Lice are small, wingless insects, parasites that can be seen with the naked eye. They affect all manner of living creatures, from humans to livestock to the common housecat. They are what is known as ‘host specific.’ This means that they have one type of species that they prefer and are not found on different species. Thus, cat lice will not be found on a goat or a human and vice versa.
When people talk about lice, they are speaking of different subtypes. There is the biting louse and the sucking louse. Those that bite actually tend to just chew on dead skin, and while this can be irritating, they are not as harmful as the lice that dig through the skin and begin sucking the blood of the host. They tend to lay their eggs, or nits, along the shafts of the hair.
Lice can be passed on from animal to animal in several different ways. The first and most common way is through direct contact, such as one cat rubbing up against another. Though the cat lice will stay on a host animal their entire life, they will hop from one host to another.
Another way is through grooming tools. If you have one cat that has lice, and you brush that animal, some of the cat lice may be picked up by the brush. Although the lice can only live away from the host for a few days, if you brush another cat before the lice die, you can transfer them to another cat.
There is a good chance that even if your cat is infected with cat lice, you won’t know it at first. You can look for some of the following symptoms. Your cat may have an abnormally scruffy coat, as well as bald patches from where the cat was scratching to alleviate the itch caused by the cat lice. In severe cases, these spots may also be bleeding or scabbed over, which is an invitation for other types of infection. As any cat owner knows, the animals tend to take pride in grooming themselves. Anything abnormal should be checked out.
When you look for the lice, you may not see them at first. They are quite small and look similar to dander with the naked eye. Wait to see if the ‘dander’ moves. You might even want to take a magnifying glass to get a closer look. You can also look for the eggs, which might even be easier to find as they are clustered.
Cat lice are very different from the lice that affect humans; under no circumstances should you attempt to treat your cat with medication meant for humans. It could have lethal effects.
As with any health related pet question, you should consult with your veterinarian. They will be able to let you know the best and safest course of action to take in order to make your cat healthy and happy again. You should continue to check your pet for lice and other forms of parasites that may cause them discomfort.