Finding lice in their children's hair drives some parents to exasperated panic. But it also has driven several Minnesota women into launching professional lice-fighting businesses. And business is booming.

"A year ago, when I first looked into doing this, there wasn't a single company like this in Minnesota," said Melissa Loch, who runs Melissa's Nit Pickers. "By the time I filed [incorporation] papers with the state, there were two other companies in the Twin Cities." Now there are four such local firms.

What the businesses have in common -- beyond the determination to track down every nit (lice egg) in the metro area -- are their founders' roots. All four companies were started by women who battled lice in their kids' hair and were frustrated by the myths and misinformation surrounding the problem.

They figured that a lot of other parents probably were in the same situation. But even they admit that they've been shocked by how vast that number is.

Gonne (it's pronounced Honnah and reflects her Dutch ancestry) Asser incorporated as the Minnesota Lice Lady this past fall. She has never done any advertising. Not that she doesn't want to; she hasn't had time.

"I created my website and then figured I'd sit down and come up with a marketing plan" to get the word out, she said. With people using Internet search engines, "the phone started ringing almost immediately, and it hasn't stopped since."

All four businesses do their work on-site, going to their clients' homes, not only to eradicate the lice but to offer advice on how to keep the bugs from spreading to other family members.

And they're ready to respond at a moment's notice. When she answered her cell phone, Jina Saueressig, who runs Lice Finders with her sister, Tonya Potter, was shopping at Target but was ready to roll.

"Typically when people call, they've reached the point that they're in dire need," she said. "I carry all my gear with me in my van everywhere I go."

Because of the unpredictable nature of the work, the lice-fighters said that it's a must for them to have understanding and supportive families. When friends Lisa Rudquist and Rachel Knutson started Ladibugs in May, they quickly discovered that lice work doesn't honor a time clock.

"We got a call at 8:30 one evening from a woman who was in a panic and said she'd do anything to get us to come out that night," Rudquist said. "The job took until 4 a.m."

Why were all the companies started by moms and not dads? No one wants to sound sexist but, well, it's just not a guy thing.

"You need a lot of patience," Loch said. "And not just in terms of painstakingly going through the hair. You need kid patience. A 3-year-old isn't going to sit still for long. You need to stop every so often and sing 'Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes' with them. You need to get the wiggles out of them."

All of the women have personal-service backgrounds: social work, nursing or education. "I think we all have this need to help," Saueressig said.

Removing lice is only part of the service; offering emotional support is almost as important for some clients. They need reassurance that the presence of lice in their children's hair isn't a condemnation of their parenting skills.

"One of things we tell them is that lice actually prefer clean hair because oils and dirt make it harder for them to attach to the hair shaft," Rudquist said. "Still, the stigma is there."

To that end, discretion is very important. "We've done treatments in three houses on the same block and none of them know about the others," she said.

Overbooked calendars also generate clients.

"We get a lot of calls from two-career families," Loch said. "A lot of the people who call us simply don't have the time to spend hours picking through their kids' hair. They're already pushing their schedule as far as it will go."

The exasperation factor plays a role in their business, too, they said. When it comes to removing lice, there's no middle ground: You're either 100 percent successful or you fail. Miss one bug or overlook one egg, and the whole cycle starts over again. And again. And again.

"We're getting calls from people who have been battling lice for months and are at their wits' end," Loch said. All the lice-fighters reported getting calls from people who are so exasperated that they're crying.

Treatment costs vary depending on the length and thickness of the hair and the level of infestation. Some companies charge a flat hourly rate, while others use a sliding scale in which the charge drops as time accumulates.

The bottom lines tend to end up fairly close, however, with most jobs taking between 90 minutes and three hours and costing between $150 and $250.

The founders of the four local companies have never gotten together to compare notes, but they insist that it's a function of their busy schedules and not a manifestation of a cutthroat mentality.

"We're not all that competitive," Saueressig said. "We're not out to beat each other. We're making a united effort to address this problem."

Asser takes a more philosophical approach to the competition, although her philosophy might not be very comforting for parents:

"There are enough lice in the Twin Cities to go around."

Jeff Strickler • 612-673-7392