Types of lice

There are in two main groups of lice, biting lice and sucking lice.

Biting lice

Probably more accurately described as chewing lice, these are the most common type in Australia. They have tough chewing mouthparts on the underside of their head and mainly ‘graze’ on the surface of cattle, feeding on skin ‘scurf’ – dead skin cells, skin secretions and bacteria. They do not suck blood.

Cattle biting louse

Sucking lice

These lice feed on cattle blood and have fine stylets that they use to penetrate capillaries to feed. In large numbers these lice cause far greater production losses than biting lice.

Long nosed sucking louse

Short nosed sucking louse

Little blue cattle louse

Cattle tail louse (tail switch louse)

Buffalo louse

Differences between biting and sucking lice

The basic body plan of the two groups is different with biting lice having a broad brownish head, almost as wide as their body and sucking lice having a long narrow head, much narrower than the body (Figure 1 shows the different head types). The abdomen of adult sucking lice usually appears very dark brown or red-bluish in colour from blood in their guts. Biting lice have a broad brownish head and light cream bodies with darker brown transverse stripes on the abdomen of the adults (see Figures 2 and 3 below).

Figure 1. Cattle biting louse left and sucking louse right showing head types. Image credit Queensland Department of Agriculture and Fisheries farmnote F132.
Figure 1. Cattle biting louse left and sucking louse right showing head types. Image credit Queensland Department of Agriculture and Fisheries farmnote F132.
Figure 2. Cattle biting louse adult Bovicola bovis. Image credit Jess Morgan
Figure 2. Cattle biting louse adult Bovicola bovis. Image credit Jess Morgan
Figure 3. Long nosed sucking louse adult Linognathus vituli. Image credit Peter James
Figure 3. Long nosed sucking louse adult Linognathus vituli. Image credit Peter James

Treating biting and sucking lice

The difference between the feeding habits of biting and sucking lice is important in deciding which types of products will be most effective in their control. Both sucking and biting lice can be effectively controlled by pour-on, spray or dipping products applied topically to cattle, as these treatments come into physical contact with the lice regardless of their type. However sucking lice, because they feed on blood, can also be controlled by macrocyclic lactone (ML) compounds applied by injection, whereas the injectable products are not as effective against biting lice because they do not ingest the blood which contains the injectable treatment. Where biting lice are present generally a spray, dipping or a pour-on treatment will be required for good control (see application methods).

How and when to treat lice