Understanding Cat Lice

Understanding Cat Lice

Posted by Lianne McLeod D.V.M. on

Understanding Cat Lice

We love snuggling with our cushiony feline babies, but most cat owners have probably had to navigate the safety of being so close to a cat. There is always a risk of catching something from them, even with daily washes and vaccinations.

Then, there is also the risk that your cat may get some pest or condition without you even knowing for months, leading to their suffering right under your nose. Both scenarios are unnerving.

Therefore, adequate research is necessary; you need to know what to look out for. The best option is to start with the most common culprits: ticks, mites, lice etc.

In this article, we will tackle lice on cats and answer any and every question you may have about this pest.

Nature and Behavior of Lice

First of all, it's crucial to know that lice are host-specific. This means they tend to stick with one particular species or a species that is closely related to the species they are adapted to. Therefore, if your feline friend is going to have a lice infestation, it will be lice that are specifically adapted to living on cats.

The lice that make themselves at home on a cat are known as Felicola subrostratus. This species of louse is specially adapted to thrive on feline hosts. These adaptations ensure that these tiny arthropods can effectively feed on cat blood and comfortably reside in their fur.

cat laying with lice around

How Can Cats Get Lice?

Now that we've established that lice are host-specific, let's dive into how exactly cats can get lice. While cat lice may not be lining up to infest humans, nor do they indicate a human infestation is close at hand, they do have their own cunning ways of making their way into your cat's life.

Understanding the life cycle of cat lice is essential in comprehending their potential for transmission. Lice attach their eggs to cat hairs. When these eggs hatch, the newly hatched lice embark on a rather uneventful journey since their entire existence is spent on the same cat.

However, should these lice find themselves on another cat through activities like brushing or close contact, they can potentially infest the new host. Lice are surprisingly quick to adapt, with their maturation and reproductive cycle taking about three weeks after hatching. During this time, they cling to hair shafts with their formidable claws, securing their place on their newfound host.

Lice can then be extremely tenacious in hanging on to their host. They achieve this by attaching their tiny eggs, known as nits, to the base of cat hairs. This attachment is so snug that it takes a bit more than a casual scratch for these nits to dislodge.

cat walking with lice around

So, when one cat in the neighborhood becomes an unwitting host to lice, there's a possibility that these lice will lay their eggs on the cat's fur. Now, here's where it gets intriguing: if another cat brushes up against or comes into close contact with the infested cat, those eggs can be transmitted. How very convenient.

Symptoms of Lice Infestation

Lice infestations in cats may not be as commonplace as some other pest problems, but when they do occur, they come with a distinctive set of symptoms that should not be ignored. Let's discuss the different ways your cat will communicate lice-induced discomfort.

  • The Itch That Knows No Rest.
  • The hallmark symptom of lice infestation in cats is relentless itching. If you notice your feline friend scratching themselves incessantly, particularly around the neck, head, and ears, it's a glaring signal. Lice bites are the culprit here, and their bites provoke an almost maddening itch that your cat can't seem to shake.

  • A Coat in Disarray.
  • Lice-induced itching and discomfort often lead to a ragged and unkempt appearance in your cat's coat. They may excessively groom, bite, and scratch themselves resulting in hair loss and a generally disheveled appearance.

  • Restlessness Takes Over
  • Cats are creatures of habit, and when they start acting restless or agitated, it's a telltale sign that something's amiss. Lice can make your cat feel constantly on edge, and they might have trouble settling down or finding their usual sense of calm.

  • Bites and Bloodsucking
  • Lice are not polite guests; they're freeloaders that feast on your cat's blood. This causes irritation at the bite sites, potentially leading to redness, inflammation, and small scabs on your cat's skin.

  • Hair Loss
  • In severe cases of lice infestation, your cat might experience hair loss, primarily in areas where the lice are most active. This can manifest as patches of bare skin, which can be not only unsightly but also indicative of a more advanced infestation. There may also be wounds and bleeding since the lack of fur directly exposes the skin to your cat’s bare claws. Needless to say, this is also extremely painful.

  • Anemia
  • Although less common, severe lice infestations in cats can lead to anemia. Lice's bloodsucking behavior can deplete your cat's red blood cell count over time, resulting in weakness and lethargy. This symptom is especially common if your cat is a picky eater and doesn’t have proper nutrition to replenish lost blood.

    It's vital to bear in mind that not all cats will exhibit all of these symptoms, and the severity of the symptoms can vary. Additionally, lice infestations in cats are generally less common than some other parasitic issues. 

    However, if you do spot any of these signs or suspect your cat might be dealing with lice, prompt consultation with your veterinarian is imperative. They can provide a proper diagnosis and guide you toward the most effective treatment options to alleviate your cat's discomfort and restore their well-being.

    itchy cats

    Transmission and Causes

    Understanding the causes and transmission of lice in cats is pivotal in protecting their health and well-being. 

  • Direct Cat-to-Cat Contact
  • Cats may enjoy solitary time, but that does not mean they do not appreciate some socializing. When they meet other cats, they often engage in grooming sessions with each other. Lice seize these opportunities to hop from one cat's fur to another. 

  • Shared Living Spaces
  • Lice can infest bedding, resting spots, and grooming areas. If one cat in the household is infested, these common spaces become potential hotspots for lice transmission.

  • Contaminated Items
  • Lice are resourceful hitchhikers. They can latch onto items such as combs, brushes, or even blankets that have been used by an infected cat, then hop onto another cat. 

  • Encounters with Strays
  • Outdoor cats or those in areas with a high population of stray or wild animals may be at increased risk. Stray cats or wildlife can carry lice, and any close encounter with such animals can result in lice transmission to your cat.

    Understanding these causes and modes of transmission is crucial in preventing lice infestation in your cat. Vigilance in monitoring your cat's health and environment is the first line of defense. 

    Differentiating Lice from Fleas

    It's important to address a common source of confusion, that is, distinguishing between lice and fleas. Both of these pesky critters can cause itching and discomfort in our feline friends, but they have distinct characteristics that set them apart.

    Both fleas and lice are insects, but they belong to different orders. Fleas are part of the order Siphonaptera, while lice belong to the order Phthiraptera. Lice are slow crawlers, inching their way through your cat's fur. In contrast, fleas are agile and quick movers. They can jump impressively, making them appear as if they're spring-loaded.

    Additionally, fleas are bloodsuckers, they bite their host to feed on blood. The result is an itchy and inflamed bite. Lice, on the other hand, don't indulge in blood feasts. They feed on skin flakes and other organic debris found on your cat's skin.

    spyglass lice and cat silhouette

    Detecting Lice and Fleas in Cats:

    When it comes to identifying lice in your cat, the key is to look for slow, crawling insects on their fur that may appear as tiny brown or white specks. Fleas are often easier to spot due to their rapid movement. You may see small, dark insects darting around your cat's fur. Flea bites can leave behind small, red, itchy welts on your cat's skin.

    In summary, while both lice and fleas can provoke itching and discomfort in cats, they have distinct characteristics. Understanding these differences will help you identify the source of your cat's discomfort accurately.

    Treatment Options

    So what are the strategies and methods that can help you combat these pesky intruders?

  • Medications for Lice Infestation
  • Medication may come in the form of sprays, shampoos, or dips. It's crucial to consult your veterinarian for guidance on selecting the most appropriate product for your cat's specific condition.

  • Prolonged Treatment Duration
  • Lice infestations are persistent, and it's essential to continue treatment for an extended period. This ensures that you eliminate the entire life cycle of lice, including both adult lice and their eggs.

  • Consider Shaving in Severe Cases
  • In severe lice infestations, shaving helps remove lice and their eggs, allowing for more effective treatment. Consult your veterinarian before opting for this approach.

  • Environmental Cleanup
  • To prevent reinfestation, it's crucial to thoroughly clean everything by washing and vacuuming what your cat uses, including bedding, clothes, and furniture. 

  • Preventive Measures
  • Regular grooming, hygiene practices, and maintaining clean living conditions are key to keeping lice at bay.

    Lice Prevention and Home Care

    Let's explore the strategies and home care tips that can help you keep lice at bay and ensure your cat's continued well-being.

  • Monthly Flea Preventatives
  • Believe it or not, monthly flea preventatives can also serve as a shield against lice infestations. Consult your veterinarian to select the most suitable preventive treatment for your cat's needs.

  • Maintaining a Clean Environment
  • A clean living environment is the first line of defense against lice. Regularly clean and disinfect your cat's living space, including their bedding, toys, and resting areas. 

  • Regular Veterinary Care
  • Regular check-ups with your veterinarian allow for early detection of any signs or symptoms of infestation, ensuring timely intervention if needed.

    your cat's living space, including their bedding, toys, and resting areas. 

  • Vigilant Grooming and Hygiene

    Brush your cat's fur to remove dirt and debris, which can attract lice. Additionally, maintain good overall hygiene for your cat, including oral care and keeping their fur clean.

    spyglass and flea cat

    Lice Transmission Between Cats and Humans

    The good news is that lice don't partake in cross-species adventures. In other words, humans can't get lice from cats, and cats can't get lice from humans. Lice are what we call species-specific parasites. They've adapted to thrive on a particular species, and they don't venture beyond those boundaries.

    Furthermore, it's essential to recognize that the type of lice that may affect your cat is different from the type that infests humans, especially children. The lice that affect cats have evolved to live on their respective hosts, and they don't have an interest in switching teams.

    So, to put your mind at ease, rest assured that your cat's lice won't be hitching a ride onto you or your loved ones. Also, treating lice is very possible so you do not have to worry if your purr-fect little buddy has unfortunately gotten them.

    In Closing

    In the intricate dance between lice and their hosts, understanding their host-specific tendencies sheds light on their unique behavior. Lice are not indiscriminate invaders but they have evolved to thrive on specific species, making our feline friends their preferred hosts.

    As we've explored their peculiar nature and preferences, we've also debunked a common concern: lice transmission between cats and humans. These tiny pests are experts at sticking to their chosen hosts, with different lice species specializing in different animals. So, when it comes to your cat's lice, there's no need to worry about them making a leap to you or your loved ones.

    Armed with the knowledge of how to spot lice infestation on cats, treatment plans, and preventive measures, you can now ensure your cherished cat enjoys a life free from these tiny tormentors.


    1. Durden, L. A. (2019). Lice (Phthiraptera). In Medical and veterinary entomology (pp. 79-106). Academic Press.
    2. Dryden, M. W., & Payne, P. A. (2005). Preventing parasites in cats. Veterinary Therapeutics, 6(3), 260.

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    Lianne McLeod, DVM, is a former writer for The Spruce Pets, contributing articles for 11 years. Before Dr. McLeod began writing about pet care, she worked several years in small animal practice. She has written extensively about the care and keeping of exotic pets and pet health care. She now researches water quality and chronic disease at the University of Saskatchewan. Lianne McLeod earned her Doctorate of Veterinary Medicine from the Western College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Saskatchewan. She also received a Bachelor of Science degree in biology from Simon Fraser University. She continued her education and received a Ph.D. in Epidemiology from the University of Saskatchewan. Now, she splits her time between her family, research and writing about pet health for all the animal lovers out there.

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