If your cat is scratching constantly, you might think he has fleas — and you’re probably right. However, cats can also get lice, though it’s rare. If your cat has an itchy skin problem, it is more likely fleas, allergies, mites, or something else. Large numbers of lice are generally only found on old, stray, or sick cats that live in dirty conditions with a lot of other cats.
However, cats who share the beds, toys, cat trees, or grooming tools with other cats may also be susceptible. Like humans, cats frequently get lice from close contact with each other or from sharing brushes with other cats.
If your cat does get lice, the good news is that it is generally a mild health problem that is easy to identify, and easy to treat with topical insecticide shampoos. And the lice won’t spread to other household members. There is only one type of biting louse that infests cats — Felicola subrostratus — and it poses no threat to humans or dogs.
The bad news is that lice are hard to find – especially on long-haired cats. Lice can also transmit tapeworms or spread to other cats on grooming tools, brushes, and bedding, so it’s important to act quickly. If you have ever seen a louse on a person, lice on cats will look very similar — but you are far more likely to see the eggs or “nits” that attach to the fur. Adult lice are difficult to spot.
How Do Cats Get Lice?
Lice can’t jump or fly. They spend their whole life on the skin of a cat and will die within a few days if they fall off. If your cat has lice, he probably got it from direct physical contact with another cat. One of the most common ways cats get lice is from a mother cat to a litter of kittens. Another way cats get lice is by sleeping in the same bedding or rubbing against an object as another cat with lice.
Can Cats Get Lice from the Groomer?
Yes. Lice can be transmitted through combs, brushes, scissors, and other cat grooming tools that have not been washed properly between uses. This is especially a problem for long-haired cat breeds, as lice are more difficult to detect on a long-haired cat.
Long-haired cats are also more likely to be exposed to lice on grooming tools because they require frequent brushing. And while professional groomers are usually quick to recognize the signs of lice, it is not uncommon for any type of cat — long-haired or short-haired — to have a major lice infestation by the time the owner finds a louse or notices symptoms.
Can Cats Get Lice from People?
Good news: you can’t get lice from your cat, and your cat can’t get lice from you. The type of lice that lives on cats does not live on people – or spread between cats and people. Lice are species-specific, which means the different types of lice that infest dogs, cats, and people will only survive on their host species. So if your child comes home from school with head lice, don’t blame the cat!
How to Identify Cat Lice
There is only one type of lice that cats can get — Felicola subrostrata — and it is a “chewing” type of lice that survives by eating dead flakes of skin or body fluids that come out of small wounds they chew into the skin. This causes itching and skin irritation in cats. In comparison, the types of lice that infest people and dogs are both blood-sucking types.
How to Tell if Your Cat Has Lice
Like fleas, lice cause skin irritation. Cats with lice problems will itch profusely and experience dry fur with flaky skin or dandruff. Over time, cats with lice may lose their fur because of itching, biting, licking or scratching themselves. Their fur may become matted – especially on long-haired cats – from chronic skin irritation and failure to groom themselves. Very severe lice infestations may cause other feline health problems like tapeworms, anxiety, weight loss, and insomnia.
Where to Look for Lice
Lice prefer to stay close to the surface of the skin. They can be found anywhere on a cat, but the most common place to find lice is the neck, tail or head. Lice naturally prefer these locations because it is harder for the cat to lick them off while it is grooming himself or itching.
Cat lice is visible to the naked eye, but it’s also easy to miss. The species Felicola subrostrata is only 1 to 1.5 millimeters long – which is about half the size of a typical head louse you would find on a person. Still, you are far more likely to find the eggs than you are the lice itself. The eggs are generally located in clusters at the base of hair follicles next to the cat’s skin. You may also find skin irritation in the same places you find eggs.
How to Check Your Cat for Lice
If your cat is itching, check him for lice. But you must be very thorough. Lice are hard to find. You may want to use a magnifying glass. Lice will look more like dirt than a small wingless insect, so be sure to study closely.
Before you begin checking for lice on your cat, put on a pair of protective gloves, then carefully separate your cat’s fur down to the skin. Working in small sections, look for spots of whitish dirt on the fur – especially around the base of the hair follicle – or darker dirt elsewhere on his body. This “dirt” may actually be lice, or lice eggs, called nits.
Lice eggs are an off-white or clear color – and about the size of a poppy seed (1 mm). The eggs are glued securely to the base of individual hairs at skin-level. Nits might look like dandruff and blend in if your cat has flaky skin.
Adult lice are about the size of a sesame seed. They are beige, tan, or yellow in color, with brown stripes on the abdomen and six legs. The shape of the head is also characteristic – triangular-shaped and wider than the mid-section – though a microscope would be needed to identify it up close. If you find any lice, you can pick them out with your fingers and squish them or drown them in a bowl of hot, soapy water.
Is it Lice, Fleas, or Mites?
The symptoms of cat lice are similar to the symptoms of fleas or mites – but lice are generally far less itchy and uncomfortable. There are easy ways to tell the difference – but veterinarians know best. It is a good idea to get a diagnosis before you give your cat any treatment for lice.
Lice and fleas live on the surface of the skin, while mites burrow down into the skin and cause extreme skin irritation. Cats with mites (also called “feline scabies” or “mange”) will often develop skin infections with fur loss on the face, ears, and body from scratching themselves.
Fleas are a lot easier to find than lice. Cats with fleas will have tiny black bugs that crawl or jump away when you find them, or reddish-brown specks of dirt in their fur. Fleas are 2-3 times bigger than lice, and feed by sucking blood instead of chewing dead skin.
No matter which pest your cat has contracted, you should visit a veterinarian as soon as you suspect that your cat has a pest infestation. Fleas, mites, and lice are easy to treat with insecticide shampoos. The sooner you act, the sooner your cat will feel better. It also reduces the risk of long-term problems like fur loss or infected wounds due to constant itching.
Preventing Lice from Spreading
The best way to prevent your cat from getting lice is to keep him in sanitary conditions, healthy, and well-nourished. But if you have multiple cats and one of them has lice, it is a lot harder to prevent your other cats from getting lice too.
You can use anti-lice collars to try to reduce the risk of transmitting lice between multiple cats in your household, but there are no vaccines or lice repellents to prevent transmission from one cat to another.
Fortunately, you do not need to treat your whole house with insecticides if your cat has lice. This is because lice spend their entire life-cycle on a cat. The few nits that fall off will not survive very long.
Transmission of lice between cats can sometimes be prevented by keeping the infested cat away from other cats while he is being treated for lice. You must also wash his bed in very hot water or replace it with fresh bedding. Furthermore, you must thoroughly clean or replace all grooming tools, combs, or brushes that were used on a cat with lice.
Unfortunately, even with the best precautions, it may not be possible to prevent all your cats from getting lice if one of them is infested. Lice are very easily transmitted among cats in the same household. It is usually necessary to treat all your cats for lice at the same time.
Watch Out for Tapeworms
Lice are not a common host for tapeworms – fleas being the far more likely host. However, cats who get lice may accidentally eat a louse while they are grooming themselves, resulting in transmission of a tapeworm parasite called Dipylidium caninum.
The symptoms of tapeworms are a lot more obvious than the symptoms of lice. Cats with tapeworms will have wiggly little white segments of the worm under their tail. Larger worms look like spaghetti when passed in stool or vomit. Tapeworms can also cause weight loss and diarrhea in cats.
How to Get Rid of Cat Lice
If your cat has lice, talk to your veterinarian about what product you should use to treat it. Your vet will prescribe a treatment based on your cat’s overall health. Fortunately, lice are easier to kill than fleas or mites. The most common treatment is a lice shampoo.
One way to get rid of lice on your cat is to use a spot-on spray or shampoo that contains fibronil – an insecticide that works by causing paralysis and death of the louse. These chemical products may need to be re-applied in 30 days to make sure all the adult lice and any eggs that hatched since the last lice treatment are eliminated.
You can also use a fine-toothed comb to remove lice and nits – but it’s a time-consuming method that can take several hours and multiple sessions. Combing only works if you can get right down to the skin – and you won’t be able to get down there if your cat has matted fur. If your cat’s fur is badly tangled, it may be necessary to shave off the fur (or just the matted sections) to be sure your lice treatments will work.
How to Prevent Your Cat from Getting Lice Again
If you have multiple cats, you will need to treat all of the cats that may have come into contact with lice so they do not act as a reservoir of infection. The same goes for all toys, cat trees, baskets, carriers, or grooming tools that might be hiding a louse or its eggs.
You will also need to wash all of your bedding and furniture. Lice only survive for 2-3 days on furniture, but they can potentially hide there and re-infest your cat. Therefore, it is essential to clean all beds, couches, chairs, and other furniture to prevent a re-occurrence of lice.
After your cat recovers from his first or second round of lice treatment, you should schedule a follow-up appointment with your veterinarian to make sure the treatment actually worked. Your veterinarian can also check your cat for negative reactions or side effects of lice treatment, as well as give you tips on how to prevent your cat from getting lice.