Fleas and ticks are some of the most common parasites that bother dogs, but they aren’t the only bugs that like to dine at the canine buffet. Lice can also set up shop amid the hairs of your dog’s coat and cause considerable itchiness. They can even cause a few relatively serious health concerns if left unchecked.
Fortunately, lice infestations aren’t terribly common and they’re pretty easy to fix. We’ll walk you through the basic lice-killing process below – we’ll even recommend a few of the best products to help along the way. But first, we’ll explain the basics of lice and the symptoms they cause in dogs.
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Lice Biology Basics
We’ve written about dog lice before, but we’ll break down the basics once again:
Lice infestations (called pediculosis by vets) are rare among dogs living in the developed world, as most preventative flea treatments will kill the bugs easily enough. Most infestations occur in dogs who are sick, elderly, feral, or not routinely treated with a flea-killing medication.
Lice are most commonly transmitted via direct contact in close-quarters environments, such as kennels. However, your dog could conceivably catch them at the dog park or in some other situation in which dogs bump up against each other.
There are two kinds of dog lice. Some – called chewing lice – eat the organic debris on your dog’s skin. Others – called sucking lice – feed on your dog’s blood, much like ticks do. But as far as your dog is concerned, they both suck (rimshot). There are other minor differences between the two types, but they both respond to similar treatment regimens.
Left untreated, lice can make dogs pretty miserable. Lice can cause a variety of mild to moderate health problems for dogs. They may, for example, transmit tapeworms or other parasites to your dog if she inadvertently ingests one of the blood-suckers.
Dog lice won’t affect you, nor will human lice affect your pooch, because lice have species-specific feeding requirements. It is still wise to employ sound hygiene when dealing with them, but don’t worry that your head is going to start itching because your dog contracts lice.
Lice exhibit a type of life cycle called incomplete metamorphosis. This means that they hatch from eggs as nymphs, which look more-or-less like smaller versions of the adults. They pass through several molts (sometimes called instars) before becoming adults. They don’t make a cocoon or pupa like some other insects do.
Symptoms of Lice in Dogs
Dogs can exhibit a number of signs that may indicate a lice infestation. Most are pretty intuitive and easy to recognize.
- Itchiness or excessive scratching
- A matted coat
- Bald patches
- Red or inflamed skin
- Diffuse hair loss
- Small wounds from the lice or from the dog’s biting and scratching
- Anemia, which will reduce the ability of your dog’s blood to carry oxygen around her body
- Other diseases and problems caused by lice, such as tapeworms
While you can usually get rid of lice at home, it is always a good idea to visit your vet if you suspect your dog is suffering from an infestation. Your vet can not only verify that lice are present, but he or she can also determine if your dog has developed anemia or contracted parasites, or if she requires additional care.
Easy and Effective Lice Treatment
Eradicating lice is actually pretty easy, although it’ll often take you a few weeks to completely eliminate the problem. Just employ the four-step method outlined below.
- Wash your dog with a lice shampoo. Appropriately applied, a good lice shampoo will kill all of the nymphs and adults living on your dog’s body. It will not, however, kill the eggs, nor will it kill any adults or nymphs on your dog’s bed or anywhere else in the environment.
- Treat your dog with a preventative flea and tick medication. This will help kill any eggs that hatch and any adults or nymphs that climb on your dog after the shampoo treatment. Alternatively, you can just re-treat your dog with the lice shampoo about a week after the initial treatment.
- Clean your house thoroughly. Start up high and work your way to the floor. Pay special attention to your dog’s belongings, and make sure that you wash or replace his bed and any blankets, pillows, or towels he uses in very hot water. You may also want to use a dog-safe anti-parasite spray for extra protection.
- Inspect your dog closely for any remaining lice or eggs. You’ll probably want a good flea comb to help make it easy to search through your dog’s hair. Lice eggs are about the size of a sesame seed, and they can be yellow or white. Be sure to do this several times over the next month or two to make certain you kill all of the little buggers.
Active Ingredient Comparison For Dog Lice Shampoos
Different lice shampoos rely on different active ingredients. A few of the medications included in most common lice treatments are detailed below.
Each has its own unique properties and works best in different situations, and some products contain more than one lice-killing medication.
Originally developed to kill fungi, bacteria, and bugs living on trees, veterinarians discovered that dilute solutions of sulfurated lime (which may also be called lime sulfur or spelled as sulphurated lime) were also effective for ridding pets of these threats. It is most commonly applied as a dip or shampoo.
In diluted form, sulfurated lime is relatively safe, but you’ll want to take care to avoid getting it in your dog’s eyes, nose, or mouth. Sulfurated lime is also powerfully stinky. It smells like an entire carton of rotten eggs, so you’ll likely want to use it outdoors if that’s an option. It may also cause dark stains on the skin of light-colored animals.
Pyrethrins are naturally occurring chemicals that are harvested from chrysanthemum flowers. They have been used in pesticides since shortly after World War II, and they are quite effective at killing a wide range of insects – including fleas and lice. They work by overstimulating an insect’s nervous system, which leads to paralysis and death.
Pyrethrins are generally considered safe for dogs if applied in the correct dosage, and they’re the active ingredient in many topical flea medications. They can, however, cause health problems for cats, particularly if administered in high doses.
Pyrethroids are synthetic versions of pyrethrins that are created in a lab. They’re often considered more effective than pyrethrins, particularly when they are paired with a synergist (a chemical that makes them more effective), such as piperonyl butoxide.
Pyrethroids are also commonly used in modern flea and lice treatments. Once again, they are generally regarded as safe for dogs, but high dosages can cause problems. As with pyrethrins, pyrethroids can be dangerous for cats, so they aren’t appropriate for treating felines.
S-methoprene is a hormone-like substance that acts as a growth regulator. It doesn’t kill insects outright; instead, it disrupts their developmental timing, which effectively prevents the insects from completing their life cycle. It is often characterized as more of an insect “birth control” than a true poison.
S-methoprene is used to eliminate fleas, lice and many other insects, although its efficacy varies from one species to the next. It is generally considered safe when used properly, although high doses may cause dogs to vomit or experience other troubling symptoms.
Other Lice-Killing Medications
The chemicals detailed below are also very effective for treating lice, although they do not come in shampoo form. Some are featured in over-the-counter flea medications, while others will require a prescription from your vet.
Ivermectin (often sold under the brand name Ivomec) is a powerful antiparasitic medication, which is typically given via injection. Your vet will need to prescribe and administer ivermectin, but it is often very effective at killing lice as well as fleas, ticks, mange mites, ear mites, and even heartworms.
The downside to ivermectin is that it can cause serious health problems or death for some breeds. This includes collies, Shetland sheepdogs, German shepherds, whippets, Australian shepherds and Old English sheepdogs, among others. Owners of mixed breed dogs are also encouraged to be very cautious when using this drug.
Selemectin is similar to ivermectin, but it is much safer for breeds that cannot tolerate it. It is found in at least one topical flea and heartworm treatment (Revolution), and it will also kill lice quite effectively.
In the U.S., you’ll need a prescription from your vet to purchase products containing Selemectin. There are some online retailers located outside the U.S. that will sell it without a prescription, but we’d recommend against going this route without your vet’s approval (it may even land you in legal hot water).
Fipronil is an insecticide that was first developed in the late 80s. It is the primary active ingredient in Frontline Plus topical flea treatment, and it kills fleas, ticks, and lice. It works through a rather complicated process, which disrupts the GABA pathways in insects.
Fipronil is available as an over-the-counter medication, and it is considered safe for both dogs and cats. One of the nice things about fipronil is that it spreads via the oils in your dog’s skin and kills insects for about 30 days following the initial treatment.
The Three Best Dog Shampoos for Lice
Lice aren’t really difficult to kill compared to some other parasites, and there are a number of different shampoos that will do the trick. Three of the best are detailed below.
1. Vet Basics Lime Sulfur Dip
- For use with non-specific dermatoses
- CONCENTRATED formula makes 4 gallons- Mix 4 oz per gallon of water; may be used at 8 ounces per...
- Apply the diluted Lime Sulfur dip with a sponge directly over the affected areas on the pet and...
- Strong sulfur smell, but easy-to-use
Features: Vet Basics Lime Sulfur Dip is a concentrated liquid, which you’ll dilute with water before use (you’ll need to mix 4 ounces of the liquid with a gallon of water). You can then use it as a dip or simply sponge it on your dog.
Vet Basics Lime Sulfur Dip is easy to use and effective for treating lice and several other problems involving the coat and skin. And, unlike some other antiparasitic medications, it is safe for puppies, cats, and kittens, making it great for multi-pet households. It’s also a good option for collies and other breeds that are sensitive to ivermectin.
The biggest problem associated with Vet Basics Lime Sulfur Dip is its odor, which could last several days or longer. However, most owners who tried it found that this was a small price to pay for such an effective lice treatment.
2. Adams Plus Flea & Tick Shampoo with Precor
About: Adams Plus Flea & Tick Shampoo with Precor is a safe and effective multi-drug shampoo that will kill any lice, fleas, or ticks on your dog.
- PEST CONTROL: Kills fleas, ticks, flea eggs, flea larvae and lice.
- FOR SENSITIVE SKIN: Rich, creamy, sensitive skin formula with soothing aloe, lanolin and oatmeal.
- PROVEN EFFECTIVE: Contains an insect growth regulator (IGR) to kill and prevent flea development for...
- USE ON DOGS & CATS: Safe for use on all dogs, cats, puppies and kittens 12-weeks and older.
Features: Adams Plus Flea & Tick Shampoo utilizes pyrethrins, the synergist Piperonyl Butoxide, and S-methoprene (brand name Precor) to kill any insects living on your dog’s body. It is considered safe for dogs and puppies, as well as cats.
In addition to the insect-killing medications contained in the formula, Adams Plus Flea & Tick Shampoo also contains aloe, lanolin, coconut extract, and oatmeal to help soothe and moisturize your dog’s skin.
Adams Plus Flea & Tick Shampoo uses more than one medication to kill lice and other insects, and it doesn’t smell as bad as sulfur-based shampoos (many owners reported that the shampoo actually smells nice). It will also help your dog’s skin feel better and help dislodge dandruff, scaly skin, and dirt.
There aren’t many downsides to Adams Plus Flea & Tick Shampoo, but some owners complained that it didn’t work well for controlling fleas. However, because lice are easier to eradicate than fleas, it will likely prove helpful.
3. Zodiac Oatmeal Flea & Tick Dog Shampoo
About: Zodiac Oatmeal Flea & Tick Dog Shampoo is another multi-drug product designed to kill fleas and ticks, but it will also kill any lice present on your dog’s body.
- Kills fleas, ticks and lice
- Kills flea eggs for up to 28 days
- Contains aloe, lanolin, oatmeal and coconut extract
- Leaves coat soft, shiny and manageable
Features: Zodiac ‘s flea shampoo utilizes the same three-chemical blend that Adams Plus uses. It contains pyrethrins, the synergist Piperonyl Butoxide (which helps boost the efficacy of the pyrethrins), and the growth regulator S-methoprene.
Zodiac Oatmeal Flea & Tick Shampoo also contains aloe, lanolin, oatmeal and coconut extract to help soothe your dog’s skin, providing your pup with an oatmeal bath that leaves his coat looking and feeling great. You can use this product as is, or you can dilute it with water at a 2:1 ratio.
This product is almost identical to the Adams Plus Flea & Tick Shampoo, so it presents most of the same benefits. Most owners report that it is effective, easy to use, and leaves your dog’s hair soft and shiny. Several owners also mentioned that it smells very nice.
As with Adams Plus Flea & Tick Shampoo, a few owners complained that it was ineffective for treating fleas, but it is still likely to help with lice. It is slightly more expensive than the Adams product, but the difference in price is negligible.
Caution: Do Not Use Human Lice Products for Your Pet
Some owners may be tempted to go to the medicine cabinet and grab the bottle of lice shampoo they used when their kids came home from school with lice. However, this is a bad idea. Humans and dogs react differently to various insecticides, and the proper dosage is different for people than it is for your pets.
Again, lice infestations are pretty rare in the modern world as most owners use preventative flea medications. But, that doesn’t mean they never happen, and you’ll want to act quickly if you suspect that your dog is suffering from an infestation. Just follow the recommended course of action explained above and keep an eye out for the bugs in case they reappear.
Have you ever battled a lice infestation? (We’re talking about lice on your dog – you’ll have to find some other blog to discuss your own lice infestation.)
Did you find them easy to eradicate? What products did you use? Let us know all about your experiences in the comments below.