My friend has 4 sweet little chickens. I know they are wonderful because they were part of our flock originally. We wanted to get her set up with some fresh eggs from her own backyard quickly and that was the best way possible.
She called me about a week ago, and said that one of the hens was losing her back feathers.“It’s probably molting”, I said. However, the other hens weren’t losing their feathers, and she looked miserable. Upon further inspection, we found the culprit. Lice.
Lice in chickens can come out of seemingly nowhere, and make a chicken very miserable.
I can imagine that they are itchy (although I have never been a chicken so I can’t attest to that for fact) and quite often, the bird will lose feathers. Most of the time, a free range, or even outdoor bird can easily take care of the issue themselves by taking daily dust baths. But, what do you do when your dirt is all packed down and the chicken can’t get a proper dust bath?
What Causes Lice to Infest Chickens?
If your flock looks a bit itchy, you might have a lice problem. Lice is often transmitted by wild birds. These birds carry the parasites near or in your coop, where they are then transmitted to your chickens. If you’ve ever been unfortunate enough to have human lice (like head lice), you probably know all too well the signs of a lice infestation.
Luckily, the lice that infest chickens generally don’t infest people. While you might find them crawling on your clothing, they will be unable to feed on you. Many people, too, confuse lice with mice.
While they are very similar, there are some differences. Lice, for example, feeds on the feathers and skin of your chickens, while mites will feed on the blood of your birds. These pests are both attracted to the same conditions, and can both be detrimental to your chickens’ health.
There are several types of lice that might infest your chickens. Shaft louse is one common type of lice, and this lice species is tiny, with each individual only growing to about four millimeters in size.
These lice are yellow and move quickly. They feed on the scales and feathers of your chickens and can cause feather pecking, weight loss, skin irritation, and behavioral changes.
All lice are small, flat insects with six legs. They move quickly on their hosts, laying eggs at the base of the chicken’s feathers, while the adults take up residence on the skin. Lice have a very short lifecycle, but they are almost constantly reproducing – which spells bad news for your backyard flock.
Chicken lice can hatch just four days after an egg is laid, and it only takes nine days to reach maturity.
An adult louse will live for an additional twelve days after this but this can vary – some species can live for up to a month, with one female louse laying up to 300 eggs or “nits’ ‘ in that short period of time!
Types of Lice
Here is a more detailed breakdown of the many types of lice that can affect chickens:
Chicken Head Louse
Chicken head louse, or Cuclotogaster heterographus, are only about two millimeters long with gray bodies and triangular heads. As the name implies, these lice hang out on the feather base at the bird’s neck and head.
Fluff louse, Goniocotes gallinae, are a bit smaller than chicken head louse and have round, yellow bodies. They are found in the fluffy feathers that are generally found along the abdomen, vent, and back of a bird. You might also notice eggs in clusters near the base of the feathers.
As the name suggests, these types of lice are generally found near the skin and undersides of the large tail and wing feathers. Eggs are found near the base of feathers, too. These lice, Lipeurus caponis, are approximately two millimeters long with slender gray bodies.
Shaft louse, Menopon gallinae, are some of the most common types of lice, as I mentioned earlier. They are often found in free range or backyard flocks. You might find individual eggs cemented at the base of feather shafts or barbs.
They can also live on the shaft of fresh new feathers along the thigh and breast area of a bird. They are a pale yellow in color and about two millimeters long.
Chicken Body Louse
Chicken body lice, Menacanthus stramineus, are some of the most common poultry lice, especially in free range chickens. They are three and a half millimeters long with brown or yellow-colored bodies. They are typically found along the head, breast, beneath the wings, and near the vent.
Brown Chicken Louse
Brown chicken louse, Goniodes dissimilis, are some of the largest lice that can infest your chickens.
At nearly four millimeters long, these lice have red-brown bodies and are generally found on the feathers and skin all over the body. You might notice clusters of eggs near the base of the feathers, too.
How to Prevent Lice on Chickens
Luckily, lice infestations can be easily prevented. Make sure you keep wild birds away from your property as best as you can. Keep your chicken feed cleaned up and secured, and remove any wild bird nests near your home.
Fortunately, if one member of the flock has lice, it doesn’t mean they all do. The presence of some lice on a chicken, however, is enough to indicate that the whole flock has lice – and it means it’s a good time to treat everyone.
Before things get that far, though, consider these steps to prevent lice.
You may also need to set up scarecrows. The side benefit of this is that deterring wild birds will also deter airborne predators, like hawks, as well as low-crawling scavengers like rats and racoons, all of whom would like to make a snack out of your chickens!
Painting the inside of your chicken coop can prevent lice and mites from hiding inside the porous wood surface. Do this for the interior of the coop along with the roosts and nesting boxes. This will help eliminate hiding places, making it easier for you to wipe out these pests.
Use a Dust Bath
Chickens love dust baths – they are social occasions but also necessary for grooming. Most of the time, you can prevent lice simply by giving your girls an area to dust bathe!
You can also prevent lice by layering your chicken’s dust baths with diatomaceous earth. Providing a dust bath is, in general, one of the best ways to ensure that your chickens stay healthy and parasite-free, as dust baths provide chickens a method by which to clean themselves and produce a natural barrier against these pests.
Keep the Coop Clean
Ensuring that the coop is clean and filled with fresh bedding at all times is another good step against lice infestations.
Try to clean your coop once or twice a week, or make sure you add plenty of fresh bedding instead, if you’re utilizing the deep-litter method of bedding. You might consider using pest-resistant beddings, too, like hemp bedding.
Try Dried Herbs
To take things one step further, add some dried herbs to the coop. You can sprinkle these on the bedding or hang them from the coop ceiling. Good options to consider include mint, lavender, oregano, and basil.
ACV and Garlic in the Water
You can also mix some apple cider vinegar and garlic into your chickens’ water to help them stay healthy – just make sure you don’t add apple cider vinegar to a galvanized waterer, as it can cause degradation that will leach chemicals into your hens’ water supply.
Avoid Trimming Beaks
Some people trim beaks, which is meant to prevent feather pecking behaviors and other destructive instincts that chickens might have. This is a highly controversial tactic – one of the reasons to consider not doing it is so that you don’t interfere with a chicken’s ability to groom herself.
Leave the beaks be – and you shouldn’t have as many problems with parasites!
If you know other people who raise chickens, try to limit their visits to your farm and contact with your chickens. This can easily lead to the pests being transported to your birds on their footwear, clothes, or equipment.
Finally, if you add any new birds to your flock, make sure you take the time to quarantine them before introducing them to the other chickens. This will give you time to observe them for symptoms of lice infestation, and it will also give you time to treat them if necessary.
How to Tell if Your Chickens Have Lice
There are several telltale signs that your chicken might have a lice infestation.
You may notice a decline in egg production that occurs quite suddenly or gradually. Your chickens may have feathers that appear to be broken or have disappeared altogether.
Your chicken will also be more apt to engage in frequent preening, too. Preening by itself is not a sign of a lice infestation – but preening that occurs more often than not could be indicative of a problem.
You might notice that your chicken tries to scratch itself, too. Upon closer observation, you might notice that your chicken has lice crawling around the feather shafts, as well as nits.
If you suspect lice, take the time to thoroughly examine your chicken. Do this somewhere with good lighting, ideally, outside in direct sunlight.
Take a close look at the area above the vent first – part through the feathers to look at the skin. You may see lice running around or even nits.
Nits are clumps of eggs that can generally be found at the base of the feather. Nits are most often found around the vent, which will have a tendency to be red, sore, and even swollen.
Your chickens might exhibit some behavioral changes, too. They may move more slowly or have significant weight loss, so they will likely eat less. Their combs may become pale and they may have pronounced bald spots. In addition to having missing feathers, they may have feathers that look downright dirty.
There are several different types of mites and lice, but usually, these will be the symptoms. The treatment, luckily, will be the same no matter what kind of lice your chickens have (with the exception of scaly leg mites, which are a different story).
If you need a quick checklist to determine whether your chickens have lice, here it is. General symptoms of a lice infestation include one or more of the following:
- Patchy red-pink areas and wings that look as though they have been chewed on
- Pale wattles and combs
- Drooping wings (a sign of fatigue or illness)
- Dirty vent
- Broken feathers
- Decline in egg production
- Lice eggs on feather shafts or visible eggs
How to Get Rid of Lice on Chickens
Here are some tips you can follow to help your chicken recover from a lice – or other parasite – infestation.
1) Place Wood Ash and Dirt in the Coop
You can place some cooled wood ash and dirt mixture in the coop area. This will help the bird get more of a dust bath and suffocate the little bugs. I usually have some in their coop during the winter months, when their yard is all covered with snow.
2) Use Diatomaceous Earth
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You can use diatomaceous earth. Gently holding the bird you want to sprinkle the DE (not pool grade-you want to use food grade) over the entire body. I sprinkle about a cup in their dust bath area to help as well. The DE cuts the lice and kills them.
Once one chicken has lice, you are sure to have it spread. The best defense against lice infecting your whole flock is to treat them all. And to use preventative measures like having loose dirt for a dust bath, and DE sprinkled in it.
If you can’t find diatomaceous earth or don’t have any on hand, you can also use Pestene powder. Both of these materials are harmless to chickens, but you should wear a dust mask while applying it, as it can irritate your respiratory system.
3) Move your Chickens
If you can, move your chicken while you are treating a lice infestation. If you have another coop or a chicken tractor, move your birds so you can thoroughly clean the old coop.
4) Clean the Coop
Make sure you delouse the coop thoroughly once you notice an infestation. Depending on how severe your lice problem is, you might want to spray the coop down with a high-pressure hose and pour boiling water into all the crevices. You can clean the coop with dehydrated lime and then dust it with diatomaceous earth once everything has dried.
Avoid allowing your chickens back into the coop until all of these cleaning procedures are finished.
5) Provide high-iron treats to promote healing
While your chickens are recovering from a lice infestation, it’s important that you give them plenty of iron-rich snacks to offset the blood they will have lost through the lice bites. You can give them foods like spinach or kale -these treats will not only keep them satisfied, but they’ll keep them extra busy so they aren’t as focused on scratching or preening.
Iron is definitely more needed in chickens who are suffering from mites rather than from lice, but it’s a good idea to give your chickens the extra energy, anyway – they will need it to fight off the mites. Here are some other foods you might consider:
|Cooked eggs||Cooked poultry|
|Beet greens||Sweet potatoes|
6) Start Checking the Calendar
Even if you’ve treated your chickens for lice once, remember that you probably only killed the lice – and not the eggs. No matter how well you cleaned the coop or treated your birds, there’s a chance that some eggs survived.
About seven days after executing your first cleaning and treatment, it’s a good idea to go through all of the steps again. You have to be stubborn and persistent in order to beat a lice infestation!
7) Watch All of Your Birds – Especially the Broody Ones
It’s important to interact with your flock on a daily basis for a number of reasons, but particularly because it can help you weed out the early signs of a lice infestation. Check them at least every month to make sure they aren’t showing signs of parasitic infection. You may need to physically lift them and examine them to do this.
Broody hens, in particular, must be inspected regularly. Because they will refuse to get off their eggs and dust bathe, they will be more likely to contract a lice infestation. In addition, some of the signs of broodiness that you are likely familiar with – irritability, missing feathers, etc – can also be signs of lice infestation, so make sure you are very aware of the signs.
8) Apply Neem Oil
Neem oil seems to work best on mites instead of lice, but it can often help repel lice from infesting your coop, too. Simply spray neem oil around the perches, nest boxes, and crevices in your coop. This is believed to help keep lice away with its strong (to them) smell.
9) Use a Garlic Juice Treatment
You can spray your chickens – as well as the inside of your coop – with garlic to help repel and treat lice infestations. These are found to be effective at killing lice and mites as well as repelling them in the future. When fed directly to your chickens, garlic can also be an excellent internal parasite remover and preventative method, too.
10) Use a Chemical Treatment
This is definitely not recommended unless you have tried all of the other treatments we have suggested and they have failed. Nine times out of ten, all lice infestations can be dealt with by some through cleaning and herbal remedies. However, many people choose to use chemicals to fight pests. These are very easy to abuse and should only be used under veterinary guidance.
One of these options is Sevin dust. This product has controversial results and can be harmful to you and to your animals when used incorrectly. It can also kill bees and beneficial pollinators, and if you are hoping to obtain organic certification, this will restrict your ability to do so. Again, consult a veterinarian if you feel as though you must use chemicals to treat a lice infestation.
Other chemicals that can be used, either as a powder or a spray, include:
Consult your vet, again, to figure out which product is best for you and your flock. Some chemical treatments are only effective against eggs while others only work on adults, so it’s important to find the right product the first time.
Get Rid of Lice for Good
As if the idea of lice crawling around on your chickens wasn’t creepy enough, it’s important to recognize that chickens can suffer from other kinds of external and internal parasites, too (such as mites).
The good news is that, by following the steps for prevention and treatment detailed above, you should be able to keep the vast majority of creepy crawlies out of your coop and away from your chickens (including lites, mice, and more).
So follow these tips and kick lice to the curb! No more itching and scratching for your poor flock.
Have you ever had lice in your chickens? What are other ways you have treated it?
latest update: August 10th 2021 by Rebekah Pierce
Heather’s homesteading journey started in 2006, with baby steps: first, she got a few raised beds, some chickens, and rabbits. Over the years, she amassed a wealth of homesteading knowledge, knowledge that you can find in the articles of this blog.
Learn more about Heather and the rest of the writers on this page.