Lice on Dogs: Tips for Safely Delousing Your Itchy Dog

time
12 Minute Read
Updated June 1, 2021

You may, as a child, have been familiar with head lice, but can dogs get lice? Find out how lice on dogs are treated and prevented to keep your pooch itch-free.

Your dog’s scratching might be more than just a seasonal itch. You may be familiar with head lice in humans, but can dogs get lice too? Yep! Lice on dogs are slightly different from the type of lice found in humans, but the result is relatively the same: itchiness and discomfort. 

Lice on dogs are not the most common infestation, but it can happen. So what are dog lice, and how the heck did they end up on your dog?

What are Dog Lice?

Dog-lice

Lice are tiny flightless insects, also called a louse. They are only about 2-4 mm in size, so they are very small but still visible to the naked eye. Typically tan or brown, lice are often mistaken for small fleas, but they are a bit tougher to get rid of than fleas. 

Louse attach themselves to the hair, fur, or feathers of an animal. They have hooked claws that allow them to hook into the follicle of the fur or hair, making it very difficult to detach them. 

There are a couple of types of dog lice. Both kinds of lice cause itchiness and discomfort that will increase if the lice are not treated. 

Chewing Louse

The first is called a chewing louse. Though there are two species of chewing lice for dogs, one is rarely seen outside of tropical regions, so it’s unlikely that we’ll see them often in Canada, but they may be found in warmer and more humid parts of the US. The species of dog lice are found worldwide, and the most likely type of lice in Canada is called Trichodectes canis.  

Chewing lice typically live on their host for up to 30 days by feeding on the host’s dead skin cells and skin secretions. They can feed and reproduce quickly in such a fertile environment. 

Sucking Louse

The second and slightly more intimidating type of lice is called the sucking louse. This louse feeds on the blood of the host. Sucking lice bite the skin, burrowing their pincher-like mouths into the skin. Their scientific name is Linognathus setosus. 

These little vampires damage the skin more quickly than chewing lice, so unchecked infestations can quickly cause larger issues. Fortunately, this type of louse is also very uncommon in Canada. They require a more tropical climate to thrive. 

Dog Lice Life Cycle

Like fleas, lice have three life stages: eggs, nymphs, and adults. Eggs, also called nits, are layed and glued to the base of the hair follicle, making them difficult to detach. Lice eggs are lighter in colour, often white or yellow, so they are usually mistaken for dandruff. 

In about a week, the eggs will hatch into nymphs. Nymphs are very small and much harder to spot than a full-grown adult. At this stage, you might not notice them at all if it weren’t for your dog’s reaction to this itch-causing pest. 

It will take another week or two before the nymphs reach adult maturity. At this point, they are ready to reproduce and start laying their eggs. Lice can lay eggs daily, which means infestations that go untreated can cause an exceedingly uncomfortable and unpleasant situation for your dog.  

Dog Lice VS Fleas: What’s the Difference

Both of these pests can opportunistically plant themselves on your dog and wreak havoc in similar ways. It can be difficult to tell the difference between the two, but there are noticeable differences. Telling these two apart can help you choose the correct treatment and help prevent these pests from returning. 

There are 3 main behaviours and attributes we can look at to help differentiate between fleas and lice. 

1. Eggs

Adult fleas and lice are similar in size and colour, so at a glance, they can be difficult to distinguish from each other. Eggs, on the other hand, are different in both appearance and behaviour. 

Flea eggs are usually pale in colour and very small, though they can be spotted in clusters a little easier. However, the main reason that flea eggs aren’t typically noticed is that the eggs are not attached to your dog, so they usually end up falling off and completing their development in surrounding carpets or bedding. 

Lice eggs, on the other hand, are often white or yellowish. Even though they are no bigger than flea eggs, their brighter colour makes them a little easier to spot. Beyond colour, lice eggs are glued to individual strands of fur after they are layed so that these eggs will stay firmly planted on your dog. 

2. Pest Debris

With any pest infestation, you are more likely to notice evidence of the bugs before you see the bugs themselves. This is another way to tell fleas and lice apart.

Fleas leave behind debris - poop, to be precise. So what you’ll likely notice is little black peppery-specs called flea dirt. Lice do not leave behind the same waste product, so the first visual cue is their eggs. 

3. Mobility

Another big difference between the two pests is how they move around your dog’s body, or in the case of lice, don’t move. Lice are much less mobile than fleas because they must stay on the host to complete their life cycle. 

Fleas don’t need to confine themselves to your dog, which is why treating fleas involves treating your house as well. Though flightless like lice, fleas can jump, making it easier for them to spread out faster than lice. 

How Did Your Dog Get Lice?

beagle puppy scratching chin S

Lice spread from host to host and are usually species-specific, so your dog likely got lice from another dog. Lice thrive in unhealthy environments, meaning that lice usually attack weakened, sick, old, or dirty dogs. 

Lice are more common in stray dogs, dogs living in poor conditions, or those with compromised immune systems. The skin in all of these situations will have the most debris and secretions to feed the lice. 

Can Dogs Get Lice From Humans

As we stated earlier, most lice are species-specific, meaning the type of lice that attach themselves to dogs is a different species than feast on humans. Fortunately, this means that if you or your kids get head lice, you don’t have to worry about passing it to your pooch, or vice versa. 

Additionally, you don’t need to worry about your dog getting lice from any animals outside the Canis genus, which means canines. Common dog lice in North America infect wolves, coyotes, and foxes but won’t go after cats, rodents, or birds.  

This also means that the treatments for the two are different. So please, don’t use lice shampoo for humans on your dog, as some of the ingredients could be harmful or toxic.

How to Tell If Your Dog Has Lice

jack-russel-on-leash-scratching-neck

Identifying lice is the first step in treatment. Because some of the symptoms of dog lice are so similar to other pests and even other skin conditions, lice are often misidentified. It’s important to identify lice symptoms on dogs, but you also need to know what lice look like at each stage to help you spot these pesky bugs in the act. 

Symptoms of Lice on Dogs

Like fleas and ticks, lice irritate your dog’s skin and coat, so you will often notice the symptoms of these pests before you see the pests themselves. Here are a few things that may result from a dog lice infestation:

Dry, Cull Coat

Because common chewing lice feed on skin cells and other skin secretions, they can leave your dog’s skin and coat feeling dry and scruffy. In addition, the longer the lice feast on your dog’s secretions, the more depleted they will leave your dog’s natural oils that condition his skin and coat. 

Itch

It's natural for dogs to scratch, but excessive scratching is the first sign that there may be a pest living on your dog. Itchiness is a common symptom of many skin and coat, pests, and even allergies or digestive problems. If your dog is itchier than normal, then it’s a good idea to do a physical examination with a flea comb before trying more general skin and coat solutions.

Behavioural Changes

Being itchy all the time would drive you a little nutty too. If your dog is dealing with lice, he might be a little more grumpy, restless, or anxious. These symptoms are often missed, but when combined with other symptoms, they could be a good indicator that your dog has some unwanted guests. 

Dandruff

Lice eggs are commonly mistaken for dandruff, which is why it often gets mistreated, allowing the problem to get worse. Even though nits are much smaller than full-grown lice, they are still visible. You might see what looks like white sand sprinkled on your dog’s fur. 

One easy way to see if you are looking at dandruff or lice is to brush them out with a flea comb. If the white specs stay put, then they are likely lice eggs. If they come out with the comb, it’s more likely dandruff. 

Fur Loss

Though you may see bald patches or fur thinning on dogs with lice, the lice themselves are not responsible, but rather your dog’s scratching and excessive grooming to try to curb the itch and discomfort. Bald patches indicate that your dog is focusing on an area that is causing discomfort, which means it’s best to start looking for lice in the surrounding hair. 

Hot Spots

Another secondary symptom of lice, your dog’s scratching, licking, and biting, can lead to open sores that get infected. These are called hot spots. They are typically small circular rashes that are red, inflamed, and sometimes have pus or scabs. Hot spots should be treated separately from the lice as they won’t simply go away after the lice have been eliminated. 

Tape Worms

Much like other pests, lice can carry tapeworms that can transfer to your pet. This happens when your pet ingests the host - in this case, lice - and the tapeworm sets up shop in your dog’s digestive system. 

Dog Lice Treatment

dog-grooming-bath

All right, so you spotted the signs and found irrefutable evidence of lice on your dog. So what can you do to get rid of these pesky intruders? Indeed, lice aren’t the most common pest in dogs, but just like any other infestation, it’s best to get rid of the bugs as quickly as possible. 

What Kills Dog Lice

The good news is that treating lice in dogs is not dissimilar to treating fleas or ticks. Topical treatments that kill fleas or inhibit egg development also work for lice. 

Insecticides used in flea and tick treatments will target the pest’s nervous system, killing both adolescent and adult fleas, ticks, and other invasive pests quickly and efficiently. Active ingredients to look for include:

  • Imidacloprid
  • Pyrethrin
  • Permethrin

Take note - Most insecticides are safe to use externally and in small doses, but they can be dangerous if used improperly. Permethrin is a synthetic and concentrated form of pyrethrin and is not recommended for cats. 

This means that you should be cautious of the type of treatment you use on your dog if you also have a cat in your home. Cats tend to groom their doggy friends, so even if you only use the dog pest treatment on your dog, it is possible that your cat could be exposed. 

The other half of flea and tick treatments are growth inhibitors. These ingredients will stop the eggs from developing and hatching. Without growth inhibitors, flea and tick medications will only be a temporary reprieve, and the infestation and discomfort will come back once the eggs hatch. Here are a few ingredients you might see. 

  • Methoprene
  • Pyriproxyfen

Does Dog Shampoo Get Rid of Dog Lice

Zodiac-shampooBathing your dog may knock a few of the lice loose but may not be a permanent solution to your dog’s lice problem. Many medicated shampoos can help to reduce the itch temporarily, but without an insecticide or other pest-killing ingredient, regular dog shampoo will be ineffective. 

A good flea and tick shampoo, like this one from Zodiac, will contain the same or similar ingredients to the topical treatments, so a quick flea bath can help get rid of lice. However, shampoos often require more than one treatment to guarantee that all lice and eggs have been eliminated. 

Dog Lice Treatment Home Remedies

Sometimes all the chemicals can seem scary, especially if you have a multiple pet household and are concerned about cross-contamination. The good news is that natural alternatives can help get rid of lice on dogs. 

Keep in mind, like most natural alternatives, these options may not work as effectively as some of the harsher chemical options. This doesn’t mean they won’t work; it just means you need to be more diligent in your treatment to ensure you eliminate the infestations. 

Here are two products that you can use to delouse your itchy doggo naturally:

Diatomaceous Earth

This white powder can be applied topically to your pet to kill hatched lice. The fine white powder is silky in texture to you and your dog, but to a 2mm bug, diatomaceous earth is sharp enough to puncture the outer layer of the lices’ body, which leaves them unable to retain moisture. In time, they dehydrate and die off. 

This is a very safe way to get rid of infestations, but this natural remedy does have its downsides. First, diatomaceous earth can’t kill eggs, so you must reapply the powder to eliminate lice as they hatch. Additionally, the lice have to come in direct contact with the powder, so you have to thoroughly coat your dog to ensure that you don’t miss lice that may be hiding in your dog’s nooks and crannies.

Lastly, dusting your dog in powder is messy. Not only will your dog be dusty, but he’ll likely leave a trail in your home. The powder will need to be reapplied after getting wet too. 

Diatomaceous earth has many applications. Find out more about Diatomaceous Earth for Dogs

Coconut Oil

Omg, do we love coconut oil, but can it really get rid of lice? The answer is a solid probably. Coconut oil contains lauric acid, which has antiparasitic properties that can be effective against lice and fleas. Coconut oil can be applied topically to deal with hatched fleas and to help soothe itchy skin and irritation. 

Its antibacterial properties can also be effective in treating hot spots or sores that have resulted from your dog’s excessive scratching, licking, and biting. Best of all, coconut oil is safe to ingest, so you don’t have to be concerned about your dog licking areas that you have applied coconut oil to. 

According to a study done on human head lice, coconut oil was 80% effective at killing the lice. It had the highest success rates of any natural treatments. 

Check out Benefits of Coconut Oil for Dogs for more info about using coconut to protect your dog. 

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How to Prevent Dog Lice

Like any pests, prevention is always easier than treatment. Fortunately, lice are not super common in domesticated dogs. Still, it’s important to know what steps you can take to limit your dog’s exposure and make his body an undesirable environment for lice to attach themselves. 

The first and most important factor in preventing lice infestations is keeping your dog healthy and clean. Dogs living in filthy environments, like strays, and sick dogs, are the most likely to attract lice. 

Keep your pet healthy by feeding a high-quality diet and having regular vet checks done. If your dog is showing any signs of illness, you should contact your vet immediately. 

Additionally, because lice pass from canine to canine, it is best to keep your dog from interacting with strays or wildlife that may be carrying these pests. 

Flea and Tick Treatments for Dog Lice

One of the most effective lice repellants methods for dogs is the same treatment used to kill the pests. These treatments are usually both pest killers and prevention methods when used properly. Here are some of our top flea and tick treatments that can help to prevent lice and other pest infestations. 

Bayer Advantage II

Each dose of these products provides protection for one month at a time, allowing you to go about your daily activities knowing that your dog is protected from any pests that may be lurking.  

Natural Lice Repellant for Dogs

Other preventative methods involve using pest repelling ingredients. Bug repellents for humans can be very harmful to dogs, so stick to bug repellants designed for dogs, or make your own using natural pest repellant ingredients. 

These won’t necessarily kill lice or other pests, but they will make the environment of your dog’s body less desirable and reduce the risk of infestation. Here are a few insect repelling ingredients that can help tell lice to buzz off:

    • Citronella
    • Lemon
    • Lavender
    • Tea Tree Oil
    • Apple Cider Vinegar

Has your dog ever had the misfortune of getting lice? Let us know your story, tips, and successes in the comments below!

Written by

Krystn Janisse

Krystn is a passionate pet nutrition enthusiast. She has worked in the pet industry for over a decade and loves to share her passion for animal welfare with others. She loves all animals but is currently channeling some crazy cat lady vibes with her four lovable, but rebellious cats.

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