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Monday, January 14, 2013

Lice: Humans Vs. Animals

We discovered a rather annoying problem last night.  My daughter has head lice.  Apparently one of her neighborhood friends had it and the lice transferred.  Thankfully this is more of an annoying problem than a really serious one, and I think we caught it early before it spread to the rest of the family.  But my wife is completely freaked out by this.  

Being a veterinarian I have a very different perspective than she does.  When my daughter plucked a "bug" from her hair and my wife wanted me to look at it I calmly shrugged and said "It's lice."  She asked me if I was sure and I started giving a lesson on how it was bigger than animal lice but had the same body shape and structure, even to the naked eye.  Not what she wanted to hear!

Shortly after that she drove to the pharmacy and picked up some anti-lice shampoo.  She also had me wash our daughter's bedding, put her stuffed animals in airtight bags, and check everyone else for lice and nits (the eggs).  Since then my wife has been constantly fretting, talking about the lice, and being paranoid every time she or anyone else scratches an itch on their head.

Are lice a concern?  Sure.  They legitimately cause irritation and can be tricky to get rid of in some cases.  But most cases are very straight-forward and relatively easy to treat.  Lice also don't cause a serious health problem.  Maybe I'm being a bit too nonchalant, but it doesn't worry me.  I recognize that we need to treat the infestation and take measures to prevent spread, but to me it's pretty simple and I'm not upset.

I've seen lice plenty of times in animals, including just in the last couple of weeks.  Lice are visible to the naked eye, even though they are small.  We classify them as "biting" lice, who live off skin, and "sucking" lice who drink blood.  Regardless of the kind they can be irritating to the skin and result in itching.  Diagnosis is as simple as looking closely over the pet, confirming the diagnosis by putting a likely louse (singular) under low power on a microscope.  

Treatment is typically just as easy.  Depending on the degree of infestation and likelihood of spreading to other pets we may do a series of injections of ivermectin (an antiparasitic) or special medicated dips.  Two treatments is usually sufficient, though I've had a few cases in guinea pigs that have been rather stubborn.

Thankfully lice are species specific, so my daughter's lice won't transfer to our pets.  Conversely if you have a pet with lice it won't spread to the humans or even other pets of different species.  Of course, I had to explain this a couple of times to my wife who was envisioning every mammal in the house crawling with little critters.  Other than which species the louse affects, they behave remarkably alike.

So now we just have to wait it out.  And my family wasn't too keen on me giving my daughter a shot of ivermectin.


  1. Always tickles me when humans forget that they are animals too! Yes, we get lice, ticks and even (shudder) worms. I can imagine being a vet prepares you quite nicely for young children at times ;) (

  2. Thank you so much for this post! Can I please pass this on to our school nurse who gave my sixteen year old the third degree about living on a farm and how lice can pass from critter to critter. By the time
    I got to school she was red in the face, once in the car she said" I wish our school nurse was really a nurse!"
    Funny to hear that when you really are a nurse


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