Chickens are at the mercy of a number of common pests and parasites. The impact these unwanted tiny critters have on chickens ranges broadly from mildly irritating to a severe and painful death.
The good news is, preventing or treating chicken parasites can be accomplished naturally and incredibly inexpensively – as soon as you learn how to determine what type of parasites are plaguing your chickens and to identify the signs of an infection.
Parasite infestations in laying hens often provoke a reduction in egg laying quantity as well as quantity – even if it is a minor infestation.
Conducting weekly health checks on the flock is the best way to catch an infestation early. The health checks are a super simple and quick process that will add only a few moments to your weekly husbandry chores.
Keeping a chicken healthy involves not much more than a keen eye that knows what signs to be on the alert for and a bit of record-keeping.
A tiny notebook tucked away in a pocket with a pencil will do the trick, no need for fancy computer bookkeeping forms – unless you want to go that route.
Table of Contents:
External Parasite Health Check
When feeding the flock or collecting eggs, take a look at their feathers, comb, wattles, eyes, beak, vent, legs, and feet. That’s it. These telltale areas can usually quickly let you know if something is going wrong with a bird.
- Feathers – The feathers on a healthy chicken will look glossy, smooth, and colorful. If the feathers appear in any other manner other than during the annual molting season, odds are something is going wrong with your poultry bird.
- Comb and Wattles – The comb and wattles should look both red and full, and not dry or dull – except during times of molting. If the comb or wattles have signs of dried blood, nicks, peck marks, or frostbite, consider gently applying some vaseline to the exposed area to prevent easy access to an enticing open wound for parasites and pests. I often use my mixture of jewelweed and plantain salve to treat such minor wounds.
- Beak – A chicken’s beak should be fairly straight with the upper and lower portions of the beak aligning perfectly. If there is damage to the beak, it can be caused by various types of injuries, and prevent the poultry bird from eating or drinking properly. Sometimes a chicken frustrated with a parasite on or around the head, will forcefully poke its beak into anything hard it can find to try and dislodge the unwanted pests.
- Eyes – A chicken’s eyes will be bright, clear, alert, and free from any discharge or drainage if the poultry bird is healthy. While there can be many ailments that can cause a chicken’s eyes to appear less than healthy, but one of those things is most definitely a moderate to severe parasite infestation.
- Crop – An unhealthy crop is a condition that can quickly and painfully lead to death in a chicken – or any poultry bird. Again, there can be multiple reasons why a crop is not looking and feeling as it should be, but one of the likely culprits is a parasite infestation internally or externally. When healthy, a chicken’s crop should be empty from digesting food during the morning hours. It should feel rounded and full during later daytime hours after the birds have eaten. A healthy crop should not ever be formed into a pendulous shape or lay flat. When very gently squeezed, a chicken’s crop should have a mushy texture and never feel hard as a rock.
- Feet and Legs – The scales that are present on a chicken’s legs should be smooth (unless a feathered leg breed) and have a uniform color. In older poultry birds the scales tend to become rougher, but only slightly. Never should the scales on a chicken’s legs be either uneven or raised. If the scales on any of your bird’s legs appear in this manner, it most likely has a scaly leg mite infestation. Take the extra few minutes to feel and look around and under the feathers on a bird’s leg. If you are raising a feathered leg breed to search for mites or signs of mite damage, they love to hide away in the feathers for warmth and protection.
- Vent – A healthy chicken, especially a laying hen, will have a vent that appears moist and is pink in shade. Parasites love to make their home around the vent area because it is warm and plenty of bacteria are present when they release their droppings. Older chickens will often have a vent that is a more pale shade of pink, and that is less moist. If mites or flies are calling your chicken’s vent hoe, there should be visible signs of raw or irritated skin and tiny black specks on or around the vent area.
Internal Parasite Health Check
When a chicken has internal parasites or the impact of external parasites is causing internal harm, there are some typical signs that can alert you to the health danger your poultry bird is facing.
Chickens with moderate to severe internal or external parasites will often exhibit the following symptoms:
- Broken or missing feathers
- Weight loss
- Diminished or halted egg-laying and soft-shelled eggs
- Excessive preening of feathers
- Frequent to constant itching – that often causes broken skin and peck marks or nicks.
- Refusal or inability to eat
- Refusal or inability to drink
- Inability to stand or walk for extended periods of time.
- Inability to fly or awkward flying pattern.
- Droopy wings
- Scours – diarrhea
- Odd or crooked head and neck movements.
The parasites that attach to a chicken’s body and sometimes funnel beneath the skin include fleas, lice, ticks, bedbugs, and flies.
Mites are a relative of spiders. They have eight minuscule legs and are usually so tiny they are nearly impossible to detect with the naked eye. There are three varieties of mites that are very common throughout North America: Scaly Leg mite, Northern Fowl mites, and Red (or chicken) mites.
All three of these common types of mites can make an otherwise healthy chicken absolutely miserable in rapid fashion.
Mites such as these feast off of the blood of their chicken host, frequently causing anemia. Other signs particular to a chicken mite infestation include incessant pecking and preening, as well as feather loss.
Mite infestations in chickens have also been known to cause discolored wattles, combs, and the skin around the poultry bird’s eyes.
The light red or pink shade that the comb and wattles may turn when mites are infesting a chicken are a solid indicator that the bird has become anemic.
In addition to dusting the chicken with diatomaceous earth and providing a quality chicken dust bath, you can also boost the chicken’s protein and iron intake to help combat the anemia.
This can be accomplished by purchasing a high-protein game bird style of chicken feed as well as feeding treats high in these vital nutrients.
Northern Fowl Mite
These common chicken mites remain attached to the poultry bird night and day – which can make the signs of their presence both easier to detect and treat. If you spot clumps of nasty debris beneath the base of a bird’s feathers, Northern Fowl mites are likely the cause.
The life cycle of a Northern Fowl mite is just seven days long, at most. Detecting the mites before they lay eggs and keeping the infestation cycle going is crucial to rid your chickens of these pests.
Unlike nearly all other types of common barnyard pests and parasites, this type of mite infestation is often worse during the cold weather months.
Dusting the entire coop and nesting boxes with diatomaceous earth or wood ash – or both. Again, setting up a proper chicken dust bath can also help not just treat, but prevent parasite infestation in your flock.
Red Chicken Mites
These types of mites often live in the nooks and crannies of a chicken coop – making them extremely difficult to get rid of entirely.
The Red Chicken mites have a 10 day life cycle, and are most likely to infest during the spring through the fall months. During the winter it is not uncommon for these mites to remain dormant for up to five months.
One sign that you have a Red Chicken mite infestation involves a staunch reluctance by flock members to enter the coop at night – or remaining outside even in poor weather.
To completely and thoroughly eradicate these parasites is to remove the flock from the coop for a minimum or at least one to two weeks.
Some keepers believe it can take up to 10 weeks to fully treat and get rid of a large infestation. They are hardy pests and can survive up to 8 months in between a blood-sucking feed.
Mite removal sprays are sold at agricultural supply stores like Tractor Supply and Rural King. Once you remove all of the bedding in the coop everything inside the coop, must be thoroughly scrubbed and disinfected.
Because the mites burrow into the wood the coop is comprised of, several applications of anything you use to get rid of them will be necessary. I recommend distilled white vinegar to clean and disinfect the coop followed by tossing diatomaceous earth onto the still damp wood after spraying.
Keeping natural parasite repellents like diatomaceous earth, wood ash, and herbs in the coop and laying boxes, use chicken dust baths to help the poultry birds kill the mites on their own. To help prevent a new infestation of Chicken Red mites, you may consider lining the inside of the coop with metal.
Scaly Leg Mites
These pests attach to a chicken’s legs and then burrow beneath the scales – before eating the bird’s skin from the inside out. Beneath the scale, there are now bacteria that can cause a deadly infection in the poultry bird.
Once a chicken has an infestation of Scaly Legs mites, the scales will start to hoove up or all off – leaving the underlayer of the chicken leg skin exposed. An untreated Scaly Legs mites infestation can also cause lameness.
Soak the legs of the chicken in warm water to soften the scale – the bird will HATE this. Never pull off scales even if they are loose, doing so will cause rips in the tender and sore skin on the chicken’s leg.
Pat the chicken’s legs dry after the soak and gently apply olive oil or coconut oil onto the legs, making sure it drips under the scales, to infuse more moisture back into the legs and smother any remaining mites.
You can wipe away the oil gently and apply your chosen healing salve on top of the legs. It may take more than one treatment to kill all of the mites.
Providing a chicken dust bath and keeping the bedding in the coop clean and infused with diatomaceous earth, wood, ash, and herbs will help prevent future Scaly Leg mite infestations.
Fleas that most commonly infect chickens are brown and tiny but not so small that you cannot spot them on the poultry bird’s feathers. Flea infestations are at their worst most often during the hot months of summer.
There are multiple types of fleas that can make a chicken their unwilling host, but the most common type in the United States is the European chick flea.
The Western chick flea (also referred to as the Black Hen flea) roams primarily in Canada and the Pacific Northwest. It likes to live on the smelly droppings of a chicken rather than on the poultry bird itself.
To get rid of chicken fleas, keep dust baths for the hens and sprinkle diatomaceous earth or a purchased and commercially manufactured poultry dust around the coop and run and occasionally on the birds themselves.
Always dust up under the bird’s wings, around the vent and tail area, and on the saddle feather are these are the favored haunts of flea parasites.
If you get an infestation of fleas inside of the coop, remove all bedding, clean and disinfect everything properly and then dust again in two weeks to kill any flea straggles or their eggs.
This unique type of flea is extremely hard to get rid of once it makes a chicken its host – hence the name. Sticktight fleas attach to a poultry bird’s combs, wattles, and around their eyes.
Thankfully, their preferred locations make them fairly easy to spot. You will have to spend some time removing each single flea with tweezers to free your chicken from its grasp. Always apply your favorite healing salve after taking off the Sticktight fleas.
Remove everything inside the coop and disinfect it thoroughly before returning it with fresh bedding. You will likely have to repeat this cleaning process in two weeks to make certain all of these hardy fleas and the eggs that they laid, are dead.
Keeping a dirt bath in the chicken coop or run and regularly dusting the coop with natural or commercially manufactured poultry dust will help prevent a recurring infestation.
Chickens may not truly have beds, but they can still become a host to bed bugs. Keeping the coop and run clean and installing chicken dust baths are the best way to prevent bedbug infestations.
Dusting the chickens with diatomaceous earth or poultry dust will help get rid of any bed bugs that are already attached to your birds.
These pests are also commonly referred to as “filth flies” and they can cause tapeworms to be transmitted to poultry birds. Blowflies typically attach themselves to the vent area of the chicken – especially chickens who are not kept in a clean environment or have had scours.
Once the blowflies have a host, they will burrow into the feathers or soft skin and lay eggs. They will also eat away at the flesh they are covered in while awaiting the hatching of their little maggots.
This condition is often referred to as flystrike or Myiasis. If a severe infestation occurs and goes on undetected and untreated, the chicken will likely die.
To treat a blowfly infestation, bath the chicken (again the birds will hate this so wear gloves when treating roosters) in warm water, and irrigate the infestation area with hydrogen peroxide, saline, or your chosen method of liquid disinfectant to help force any live maggots to dislodge themselves.
Gently pat of low-heat blow dry the area that was treated and use your chosen wound spray onto the skin to help prevent infection.
This process may need to be repeated several times if the infestation is severe. Use hydrogen peroxide and/or only during the first treatment to avoid it from preventing skin regeneration.
Screwflies and Botflies
These types of chicken parasites lay eggs on the skin of the poultry birds and then the larva will dig down into the tissue where they live until mature. Once fully grown, Screwflies rip out of the tissue and fall to the ground and live on as they pupate into a Botfly.
Follow the Blowfly tips above to eradicate screwflies and botflies.
These problematic little pests are perhaps the most common parasite the chickens in your coop will ever face. There are multiple types of lice that claim poultry birds as their hosts but the most common varieties are shaft louse, head louse, wing louse, and body louse.
Chickens usually contract lice from wild birds and their droppings that are encountered during free-ranging or from new birds being added to the flock.
It is always best to quarantine any new bird for two weeks before adding it to the flock to prevent transmission of parasites or other diseases.
A mature female louse is fully capable of laying between 50 to 300 eggs in her short 21-day life cycle. Catching a lice infestation as soon as possible (or preventing one altogether) helps prevent a little problem from turning into a gigantic one.
Treat lice on chickens or in the coop just as you would a flea infestation. Pay careful attention to the primary tail and vent area, the wings and underside of the wings, and the saddle feathers when dusting the infected chicken with diatomaceous earth or a manufactured form of poultry dust.
To be on the safe side, if you detect lice in one chicken, go ahead and treat the entire flock. Repeat the dusting in two weeks to ensure you have killed all the lice and their eggs.
Chicken lice types may bite you or jump on you, but it is nearly unheard of for poultry lice varieties to be able to attach to humans.
Fowl ticks generally prefer to live in warmer climates (unlike the far less picky deer ticks) and tend to be a chicken parasite problem in warmer regions like the southern states, Arizona, California, and parts of Texas.
If fowl ticks are present in your flock or coop, odds are that the poultry birds will try to refuse to be put up at night and once again be subjected to the ticks that also take up residence in the chicken living quarters.
Fowl ticks bite the chickens and suck their blood for nourishment. The severity of a tick infestation can range from mild to so severe that the tick-secreted neurotoxin builds up in the chicken’s bloodstream and causes paralysis.
To get rid of fowl ticks you will need to follow the same tweezer removal and dusting tips outlined above. Cleaning the coop and disinfecting it thoroughly it will help remove and prevent infestations.
Doing your best to prevent parasite and pest infestations in your chicken flock will help save you time, effort, and money later. It is far easier and cheaper to diligently work to prevent an infestation than to treat sick birds after the fact – potentially losing some in the process.
Ask anyone who has given a chicken a bath just how much joy that brought to their life and you will eagerly set up dust baths for the chickens and keep their coop clean.
Nesting boxes inside of the coop are prime territory for parasite infestations to develop, never neglect keeping them clean and tidy by disinfecting them and replacing bedding regularly.
Sprinkling some diatomaceous earth and/or wood ash in the freshly cleaned nesting boxes and throwing in some chicken-friendly herbs for good measure sure help prevent close to 95 percent of potential chicken parasite problems.
Tara lives on a 56 acres farm in the Appalachian Mountains, where she faces homesteading and farming challenges every single day, raising chickens, goats, horses, and tons of vegetables. She’s an expert in all sorts of homesteading skills such as hide tanning, doll making, tree tapping, and many more.