Poultry lice are found on the skin and feathers of the chicken, feeding on the blood, dry skin scales and feather parts. There are several different types of lice e.g. shaft louse and neck louse and, as their names suggest, they vary as to which part of the body they prefer to infest. Fortunately, these lice do not survive on humans.
Early detection is important as lice are an irritant to the chicken and can result in feather loss. Regular monthly inspections are a minimum requirement (more frequently in the warmer months) and involve spreading the feathers in the neck, vent , breast and wing areas. It is important to be able to visualise the skin, the base of the feather shaft and along the barb, to detect any clusters of white eggs or active lice. Poultry lice are light brown and roughly about 3mm in length.
The most common and easiest form of treatment is dusting your chicken with a proprietary lice powder. This method will kill off any living lice and will need to be repeated 7 days later in order to catch any newly hatched “nits”. It is likely that all your chickens will need treating.
The most common types of mites are the Red Mite, the Northern Fowl Mite and the Scaly Leg Mite. Unlike lice, mites can be problematic for humans as they can survive for periods of time away from their intended host.
Red Mites are difficult to detect in the day as they live in the crevices of walls, perches and nesting boxes. It is only at night that they come out to feed on the hen’s blood. At only 0.5-1.0mm long, these parasites are pale grey in colour but live up to their name by turning bright red after feeding.
These mites are can be very serious to a chicken's health if left unchecked, leaving birds dangerously anaemic and at risk of death. Careful inspection of your chickens at dusk may reveal the problem - some chickens may be reluctant to roost at night which could be a tell tale sign.
Treatment for red mite is difficult as they can survive for long periods off the chicken itself. A dusting powder for the bird is therefore only part of the solution. The chicken house will also need a thorough cleaning out with an appropriate red mite treatment too.
Northern Fowl Mites are found on chickens both during the day and night. In some ways, this makes treatment a little easier - a mite powder/insecticide will be more effective as the parasite cannot survive off the bird for very long periods of time (around about 1 week). It does mean, however, that they tend to breed more rapidly.
Unlike many of the other parasites, the Northern Fowl Mite is more prevalent in the winter. Black or brown in colour, they are quite similar in appearance to the red mite pre-blood sucking!! They also can have a similar devastating effect on the health of the chicken if not treated.
Scaly Leg Mites burrow under the scales of chicken's feet and legs. The normally smooth scales become distorted and swollen with a white crusty material and the scales can fall off. It is very uncomfortable to the chicken.
These microscopic mites are highly infectious and a thorough clean of the chicken house is essential to eradicate it. It may be even be necessary to move the chickens. Different treatment options include dipping the legs in surgical spirit twice a week, covering them in Vaseline or using a product such as benzyl benzoate.
Ticks can also infest chickens. These are particularly common in wooden chicken housing where they ticks have ample opportunity to conceal their eggs and these can lie dormant, even in an empty chicken house, for years. The adult ticks hide in crevices during the day and come out to feed on the chickens at night. They do not generally cause serious problems but they will cause irritation of the skin and weakening of the flock and in severe cases can kill the chickens. Ironically though in some parts of the world chickens have been used to try to control tick populations as they commonly eat all types of insects.
Hen Fleas can be found in open ground and chicken houses. They infest the chickens and cause restlessness and agitation of the chickens due to the discomfort. They are particularly problematic in the laying or broody hen and the restlessness that results can be one cause of broken eggs. They are fairly easily treated with flea dusting powder and good chicken housing hygiene.
Complete and guaranteed prevention of external parasites is unrealistic because they can be transmitted via wild birds, contact with other infected chickens and rodents that may have access to the chicken house.
Good hygiene, clean litter and regular inspections of both the chicken house and your chickens are the best way of limiting this problem, detecting it early and implementing measures so that your chickens (and you) can enjoy an itchy-free, healthy life!
Back to Chicken articles index
Why not visit our Chickens Discussion Forum where you can post your comments or questions about chickens.