The Complete Guide To Chicken Parasites

The Complete Guide To Chicken Parasites Blog Cover

Note: This is the first of a two part series on chicken parasites. This article will focus on external parasites and the second part of the series will focus on internal parasites.

Recently we’ve talked about how to keep your chickens safe from predators but sometimes the worst enemies are already living in the coop!

Chickens are reluctant hosts to a number of parasites which can cause many problems from minor irritation such as a reduction in egg-laying, all the way through to, in extreme cases, death.

Regular health checks for your flock will help to detect problems early-on before they cause more severe problems. A health check can be as simple as checking through their feathers and inspecting the vent area and legs on a weekly basis.

The old adage of an ounce of prevention is better than a pound of cure is quite true. Your birds may come to enjoy their weekly checks, especially if they get a treat after!

Today we are going to discuss the most common external chicken parasites, how you can identify them and how you can cure them.

Chicken Parasites 101

Parasites are small creatures that live on or in chickens. They are not beneficial to the chicken and can be very detrimental to their health. The most common external parasites that bother a chicken are: lice, fleas, bedbugs, mites, ticks and flies.

All of these parasites can cause the follow symptoms: itching, excessive preening, broken/missing feathers, weight loss, reduced egg laying, anemia and, in serve cases,death.

Mites

Mites are actually relatives of the spider; they have eight legs and are very small, so sometimes difficult to spot.

Giant red velvet mite
A giant red velvet mite Ton Rulkens

There are three types of mite common to North America:

  • Northern Fowl Mite.
  • Chicken (red) Mite.
  • Scaly Leg Mite.

All three types of mite can make a chicken miserable.

Northern Fowl Mite

The Northern mite stays on the bird day and night, so it is easier to spot and treat. You can often see clumps of their debris at the base of the chicken’s feathers. The lifecycle is less than one week. Contrary to most external parasites, infestations are generally worse in winter.

To treat The Northern mite you need to dust all your chickens and the coop.

Make sure you use an approved poultry dust, Sevin 5% or if you prefer a natural solution – wood ash can work very well.

Why not make your chickens a ‘spa’ dust bath? This will help to treat your chickens.

Homemade Chicken Dusting Bath
A homemade chicken dusting bath is a great way to stop parasites

Chicken (Red) Mite

The red mite lives in cracks and crevices in the coop and is very difficult to eradicate. It comes out at night to feed on its’ reluctant host – the chicken. The red mite has a ten day life cycle and are most active spring, summer and fall. They can remain dormant for up to five months during the winter.

A good way to spot if you have red mites is if your chickens are reluctant to go to roost at night.

The best way to eradicate the red mite is to re-house your chickens and treat the coop. It’s nearly impossible to remove red mites whilst your chickens are still living in the coop.

Your birds need to stay in the new coop for six weeks so that the old coop can be treated several times to effectively kill the mites.

Chicken Red Mite
A Trombidium (a form of red mite)

Each week you need to treat the coup with an approved poultry dust such as Sevin.

Note: In a very severe infestation, the only practical thing to do is to burn and remove the old coop.

Scaly Leg Mite

This tiny critter burrows under the leg scales of the chicken and eats the skin, leaving piles of debris behind it. The scales on the legs will start to lift up and become painful and uncomfortable for the bird. If left untreated, it can lead to lameness and eventually death.

Fortunately, this mite is relatively easy to eradicate.

First of all you need to soak the chicken’s legs in warm water to soften the scales. Do not pull off scales, but do gently remove any loose skin.

Next dry off their legs and apply olive oil (vegetable oil or similar) gently rubbing it in with a toothbrush – make sure it gets up and under the scales.

Then wipe off the excess oil and cover the legs with Vaseline. The Vaseline needs to cover all of the scales – you are suffocating the mite and its’ eggs. This treatment should be repeated several times a week until the mites have died.

Bedbugs

Bedbugs may not readily spring to mind with chickens, but chickens can certainly suffer from them.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention state that an adult female bedbug will lay about 5 eggs each day throughout her life. She can live for up to 12 months – that’s an awful lot of baby bedbugs!

The most effective way to prevent bedbugs is to keep the hen house clean and to dust with an approved poultry dust periodically.

You can read our guide on how to clean your coop here; see heading ‘run a tidy ship’.

Note: Make sure to wear gloves and any other protection equipment you require when dusting.

Fleas

Chicken Fleas
Chicken Fleas Kat Masback

Most chicken fleas are brown in color, smallish, but large enough to be seen among the feathers. The worst infestations are usually seen during the hotter months, so extra vigilance is needed during the summer.

There are two similar types of flea: the European chick flea is the most common flea present over much of the US.

Its’ cousin the Western chick flea (aka black hen flea), is mainly limited to the Pacific Northwest and Canada. The Western flea prefers to live amongst the chicken droppings rather than on the bird.

To treat either type of flea you need to dust all your birds with an approved poultry dust or diatomaceous earth* (even if some of your birds don’t appear to be infected- if one chicken has fleas, they all do).

When you dust them pay special attention to under their wings, saddle feathers and main tail.

You then need to remove all bedding/nesting in their coop and clean and dust. Pay special attention to corners, crevices and roosts.

In 14 days you need to repeat the dusting and clean out the coop again. After the second clean your coop should be clean from fleas.

*There is currently a good deal of controversy over the use of diatomaceous earth. Some people maintain it is not healthy for the birds or the environment so use at your own risk.

Sticktight Fleas

Sticktight fleas deserve their own category because they require their own unique cure. Once they have infected a chicken, they are very difficult to get rid of. They congregate around eyes, combs and wattles so they are fairly easy to spot.

The best way to remove them is with tweezers. Once you’ve puled the flea out, coat the area with a layer of Vaseline.

The hen house bedding needs removing, and then cleaning thoroughly, with an approved dust. Repeat this step in another 14 days and make sure to pay special attention to corners and crevices, and roosts.

Note: when dusting chickens’ heads use a small toothbrush to apply the dust. The respiratory system of a bird is sensitive to dust and problems can result if they intake too much dusk.

Flies and Mosquitoes

Mosquitoes swarming
Mosquitoes swarming in the air

Black flies, mosquitoes, and biting gnats (midges or punkies) are extremely irritating to chickens and their humans! They can most commonly be found around areas of stagnant water and wetlands.

To treat them, make sure that you remove any stagnant water sources nearby. If you still find your chickens infected then use an approved pesticide such a ‘Mosquito dunk’.

Note: Don’t put Mosquito dunks in the chickens’ water!

If you don’t want to use a pesticide, you can use a natural prevention such as apple cider vinegar or garlic cloves. Just place this in the water and this is usually enough to deter these flies from resting there.

If you have a very dense population of mosquitoes you should probably vaccinate birds against avian pox.

Blowflies

Blowflies, also known as filth flies, don’t bite but they can be very irritating and can transmit tapeworms to chickens.

If a hens’ vent area is particularly dirty and unkempt a fly may well lay eggs in the matting. When the maggots hatch out, they will eat the flesh underneath and burrow down – this is known as flystrike (Myiasis). Depending on the severity of the infestation it can kill a chicken.

Treatment can be done at home in most cases, but in severe infestations a veterinary should be consulted.

Treatment consists of bathing the area in warm water (standing the chicken in a bowl seems to work well). The infested area needs to be irrigated initially with hydrogen peroxide; this will encourage the maggots to leave the area.

Following the initial flushing, irrigate several times with warm saline. All maggots must be removed with tweezers.

Then you need to dry the area (a blow dryer will work) and spray the area with Vetericyn wound spray.

Once you first notice the infection this routine needs to be done twice daily. Then after the first two days, stop using hydrogen peroxide as it prevents skin regeneration. Continue the outlined routine until the infestation has cleared up.

Botfly and Screwflys

Now these two insects are true parasites.

Their eggs are laid on the skin of the chicken and the larva will burrow down into their tissue where they mature. When they are mature they exit the tissue and drop to the ground where they pupate and turn into a Botfly.

The Screwfly was once endemic to the US, Mexico and several South American countries; fortunately since 1982 it has effectively been eradicated from the US.

As with blowflies, cleanliness in the coop, and frequent health checks, goes a long way to prevent your hens from getting infected.

Lice

Chicken Lice
Lice spreading on a leaf

Lice are one of the most common chicken parasites.

Chickens can be infested with several different kinds of lice. The most common in the US being: head louse, body louse, shaft louse and wing louse.

The most common way chickens catch lice is through wild birds, adding new birds to an existing flock without quarantine or from contaminated clothing or equipment.

A female louse can lay between 50-300 eggs in her short 3 week lifespan, so you need to make sure to treat your chickens as soon as you spot any lice.

To treat your chickens you just need to use a poultry dust. Again like with Fleas, make sure to focus on the wings, saddle feathers and main tail area.

In 14 days repeat the dusting and then check again a further 14 days later. You should find after the second check that all the lice are gone- if they aren’t, dust them again and wait a further 14 days.

Note: Before you run and jump screaming into the shower, lice are species specific. You cannot get chicken lice, they might jump on you, even bite you, but they won’t set up house on you!

Ticks

The good news, for us who live in the frigid North, is we are unlikely to come across fowl ticks! Fowl ticks (blue bugs) live primarily in the warmer states – Arizona, California etc.

As with mites, birds will be reluctant to roost at night since the ticks will bite and in the worst case they can cause paralysis by secreting a neurotoxin into the chicken’s blood.

Treatment is similar to mites, dusting and removal of ticks with tweezers.

If after treatment the bird is showing any signs of illness a veterinarian should be consulted.

Preventative Measures

As with all things chicken, opinions and treatments vary. I have outlined the simple remedies that are easily available to most people. If you are uncertain please make sure to contact your local vet.

I’m sure that by now you are realizing that cleanliness in the coop along with frequent health checks is the best thing to keep many of these critters at bay.

Also, many of these insects can be deterred from nest boxes and coops by the use of certain herbs, for example mint, lavender and rosemary – they will also keep the coop smelling a little sweeter!

However one of the best ways to keep these parasites away from your chickens is to let your chickens take regular dust baths.

If they don’t have access to a natural dust bath, you can make them one!

Chicken Dust Bath

The best thing to make a chicken dust bath out of is a child’s paddling pool.

DIY Chicken Dusting Bath
A child’s paddling pool converted into a chicken dusting bath

If it is going to be placed outside at the mercy of the weather, you will need to make a few cuts with a box cutter or similar, on the bottom the entire length of the pool to release rainwater.

A mixture of wood ash and peat moss (about half and half) is what I use in my ‘chicken spa’. Filter the larger chunks out and use the finer wood ash. Make sure you fill the paddling pool up to 2-3 inches from the top and there you have it.

Mix For Chicken Dusting Bath
Mix for chicken dusting bath

Easy wasn’t it? The birds get quite enthusiastic in their ‘spa’ tossing the contents near and far. I top it off as frequently as needed!

Be sure to keep your eyes peeled later on this week for the second installment of the series.

Let Us Know Below What You Do To Keep The Critters Away!

Comments

  1. Pat Brown says

    Loved this article :)! I just lost 4 hens to Northern fowl mites! They were treated with ivermectin but I am so afraid that this may happen again! What do I do to prevent this? We just power washed the whole coop! I’m wondering if they have red mites also because they will not go on the roost at night? I had an autopsy done on one hen! That’s how I know it was Northern fowl!please help

    • The Happy Chicken Coop says

      Hi Pat,

      Sorry to hear about your loss Pat 🙁

      I’ve found the most effective way to kill mites is to constantly treat your hens and coop every few days over a prolonged period of time.

      If you just treat the mites once it won’t be effective as they can grow back..

      Claire

  2. Barb says

    Chicken had mites , dusted her , checked her yesterday and she has no mites but there is still eggs on the base of her feathers , are they dead …? I don’t want to put her with the rest of the flock until I know …

    • The Happy Chicken Coop says

      Hi Barb,

      Yes you absolutely need to remove eggs from the base of her feathers before you reintegrate her with the rest of the flock…

      Good luck,

      Claire

  3. Malia Espinoza says

    I’ve lost 4 hens over the past couple weeks and 2 a month ago. Their symptoms included inability to walk well, which led to not eating or drinking hardly anything and other picking on them. I assumed it was Mareks based on everything that I read. It seemed they would limp, be sick for a bit then die. We have one going through that same thing right now so my daughter put her on a basket and brought her inside to sleep last night. She kept fidgeting and that’s when I noticed a TON of little black looking bugs around her while she pecked at them. I found out they are northern mites. Would this have caused the deaths of the others? I understand the anemia aspect of it now. I didn’t notice anything on the others, but they were outside and overall looked healthy besides the limping and gradually not eating. I did see a few spots on their feet just before dying that resembled the mites, but it appeared to just be spots and not an actual bug on there. I’m stumped.

    • The Happy Chicken Coop says

      Hi Malia,

      I’ve personally not heard of hens dying due to northern mites but this doesn’t mean it can’t happen!

      Whatever the underlying cause is, the northern mites certainly won’t be helping so I would treat them as soon as you can.

      Claire

  4. E Thomas says

    I have noticed that the chicken coop has a severe red mite infestation. It’s been impossible to get into every corner of the coop, so now invested in a plastic coop. I have powdered the chickens well and put them in the new coop. I noticed one hen has lost a significant amount of weight. Will chickens recover from a severe infestation? Is there anymore I can do or should do? Is it better to keep them in a run or free range?

    • The Happy Chicken Coop says

      Hi E,

      Yes, they can recover from a sever infestation. It can just take some time that’s all.

      Make sure that you continue to dust them and keep them well feed and watered.

      Claire

    • The Happy Chicken Coop says

      Hi Kendra,

      I’m sorry I’m not sure. I haven’t used scarlet oil before. Has anyone else tried?

      Claire

  5. Phillip Adams says

    Hi I have purchased 4 16 week old chickens back last November 2016. All has been fine all chickens now laying each day and all seemed fine.the problem I have now is one of the chicken has been attacking one of the other bird ans pulling feathers out of her back and around the tail.problem is I don’t have any way I can separate the birds owing to lack of space,is there any way I can sop this happening,yours faithfully Phil Adams

  6. Ann Marie Jeffcoach says

    My chicks, 8 of them, are just 16 weeks old and tons of fun. I built a dust bath in the corner of their run with a few layers of bricks. In it I put equal parts of sand, wood ash and peat moss. They won’t touch it! They will perch on the bricks but no one will venture in.

    • The Happy Chicken Coop says

      Hi Ann Marie,

      How friendly are your hens with you? If you can pick them up I’d physically take one and slowly place them into the dust bath 🙂

      Claire

  7. John McGimsey says

    Hi Claire,

    I’m a newcomer to chicken farming and just discovered your site. 5 birds and 3 laying happy colorful eggs. Being patient with the other two girls.
    This is some great information and I’m really excited in this new adventure.
    Just wanted to say thanks for your input and information and I’ll stay connected to your site.

    Regards,
    John Mac

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