The short answer is: yes, dogs can get lice. But there’s always the good, the bad, and the ugly when it comes to the truth. The good news is that while your dog can get lice, the parasite cannot be passed from dog to human contact or vice versa.
However, the bad news is that it is a bit more difficult to determine if your dog has lice, and most owners assume that their dog just picked up fleas from playing outside. As for the ugly, you need to watch carefully for the signs and symptoms of lice – especially if you have more than one dog running around your home.
Just like human lice, the parasite is highly contagious and can also cause pain, inflammation, hair loss, and lead to long-term health issues for your dog.
What are dog lice?
Dog lice are small, flat, wingless six-legged insects that live in the hair and feathers of mammals and birds. They have strong hook-like claws at the end of each of their legs, which allows them to grasp tightly onto the hair shafts or feathers of animals. Interestingly enough, these claws are tailored to the specific size of the host’s hair shaft or feathers, which is why lice are species-specific and cannot pass between different mammals.
While lice are less common to pick up than fleas and ticks due to their inability to hop, jump, or fly, they are just as itchy, irritating and frustrating to eliminate. In fact, lice tend to spread much more quickly than other parasites once they find a source to latch onto due to their strong claws.
Because of this, it’s necessary to understand the different types of lice, how they are contracted, and how to properly handle the infestation in order to keep your canine happy and healthy.
What are the types of dog lice?
There are two types of dog lice: chewing lice and sucking lice. Chewing lice, also known as Trichodectes canis or Heterodoxus spiniger, survive by eating skin debris and surface secretions.
Spiniger is mostly found in tropical regions, which makes it very rare to inhibit areas of North America. More commonly your dog will contract the chewing lice Trichodectes, which is characterized by its blunt, flat head. In addition to causing irritation and discomfort for your dog, these lice can also carry diseases and tapeworms, so you want to act quickly when you discover the infestation.
The second type of dog lice is known as sucking lice, or Linognathus setosus. Similar to ticks, sucking lice need blood to survive. The species uses its sharp, pointed mouthpiece to break through the skins surface and feed off your dog’s blood.
Since they burrow into your dog’s hair, sucking lice are very slow moving and, most of the time, are virtually motionless. This makes it a bit easier to eliminate this species of lice because they are easy to discover and remove off your pet’s skin. However, sucking lice can cause more serious side effects, which are discussed later on.
Regardless of the type of lice infestation your dog has, the process for getting rid of the parasite is the same. That being said, the most important part is starting the elimination process right away and being aware of the signs and symptoms of lice infestations.
What are common signs and symptoms of dog lice?
The easiest way to identify if your dog is carrying lice is to examine the skin. Just like human lice, you can see the parasite crawling or sucking on the surface of your dog’s skin. If you part your dog’s hair and look closely at the hair shaft, you can typically see the adult lice crawling around.
Adult lice are roughly three millimeters long, about the size of a sesame seed, and have a yellow to tan color. They can sometimes be mistaken as dandruff so that is something to be aware and skeptical of. If you shake the hair once you remove it from your dog and the flake falls off, the hair it’s likely dandruff. If the flake sticks stubbornly to the hair, you could have a case of lice on your hands.
Since sucking lice remain fairly stagnant, you’d likely be able to identify the adult parasites by parting your dog’s hair. However, this is much harder to do when your dog has chewing lice or the lice have yet to mature into adulthood.
Flea combs can help to get rid of lice once they have hatched and matured, but younger lice are much harder to spot with the naked eye and often don’t get picked up by the comb. If you suspect your dog has lice but you can’t seem to pick any up with the flea comb, look for these other common signs and symptoms:
- Small wounds or infections from bites by sucking lice
- Dry coat or matted fur
- Hair loss – often around neck, ears, upper back, groin and rectum
- Skin redness
- Restlessness and itchiness
- Anemia – more commonly with severe, untreated infestation
What are the more serious side effects of lice?
When gone untreated for long periods of time, lice can cause dogs to develop anemia. Anemia is a reduction in red blood cells, which are necessary in delivering oxygen and key nutrients, as well as eliminating waste products from all tissues.
Sucking lice tend to feed on your dog’s bloodstream and deplete other important proteins and essential nutrients. Dogs that are severely anemic may require intravenous blood transfusions or supplements of iron, vitamins, and other minerals in order to return to their once healthy state.
This is not very common in household dogs because anemia typically develops from extreme long-term exposure to sucking lice. You should be able to identify if your dog has lice before it gets to this point. So rather than this being something to stress about, just be aware of how your dog is acting and carefully monitor him on a daily basis.
How do dogs get lice?
The silver lining in all of this is that it’s actually pretty difficult for your dog to catch lice. This is probably because lice have fairly limited mobility, which makes the chances of infestation fairly unlikely and pretty unlucky. Although on the off chance your dog does pick up the parasite, they can be a huge pain to try to get rid so it’s important to understand some of the more common places that dogs can pick up and spread lice.
Lice can be threats in areas where dogs typically congregate frequently, such as daycare centers, veterinary centers, and parks. The parasite can crawl, but it is unable to jump, hop, or fly so they must be transmitted through direct contact with another infested animal. Luckily, lice can only survive for a few days without animal contact so if they fall off a dog, it’s harder for that same lice to be able to latch onto a new carrier.
What is the lifecycle of dog lice?
Once the lice attach to the dog’s skin, they can stay around for quite some time. There are three lifecycle stages for lice, which include: egg, nymph, and adulthood. The cycle starts when an adult female louse lays eggs, referred to as “nits” at the base of your dog’s hair shaft.
It takes approximately one week for these eggs to hatch, which releases the immature lice, known as “nymphs.” These nymphs are no larger than the head of a pin, which can make them hard to identify even at this stage of development. After about one more week, the nymphs mature into adulthood and start the reproduction cycle all over again. This is typically when you will start to be able to physically identify an infestation of lice. Unfortunately, your dog likely has now been infested with lice for about three weeks so you’ll want to start the treatment process right away.
How do you get rid of dog lice?
Most monthly dog flea and tick preventatives have actually made lice infestations much rarer among well cared for dogs. Typically, lice appear on older, sick, stray, or feral dogs. That’s not to say it isn’t normal for your healthy, young dog to get lice, they are just less likely to attract them.
However, in the case that your dog does get lice, treatment varies on the intensity of the infestation. If the infestation is very severe and was left unidentified and untreated for awhile, you should consider shaving the dog’s hair to get better access and visibility of the lice. You should also consider clipping your dog’s matted hair, which should help to get rid of some of the lice that are burrowed in these harder to reach places.
Next, you want to move onto the topical portion of the elimination. This process remains the same despite varying intensity of the infestation. Many insecticides have been proven as effective treatments through the Companion Animal Parasite Council (CAPC).
These include Fipronil, Imidacloprid, and Selamectin and the topical treatment, Permethrin. You do want to be careful using these products if you own cats in addition to dogs because they can actually be incredibly toxic for cats to ingest.
In addition, certain dogs, pregnant dogs and young puppies can be susceptible to insecticides. If your dog fits into one of these categories, you may want to bring him to the vet to get further instructions on proper treatment before using any of these insecticides.
Lice typically survive for about four weeks. Where you run into trouble is when the female lice begin to lay eggs in your dog’s hair, and lice begin to hatch at different stages in their life cycle. This is what makes the elimination process so much more difficult than most insect infestations.
It can become a vicious cycle of having to treat your dog over and over because the lice keep “reappearing” or hatching after only one treatment. It’s important to carefully monitor your dog the in the weeks following treatment to see if this is the unfortunate case.
The reason that this happens is because insecticides will kill off the nymphs and adults, but they will not eradicate the eggs. This is why it is suggested to repeat the treatment course in regular intervals for a month or more depending on whether or not you continue you to see signs and symptoms on your dog.
You also want to be sure to treat all the dogs in the household even if you aren’t seeing any irregular signs and symptoms of lice. The treatment is generally harmless on most dogs and has very little side effects, so it’s better to be safe than sorry.
In addition, make sure to wash all of your dog’s bedding and thoroughly clean all areas where your dog spends the most time to prevent re-infestation. As mentioned above, lice generally attach to dogs that are in poor health or who live in unsanitary areas.
If you improve your dogs living conditions through better nutrition, grooming, and improve the cleanliness of their household environment, you’ll prevent future infestations and maintain a happy and healthy pup.
Lice infestations are far from glamorous, and can be quite gross, so it’s best to tackle the elimination process from the get-go. The longer you wait to start the treatment, the more likely you’ll have headaches down the road when you can’t figure out how these persistent pests are still grasping onto your dog so tightly.