Poultry lice and mites are common external parasites that you will often discover when keeping chickens. They are easily transferred to chickens by wild birds, rodents and other chickens that you may introduce from time to time to your existing flock.
The following information is based on my first, monthly “Eggucational” presentation on issues that arise when keeping chickens that I gave to over forty-five customers on a blustery Sunday afternoon in October. I have included a shortened, edited video of the presentation at the end of this post in case you would like to see how to handle your hens during identification and treatment of lice and mites.
What are lice and mites?
Simply stated, mites are eight-legged creatures that suck blood from your chickens whilst lice are six-legged and live off feather dander and flakes of skin from chickens. Mites can cause anemia through draining blood from your chickens along with diseases due to their direct contact with the bird’s blood supply. Lice, on the other hand, cause discomfort to chickens by aggravating their skin causing redness and inflammation.
Of the two, poultry lice are probably more common when keeping chickens here in Victoria due to our colder climate which they prefer. Poultry lice don’t survive longer than a few days off the bird and won’t transfer to you or your family luckily.
Mites, such as Red Mite and the Northern Fowl Mite seem to be more common when keeping chickens in warmer parts of Australia such as Queensland but not always. Mites prefer poultry but can transfer to another animal or a human such as yourself if they have to in search of blood to drink.
How your chickens catch lice and mites
When keeping chickens, the main way that your chooks will collect mites and lice will be from wild birds such as pigeons, mynas and sparrows etc. Wild birds are great carriers of both external and internal parasites. Wild birds are normally attracted to an easy meal provided by your chicken’s feed and it’s a simple hop for them to transfer onto your birds or your coop.
Mites and lice can also be introduced onto your existing chickens when you purchase new chickens to keep. Depending on where you buy your chickens, you can find heavy lice or mite loadings on the birds. Some chicken re-sellers have strict parasite control processes in place but others won’t have anything.
Rodents such as rats and mice can also introduce mites, lice and fleas to your flock. Rodents come into contact with a wide range of dead and living animals and then transfer parasites to chicken coops and chickens when, like wild birds, they begin stealing your chook feed.
How you can detect lice and mites
There are a number of different ways that you can detect the presence of lice and mites. Some involve checking your chicken’s living environment and others involve physically checking each bird.
Inspection of coop
Inspection of your chicken coop when keeping chickens may reveal an excessive number of feathers in the nesting box(s), or area. The coop and run area may also have a higher than normal number of feathers blowing around. If your chickens have a lice or mite infestation you may find quite a few hard and soft feathers in their nest which is not at all normal.
To confirm whether or not you have mites, you will need to check your coop at night with a torch. Mites tend to be nocturnal and live in the corners, crevices and cracks of your chicken coop rather than on the bird. It is only at night time that they become active and start seeking out chickens to feed on their blood.
Inspection of chickens
A good time to inspect your chickens for both lice and mites is at night time when they are more placid and docile. Handing your hens when they don’t become too stressed is important for both their and your own sanity! By using a miner’s light that straps around your head, it enables you to free both of your hands to securely hold and position your birds so that you can part the feathers and examine areas of skin beneath.
The most important area to inspect on your chickens is the vent area or the area around where they lay their eggs. This area has good blood flow, soft feather dander and a consistent temperature. These conditions are ideal for mites and lice so they will tend to concentrate their activity around the vent area and lay their eggs (nits).
If you see straw coloured lice scurrying around on the skin, clusters of white eggs bound to the base of feather shafts or inflamed red skin you probably have poultry lice. If you discover tiny red or darker coloured insects, scabs on the skin surface or clusters of red looking eggs you are more likely to have mites.
Other important areas for inspection when keeping chickens are under the wings and around the neck area. Any areas on chickens that have feather dander and soft downy feathers is preferred by lice as they like to feed on it.
When inspecting your chickens you might sometimes find lice jumping off the bird and onto your arm. This tends to happen during hotter conditions when lice are having difficulty in maintaining an even temperature so become “jumpy”. You won’t find this so much in Winter or colder temperatures as they are quite happy breeding and going about their business in relative comfort.
When keeping chickens it’s extremely important to regularly check your birds for signs of lice and mites. Check at least monthly but twice a month is better to catch the signs of a growing parasite population such as bald patches, excessive feathers in the nest and red or angry patches of skin.
The Life Cycle of lice and mites
External parasites normally have different lifecycles and lifespans. Lice take longer to become mature while mites mature a lot faster. It’s vital that you understand the differences and tailor your treatment accordingly.
- 7 days to hatch
- 21 days to adult
- 14 day lifespan
Once the female louse reaches maturity at around 21 days, she is then able to start reproducing and laying her nit eggs. This is why it is important to treat both the mature lice and juvenile lice that may not hatch for up to seven days.
The juvenile lice go through three different growth stages until they become adults. The adults then have about a two weeks lifespan before dying. Few treatments are ovicidal (able to kill the eggs), so it is alway important to treat lice and mites twice as a majority of treatments will not stop the nit eggs from hatching and the lifecycle continuing.
- 3 days to hatch
- 7 days to adult
- 90-day lifespan
Most mites that like chickens can rapidly reproduce after just 7 days. Mites go through three different stages from larvae to protonymph to deutonymph before they become egg laying (and biting!), adults at between 7 to 10 days.
Mites can live for up to three months which means that they can build a large population quite quickly. Because they drain blood from chickens over a reasonably long period of time, they tend to be the least desirable external parasite to have in your flock.
Different treatments for lice and mites
You have a wide range of options when it comes to treating lice and mites but some are stronger and/or more toxic than others. You will also need to consider whether you prefer a “natural” treatment that leaves no potentially harmful residues. A further consideration is a treatment that supports the repair and restoration of good health along with good feather and skin condition.
Typically used more with cattle and sheep, Moxidectin and Ivermectin are both treatments that can kill a wide range of both external and internal parasites. Neither is registered for egg laying birds in Australia however so you would only want to be using them under the direction of a Vet and for heavy parasitic infestations.
Registered lice and mite treatment
Maldison 50 is one lice and mite product commonly used in Australia which is registered for use on egg laying birds here. It is very effective in killing mites and lice if used correctly but will not kill internal parasites.
A benefit with Maldison 50 is that it doesn’t have an egg withholding period which means that you can continue to eat the eggs produced by hens that are being treated. Maldison 50 is of course a stronger compound that kills lice and mites effectively but has no ability to repair damage done by parasites.
Natural lice and mite powder treatments
Natural lice and mite powders such as Pestene and Lice Away take a bit more time to apply to your chickens but are a 100% natural way of treating them. Pestine contains Sulfur and Rotenone insecticide but has no ingredients that will repair skin or feather damage and supports the bird’s return to full health.
Lice Away is a new product that we have developed in conjunction with our poultry Vet. Its ingredients include natural insect repellents such as Neem, Ginger and Peppermint along with the drying and abrasive Diatomaceous Earth (DE).
Lice Away conditions and nourishes damaged skin and keeps skin drier and cleaner. It also provides an enriched barrier on the skin and around the feather shafts that protects them while creating conditions that are detrimental to external parasites and their breeding.
How to use powders
- Always wear Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), such as latex gloves and a dust mask when using powder as despite it being 100% natural and safe to use, it can cause sneezing and coughing
- Be seated in a well-ventilated area
- Have all the chickens that you want to treat close by so that you can easily go from one to the next without having to move around too much
- If you have flighty chickens or have discovered that they have mites, treat them at night when chickens are generally more placid
- Always reapply the powder three days after the first application then repeat dusting every seven days until no more lice or mites (including the nit eggs), are detected
Last but certainly not least, don’t forget to thoroughly clean your coop and/or enclosure. Remove all litter and bedding material, spray the cleaned surfaces with a good insecticide such as Elector PSP and replace with fresh bedding/litter material such as wood shavings.
It’s a great idea to also sprinkle a product such as Diatomaceous Earth or Creature Comfort throughout the coop and mix into your fresh bedding/litter material. Creature Comfort is a combination of natural ingredients including DE, Lavender, Orange and Eucalyptus which repels parasites such as lice and mites and makes the natural dust bathing action of chickens far more effective and damaging to parasites.
Remember that mites particularly like wood and a happy to live in the cracks and gaps in perches, nesting boxes and the coop structure itself. Using more metal in your coop greatly reduces the living areas available to mites.
In conclusion, always clearly identify and be aware of the life cycle of the parasite that you are treating so that you don’t inadvertently undo all your good work. Use a treatment that you are comfortable with based on the type and population of parasites that you find on your chickens. Lastly, remember that once the parasites are gone there is repair work needed to restore full health to your birds so don’t forget this often forgotten final step in the process.