I think one of the most common ideals we think of when it comes to the homesteading lifestyle is a happy flock of chickens roaming around our property, looking for bugs and greens to munch on. Then, at the end of a nice spring day, we get to collect a basket full of farm fresh eggs for our kitchen! It sounds lovely! And, in reality can be, some days. However, what do you do when that dream is shattered by a lice infestation? Or your hens stop laying due to an internal parasite overload? In this post we will be exploring chicken parasites and what you need to know to manage them!
What’s to be done with the problem of parasites in our flocks?
First, we need to know what parasites to look out for.
Then, we need to know how to prevent infestation.
Finally, if infestation occurs, despite our best efforts, we need to know how to properly and effectively treat the issue!
What parasites do I need to look out for?
Northern Fowl Mites – These mites generally live between 5-7 days and feed on the blood of your chickens. They tend to spend the majority of their life on the host bird, specifically on their back or near the vent and look like crusty/scaly buildup.
It is important to note that Northern Fowl Mites can also bite humans!
Scaly Leg Mites – These mites feast on the subcutaneous tissue on the legs/feet of chickens. Their excrement gives the bird’s legs/feet the telltale crusty/scab-like appearance.
These mites tend to live anywhere from 1-2 weeks.
Chicken Red Mite – These mites are more prolific in the heat of summer and spend most of their days amid the cracks and crevices of the chicken coop. Their preferred feeding time is at night, when they feed on the blood of your birds.
In general, these mites have a lifecycle of 7-10 days, but can live for up to 8-9 months without food.
European Chick Flea – This flea spends minimal time on the host (only to feed), preferring bedding material as a place to breed. Their lifecycle lasts approximately 1-2 months.
This type of flea is also prone to bite people as well as other homestead animals besides poultry!
Western Chick Flea – While generally only found on the West Coast, this flea is very similar in behavior to the European Chick Flea, spending a majority of its lifecycle not on the host animal.
It attaches to the host to feed, then nests in bedding material in the coop. Its lifecycle is also around 1-2 months in length.
Sticktight Flea – This flea is by far the most problematic in poultry flocks. Unlike the other breeds, it spends most of its adult life on the host animal and is commonly found around the face and comb of infested birds.
The adult fleas can remain attached and feeding for several weeks or months, depending on environmental conditions.
Their lifecycle is also around 1-2 months, similar to the other two types of fleas.
Other External Parasites:
Mosquitos – Mosquitos will bite chickens, making them irritated and uncomfortable. They will also lay eggs in stagnant water, prolonging the problem.
Black Flies – While mostly just a nuisance, black flies will bite chickens causing irritation and, in some cases decreased production.
Blowflies, Botflies, Screwflies – These flies can cause a severe issue known as fly-strike. They will lay eggs in moist, clumped manure on birds, as well as in any abrasions and cuts they might find.
The larvae/maggots hatch and feed on the flesh of the living animal, sometimes leading to death. This can happen to any animal. We actually lost a dog to fly-strike when I was in high school.
Ticks – Like in any animal (or people), ticks will bite chickens and can transmit disease. Their lifecycle generally lasts ups to two years from start to finish, and they eat blood at each stage for survival.
Lice – Lice feed on dead skin and feather material on the host bird, as well as blood through chewing on the small pinfeathers. Typically, these lice live only on the host animal and will die in about a week if not on the host.
Their lifecycle varies from 3 weeks to several months. While it is possible for them to bite humans, they will not lay eggs or live on humans or other species aside from avian animals.
Coccidia – Coccidia is a protozoa that can cause severe infections in most livestock species. It manifests as decreases in production and weight as well as a characteristic diarrhea, specifically bloody diarrhea.
It attacks various portions of the animal’s intestine damaging the tissue and making it difficult for the animal to absorb necessary nutrients from their food.
Toxoplasmosis – Toxoplasmosis is another protozoal disease. However, unlike coccidia, it goes after the central nervous, reproductive and musculoskeletal systems.
As a result, affected birds will have dramatically decreased production as well as muscle spasms, etc. If the infection is developed after the bird is 8 weeks old, they may not show symptoms of infection.
Your birds can become infected with this parasite through ingestion from the environment, i.e. pecking the flesh of other infected birds, eating poop, etc.
This disease can infect humans!
Giardia – This third protozoal disease is one that most birds acquire through infected drinking water or ingesting the protozoa through the environment in some other way.
This parasite also affects the gastrointestinal tract of your birds, inhibiting proper nutrient absorption. Typical signs of infection would be decreased production and diarrhea.
Tapeworms – These worms, unlike other parasites, don’t feed on the host animal itself, but rather eat the food the host eats. They imbed themselves in the digestive tract of the host and eat the nutrients as the host animal’s body is breaking it down.
This results in malnourishment of the host animal, and most commonly leads to decreased production.
Roundworms – Earthworms are, unfortunately, an intermediate host for the roundworm, carrying eggs through the environment. Chickens become infected by ingesting the roundworm eggs in their environment through infected fecal matter, etc.
The larvae burrow into the lining of the gastrointestinal tract, leading to decreased nutrient absorption in your bird, as well as causing hemorrhaging in some cases.
In severe infestations, the large number of worms can cause impaction of the gut.
Capillary Worms – While the eggs of these parasites can be found in the intestines of your birds, the adults are more common in the crop and esophagus.
Generally, the symptoms are similar to that of other internal parasites, marked by decreased production and a shabby appearance. That said, severe infestations can be fatal.
Gape Worms – These worms reside in the trachea and respiratory tract of poultry. Symptoms generally include repetitive stretching of their neck for seemingly no reason and decreased production.
In extreme infestation cases, the birds will gasp for air because the worms are blocking the airways in the trachea leading to suffocation.
Eye Worms – Eye worms infect, as you might expect, the eyes of your birds. Similar to tapeworms, they require an intermediate host for their lifecycle before being a problem to your flock.
Generally, they are most common in warm climates. If your birds are scratching their eyes, or you notice swelling, redness or other discharge these worms might be the culprit.
Severe, untreated infections can lead to total blindness.
How do I prevent infestation?
I think it’s safe to say that the saying ‘prevention is the best medicine’ rings true in this situation. As a general rule for any and all parasites, practicing good animal husbandry and cleanliness with your flock is crucial for prevention.
Ensuring that your flock is receiving adequate feed to meet all their nutritional needs (protein, vitamins, minerals, etc.) as well as having constant access to clean water is a huge part of preventing parasites.
Animals that are having their nutritional needs met will have higher immune systems than those struggling to get by. Not only that, but their production will also be better! Double win!
When it comes to their coop, making sure to clean it out regularly is critical. One way of maintaining a clean coop is utilizing the deep litter method.
Another option is to ‘muck’ it out regularly. Regardless of how you choose to keep the litter clean, you also need to make sure the nesting boxes are kept free of manure and buildup.
Not only will this help with the cleanliness of your eggs, but it also discourages parasites from setting up shop.
In addition to regular cleanings, I am a believer in doing a deep clean several times a year. This would be especially critical if you are dealing with a parasite infestation.
But, for the sake of prevention, having several deep cleans on your schedule is a good idea.
What does a deep cleaning entail?
- Removing all litter and debris – The first step for a good deep clean is to remove all of the built up litter, cobwebs, caked dirt, etc. from the floors, roosts, and nesting boxes of your coop. The jury is out on whether or not this is necessary when utilizing the deep litter method, so I will leave that up to you.
- Spray out the coop – Next, you will want to take a hose (or power washer) and give the walls and floors a good old fashioned spray down. Make sure to get all of those little corners, nooks and crannies too! It’s much easier to be thorough with a hose for those tight spaces.
- Disinfect – While a lot of people recommend utilizing bleach for this step, I prefer using less toxic alternatives. Some form of peroxide based disinfectant for really tough jobs works well, but can also be controversial in terms of safety. Regardless of the disinfecting agent you choose, you will want to liberally apply/spray it on the surfaces of your coop and scrub it in. While you’re busy disinfecting, be sure to get the feeders and waterers as well!
- Spray out the coop (again) – After you’ve given the coop a good scrub with the disinfectant, you will want to rinse it all out again. Don’t forget to rinse those feeders and waterers too! Make sure to be thorough here. We want to get it all out.
- Let the coop dry – After you’ve completed the second and final rinse, you will want to let the coop completely dry. Open the doors and windows to allow for extra airflow. You could even utilize a fan to help speed the process up if you prefer!
Other forms of prevention
In addition to good nutrition and a clean living environment, you could also utilize herbs to help boost immunity in your flock.
Herbs like garlic, lemon balm, basil, and oregano have all been known to help prevent certain parasitic infections in chickens.
You could also utilize diatomaceous earth on the floors of your coop to help deter pests from living there.
That said, with the controversy over diatomaceous earth, you may decide that this isn’t the best option for your homestead and that’s okay!
Additionally, you should make sure your birds have access to a dust bath at all times.
Whether this is just a literal ‘dust’ bath, or contains something like wood ash, it is important that they have a way of cleaning themselves and maintaining good hygiene!
How do I treat an infestation?
As we enter into the treatment side of parasite infestation, I think it is only fair to note that many of the most effective treatments we have for such issues are chemical in nature (i.e. pharmaceuticals).
While I am a proponent of doing things as naturally as possible, I also realize that there are certain cases in which utilizing medical/pharmaceutical intervention, under the guidance of a practicing veterinarian is the best way to go.
That said, the reason prevention is so important is because lack of infestation correlates to reduced use of pharmaceutical dewormers and parasite treatments in your flock!
For the Northern Fowl Mite, dusting is usually an adequate treatment.
However, for red mites, the best plan of approach (after dusting the chickens themselves) is treating the coop. While treating the coop, you will want to move your chickens elsewhere so as to prevent continual infestation.
This process can take up to six weeks to ensure that the red mite population has been completely eradicated, so be ready to have chickens displaced for awhile!
Scaly leg mites are a whole different beast to treat, as they burrow under the scales on the chicken’s leg. While fairly easy, treatment for scaly leg mites is a several step process.
You will want to start by soaking their legs/feet in warm water.
Next, you will dry them off and slather the legs/feet with a layer of vegetable or other oil. Be sure it soaks up under the scales.
Finally, you will want to coat the legs/feet with a thick layer of vaseline (or similar product) to help suffocate the mites. Repeat this process over the course of several weeks to ensure that you’ve killed them all.
Utilizing diatomaceous earth or wood ash as a dusting agent for your birds and your coop will help eradicate a flea problem. For regular flea issues, make sure to re-dust everyone/everything again two weeks after the initial treatment to catch any fleas that might have survived.
That said, if you are dealing with sticktight fleas, you will have to manually remove the parasites and treating the area with an oil of some variety. Most people tend to use vaseline.
Flies & Mosquitos –
Treating an overabundance of flies and mosquitos in the coop can be done first by removing any and all sources of stagnant water (other than waterers of course).
Putting apple cider vinegar in the waterers can be a good way to prevent mosquitos from laying eggs there.
Another ‘treatment’ would be to plant insect repellant herbs around the chicken coop. Some good herbs for the job are lemon balm, citronella, basil, and peppermint.
You could also utilize fly traps in the case of an extreme fly infestation.
Due to the nature of fowl ticks hiding in crevices during the day and only feeding on birds at night, treatment will include a full coop deep clean and vacuum/power wash.
When vacuuming out the coop, make sure to catch every nook and cranny after the litter has been removed.
Be sure to burn the vacuum bag!
After vacuuming, power wash out the interior of your coop and fill in any little crevices with caulking or another filling agent to prevent re-infestation.
Dusting your chickens is the best form of treatment for lice as well. Be sure to check for lice/dust again two weeks after the initial dusting, same as with fleas.
You may also want to check again at four weeks post-initial dusting. This way you can be sure the problem has been taken care of.
Coccidia can be treated with a compound known as Amprolium which prevents the protozoa from growing and multiplying. The common label name for this drug is Corrid.
This drug also has no withdrawal time as of this writing.
Treatment of toxoplasmosis in chickens is usually only necessary in severe cases, for which a veterinarian should be contacted.
That said, care should be taken when handling birds ill with this parasite as it can and will transmit to humans!
Giardia infections can be treated easily with Fenbendazole and Metronidazole among other medications.
The effectiveness of treatment against tapeworms is dependent on the removal of the head which imbeds in the tissue of the host.
It is best to consult with a veterinarian on treatment for these worms, as some drugs are still in the experimental stage for poultry.
For roundworms, utilization of a commercial dewormer, Fenbendazole (i.e. Safe-Guard) is the most effective form of treatment. Fenbendazole is currently the only dewormer approved for use in chickens, specifically laying flocks.
It has no withdrawal time and can be purchased over the counter provided you are utilizing it according to the label’s instructions!
Wazine, a dewormer that used to be utilized for both roundworms and capillary worms is no longer available for use in the U.S.
Capillary Worms –
There are several dewormers that are recommended off label to use in chickens for capillary worms. However, from what I can tell, it appears that Ivermectin can also be used.
Before utilizing any drugs off label, it is wise to consult with a veterinarian and do your own research on the potential effects and withdrawal times on for eggs and meat in poultry.
Gape Worms –
Gape worms can be treated with one of the following, under the guidance of a veterinarian: Fenbendazole, Ivermectin and Levamasole.
Eye Worms –
“As a treatment for Manson eyeworm, a local anesthetic can be applied to the eye, and the worms in the lacrimal sac exposed by lifting the nictitating membrane.
A 5% cresol solution (1–2 drops) placed in the lacrimal sac kills the worms immediately. The eye should be irrigated with sterile water immediately to wash out the debris and excess solution.”https://www.merckvetmanual.com/poultry/helminthiasis/helminthiasis-in-poultry
While not as effective as pharmaceutical methods, there are some herbs that can be utilized as dewormers. Among them include: wormwood, pumpkin seed, cascara sagrada, black walnut, garlic, psyllium, and Oregon grape.
When it comes to chicken parasites, the key thing to remember is that things happen. Regardless of our best efforts and husbandry, sometimes our birds become infected anyways. In those moments it is important not to beat ourselves up or feel guilty.
Know that you did the best you could, take a deep breath, and try to treat the problem as best you can with the tools you have.
Remember that you can always consult mentors or a veterinarian if you aren’t sure exactly what to do or you feel stuck! You’re not in this alone!
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