Owning backyard chickens has certain human responsibilities – while they are a relatively low-maintenance “pet”, they don’t entirely look after themselves. One thing you must understand and be aware of is the potential for your birds to experience mites – and knowing how to identify, treat, and, better still, prevent the problem is very important.
What are Chicken Mites?
The most common parasites chickens can experience are mites and poultry lice.
Poultry lice pose no risk to humans – flat and with six legs, they live on chickens and amongst the feathers, feeding on dead skin and feather quill casings. They lay eggs at the base of feather shafts.
Mites, on the other hand, are tiny critters with eight legs, and they can live in coops, nesting boxes, roosts, and cracks in wood and on chickens. Less than one millimeter in size, they are brown, grey, or red and are most active at night. They feed on the blood of chickens and other birds, particularly from the moist, blood-rich vent area of the bird.
Bird mites need avian blood to complete their life cycle. They can develop from egg to mature adult in just a week; most live just seven days but others can survive for weeks. A single female mite can lay twenty-five eggs in her brief lifetime.
Where Do Chicken Mites Come From?
Mites and lice tend to be introduced to your flock and coop by wild birds and other wildlife. They may also be transported in on the equipment, clothing, or shoes of other flock owners.
Symptoms in a Chicken with Mites
There are several signs of mite infestation to look out for in your flock:
- Decreased activity
- Pale comb
- Diminished egg production
- Appetite changes
- Ragged, dull feathers
- Damaged or matted feathers
- Dirty vent (anus/cloaca) feathers
- Weight loss
- Bald spots
- Feather pulling
- Skin redness or scabbing
- Nits (eggs) on the feathers or crawling bugs on the skin
- Droppings and debris in the feathers and skin
- Smeared blood on the legs or roosts
Mites feed at night, and the most vulnerable areas of the chicken are the feet, legs, vent, and breast.
A severe infestation with mites can result in the chicken developing anemia and becoming prone to infection, and this leads to death.
Is it Molting or Mites?
Molting is a natural cycle that chickens and other birds go through, usually in autumn or winter. It will not make them sick or listless. If your birds seem unwell, distressed, or display any signs beyond usual molting appearance and behavior, you must check for reasons why.
Lice are more common in autumn and winter.
Mites are most active during the warmer months – which is not the usual schedule for your chickens to molt. Feather loss or damage at this time suggests mites.
Treating a Chicken with Mites
If you identify mites on a single chicken, you will need to treat your entire flock and the coop/run.
There are numerous commercial products from which to choose when it comes to treating your chickens for mites; it’s a good idea to rotate your chosen products so that the parasites cannot develop resistance.
- Deal with the coop first. Remove all of your chickens from the coop and take everything out – nesting boxes, roosting perches, bedding, feed bins and feeders, and anything else that can be removed.
- Clean everything you’ve taken out, plus all inside surfaces of the coop with hot water and dish soap (your vet may recommend a specialized commercial product for this purpose).
- Burn all bedding (including any that was stored in the coop) and replace it with fresh bedding once the coop is clean and dry.
- Sparingly use diatomaceous earth around the coop.
- Dust your chickens when completely dry, pure (untreated) wood ash – rub it into the feathers, especially around the vent and under the wings. Avoid the head.
- Chemical treatments will usually be the only effective treatment for an established mite infestation. These must be applied very carefully, following instructions to the letter, as they are toxic. Avoid the head area. Check with your vet for advice. Some options include Ivermectin and Permethrin. You must avoid any contact between these products and cats, fish, water sources, and waterfowl (including ducks), as they are extremely harmful to them.
Treat your flock once per week for three weeks to kill all larvae as well as active mites.
Chicken Mites Prevention
- Inspect your coop. Go into it at night with a torch and a piece of white paper. Run the paper along the bottom of the perches. If it comes away with red smears, your chickens have mites.
- Inspect your birds frequently. Pick them up and feel their under-feathers for lumps on feather shafts or clumps of feathers. If you feel this, bathe your chicken in warm water and gentle organic dish soap and supervise it for a ten-minute soak in a small tub of water (do not leave a chicken unattended in a tub!). Then take her into the sun and look under the feathers. Do this with every bird.
- Allow your chickens to dust bathe at will – this enables them to care for their own feathers and skin, keeps them happy, and helps minimize parasites. Add fresh herbs including marigolds and mint to the dust bath.
- Clean your coop and run regularly. Dispose of all loose feathers (as these can harbor mite eggs). Wash down nesting boxes, roosts, walls, and the floor with gentle dish soap and hot soapy water every 2 weeks.
- Seal and secure your supply of chicken feed to prevent attracting parasitic carrier wildlife or birds from visiting or accessing it.
- Quarantine new flock members for AT LEAST 2 weeks before allowing them to join the flock to ensure you don’t introduce parasites. Ensure they have been inspected, vaccinated, bathed, dewormed, and treated for parasites.
- Avoid or limit access to your flock by other chicken keepers. Use poultry netting over your coop, feeders, and run to keep wild birds away from your flock.
- Use specific outdoor clothing and shoes for entry into the coop/run and cover your hair etc to prevent bringing mites into your home.
- Inspect other species of pets for signs of mites as well – cats and dogs can become carriers!
- If you identify a bird mite infestation in your home, call a professional pest control company to address the problem promptly.
Chicken mite prevention and treatment is important not just for your flock, but also for your family and your home. Mites can find their way into your home and become an issue for humans, dogs, cats, and other mammals. While they don’t feed on human or mammalian blood, chicken mites can bite humans and furry family members. These are similar to other small insect bites, causing itching, red bumps, and a crawling sensation.
Look after your flock – inspect your hens for bird mites and other parasites regularly and consider preventative treatment periodically. It’s not difficult to control the issue if you take a proactive approach!