Doggos romping outside with their pup pals can sometimes pick up nasty hitchhikers. Our veterinary expert provides tips on how to spot and get rid of them.
woman washing lice off dog in a kitchen sink
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There are many potentially pesky parasites that pester our pups, from fleas and ticks to tapeworms and heartworms. But can dogs get lice, too? Sometimes, but only under certain conditions.

Frank Hurtig, DVM, is the director of veterinary technical services at Virbac US. He says although lice are highly contagious, dogs get lice only from other dogs. "Lice are very particular about the host they'll live on," he says. "When new lice hatch, they live the rest of their life on that animal unless they happen to brush off to another animal of the same species." 

How Can Dogs Get Lice?

Fortunately, dogs don't get lice from humans or vice versa. Whew! Each species has a specific louse parasite, even humans (we're susceptible to three different types of lice, but we're not really here to talk about them—or give you a psychosomatic itchy feeling!)

For example, the Companion Animal Parasite Council (CAPC) indicates cats are infected by one type of lice, the feline chewing louse. It feeds on tissue debris and dandruff. Domesticated and wild dogs are infected by both the canine version of the chewing louse, as well as the canine sucking louse, which feeds on blood and other fluids. Chewing lice on dogs are the most common.

So how do dogs get lice? Pooches outdoors in direct contact with other canines are most susceptible to lice infestations, especially if they brush up or tussle with an unprotected pooch, like at a dog park.

Grooming supplies such as brushes, combs, and other tools might also have lice attached to them if not sanitized properly. "Lice eggs can fall off the hairs when an animal is being brushed or combed and be transmitted to another animal of the same species that is subsequently brushed or combed," Hurtig says.

Additionally, it's not uncommon for rescue dogs to suffer with lice, especially when found in unsanitary conditions. Often rescue staff have to quarantine these pups for up to two months with rigorous treatment before they're healthy again. Awwww!

Hurtig adds that there are no breed predilections for these little nasties. "But lice like hair, so breeds that have no hair won't be good hosts for lice infestations," he says.

Dog Lice Symptoms

According to Hurtig, you can tell the difference between dog lice vs. fleas this way: 

  • Lice are wider side–to–side and thinner top to bottom, like they've been smooshed under a stack of books.
  • Fleas are just the opposite: thinner side–to–side and wider top to bottom, like they were squished between books upright on a shelf.

"Lice will be a bit lighter in color than fleas, yellow to tan, and be a similar size: 1– to 1–½ mm long," he says. "Lice also have six short legs with small claws on the end for hanging onto hairs." Occasionally, you'll see adult lice and egg clusters with the naked eye, but if you're curious right now, the CAPC site has pictures of dog lice.

Hurtig notes that a dog might not show any significant clinical signs of lice unless they have a truly severe case, but if you suspect something, there are a couple of places to look, such as around the head and neck, especially underneath a collar or harness. Scruffy, matted, or thin hair in these areas can be signs of an infestation.

The CAPC adds that other symptoms of dog lice often include:

  • Intense scratching or rubbing
  • Biting at infected areas
  • Pruritus or itchy skin
  • Restlessness

Additionally, "chewing lice are attached by their claws or mandibles to the base of a hair, usually on the head, neck, and tail," the CAPC states. "These lice may be found in larger numbers near body openings or skin abrasions where they're seeking moisture."

Options for Dog Lice Treatment

The lifecycle of dog lice is about three weeks. Hurtig provides a brief overview: 

  • Lice attach their eggs to the base of hairs on the dog. Eggs are also called nits.   
  • When new lice hatch, they spend the rest of their lives—about 30 days—on that dog unless they brush off to another dog.   
  • Lice first become nymphs, then adults. They lice mature and reproduce in about three weeks after hatching.

This cycle is often why it takes a couple of months for dog lice treatment to work well: it's essential to retreat at every stage of the lousy louse's life until the parasites are completely gone. You'll have to keep your doggo away from infestation sources during treatment time as well.

Hurtig says there aren't any effective natural home remedies for treating lice infestations that are also safe for your dog, so consult your veterinarian for recommendations of safe and effective products for control of lice. "Several of these treatments, such as Senergy (selamectin), are applied as a few drops on the dog once a month and help control several other parasites, as well," he says.

Another phase of treatment could include bathing with a flea and tick shampoo. However, most of these products can only be used once every 7–10 days, and your dog's coat and skin might not be able to handle frequent bathing like this. Let your vet or professional groomer be the guide on this option.

The CAPC also indicates that topical permethrin products "can be used on dogs with good effect". But don't use them at all if you also have cats, as they're highly toxic.

Be sure to clean all bedding and crates thoroughly. For fabrics, the CAPC states "eggs and other stages on fomites will die gradually over time due to desiccation [loss of moisture], which can be accelerated by several hours under hot, dry conditions such as in a clothes dryer."

How To Prevent Lice in Dogs

"Treatment and control can keep you and your pup from having a 'lousey' day!" Hurtig says. "So it's especially important to have regular checkups with a veterinarian to look for external parasites such as lice."

Following a regular pest prevention plan issued by your vet, as well as a consistent grooming routine based on your dog's specific needs, prevents these nasties from invading his furry domain again. Bye-bye, bugs!