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Care Guide

About Care Guides[x] These care guides are written to help your clients understand common conditions, tests, and procedures, as well as to provide basic information about pet care. They are based on the most up-to-date, documented information, recommendations, and guidelines available in the United States at the time of writing. Pharmaceutical product licensing, availability, and usage recommendations are based on US product information. Use the Download Handout button to generate a PDF for printing or e-mailing to your clients.

Lice and Your Cat

    • Lice are uncommon parasites of pet cats. Cats kept in overcrowded or unsanitary conditions are at greater risk.
    • Cat lice don’t infest people, but they can spread among other cats.
    • Your veterinarian can recommend safe and effective products to help protect your cat from lice.

    What Are Lice?

    Lice are small, wingless, parasitic insects. They can infest a variety of hosts, including cats, birds, horses, dogs, and people. However, lice are host-specific, which means that the species of lice that infest humans (for example) don’t infest other animals.

    Lice are uncommon in pet cats. Felicola subrostratus is the species of louse that infests cats. This biting louse grasps the host cat’s hair and eats skin debris and secretions.

    A louse spends its entire life on its host. Adult lice attach to the host and feed. When they reproduce, the female lice lay eggs (called “nits”) that remain attached to the host’s hairs until they hatch, about 7 to 14 days later. After a few developmental stages, adult lice emerge to continue the cycle. The entire life cycle takes about 3 to 6 weeks to complete.

    Why Are Lice a Problem for Cats?

    The clinical signs associated with lice can vary in severity and may be limited to skin problems such as skin irritation, itching and restlessness, hair loss, and skin wounds (from scratching and biting). However, some cats may not exhibit any obvious clinical signs of infestation.

    How Do Cats Get Lice?

    Cats most commonly get lice from being in contact with other cats that are infested. Cats that live together, play together, or groom each other can spread the parasites to each other. Lice can also be transmitted by “fomites.” Fomites are objects such as combs, brushes, or blankets that, if shared, can help spread lice from pet to pet. Lice can only live in the environment for a very short time (hours to days), so transmission generally occurs from direct contact between cats.

    Despite a popular myth, pets can’t get lice from people, and people can’t be infested from exposure to a pet with lice. The species of lice that infest dogs, cats, and humans are different, so if a child gets head lice, don’t blame the cat!

    Lice are very uncommon in pet cats that are in good health and kept under reasonably clean conditions. However, cats that are very young, elderly, sick, malnourished, and/or housed in overcrowded or unsanitary conditions are more likely to have a problem with lice.

    How Are Lice Diagnosed and Treated?

    Veterinarians generally diagnose lice infestation based on clinical signs and finding evidence of lice on the pet. Your veterinarian may pluck a few hairs from your cat and look at the sample under the microscope to identify lice or nits clinging to the hairs. Sometimes, lice can also be seen on the pet by looking closely at the skin and hair with a magnifying glass.

    Fortunately, there are several products that safely and effectively treat lice. There are many options, so ask your veterinarian about the best choice for your cat, and never use a dog product on your cat. Even some of the monthly spot-on flea products are effective against lice. However, most cats infested with lice are living under unsanitary conditions, so this should also be addressed if the problem is to be resolved completely. The cat’s living area should be thoroughly cleaned, and any blankets, brushes, combs, or other fomites should be washed.

    Cats that are severely malnourished or otherwise ill may need hospitalization for treatment. For most cats, however, treatment can take place at home.

    How Can I Protect My Cat From Lice?

    Regular use of certain monthly spot-on flea control products can protect your cat if he or she is exposed to lice. However, reducing exposure risk is highly recommended. Any new pets being introduced into the home should be examined by a veterinarian to be sure they are not bringing lice or any other parasites or illnesses into the house. A precautionary quarantine period may be advised.

    If one cat in the house is being treated for lice, your veterinarian may recommend treating other household cats at the same time because the parasites are easily transmitted from cat to cat.

    Pets that are being treated for lice should be separated from other pets until the problem has been resolved. Because some products are not effective against nits, treatment may need to be repeated in a week or two to target lice that were nits at the time of initial treatment. Depending on which product is used, your veterinarian can advise you about the treatment schedule and when it is safe to expose your treated cat to other cats.

    Fortunately, lice are host-specific. Children or other family members are not at risk if your cat has lice.