I’m betting that some of you are already going ‘eww’ and have started scratching!
The good news is that chicken mites live on chickens (in general) – not people, although they can and will bite you, possibly causing local skin irritation.
If left untreated, mites can be extremely harmful to your chickens and can even result in a drop in egg production.
Today, our article will tell you how chickens catch mites, how to check for them, how to treat a mite infestation, and finally, prevention.
How do Chickens Get Mites?
Mites will hitch a ride to your beautiful clean coop on just about anything. Wild birds, rodents, and other animals, on your boots and clothing, even on you!
If you exhibit your birds at local or national shows, there is always a chance that your bird can pick up some unwelcome guests.
5 Most Common Types of Chicken Mites
We are going to meet five members of the mite family today:
- Northern fowl mites
- Red roost mites
- Scaly leg mites
- Depluming mite
- Tropical fowl mite
Mites can be whitish-grey, dark brown, or red in color – they are tiny, about 1/26 inches, and barely visible with the naked eye.
Northern Fowl Mites
This is probably the most common and serious of the mite family here in the US. The Northern fowl mite spends its’ entire life cycle on the bird.
An infestation in a large poultry house can cause economic downturns by reducing the egg-laying output to around 15% in severe infestations.
The mite causes skin irritation to the birds and bites and sucks blood, leading to anemia.
An anemic hen will look depressed, scruffy, feathers will be ratty, and she will pick at herself, leading to sore or bald patches on the skin. As the infestation worsens, she will also be off her food, egg production will drop, and she may die from anemia.
Birds over 40 weeks of age do not generally support a heavy load of mites.
The eggs of this mite are laid at the base of feathers and can be difficult to spot. Although the female mite only lays a few eggs before she dies, an infestation can develop quickly if left untreated.
The preferred temperature of the mite is around 65-68F, but they can proliferate outside of that range. They can be a problem in the cooler, moister months, especially in the Northern states.
Red Roost Mites
The red roost mite is the primary mite of Europe. This mite causes thousands of Euros worth of damage to the European poultry community every year.
Most of the mites’ life cycle is off the host, hiding in nooks and crannies such as perch sockets. They are night-time feeders, and they hate daylight. The female feeds on blood, and the male will only take blood occasionally.
The life cycle is 7-10 days in length, over which time an infestation can quickly become established. It is difficult to eradicate since the mite can live around 10 months without a host!
Sometimes, in serious infestations, the best solution is to burn the coop and put your birds in new premises once they have been treated.
The red mite only attacks poultry and pigeons, although it will bite other species such as humans.
The bite may cause a localized reaction but should not be any more severe than that.
Scaly Leg Mites
This unsavory little beastie burrows under the chicken’s leg scales, where it feeds on the keratin contained in the scales.
In time, the scales will lift and will have a white, dusty appearance.
These mites are extremely irritating and can cause a lot of pain to the bird. In severe infections, the combs and wattles can also be attacked.
This mite is related to the scaly leg mite but attacks the feathers instead. It will burrow into the shaft of the feather, sucking the nutrition out of the released fluid.
Extremely irritating and painful – it will cause the bird to pluck out her own feathers.
Tropical Fowl Mites
This mite is a relative of the Northern Fowl Mite but is much more of a nuisance to humans. It is found in the southern and central states of the US, South America, Australia, and other tropical venues.
It can have a serious impact on commercial poultry farms if the infestation is severe.
It can even be passed to humans and can set up the human infestation. The usual infestation sources in human housing are wild birds’ nests in the eaves of the house.
When the birds leave the nests, they leave the mites behind, who then go in search of a meal.
Signs and Symptoms of Mites
The signs of infestation for these pests are approximately the same for each one of them.
In general, the bird(s) will look unhappy, depressed, hunched over; feathers will look tatty, unkempt; the bird may constantly preen and pick at herself, leading to broken or plucked feathers and bald spots.
In severe infestations, appetite will diminish, and egg-laying will drop dramatically.
You might notice a reluctance to go into the coop at night – this is when the mites are really active, especially the red roost mite.
- The Northern fowl mite, red roost mite, and tropical fowl mite all suck blood, so your hen will get anemia, and if left untreated, she may die.
- The Scaly leg mite will cause extreme irritation and pain to the legs. This one is tough to spot since the mite remains hidden all the time. The first you may notice is the lifting of the scales and increased leg girth, by which time you have a fairly well-set infestation.
- The depluming mite attacks the feathers, so you may notice the bird frantically pulling at her feathers and preening incessantly. This can lead to bald spots and sores on the body.
All mites are tiny – the naked eye can see them if you have great vision.
A telltale cluster of eggs at the base of the feathers can lead you in the right direction, but red mites and scaly leg mites do not lay eggs at the feathers’ base.
How to Get Rid of Chicken Mites
We have divided the treatments into natural and ‘chemical.’ Some folks swear by the natural remedies, and yet others will tell you they don’t work.
Several of each are mentioned here, but this does not mean an endorsement of the product, be it natural or otherwise.
Natural Ways to Treat Mites
Herbs and natural oils have a huge following among ‘natural’ chicken keepers.
The use of strong-smelling herbs in the coop can prevent several types of critter from invading your coop; think mice, ants, etc.
Herbs such as lavender, wormwood, mint, lemon balm are all quite aromatic, and in addition to deterrence, they make the coop smell good.
Several ‘recipes’ on the internet about mixing herb bouquets for putting in the nest boxes and sprinkling around the coop. Many proponents highly recommend the use of garlic for preventative measures for many chicken ailments.
Specifically for scaly leg mites, the use of Vaseline is recommended. You spread it thickly on the legs working against the scales. This ensures that the ointment gets up under the scales and suffocates the mite.
It is not a ‘quick fix’- treatment will need to be repeated several times to be effective.
In the ‘old days, ’ chickens would have their legs doused in kerosene or motor oil to kill the mite. Yes – it worked, but the discomfort must have been awful.
Many folks use neem oil on perches and in nest boxes. You spray the Neem solution on the perches and around the crevices, spray the nest boxes also. Let it dry before you let the hens back in.
A naturally occurring insecticide is rotenone or derris (pestene in Australia). You can use this for many garden pests such as caterpillars and aphids. Although naturally occurring, it is not without side effects – highly toxic to fish and linked with Parkinson’s disease in farm workers.
A relatively new product to the market is Elector PSP. It has been around since 2008, so it can be considered a relative newcomer to more established treatments.
It contains spinosads – naturally occurring soil bacteria that are toxic to insects. The safety sheet states that it is safe to use on many types of livestock, including poultry. No known side effects for humans either.
Diatomaceous Earth – has become controversial over the last few years. You either love it or hate it. It is said to control mites, lice, etc. Yet other folks say it doesn’t work at all. The biggest downside to DE is that it is mined in open pits, which are not good for our environment.
According to the National Pesticide Information Center, “diatomaceous earth is the fossilized remains of tiny, aquatic organisms called diatoms. Their skeletons are made of a natural substance called silica.”
Diatomaceous earth acts as a drying agent, and while some believe that if chickens consume it, it will kill internal parasites. Most, however, use it as a topical application to fight external mites on chickens.
You should use diatomaceous earth in moderation to cause confined chickens to have respiratory issues if applied in excess. And since it is a drying agent, it can leave chicken feet open to drying and cracking, thus increasing bumblefoot risk.
With that being said, you can use DE in an area that chickens use for their dust baths. They naturally enjoy the silty texture of DE and will happily bathe in it themselves if it is made available to them.
The DE will then dry the mites and kill them on the chickens. If you need to spread it in the coop, remove chickens before dusting to prevent respiratory issues.
Chemical Ways to Treat Mites
Now we move on to the chemical weapons used in the ‘insect wars.’
Possibly the most abused chemical in use with chickens currently is Ivermectin. I must have read hundreds of posts about folks treating their birds without veterinary approval.
There is no doubt that it is effective against mites and lice, but it is not approved for poultry. It has not been tested on birds that are a meat or egg-laying flock. It can be administered with a veterinarians’ approval, but this is based on clinical judgment.
There is an egg withholding period of 14 days if Ivermectin has been used.
Probably one of the most popular dusting agents used is Sevin. It has been around for years and is common in many yards and garden products in use today.
We all tend to forget that Sevin (carbaryl) is an organophosphate poison. As such, it is indiscriminate in its’ toxicity. Small mammals and children are highly susceptible to it, and adults, too, can be affected.
In fact, most of the other insecticides used with poultry lice and mites are organophosphate:
- Coumaphos – Co-Ral
- Tetrachlorvinphos – Rabon 50
- Tetrachlorvinphos/dichlorvos – Ravap EC
Fortunately, most of these are reserved for use on industrial-sized poultry concerns. This article gives some good information on the various mites and insecticides used for them.
How to Prevent Chicken Mites
Prevention can be summed up in one word – biosecurity. Practicing good biosecurity will help to minimize the chances of an infestation in your flock.
Do your best to eliminate wild birds from the area where your flock is – cover runs with mesh so they can’t get in. Provide a dust bathing area for your ladies, and they will love you for it and keep down the ‘undesirable residents’ themselves.
Clean up any feed spills to deter visiting rodents or larger animals. Maintain a vigorous program of rodent eradication in and around the coop – put the cat to work! We have already mentioned the use of various herbs as a deterrent for pests in the coop.
Keep one or two sets of clothing for dealing with your flock separate from anything else. If you visit shows or a friend who keeps birds, change those clothes before dealing with your birds.
If folks want to visit your flock, try to say no politely, but if not, they should wear protective foot covers at least.
Maintain clean feeders and drinkers. In this case, ‘cleanliness is next to Godliness’ for your birds’ safety and well-being.
Mites are nasty and difficult to get rid of once they move in. Practicing good biosecurity will help to prevent them from inviting themselves into your coop.
However, even with the best practices and intentions, you can still get an infestation, so be vigilant.
If you suspect your birds have mites, try to confirm with a visual sighting, but if that is not possible, proceed as if they do have them.
If feasible, isolate infected birds, treat all birds, treat the coop and environs, and destroy litter/bedding (moving it to the compost will only relocate them). Clean down the coop with an approved disinfectant such as Virkon S.
If you have to use some of the more potent insecticides on your flock, be aware of the side effects of the treatment – for the safety of your birds and you.
We hope you never have to deal with these tenacious beasties, but you are now well-armed with choices if you do.
Let us know in the comments section below how you deal with mites…