Old man winter has finally made his appearance, temperatures fall, snow covers the ground, a perfect storm for mites and lice to plague a backyard flock.
It’s no coincidence that mites and lice thrive in these conditions. During winter and early spring, mites and lice become a problem area for many backyard chicken keepers. Your once beautiful flock now has messy feathers, pale combs, and dirty bottoms. What is a keeper to do?
First, do not fear mites and lice, they are a natural part of a backyard chickens’ life and a badge of honor. If your chickens have mites and lice, it is proof that they are living the good life. Chickens that have access to the outdoors, grass, sunshine, and fresh air will most likely come down with a case of mites and lice at some point in their lives.
Mites and lice live in the environment. Typically contracted from wild birds, they can also be contracted through small mammals like mice, rats, moles, or rabbits. There is no way to avoid mites/lice in your flock, a control method is the best treatment.
When I first started keeping chickens 11 years ago, I feared the dreaded mite and lice season. I was afraid that I would catch the mites from my birds or that I would not know how to handle the situation.
First, let me put one fear to rest. The mites and lice that plague birds are not the same mites and lice that plague humans. The mites/lice that affect birds are species specific. They cannot thrive on our bodies for several reasons.
1. We do not have feathers.
Mites and lice that affect birds need feathers to sustain their lifecycle. Our daily routines of bathing, washing our cloths and hair make it impossible for these mites to exist on our bodies for long. If your birds have a severe mite/lice outbreak the little beasties may crawl on you giving you a case of the Heebie Jeeves, but I assure you, a simple change of clothes and a shower will render them gone. They are a mind over matter situation.
2. We do not provide them with the necessary resources to carry on their lifecycle.
Avian mites/lice need a specific environment to sustain their life cycle. Denied their breeding environment (i.e., feathers), avian mites/lice cannot survive on our bodies, thus you will not be affected by them. To my knowledge, Northern Fowl Mites (the most common mite that affects chickens) are not zoonotic (carries pathogens, from one species to another). Meaning that humans cannot acquire any diseases from the mites/lice that affect our flocks. We just get a case of the creepy crawlies, that’s about it.
Mites and lice usually reside near the vent area on chickens except crested breeds. Mites and Lice can also be found on the heads of crested breeds in addition to the vent area.
How do identify Mites/Lice on your birds.
Mites and lice prefer these areas for several reasons.
1. It is warm with ample blood supply
2. The birds are unable to preen these areas, thus the mites and lice can accomplish their life cycles uninterrupted.
On birds, mites will look like small little red, black, or brown spots that are moving on the skin. If your bird has a severe case of mites, it may just look like a mass of dark dirt covering their skin. These are Northern Fowl Mites, the most common mite that affects chickens. Left untreated, an army of these little beasties can kill a bird through blood loss (their food) which will cause anemia in the birds. Thus, if not addressed, death.
Lice on birds are usually found in the same place as the mites. The vent areas and head of crested breeds.
Unlike mites, lice will exist only on the feathers. A cluster of lice eggs will look like a mass of debris that is congrated at the quill of the feather as it meets the skin.
Like the mites, a keeper will be able to see the adult lice crawl on the feathers. Lice are usually sand to light brown color depending on the species.
Both mites/lice will cause a bird to look lethargic, have a pale comb, and a dirty bottom. Lice will add the additional signature of unkept feathers that appear broken, ratty, or disheveled. Both mites and lice will weaken a bird making them more susceptible to illness and in worst cases, death.
How to handle mites/lice in chickens:
There are several ways to approach mites/lice in a backyard chicken flock. Several products are available that address these situations in your birds. I will detail several that I have used in the past along with my methods of application. Disclaimer, these are strategies that I use that have proven successful for me. Please note that I am not a veterinary scientist just a fellow backyard keeper that has been around the block a time or two.
The go-to in my mite/lice arsenal is Elector PSP. This product is in liquid form that is diluted in a spray bottle and sprayed directly on the birds. Due to legislation in some areas, it can be hard to obtain and carries an MSRP of $150 or so if you can find it. Unfortunately, it is usually not carried in most farm/feed stores. I have ordered it in the past from Amazon but as of late they no longer carry it. Due to many of the supply chain disruptions caused by COVID-19, I have been unable to replace the supply that I bought nearly 7 years ago. Hopefully, it will become available soon.
Elector PSP pro.— The pro of Elector PSP is that it kills on contact and brings the mite/lice situation to an abrupt end. It does need to be reapplied 10-14 days after the first application to kill any eggs that hatch. No egg withdrawal is required when using this product. In addition to spraying, it directly on the birds, I will also spray the inside of the coops and nesting boxes to rid the environment of the little beasties. I have had very good results with Elector PSP.
Electro Cons.—The con of Elector PSP is price and availability.
My second go-to in my mite/lice arsenal is Eprinex. As with Electors PCP, this product is in liquid form and is applied directly to the skin. However, unlike Elector, Eprinex has an egg withdrawal of 14 days after each application. Eprinex is applied in the same manner as flea and tick treatment for cats and dogs. Apply Eprinex directly to the skin behind the head of your birds. I will also apply a drop on top of the head for my crested breeds, such as the Polish and Silkie. These breeds often experience mites/lice on top of their heads due to their inability to preen this area. In 14 days, reapply to address any mites that hatched after the first application.
Eprinex application directions
Using a syringe with the needle removed, apply 3/4 cc for standard-size breeds, for bantam breeds, apply 1/2 cc directly to the skin behind the neck. Although designed for cattle, Eprinex is safe for use on chickens in small amounts.
Eprinex works by absorbing into the oil of the skin. When the mites and lice bite the birds, they encounter the Eprinex and are killed. After the first application, reapply in 14 days. Egg withdrawal should be observed for 14 days after application. This means that from start to finish, mandatory egg withdrawal should be observed for 28-30 days.
Eprinex is available at most farm/feed stores and carries an MSRP of around $50. The only con with Eprinex is a mandatory egg withdrawal. I have a large flock, so I will apply Eprinex to one breed at a time, reducing the effects of egg withdrawal. I have used Eprinex for many years with great success.
As with Elector PSP, when treating your flock for mites you will also need to treat the coops. When using Eprinex, I will mix a solution of Permethrin 10 livestock spray and spray my coops and nesting boxes. This combined with Eprinex will bring the mite/lice situation to an abrupt halt.
During the winter months, I will supply my flocks with a sandbox containing a mixture of sand and peat moss. My girls will readily use this for dustbathing while the ground is snow-covered or wet. This allows them to maintain their natural behaviors that aid in mite and lice prevention.
As you can see, mites, while a very common occurrence in backyard flocks is very easy to address and treat. While they can be a pain to deal with, remember that your girls are living the good life if they come down with a case of the little beastie. Your girls have access to fresh air, sunshine, grass, and nature, something that many chickens are denied.
I hope this post help put the dreaded mites and lice season in their perspective place. They are nothing to fear and are very easily treated with multiple products available.
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