Can Cats Get Lice?

It's just about every parent's nightmare when their child gets lice. This occurrence is so common that WebMD says that more than 12 million Americans get lice every year, and most of those are children between the ages of 3 and 11. Parents scramble to clean their homes and remove any trace of the easily contractible insects. But what about cats? Are cats prone to getting lice just as they are to getting fleas?

Cute British short hair cat kitten scratching face with leg
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The difference between fleas and lice

To understand why humans get lice and animals get fleas (and you don't usually hear about a situation that's the reverse) it's helpful to understand the difference between fleas and lice. They are both small, wingless external parasites according to Pediaa, which means they both live on the body of humans as well as animals. They live externally on the body (thank goodness!) and the bites of both animals can be painful and cause itchiness and swelling, although the bite of lice does not hurt as much as that of a flea.

While lice and fleas do have a similar appearance, lice are in the order Phthiraptera while fleas are in the order Siphonaptera. Lice like burrowing into the parts of the body that are covered with hair. Fleas, on the other hand, prefer hairless but warm parts of the body (at least, on humans). The bodies of animals, on the other hand, are almost entirely covered with fur.

There are also some significant differences. For one, only fleas can jump, which means that lice must be spread by close or near-direct contact. The life cycle of lice has three stages, eggs, nymph, and adult, whereas the flea has four: egg, larva, pupa, and adult. Fleas are generally flat in shape, whereas lice are generally oval-shaped with a more rounded body.

Golden retriever and British short hair cat
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Different types of fleas and lice

There are different types of fleas and lice as well. Lice come in three types: head lice, body lice, and pubic lice, indicating the parts of the body where they prefer to live. Fleas come in varieties that are more specific to the host they prefer: rat fleas, human fleas, cat fleas, and sand fleas.

If you're wondering why "dog fleas" are not on that list, here's why: according to pest control company Orkin, cat fleas (Ctenocephalides felis) are a different species than dog fleas (Ctenocephalides canis), although cat fleas are capable of affecting dogs, other animals, and humans. The majority of fleas in North American are cat fleas, whereas dog fleas are most common in Europe.

Can cats get lice?

Canna-Pet says that if you see your cat scratching excessively, it's most likely that they have fleas or are suffering from allergies or mites. Cats can get lice, but they say it's rare. There is only one type of lice that is interested in cat—_Felicola subrostratus_—and this species is apparently not interested in humans or dogs.

If you do happen to have one cat in the family that gets lice, this is transmittable to other cats in the family through close contact or through contaminated grooming tools, brushes, and bedding. Lice can transmit tapeworms, so it is something you'll want to address.

Can cats get lice from humans?

Lice seem to need specific conditions such as certain body temperatures to survive. The body temperature of humans and cats is quite different. Lice Doctors says that if a louse climbs off a human head and onto a family pet, it is akin to the louse landing on an inanimate object, because it is not the temperature at which it wants to live, and the louse will die within a day.

Lice Doctors does emphasize, however, that while lice do not want to live on animals, animals can transmit them. In other words, animals can transport lice to a couch, chair, or rug, where it can be transmitted from that place to a human host, which is what they consider to be their real home—a human head that is at the right temperature for their food supply.

Indoor ginger tabby cat scratching his ear
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How do you treat lice in cats?

If your cat does get lice, there are some treatment options available. The first step to treating lice in cats, according to Best Vet Care, is to isolate the affected cat so you can prevent the spread of the lice to any other animals in the home. There are some insecticide treatments, including selamectin, fipronil, and Imidacloprid, which are all effective against lice. This ointment is placed between the cat's shoulder blades, similar to some flea treatments, so the cat can't lick it or easily rub it off.

Complete the treatment by cleaning and disinfecting your cat's bedding and grooming tools. You may want to clean your whole home, such as cleaning carpets and vacuuming upholstered furniture, to ensure that all lice eggs are removed. If the infestation does not go away with these efforts, they may need to be repeated. Your veterinarian can give you further advice on ensuring successful treatment.