of those little pests. While its rare to get lice in adulthood (though it happens, unfortunately), we may wonder if lice will make an appearance in our lives again… but this time on our cats!
Cat owners spend a lot of time and money trying to protect their cats from parasites. We know that even cats that spend the entirety of their lives indoors are susceptible to a variety of annoying pests such as fleas, ticks, and mites. So many of us want to know: can cats get lice?
In this article we’ll cover the following:
Lice are an extremely common and infectious parasite. Small, nimble, and voracious, these little critters reproduce rapidly and can cause a great deal of distress for their host. They’re itchy, annoying, and an affortunately frequent part of human childhoods.
Cats, on the other hand, have much less to worry about when it comes to lice.
The lice that infect cats, which go by the scientific name felicola subrostrata, are not as common as mites or fleas. In fact, lice rarely infect cats unless there are extenuating circumstances.
Most (but not all) cats that are infected with lice live in unsanitary conditions. Very young kittens and very old cats are also particularly susceptible.
The tricky part about lice is that they are difficult to prevent. While the pet market has made huge strides in preventing more common parasites such as fleas and ticks, not all of these topical pesticides prevent or kill lice.
If your cat lives indoors, it’s very unlikely that lice will infect them unless they come into very close contact with cats that are frequently outdoors. This is because lice aren’t particularly infectious in cats. Unlike fleas (which are highly mobile and contagious), lice don’t jump from cat to cat.
While there are a few diseases that cats and humans can share between one another, lice are what we call a “species-specific” parasite, which means there are different types of lice for different types of animals.
The species of louse that infects human hair is called pediculus humanus capitis, whereas the lice that can infect our cats are called felicola subrostrata.
Weirdly enough, cat lice don’t suck blood. Instead, these little pests feed on dead skin and debris, or on the bodily fluids that seep out of the small wounds produced by their bites.
While they are certainly itchy and annoying, the real danger that cat lice pose is that they can transmit dipylidium caninum, which is a type of parasitic tapeworm.
The other danger comes from the bites themselves. Lice bites are extremely irritating and your cat may react by scratching, licking, and even biting themselves to relieve the itch.
In fact, your cat will likely do more damage to their skin than the actual lice.
By scratching, chewing, and licking your cat may inadvertently cause skin inflammation, hair loss, or even wounds. These wounds can subsequently become infected with secondary bacteria.
Yes, cats can absolutely carry lice. But when it comes to cats, carrying lice isn’t quite the same thing as carrying fleas.
Lice don’t jump from one animal to another, so simply carrying lice doesn’t mean that they are putting their fellow felines at risk for transmission.
Cats mostly transmit lice to one another by cuddling or sleeping together, which gives the nasty little critters plenty of opportunities to travel from one cat to the other.
Generally speaking, lice are less of a problem for cats than ticks or mites and are easier to cure and control. However, in colder regions of the world where fleas and ticks can’t survive, lice can become the “biggest” and most problematic pest for cats.
Is your cat scratching like this? They may have lice, though it’s more likely they have something else, such as fleas or mites.
Yes, and young kittens are more susceptible to lice than healthy, adult cats. Because feline lice don’t “jump,” they are really only transmitted through direct, prolonged, physical contact, like a mother cat with her kittens.
Because kittens are so small, they are at a higher risk for developing serious and potentially deadly complications, especially if the lice are carrying diseases or other parasites such as tapeworms. The same is true with fleas.
It’s also important to keep your kitten’s vulnerable immune system and small stature in mind when treating lice. While there are plenty of shampoos and sprays on the market, not all of them are suitable for young kittens. Consult your veterinarian before treating your kitten for lice.
Moreover, if you have more than one kitten in the house you will have to be extremely diligent about making sure they don’t keep passing lice back and forth from one kitten to another. Isolating the infected kitten(s) and treating them separately is the best way to make sure the lice are successfully eradicated.
It can be difficult to ascertain whether or not your cat has lice. Because the symptoms of lice are so similar to the symptoms that accompany other topical parasitic infections, it can take a little detective work to figure out if your cat has lice or not.
Honestly, if your cat is scratching it’s much more likely that they have mites, fleas, or ticks. Lice are relatively unusual in healthy adult cats, so you shouldn’t immediately jump to conclusions if you see your cat scratching.
While scratching can signify a vast array of different problems, there are a few telltale signs that may indicate that your cat has lice rather than fleas or ticks. These signs include:
Unlike fleas which can be seen with the naked eye, lice are smaller so you might not be able to see them on your cat’s fur.
Nits, which are essentially baby lice, are sometimes more visible to the naked eye than their adult counterparts. These white dots which may be seen on your cat’s fur are distinguishable from flea dirt, which tends to be darker in color.
Many cat owners discover their cat has lice because they see their cat itching and try flea and tick remedies, such as shampoos and sprays, only to discover that they aren’t working. Because lice may not be killed by flea and tick medication, many owners discover that their cat has lice by the process of elimination.
The best way to know whether or not your cat has lice, however, is to go to the vet and have them check it out for you. In either case, your cat will need a prescription treatment from the vet if they have lice.
This kitty has lice. Thankfully, they’re at the vet to get the proper treatment! See the white spots on his rear end? That is a telltale sign of lice.
Your best bet for treating lice is preventing them, which probably isn’t the answer you were looking for.
It’s important to remember that not all parasite medications are effective against lice. In fact, only a few brands will prevent and kill lice.
One brand of flea and tick control that is also effective against lice is Frontline Plus. While you can only use it on cats that are 8 weeks of age and older, Frontline is a great preventative medication and should protect your cats from all manner of parasites.
Once your cat has lice, you will need to take them to the veterinarian to get the proper treatment. While many websites claim that you can cure lice with natural remedies, these remedies are rarely effective.
More importantly, never use human-grade lice shampoo or any other type of treatment on your cat. Because the lice that your cat contracts are different from the lice that affect human beings, they medicine may not be successful.
Even worse, the chemicals that are safe for humans may be extremely toxic to cats. Remember, you outweigh your cat by quite a bit! The dosages that are safe for adults or even children could be deadly for your feline friend.
After your cat has been successfully treated, you may want to invest in some medicated shampoo to help soothe their skin and heal any small wounds that may have resulted from the lice infestation.
Look for a gentle, animal-safe brand such as Vetericyn Foam Care, which will help sooth your cat’s skin and may help protect them from developing any further dermatological disorders.
While they aren’t on the top of the list when it comes to common feline parasites, cats can absolutely get lice.
Lice are far less common in cats than mites, fleas, and ticks, and lice in and of themselves are unlikely to create too many health problems for your cat.
The danger with lice lies in the potential for secondary infections thanks to the lice bites as well as the potential transmission of other parasites, such as tapeworms.
An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure when it comes to lice. While not all topical parasitic medications are effective against lice since they are generally formulated for ticks and fleas, some medications like Frontline Plus will also prevent lice infestations.
If your cat manages to contract lice, don’t panic. While lice will involve a trip to the vet (human grade medications are not safe for cats, so don’t try to cure your cat yourself), lice are generally not a serious concern as long as they are dealt with quickly.
And the best news yet? You can’t get lice from your cat, as the species of louse that infects cats is different than the ones that infect human beings.
Has your cat ever had lice? How did you find out, and how did you ultimately get rid of the lice? Let us know in the comments; we want to hear all about it!
After moving to New York City from Rome, Italy, I began working in the nonprofit world. Despite my day job, my passion has always been animals, especially dogs and cats, and writing. What better way to combine the two? I’ve been a pet owner for 15 years, and my menagerie includes dogs, cats, hamsters and the occasional hermit crab. My beloved cat, Mozart, who I found as a newborn kitten, sparked my love for felines and is now nearly 15 years old. I am an enthusiastic volunteer at the local ASPCA, where I enjoy spending time with the cats and cleaning up after the dogs. I’ve been writing about pet ownership and care for the past five years.