How To Identify, Treat, and Prevent Chicken Lice

Chicken Lice Featured
If you see your chickens scratching themselves often, they may have chicken lice which is best treated with a diatomaceous earth dust bath. For more serious infections, a pyrethrin-based insecticide is a great solution. Lice can be prevented by keeping a clean pen and regularly checking your hens' skin and feathers.

It may be surprising to learn that chickens can become infected with parasites such as lice.

Any animal that spends time outside can be subject to parasites, and free-range chickens in backyard chicken coops are no exception.

One of the most common types of parasites that chickens encounter is chicken lice from other animals and wild birds. In order to prevent and treat lice in chickens, one must first know how to identify these pests. 

What is Chicken Lice? 

Chicken lice are parasites that live outside of a host body (on the exoskeleton), but feed on the blood, dead skin, and feather shaft debris of chickens.

They multiply quickly and favor warm environments. They also have an elongated body and six legs, with round heads and flat bodies, and can vary in color.

The most common color is light beige, but they also can be pale yellow and even brown. They move quickly and are more difficult to see than many other types of parasites.

There are multiple types of chicken lice, but the most common type to infest backyard flocks is Menacanthus stramineus, also known as body louse.

Chicken lice can cause extensive damage to the health of chickens, and if chickens are infected, they will need immediate treatment to prevent the infestation from getting worse and spreading amongst the flock.

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In order to understand how they spread so rapidly, it is important to examine the lifecycle a bit closer.

The Lifecycle of Chicken Lice

Chicken lice have notoriously short life spans of less than 2 weeks and usually spend the entirety of their life on one host body.

Their eggs (or nits), are typically white and laid in clusters, found most often at the base of the feathers, and most will hatch within 5 days. Nits will molt three times while they are growing into adults, but this stage only lasts 9 to 12 days.

a popular type of chicken lice seen with an optical zoom camera

Once they have grown into adult lice, they will only live 12 days or so, but in that time, adult females can lay as many as 2 eggs per day which can cause a significant infestation quickly.

That is why it is so important to keep a close eye on your flock, and to catch these parasites as early as possible. 

How do Chicken Lice Spread?

Even though most chicken lice prefer to stay on a single host for the duration of their entire life cycle, they can spread easily from bird to bird through close contact.

Chickens can spend a great deal of time being in close quarters, on roosts where they will perch with other members of their flock, not to mention in coops with nesting boxes.

Chicken lice do not jump, but they can crawl from one bird to another, and eggs can fall into nesting materials which allow lice to spread quickly and easily.

What are the Signs that a Chicken has Chicken Lice?

If chickens are showing any of the following signs of lice, they should immediately be checked for chicken lice:

  • Chickens pecking and scratching themselves vigorously
  • An unusual amount of time preening
  • Skin that shows areas that appear red with scabs and raw or irritated
  • The base of feather shafts look untidy and are warped or broken 
  • Bunches of white eggs along the shaft and base of feathers
  • Inexplicable feather loss
  • Wattles and combs may lose color due to anemia
  • A noticeable decrease of egg production
  • Young chickens will not put on weight 
  • They appear sick
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How to Treat Chicken Lice

If your chickens have lice, there are several things you can do to increase their comfort and quickly suppress the infestation. Creating an area for your chickens to take dust baths is the easiest, fastest and most cost-effective way to reduce or eliminate their chicken lice infection.

man treating chicken lice with Diatomaceous earth
Diatomaceous earth is relatively inexpensive and ideal for chicken dust baths

To encourage them to use the dust bathing area, make it large and deep which will increase the likelihood that they use it regularly. Fill the bath area with 6 cups of food-grade diatomaceous earth mixed with approximately 20 to 25 pounds of play sand for the best result.

Diatomaceous earth will cut into the exoskeleton of the lice and cause them to dehydrate and die. This type of mixture has the added bonus of preventing other parasites and mites from infecting your flock. 

However, if your chickens still show signs of parasites, or the infestation is severe, you may need to take additional steps to suppress it including using a pyrethrin-based insecticide on your chickens. They can come in different forms such as a dust, spray or solution.

Be sure to follow the instructions carefully for maximum effectiveness, and check to see that the product you choose will kill the lice eggs. While treating your birds, be careful that you cover your skin to prevent bites and to ensure you do not come into contact with the insecticide. 

Poultry lice is not the same as human lice and human lice treatments will not work on your chickens. Be sure to use products intended for use on poultry.

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How to Prevent Chicken Lice

It is never fun dealing with a chicken lice infestation. Luckily there are steps you can take to prevent an infestation from occurring!

  1. Check your chickens weekly, at a minimum, and keep a close eye on their behavior and appearance. Examine the breast area of chickens, the base of the feathers, and the vent area as these are the places chicken lice are most likely to inhabit. Early detection is crucial in preventing a large-scale outbreak.
  2. Never purchase or use equipment that may have been used at other farms or in backyard coops previously. Be sure that any equipment and nesting materials you buy are new.
  3. Ensure that you are cleaning out your coop and replacing nesting materials as needed. This will help prevent an infestation from taking hold. Additionally, when introducing new birds into the flock, be sure to keep them quarantined for a minimum of three to four weeks to ensure they do not infect your birds with parasites that they may have.
  4. Keep a particularly close watch over any new birds for the same reason, and at the first sign of chicken lice or other parasites, treat quickly to prevent them from spreading to your healthy chickens.

Early prevention and treatment are crucial in keeping your flock healthy and parasite free. 

Christina

A longtime resident of Southern California, Christina recently moved across the globe to Austria, where she bought land specifically to build a small house with room for a backyard chicken coop. Christina spent her childhood summers on a farm, raising and caring for a flock of hens owned by her grandparents, which prompted a lifelong love of chickens, and other farm animals. Christina is passionate about writing, having written hundreds of articles for well-known websites, and uses her English degree in service of her love for animal welfare, most recently taking on a writing position at Chicken Care Taker in 2022.

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