Preventing & Treating External Parasites

Although chickens pick up occasional external parasites from time to time, keeping the population in check is key to a happy, healthy flock. Not only can parasitic overpopulations cause major discomfort, they can weaken chickens’ natural defenses and lead health problems… and even death. In this article, I will be sharing how I prevent and treat external parasites in my backyard flock…

Preventing External Parasites:

Dust & Space:

For the most part, chickens will keep up on their own hygiene. However, to stay free from external parasites, they need regular access to a dust and adequate space. Chickens preen their feathers and dust-bathe to keep external parasites away. However, overcrowded chickens easily become stressed and stressed chickens will not preen or dust bathe themselves adequately.

Clean Coop:

Since lice and mites feed off of feathers and dead skin, keeping a clean coop/run area is also very important for preventing lice/mite problems.

Special Needs:

Chickens with beak deformations/damaged beaks will need more help keeping themselves clean. Chickens that are sick or injured will also need more help staying free from external parasites. For this reason, I advise sick/injured chickens be checked for signs of external parasites regularly.

Recognizing External Parasites

Observing early signs of external parasite overpopulations is an important key to keeping flocks from infestation. I highly recommend doing lice/mite checks at least quarterly (unless you notice your chickens scratching and/or preening a little more than normal). Checking chickens for external parasites regularly helps prevent major infestations that require drastic measures.

How to check for external Parasites in Chickens:

Usually, lice prefer to lay eggs (nits) on the head/shoulders, under the vent and wings and in the beard and/or muffs. Gently part the downy feathers and check the base of the feathers. Lice are small, yellowish and semi-clear. They are usually identifiable by the nits (eggs) they leave clumped up around the base of the feather shafts. Mites are smaller than lice and are often characterized by their dust-like eggs, which they leave behind. Both lice and mites leave debris (particles from the feather shafts) and are often accompanied with dandruff. The images below may help identify external parasites.

Above: Northern Fowl Mites. Image by Brad Mullens, University of California, Riverside
Above: Lice & Nits. Image by The Accidental Smallholder

Treating External Parasites:

With chickens suffering from lice/mite overpopulations, I advise a bath and topical application of Permethrin. However, there are many other treatment options available on the market (you can read about some external parasite treatments here –> Lice & Mite Treatments for Chickens). The reason I bath chickens as part of the treatment is to clean off any debris left by parasites. Bathing is not absolutely necessary for treatment though. If your chickens have lice, I advise clipping off feathers that hold a lot of nits because nits can be very irritating to chickens.

If you find external parasites in any of your chickens, check the other flock members for signs of external parasites as well. After treating chickens for lice/mites, thoroughly clean of the coop/run area (and keep it well cleaned) to help prevent reoccurring issues. Spraying some Pyrethrin (a liquid derived from the Chrysanthemum flower that is very effective at deterring parasites. It is commonly used by gardeners because of its low toxicity level) around the coop/run area might help.

How to apply permethrin (or most other mite/lice dusts):

Gently rub dust into the feathers around the vent, neck and saddle. I advise dusting beards/muffs/crests as well (if your chickens have them). Make sure to wear gloves, a Disposable Dust Mask and follow all safety procedures as listed on the label.

Sick/injured chickens are more susceptible to external parasites because they may not be able to adequately maintain proper hygiene. For this reason, I highly advise checking chickens with lice/mites issues for underlying health problems. I also advise doing a follow-up check-up ~4 weeks so after the initial treatment. This is o ensure that the bird is properly caring for itself. Reoccurring parasitic problems can indicate health and/or environmental problems that may need attention.

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