Are your chickens looking a little bit…itchy? If so, it might be time to inspect them for parasites.
Of all the ailments that can affect your favorite feathered friends, parasites are some of the most common. Unfortunately, chickens can be affected by internal parasites as well as by external parasites – also known as chicken mites and lice.
But what is the difference between chicken mites and lice? The two are quite similar, and the symptoms can be hard to differentiate. However, chicken mites are pests that survive by feeding on your chickens’ blood, while lice feed instead on the scales, skin, and debris in the feathers of your chickens.
There are several other important differences to be aware of when it comes to chicken mites and lice, but the bottom line is that both can be incredibly annoying problems to deal with. Here’s what you need to know.
What is the Difference Between Chicken Mites and Lice?
Though equally annoying, there are several key differences between chicken mites and lice. Discussing the similarities first, though, can be helpful as you work toward developing appropriate treatments.
Both kinds of pests are parasites that rely upon your chickens for their survival. Lice feed on the skin scales of your chickens while mites feed on their blood. Mites can live anywhere in the coop – sometimes, they’ll lie dormant in your chicken coop and only feed at certain times. They don’t live out their full life cycle on the bodies of your chickens.
Lice, on the other hand, live their entire lives on the bodies of your chickens.
Mites are tiny moving specks that, at first glance, look like spots of dirt. However, they are actually wingless arachnids. They are more active in the winter than in the summer. Lice are straw-colored ectoparasites that can be found at any time of the year.
Despite these differences in habitat, both can be incredibly harmful to the health of your birds. Though they usually don’t present life-threatening symptoms, they are still parasites to be aware of.
How Are Chicken Mites and Lice Transmitted?
Both mites and lice are usually transmitted by other birds. This could include other chickens (particularly those that are new to the flock) as well as wild birds. From turkeys to songbirds, all kinds of wild birds have the ability to spread external parasites to your chickens. They don’t have to get super close, either, so it’s important to do your best to keep your farm clean and secured to prevent the spread of diseases like these.
It’s not clear whether mites and lice can be transmitted from your chickens to other animals, like your other pets or livestock. However, if you have a parasite problem with your chickens, it might be worth your time to treat or at least inspect your other animals, too – that way, you’ll be able to head off an infestation before it becomes a major issue.
What Are the Different Types of Chicken Mites?
There are several types of chicken mites that can affect your flock. Red mites are some of the most common. These pests are usually spread by wild birds and they hang out in the ark of your coop during the day. At night, they’ll feed voraciously on your chickens, going back into hiding as soon as day breaks.
If termites are the culprits behind your chickens’ itchy skin, you’ll notice tiny black and red spots on the skin and feathers. These pests, despite their small size, will feed constantly on your birds and can cause your chickens to become dangerously anemic.
Another common type of chicken mite is the Northern Fowl Mite. Though less common than the red mite, it is equally destructive and spends its entire life cycle on the bodies of your chickens. It can also cause anemia which, if left untreated, can be quite dangerous.
Scaly leg mites are also common, though generally less so than the other two species. These pests are not difficult to identify, since they infest only the legs of your birds. They will make your chickens’ legs look cabby and crusted. Left untreated, these pests can quickly migrate to the other members of your flock.
What Are the Different Types of Chicken Lice?
As with chicken mites, there are several types of chicken lice that can affect your birds, too. Shaft lice tend to inhabit the feather shaft of your chickens, as you might expect by the name alone. These pests are only a few millimeters in size and move quickly.
These pests cause all kinds of problems for your chickens. They’ll be itchy, but they’ll also be more likely to engage in behaviors such as feather pecking. You may notice a listless demeanor, a decline in egg production, or even a pale comb or weight loss.
Tips for Preventing and Eliminating Chicken Mites and Lice
Clean Everything Thoroughly
Good, thorough cleaning is both a preventative measure as well as a treatment method to help you get rid of mites and lice. If you suspect parasites – or even to prevent them – clean on a regular basis. You will want to dispose of all bedding (don’t compost it, as the mites and lice won’t necessarily be killed) and hose down every crack and crevice.
If you choose to follow up your cleaning with one of the treatment methods prescribed below, make sure you give it plenty of time to dry out before you introduce your chickens. Don’t forget to clean the “accessories” of the coop, too, like the nesting boxes and roost bars.
Quarantine New Arrivals
If you’re adding new birds to the flock, make sure you keep them separate for a few days (at minimum) to make sure they possess no health problems that can affect the rest of your flock. This includes any diseases they might be carrying and, of course, mites and lice.
Prevent Wild Bird Activity
One of the most common ways that chicken mites and lice spread to a new flock is through wild birds. If you can, take appropriate measures to prevent them from interacting with your chickens.
An easy way to keep wild birds (along with other mite- and lice-spreading pests, like rodents) away from your chickens is to keep feed locked up and out of reach. Don’t keep your chicken feed in open containers that can be accessed by any other animal that passes through. Do your best to avoid attracting unwanted visitors!
Before you treat your chickens with any kind of dust or natural method, it’s important that you get them squeaky clean first. Let your chickens soak in a tub of lukewarm water, then gently clean them. Once they’re dry, you can apply your treatment.
Treat Chickens With Dust
Not just any old dust, of course, but with Pestene. This is a mixture of sulfur and rotenone powder, and while it’s harmless to the chickens, it will dehydrate any mites and kill them off. You’ll likely need to dust both the birds as well as the coop.
When you’re treating with Pestene or another parasiticide, you will likely need to treat it a couple of times, spread several days apart. This is because not all treatments are equally effective on both the adult and egg stage of these pests.
If you find that your treatment of choice fails to work effectively, you may need to get in touch with your vet, who will likely prescribe you another poultry dust entirely.
DE, or diatomaceous earth, is an effective treatment that works well as a natural insecticide against chicken mites and lice. When you apply it, you’ll need to make sure it doesn’t get wet, as it will be rendered ineffective. Diatomaceous earth is not toxic to humans or animals, as it consists simply of the ground up exoskeletons of fossilized organisms.
It is, however, quite damaging to most insects and parasites. When you sprinkle this in the coop or in your chickens’ dust baths, you will find that it quickly dries up the bodies of the parasites, causing them to dehydrate and die.
Give Chickens Dust Bathing Areas
One of the easiest ways to prevent a mice or lice infestation is to provide your chickens with ample dust bathing areas. Dust bathing is a natural behavior of chickens and it helps them prevent parasites on their own.
You can put a pan filled with dirt inside the chicken coop, or simply allow your chickens access to an area of the urn that can be used as a dust bath. They’ll make their own bath there!
No More Scratching! Understand the Difference Between Chicken Mites & Lice
Regardless of whether it’s chicken mites or lice that are causing your hens some distress, it’s essential that you understand the difference between them to stop them in their tracks. The ability to identify the signs and symptoms of an infestation is integral, since these pests can quickly drain your chickens of their health and energy – plus, they can cause a serious decline in laying.
If parasites are giving your chickens a run for their money, consider these tips to stop them in their tracks.
Maat van Uitert is a backyard chicken and sustainable living expert. She is also the author of Chickens: Naturally Raising A Sustainable Flock, which was a best seller in it’s Amazon category. Maat has been featured on NBC, CBS, AOL Finance, Community Chickens, the Huffington Post, Chickens magazine, Backyard Poultry, and Countryside Magazine. She lives on her farm in Southeast Missouri with her husband, two children, and about a million chickens and ducks. You can follow Maat on Facebook here and Instagram here.