Backyard Chickens May Have Mites, Lice and Fleas

By Amy Murillo

Backyard chicken flocks are growing in popularity, and hobbyists all over the country are keeping birds for eggs, meat, or just for fun. However, when you introduce a new animal to your home, you’re also offering a tasty buffet for some of the local arthropods that may be laying in wait.

Amy Murillo

Just as your dog can bring home fleas or ticks, chickens have their own suite of parasites. It can be difficult to find veterinarians with poultry expertise, especially in urban areas, and reliable information, especially regarding management, can be hard to come by. Many of these pests are uncommon on typical production farms, and there is little university research or extension information being conducted on backyard flocks. At the University of California, Riverside, we are conducting research on parasite management that can be applied at all levels of poultry production (conventional, organic, and backyard). Here we highlight the most common pests encountered in backyard chicken flocks.

Chicken Body Louse (Menacanthus stramineus)

This louse species is specific to chickens. All life stages live on the bird where they feed, mainly on feathers but sometimes on the blood from pin feathers too. Lice can be found on the breast, back, vent, and under the wings of birds. Lice are an annoyance and cause feather loss and reduced egg production. Examine your birds by parting their feathers and looking for flat, yellowish lice.

Chicken body lice in the vent area of a hen. Eggs are laid on feathers. Photo courtesy of B.A. Mullens.


Sticktight Flea (Echidnophaga gallinacaea)

These fleas are dark brown and flattened like cat or dog fleas, but the adults embed themselves in the skin of the face of chickens. The adults feed on blood, causing considerable stress and sometimes death in young birds. The flea eggs drop into the soil or litter, where the immature stages feed on organic material. When treating for adult fleas, be sure to do your best to clean the area to prevent reinfestation by developing fleas. Sticktight fleas are not species specific and can get on dogs, other pets, and people!

Sticktight fleas embedded in the comb of a chicken. Photo by A. Murillo.


Northern Fowl Mite (Ornithonyssus sylviarum)

These mites can be introduced by wild birds or their nests. All stages live on the chicken and are generally found in the vent region. The mites feed on blood, which causes discomfort and decreased egg production in birds. They can get onto people who are handling heavily infested birds, though they do not like to feed on non-avian hosts.

Northern fowl mites feeding on the skin of the vent area of a chicken. Photo by A. Murillo.


Chicken Mite (Dermanyssus gallinae)

The chicken mite, or poultry red mite, closely resembles the northern fowl mite. However, this mite spends most of its time away from its host in cracks and crevices. At night, the mites travel to birds to feed. They can be very irritating to birds and can cause a decrease in egg production. These mites are very difficult to get rid of once they’ve been established.

Management of these pests is best achieved using an integrated approach. Parasites can be introduced to your flock in a variety of ways — from wild animals, new birds, contaminated equipment, or people. Exclude wild birds and their nests as well as rodents, which can carry parasites into your yard. Clean equipment and inspect goods and animals at the store before bringing them home. Many farm stores have animals of their own which may be infested. Regular cleaning of bedding or litter can help to remove parasite life stages.

It’s best to catch an infestation early, so monitor regularly for parasites, both on the animals and in their living quarters. Once you have identified which ectoparasite you may be dealing with, there are several control options. Traditional pesticides are available at farm stores, but be sure to read and follow the label instructions before applying anything to your chickens!

There are also alternatives to conventional pesticides, such as covering sticktight fleas with petroleum jelly to suffocate the adults. Carefully bathing birds with non-abrasive soap can also be used to dislodge permanent parasites, especially lice.

Research at UC Riverside has shown that diatomaceous earth (DE) can work well to manage mites and lice on chickens. Mixing DE with sand (one part DE, four parts sand) in a container, like a plastic swimming pool, should attract the birds to dustbathe in the mixture. Dustbathing will get the DE up into the feathers and on the skin where the parasites live, where it will cause parasite desiccation. Always wear a dustmask while handling DE, which is safe for birds but can cause irritation in humans.

Applying DE to straw or dirt is not effective on its own at ridding birds of on-host parasites. DE may be effective for off-host parasites when applied to cracks and crevices, but it still needs to be tested for sticktight flea control.

Parasites are not fun (except to the people who study them), but they do occur. Keep your birds happy and healthy by ensuring that they are parasite-free!

For more information on poultry parasites or veterinary entomology visit: http://veterinaryentomology.ucr.edu


Amy Murillo is a PhD candidate at the University of California, Riverside. Her research focuses on host-parasite interactions on domestic chickens with an emphasis on integrated pest management.

Comments

  1. We have heard and used wood ash from our outdoor woodburning stove for this purpose. Our poultry love to dust bathe in the wood ash can you say if it is useful or not for ridding of fleas or mites?

  2. Excellent stuff. It’s great to find articles recommending DE for fleas. It’s one of the best treatments, and cheap and safe. I always recommend trying DE first, before sprays or oral remedies.

  3. Amy Murillo says:

    Wood ash has not been evaluated for control of ectoparasites. Monitor your birds regularly to make sure ectoparasite levels aren’t increasing.

    • Daniel Creech says:

      Blah Blah Blah! That is all I use and still have no problems with Mites, Lice and fleas.

  4. Happy to see these issues being studied, however, it’s not fair to say that “reliable management information can be hard to come by.” There is a plethora of reliable and accurate information online from universities and on blogs such as mine that are well-researched and written in consultation with poultry veterinarians. http://www.the-chicken-chick.com/2012/08/poultry-lice-and-mites-identification.html

    What we NEED is research on safe and effective treatment options. DE does not happen to be considered an effective mite infestation eradication method by backyard chicken keepers battling the buggers and many of us do not consider DE safe. Why does a human need to wear a respirator during DE application, but DE is considered by you and/or the folks at UC Davis as “safe” for chickens? Chickens have unique and sensitive respiratory systems; billions of razor-sharp diatoms capable of slicing into insects’ exoskeletons surely cannot be considered a safe, daily inhalant for chickens .

    We also need research on egg withdrawal times relative to each treatment option.
    We chicken keepers *do* know about these parasites and their effects on chickens as well as how to prevent and treat them, what we need are treatment options that are *scientifically proven* to be safe and effective in addition to reliable egg withdrawal periods.

    • drdick64 says:

      Kathy…..very good info…consumers should check out your links and info on your web siite
      Richard

      • Lisa Steele says:

        Great article from a reputable source.

        I have used a dust bath with sand, dry dirt and wood ash and also sprinkled DE in my coop litter, as well as in my nesting boxes and rubbed it on the roosts for years. Never a single issue with mites or lice. Ever. And that’s with using straw as coop litter – which other so-called chicken ‘experts’ claim will attract mites.

        I have never had any issue with mites, so yes, I believe that DE does work. I don’t use a respirator, I just sprinkle judiciously and don’t shake it all over the place. DE is safe. Any fine powder when it becomes air-borne can present issues with respiratory systems – both animal and human. I find it interesting that some who eschew natural treatments are the same ones who repeatedly have issues with parasites…hmmm. Just makes you wonder.

        I have written about natural mite and lice control methods and recommend them to my readers, who have come back in droves telling me that yes, they do work.

        Lisa

      • Ms Steele, the problem with your entire comment is your method of deductive reasoning.
        And because you felt it was important to attack specifically, (and obviously, by the way), the prior comment, I feel I need to do the same to you.

        I do NOT use DE. The damage it does to beneficial insects and my animals far exceeds any potential mite eradication on chickens. That is proven.
        Saying that you use DE, have never had mites, so use of DE MUST be preventing them, is the worst form of scientific deductive reasoning I have ever heard.
        I do NOT use DE, I have never had mites on my birds, so NOT using DE also prevents mites?
        Right?

        “Any fine powder when it becomes air-borne can present issues with respiratory systems – both animal and human”
        Yes! You are correct! What the heck do you think happens when hens dust bathe? Being a chicken expert you must know.
        DUST AND DEBRIS BECOME AIRBORNE.
        And per your comment , “can present issues with respiratory systems”.

        Also, “using straw as coop litter – which other so-called chicken ‘experts’ claim will attract mites.”
        THIS is a fact. Hollow tubes in straw are homes for all kinds of insects. And are an attractant BECAUSE they are a suitable place to live.
        I would rather treat by birds very short term with a product designed to correct a problem, than to expose them, and beneficial insects, to consistent harmful exposure for their entire lives.

        You do not need to agree.
        That is the beauty of advice. It is possible to offer yours with out devaluing someone else’s.
        Your comment that, “some who eschew natural treatments are the same ones who repeatedly have issues with parasites. ” is fairly assumptive don’t you think? I didn’t see anyone say they completely avoid ALL natural remedies.
        I use many natural remedies, I also use aggressive treatments when necessary. It IS possible to incorporate both.

        I will not cite sources for what I have written since I assume you have an ability to cross check facts, but I will recommend that you use that ability before posting what obviously seems like just a verbal attack on competition.

  5. It should be a requirement that the sellers of chicks and chickens, reveal to purchasers the possible insects the chicks or chickens could have or acquire. So many people make spontainious purchases with out researching possible consequences down the road for the animals or themselves.

  6. Couldn’t agree more with some of the comments above pointing out that there should be legislation or requirements set out where in sellers have to educate buyers more on the chickens they are buying

  7. Tuesday Burk says:

    Thank you so much for the information. I use DE in my garden but did not think to use it on our chickens.

  8. Thanks for the education of mites and such.. still this was absolutely no help at all. Need to post a list of exactly what to use where to get and step by step on what to do.. for the not so smart. Like myaelf. Tired of going to feed stores n pet stores and vets who don’t give the same awnser.. frustrated..very dog on frustrated. !!!!😠

  9. Please help. I have taken over my sons chicks as he Carnot look after them any more as he is very ill..I have been dusting the cage with powder and they have the run of the garden. But I have just realized when I have been feeding them and collecting eggs, I return and my hair is itching I have bites on my body. I am washing my hair and showing every day after I have seen to them. How do I get rid of them out of my house and off me. Please help.

  10. Doris Cote says:

    Using DE in your garden kills earthworms as well as any benificial insects in the garden. It has razor sharp tiny edges that cut into the exoskeleton of the insects and they die. I do not use it in any application.

  11. Carol dandira says:

    Use tick and flea dip. Not for dogs undiri the age of 4 months

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