Chicken Mites & Lice – Prevention & Remedies

“I intend to keep chickens in 2009 for the first time in an area of the garden that has never had any poultry on it before and I will buy pullets. Can you tell me how the chickens might get red mites or lice if they are ‘clean’ at the time of purchase? Thanks.” ~ David Brown

This week’s article may not be for the faint of heart but it’s important for all of us who are keeping chickens.

We’re going to be talking about poultry mites and lice. I must confess that just thinking about mites and lice gives me the heebie-jeebies and makes me start to itch. If you’re like me, I’d suggest not reading this article just before it’s time for bed or you’ll be scratching all night long. But it’s important that we cover this so that you can be informed about these little critters and how to care for your chickens.

David, you’re a step ahead to be concerned about mites and lice before they are a problem. Let’s start with where these external parasites come from and how to identify them.

Mites and lice can be brought into your flock from wild birds such as sparrows, crows, etc. They can also be brought in on rodents looking for food. Finally, anytime your flock or one of your chickens is exposed to other birds, you increase your risk of an infestation. Sales, auctions, and poultry shows can be considered an opportunity for mite and lice transfer. Because they are able to live away from a host for a period, clothing, egg cartons, even your hands can carry the little critters.

There are several kinds of mites that could infest your flock;

Northern Fowl Mites are a common external parasite found in poultry. They are usually found in the cool months of spring and fall, and in the winter. They live in temperate regions of the world and suck blood from varying types of fowl.

They are aggressive and primarily live on the chicken although they can survive off of the host bird for up to three weeks. They feed both day and night.

Identification is important. Northern Fowl Mites are very small and a reddish brown color deepening to almost black. They have 8 legs. The vent area is the most common site of infestation. Males tend to have a more scattered infestation. The eggs and waste of the mite will give the vent area an appearance of being dusty or dirty.

The Tropical Fowl Mite is comparable to the Northern Fowl Mite but lives in tropical regions.

The Chicken Mite (or Red Roost Mite) is another very common external parasite found in poultry. They are primarily a warm weather pest. They live in nest boxes, bedding material and on the skin of the birds.

Unlike Northern Fowl Mites, Chicken Mites tend to be nocturnal, sucking the blood of the flock while they sleep. During the day they hide in the cracks and crevices of the coop. Chicken Mites are very small and are a yellowish gray color but they become darker as they feed.

The above forms of mites suck blood and cannot be left untreated. The life cycle of mites can be as little as 10 days, which allows for a quick turnover and heavy infestation. Early intervention is necessary to prevent illness, debilitation and/or death within your flock.

Because Chicken Mites do not live on the birds, treatment of the coop is the most effective method. Treatment should be directed at the cracks and crevices within the coop where the mites hide during the day. Northern Fowl Mites require treatment to be directed at the birds themselves.

There are many products available to rid your flock of mites. Most contain pesticides, although I understand that there may be some organic treatments available as well. Contact your local veterinarian, feed store or agriculture center for recommendations and products available in your area.

Scaly Leg Mites are also a concern.

You will see skin that looks aged, swollen or deformed on your chicken’s legs and feet. These round, tiny, flat-bodied mites burrow under the skin, lifting the scales. If left untreated, the bird could become crippled.

Treat Scaly Leg Mites two to three times a week for a few weeks by dipping the infested bird’s legs in linseed oil. Wipe the legs clean and coat with petroleum jelly. Treatment may come to an end when skin is smooth again.

Poultry Lice are another concern for those of us keeping chickens.

Each region will have a most common strain and I could not possibly address all the variations. There are some things all lice have in common though; they are all small wingless insects. They have 6 legs, are flat-bodied and have a broad, round head. They have chewing mouth parts, unlike the sucking mouth parts found in mites.

A louse spends its entire life on the host bird. You can see it as it moves on the skin by parting the feathers. Lice are most often found around the vent, at the head and under the wings. They do not suck blood but rather feed on feathers and dry skin scales. Although not as intrusive as mites, lice are irritating to a chicken.

Again, check with a professional in your area for treatment options when dealing with lice.

Flocks that are infested with mites or lice show similar symptoms. Expect to see a decrease in food intake, a decrease in weight gain, a decrease in egg production and in increase in disease susceptibility.

If any of these general symptoms are present, visually and thoroughly inspect your flock. If you suspect Chicken Mites, include a night time inspection when they are active. Poultry mites and lice are not dangerous to people. They can and may bite you, causing irritation but they cannot survive with a human host and are not a threat to people.

Prevention of mite and lice infestations is difficult. But some steps can be taken to reduce the chances of an infestation within your flock;

The best way to control these pests is early detection. Regularly inspect your flock. If you can catch an infestation early on, treatment and elimination can take place before harm is done.

Sanitation is of utmost importance as well. Keep the coop and bedding clean and fresh. Regularly scrub nesting boxes and other surfaces with soap and water. Disinfect the coop between flocks if that is an option.

Keep wild birds and rodents out of the coop and away from your chickens as much as possible. Wire mesh buried below the flooring is a great way to prevent tunneling rodents. Prevent wild birds from building nests in the immediate vicinity of your coop or run.

Finally, remember from our readers question about introducing new birds into an existing flock a few weeks ago, always quarantine new birds for 30 days before they have any contact with your flock. This applies to birds that have been away from your home and exposed to other birds, even other types of fowl.

I hope that external parasites are never a problem for you David, but if they are, I hope you feel better equipped to identify and deal with them. Thanks for the question.