It might seem strange to learn that even chickens can become infested with lice. They eat bugs, after all, but these external parasites are not the typical run-of-the-mill chicken treat-type bug. They spread fast and can cause severe problems for the entire flock. Identifying an infestation early, and treating the flock quickly, is extremely important to prevent a decline in health, and in some cases death. I want to mention not to panic if you find lice present in your flock. This has been a battle for generations and there are ways to identify, treat, and prevent lice on your chickens.
What are Lice? – Lets Identify
Lice are considered external parasites. They feed off of the host, from the outside–think mites, or fleas. Some are tiny while others are large enough to see with the naked eye. Poultry lice feed on a chicken’s dead skin, their blood, feather shaft debris and anything else they find appetizing on a chicken.
Typically, lice have an elongated abdomen. A louse will spend its entire life-cycle living on an unsuspecting chicken, usually under the feathers, and near the vent. Lice enjoy a warm environment, so these types of nooks and crannies are precisely what the lice love.
Lice spread easily from chicken to chicken, so bringing any new chickens into a flock can be dangerous if they are not quarantined and monitored before introducing them to their new feathered friends.
Generally, chickens can handle a few mites here and there. Often, dust bathes will stifle an infestation. As usual, a chicken takes pretty good care of itself and knows when a dust bath is in order; however, when they are overrun with lice, that’s when the problems start. Lice multiply quickly, and an out-of-control infestation means a chicken is being fed upon by many lice; thus the beloved chook runs the risk of becoming anemic, due to blood loss. An anemic chicken has a weakened immune system, and can easily contract other infections and diseases. If the condition is not treated, it can often lead to death.
The burning question on everyone’s mind is usually, “Can I get lice from my chickens?” and the answer is, “nope!”Luckily, poultry lice are much different than the lice people often think of— they are unlike the kind kids often bring home from school. Poultry lice are entirely different and have no desire to live with humans. They prefer our feathered friends instead, mainly because their diet consists of poultry skin and feathers.
Chickens naturally get lice just by being around in their environment. They can even get them from wild birds. It isn’t hard for a flock to become infested, and when they do, it can happen quickly. If chickens are kept in unfavorable living conditions, chances of becoming infested with lice are much higher. For example, a small dirty coop is a perfect environment for lice to multiply and live on multiple chickens.
Since chickens love to roost together, moving from chicken to chicken is easy for lice. If one chicken is infested, it is safe to assume everyone in the flock should be monitored and treated. Leaving one or two untreated is usually a big mistake because the cycle has not been broken.
Symptoms of an Infestation
Lice are relatively easy to recognize, and with careful monitoring, any infestation can be squelched before it gets out of control. The following symptoms are good indicators that a flock may have a bit of a problem:
- Fatigue – Chickens who are no longer their perky selves may have an infestation. If they seem withdrawn and sluggish, they may have some unwanted tag-alongs.
- Patchy reddish dark pink areas and wings that look like they have been chewed on are a sign of infestation.
- Pale combs and wattles – When a chicken becomes anemic, its beautiful bright red combs and wattles often become a pale pink color. This is a good indication that they may be infested with lice.
- Dirty vent – Every hen gets a bit of a dirty bottom from time to time, but if upon closer examination the vent appears to have tiny specks of dirt around it, then perhaps it isn’t just a bad day in the nesting box.
- Drooping wings – Chickens let their wings drop when they aren’t feeling well. Often they do this on hot days to allow the air circulate around their bodies, but if they do this every day, it probably means they aren’t doing all that great. Time to take a closer look.
- Itchy – Lice are itchy! Chickens will be itching a lot more than usual if they are infested with lice. They may also be doing more dust bathing than usual because the dust soothes the itches and suffocate the lice. They may be self-medicating.
- Drop in egg production – There are many reasons a chicken may have a decline in egg production, but sometimes lice can be the cause of it.
- Visible lice – Some types of lice are extremely small, and others can be up to 1/4’ big. The larger they are, the easier they are to see with the naked eye.
- Lice Eggs on Shafts – Upon further inspection of a chicken’s feather shafts, small eggs will be clumped up (almost like a buildup of whitish dirt) around the bottom part of the chicken’s feather. This is where lice love to lay their eggs.
Treatment of Poultry Lice
At the first sign of lice living amongst a flock, they should all be treated immediately to prevent the outbreak from becoming deadly. Treating lice is a lot of work, so doing it right the first time, makes it a much less painful chore. The following steps will work in most early cases of an infestation:
- Move the chickens out of their coop- While lice love to live on the chickens, they also dwell around them between meals. Removing the chickens is the first step in taking control back from the intruders.
- Treat- Dust diatomaceous earth (food grade) on all of the chickens. This is a natural way to treat and prevent poultry lice and other health issues. It’s pretty much amazing, and a must-have for the chicken owner. Do this by taking a 50lb bag of play sand that can be found at a general hardware store and mix with 12 cups of DE (diatomaceous earth). This is the perfect dust bath for your chickens.
- Feed iron – Because infested chickens have likely lost a lot of red blood cells due to anemia. Iron is a great way to give back what they have lost. Iron-rich treats like pumpkin seeds, peas, and spinach will be a hit amongst an infested flock.
- Feed protein – Protein will give a weak flock the energy they need to start the recovery process. As strange as it may sound, scrambled eggs are a great way to provide a quick energy boost. Hey, it works for humans!
- Clean coop – Cleaning the old coop, top-to-bottom, and over again, is of the utmost importance. Returning pest-free chickens back to an infested coop will start the entire cycle over again. The coop must be cleaned thoroughly, bedding burned, and corners scrubbed before bring back the now-healthy hens and roos.
- Dust again- Because the lice most likely laid eggs, chickens must be dusted once again to ensure any newly hatched eggs are wiped out like the adult lice. It doesn’t hurt the chickens do to this a few times over the following months just to be safe. Providing diatomaceous earth as a dust bathing option will also help prevent new infestations.
- If your flock has sever infestation you can use a insecticide with Pyrethrin. It comes in powder/dust or spray solutions. I am strongly against insecticide based treatments unless it means the flock is close to collapse.
The first time a beloved flock becomes infested with mites can be a scary experience, and prevention is should be a priority going forward.
- Monitoring – Monitoring a flock frequently will help catch infestations early.
- Quarantine – New birds should always be quarantined and monitored for at least 30 days before being introduced to the resident flock.
- Treat entire flock – If one chicken in a flock as lice, it’s a safe assumption that they all have it. Treating the whole flock prevents re-work.
- Dust Baths – Giving chickens access to a dust bath, preferably sprinkled with diatomaceous earth, will allow them to care for themselves. Chickens are smarter than we know, and they usually know long before we do that they have a problem with lice.
Unfortunately, most backyard flocks will become infested at one point or another. Prevention and regular checkups are the best way to head off an infestation. Once an outbreak is identified and treated, the flock will return to the perky little unit they once were. Production will return, and breakfast will once again be served.