Hidden Health Problems: Chicken Lice and Mites
Mites and Lice, on Chickens, are Hazardous and Easily Treated
It’s inevitable. Someday, no matter how careful you are or how clean you keep things, you’re going to find chicken lice, mites, or both on your birds and in your coop. External parasites undermine the health of your bird, and severe infestations can weaken birds to the brink of death, so you should know sick chicken symptoms, what to look for and how to manage the problem.
What to Look For
If you’ve watched my video below, then you already have a jump start, but if not, look under the feathers especially near the vent (the business end of the bird) and look for anything amiss. Do you see small clusters of tiny hard bubbles at the feather base? Are there little black specs moving around the skin, or do you see white grains of rice wandering around in the feathers? If so, you have parasites!
Fowl Mites are the little black or red dots you see moving around on the skin of the bird, and the hard clusters of bubbles along the feather shaft are their eggs. These nasty little critters bite and suck blood from the bird, as much as 6 percent of the bird’s blood supply per day. With a heavy infestation of mites, the bird can suffer from anemia and a compromised immune system, which leaves the door wide open for other illnesses.
These moving grains of rice are known as lice. You can find their eggs clustered at the base of the feathers, especially near the vent. They eat the feathers of the chicken, scabs, dead skin and blood when present and can make the bird look terrible.
Danger to Humans
Neither of these parasites infest humans, but when handling an infested bird, it’s not uncommon to find chicken lice or mites crawling up your arm. You don’t taste like chicken, so they won’t stay long, but it’s my experience that it causes a real mental issue for the person in question. Personally, my skin crawls for the next 10 minutes.
I use and suggest permethrin-based products as a chicken mites treatment. Some people prefer chicken or garden dust (sold under the name Sevin Dust) but I don’t like breathing in the dust. Shaking the dust into the feathers and allowing them to fluff it all around is effective, but I prefer liquid solutions.
Whichever solution you prefer please use a respirator, nitrile exam gloves and read all precautions posted on the product.
A dilution of permethrin concentrate is what I prefer, mainly because I can make a batch in a 3-gallon sprayer and go to town. For smaller flocks, a spray bottle may suffice. I personally prefer Adam’s Lice And Mite Spray, available on-line and in most large pet stores. I used to use that product but now I use the 10% permethrin solution sold in numerous places, most conveniently at Tractor Supply. The Adam’s product is .15% to .18% permethrin, so that’s the dilution rate I aim for, plus I add a little dish detergent to allow the solution to penetrate oils and surfaces. The rate I use is 18cc per liter. (Approximately 2.5oz per gallon.)
An alternative to using these products would be DE (diatomaceous earth), but I have had limited luck with that product. It can be used like the dust product, but it works as a desiccant and an abrasive to kill chicken lice and mites as opposed to using an insecticide.
Typically this would be a good time to clean out your coop. Once cleared of bedding, spray the coop and especially the perches, to hit any chicken lice or mites hiding in the coop. Use the spray on your birds on a warm day. I typically spray a line up the back of the bird under the feathers and wet the vent area, since that’s where most mites will congregate. Mites have a 7-day hatch cycle, so to prevent a new generation of mites you must re-treat your birds in 5 to 7 days to catch the hatching eggs since permethrin does not work on eggs. Mississippi State University suggests 3 treatments, so I would treat again another 5 to 7 days after to be fully effective. This treatment schedule will work for both mites and lice.
Sanitation is your friend when it comes to parasites, but rodents and wild birds are the enemy. Prevent contact with either by using sheltered runs for birds and bait stations/traps for rodents. Keep bird feeders and baths off the property or as far as possible from your birds. Painting the inside of your chicken coop, nest boxes and especially the roosts will deny mites the opportunity to hide in the porous wood surface. Seeing as mites can live away from their host up to 3 weeks, denying them a place to hide helps eradicate them.
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Originally published in 2015 and regularly vetted for accuracy.