When your cat's got an itch she can't scratch, there's a small chance it could be cat lice.
Did you know that cat lice rarely show themselves? That's why rescue cats should always be checked for lice before you bring them home and all cat owners should be on the lookout for signs of infestation.
The good news is that, according to the Companion Animal Parasite Council, lice are not nearly as common as fleas in cats or dogs, and they're species-specific. "A lot of pet owners will blame their cat for giving them lice, but you can't catch lice from your cat," says Justine Lee, a veterinarian and the CEO and founder of VETgirl, a subscription-based continuing education podcast. That means you can't catch lice from your kitty and she can't catch lice from you!
The Difference Between Fleas and Lice
Both lice and fleas are tiny parasites that bite and live off their hosts, but they are otherwise as different as black and white -- literally. When you look closely at a cat who's been infested, fleas will present as jumpy black dots and leave a trail of black dirt. Lice, on the other hand, are white, and it's usually the eggs -- sticky white dots stuck to the hair near the skin -- that can be spotted more easily.
Symptoms and Diagnosis
If your cat has lice, he might not seem too agitated, so it can be hard to diagnose the problem. In general, fleas make cats itchier and more uncomfortable than lice do. A heavy lice infestation could lead to a scruffy, unkempt look, and excessive scratching can lead to raw or bald patches.
To diagnose cat lice, simply observe your feline friend. "If you notice excessive itching, grooming or poor hair coat, it could be lice." says Dr. Lee. If you think you see white dots, comb them out onto a dark surface to see them more clearly. If they start to move around, it's probably cat lice. Head to the veterinarian to double-check and begin treatment if necessary.
Don't try treating cat lice using home remedies or store-bought solutions. "Many over-the-counter products are dangerous and toxic to both animals and humans," says Michele Hoffman, the founder and president of Milo's Sanctuary and Special Needs Cat Rescue in Burbank, California. Complications from lice can occur if your cat is allergic to a louse bite or gets an uncomfortable infection from excessive scratching or biting, according to Cornell University's College of Veterinary Medicine's website.
"If you discover cat lice, a trip to the vet ASAP is in order, and either disposing of or washing all bedding and blankets in hot water with soap, and vacuuming are the best ways to treat," says Hoffman. "Also make sure you disinfect all grooming tools and litter boxes as well as the carpet and furniture."
A thorough cleaning will help ensure that your cat doesn't get reinfested when he returns to your home clean and lice-free. Fortunately, once you clean your house and pet, the chance of reinfestation is slim to none. Cat lice can't survive very long without a host, so they won't be hiding in the cushions waiting to pounce as soon as kitty jumps on the couch!
Above all, if you find your cat has lice, stay calm and administer lots of TLC. Since you can't catch lice from your cat and lice treatments are no fun, you might as well keep cuddling your poor, itchy furry friend.
To learn about dog lice, read Dog Lice 101: The Good, the Bad, and the Itchy.
Cara Stevens is a freelance writer living in Connecticut with her husband and two children. She has authored several books for children and writes frequently about parenting, hair care, DIY crafts, food and healthy living.
* This article is for general informational purposes only. It is not intended nor implied to be providing medical advice and is not a substitute for such advice. The reader should always consult a health care provider concerning any medical condition or treatment plan. Neither Care.com nor the author assumes any responsibility or liability with respect to use of any information contained herein.