Can Head Lice be Transmitted Between Kids and Pets?

Searching dog for ectoparasites

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If you’ve ever had to deal with your child coming home from school with a case of head lice, it’s no wonder that you want to be sure your entire family is protected from transmission, furry family members included. Eradicating lice from your home and family is a serious undertaking, similar to battling a flea infestation, and understanding how lice are transmitted is key to destroying these pests. 

Can kids and pets give each other head lice?

While you may wonder if the stray cat you took in gave your child a case of head lice, or if your kid will pass along her lice to the dog, don’t worry. Lice are a species-specific parasite, and only feed off their chosen species. So, while your child’s head lice may pass to you, your pet will not be infected. Human lice need human blood to survive, while dog lice need dog blood, and so on. 

Besides, your child is more likely to contract head lice from school than your pet is to get lice from her environment, as dog and cat lice are relatively uncommon. Although you may be tempted to separate your pets and children if you’ve been notified of a lice infestation at school, there is no need to worry about transmission between your two- and four-legged children. On the other hand, you need to be careful about transmission from your child to you, but you can still snuggle your pet and remain safe. 

Human body louse, female, France
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Lice in people

Although there is a negative stereotype surrounding head lice as being the cause of poor hygiene, that is not the case with people. Lice are highly contagious and can spread easily in schools, daycares, and playgroups, as children share hats, hairbrushes, hair accessories, and sports helmets. Adults rarely contract head lice from other adults, unless they live together, especially if they are battling their child’s head lice case. 

A complaint of an itchy head or a tickling feeling in their head is often the first sign of lice you’ll notice in your child. Upon closer inspection, you’ll likely discover tiny white dots clinging to the hair shafts, which are the nits or lice eggs. You’ll also notice the nymph and adult stages, which are gray and mobile, with the adults being slightly larger—about the size of a sesame seed.  

To eradicate lice from your child’s scalp, you must follow a strict regimen of special shampoos and combing to remove nits, nymphs, and adults. Thoroughly washing your child’s bedding, soft toys, and clothing will help kill this parasite, in addition to vacuuming the areas where your child sits and plays. 

Lice in pets

While lice in people are not the result of poor hygiene, pets and other animals often pick up lice from unsanitary living conditions. Infestation on pets is usually seen on debilitated, stray, feral, or shelter animals in poor conditions, not household pets who receive proper care. Lice can be transmitted easily in animal shelters that lack proper disinfection methods, grooming facilities that fail to sanitize their equipment, or pet stores with poor living conditions.

For pets who contract a lice infection, dogs may play host to one species of bloodsucking lice and two species of chewing lice, while cats only attract one species of chewing lice. Regardless of the type of lice your pet has, she will become itchy, causing her to rub, chew, and scratch at the affected area, which leads to a matted, rough coat. Your dog may also become infected with tapeworms, as one form of chewing lice can also transmit these parasites. 

If you notice your pet itching, chewing, and scratching, schedule a veterinary visit to determine the cause. Although your pet’s lice cannot be transmitted to your child, diagnosis and treatment is still necessary to soothe your pet’s discomfort. Depending on the cause of your pet’s itching, your veterinarian may prescribe topical treatments, such as shampoos, sprays, or spot-on flea and tick preventives. At home, you’ll need to wash and sanitize your pet’s bedding, keep her separate from other pets of the same species, and disinfect brushes and combs used on your pet. Don’t forget to clean the carpet and furniture where your pet spends most of her time as well, ideally with a steam cleaner. 

If your pet has lice and your child snuggles your pup or kitty, she may have a louse or nit fall on her. Your pet may also come in close contact with other animals, such as barn animals, but will not pick up her own case if an outdoor animal has lice. Fortunately, since lice are species-specific parasites, the opportunistic louse on your child or pet will soon die without an appropriate meal. 

How you can prevent your family from getting lice

Since lice can take weeks to fully eradicate from your family and your home, prevention is much simpler than treatment. For your children, prevent them from sharing hats, brushes, helmets, and hair accessories with other kids. For your pets, investigate your grooming and boarding facilities to ensure they are clean and thoroughly disinfected between each pet. With proper management techniques, you’re likely to avoid a lice infestation in your pet. But, you may not be so lucky with your child, as they’re more prone to sharing, whether it’s a cold, flu, or lice case.