LAST UPDATED DEC 12, 2019
This article explains how to treat chicken lice for beginners. This is my firsthand experience. There are multiple solutions and I ended up going the non-natural route as explained below. For starters, poultry or “chicken lice” are specialist parasites and coevolved to be very good at feeding on their specific host species—but aren’t able to live on other species.
Chicken lice can’t live on people, and the lice that kids commonly get in grade school can’t be shared with their beloved chickens.
To understand how to treat chicken lice you must first get to know those dirty little assailants. Lice are common on many animals, and domesticated poultry have around 50 species of lice. They are all soft-bodied, pale-colored, flattened-bodied insects. Young louses appear almost clear. These tiny soft-bodied insects have mouthparts used specifically to chew on feathers and scales on the host birds’ skin.
Severe infestations, among other factors, can make a hen stop laying and even stunt growth in immature birds. If this happens to your flocks, it’s crucial to understand how to treat chicken lice and set up preventative methods for a healthier future for your flock.
Handle your birds often or at least on a weekly basis to check for pests, injury and missing feathers. When watching your flock look for the below behaviors which are indicators of poultry health.
Behavioral Indicators of Lice Infestation:
- Sitting, resting or lying down more often than usual
- Social isolation of a smaller group from a larger flock
- Repetitive head shaking
- Extended periods of dust bathing
- Excessive preening or puffing up to preen
- More small feathers in the pen or coop than usual
- Oddly folded wings or a scruffy look
- Itching with one foot—much like a dog
- Decreased diet
- Slowed growth in immature birds with more than two of the above behaviors
- Less laying in hens with more than one of the above behaviors
- Multiple chick deaths IF naturally hatched by broody hens
The first time I had to figure out how to treat chicken lice began when I was walking down the dirt road I live on heading to give a neighbor a rooster. She had pecking order issues in her coop and I thought it may help. Tucked under my arm was Boss Fluff, the biggest silkie rooster you ever laid your eyes on. He clucked with excitement as we strolled along.
Having very recently moved I hadn’t spent much quality time observing or handling my birds. We stopped our leisurely walk briefly when another neighbor commented from their yard on the hilarity of us walking our chicken and chihuahua down the road. The rooster flinched twice to shake his head while we talked.
Instinctively, I observed him doing this to see if I could figure out why he was fidgeting. I hang out with chickens a lot, and found this to be a little odd. I noticed a tiny insect crawl near his eye. Silkies have dark blue skin making the pale reddish-organge insect easy to see.
I was most of the way to my chicken friend’s house and continued walking seeing as she was expecting us. I didn’t go near her coop upon reaching the property but instead stopped to inspect my bird by parting the feathers.
After finding several lice in a small area, I told her the issue and showed her what they look like.
My poor silkie was so infested that the lice were already at all life stages. There were full grown lice, nits, and eggs. He was literally crawling with them. I quickly learned how to treat chicken lice.
This was my first encounter with chicken lice, but not my first time hearing about it or seeing lice on humans. My kids have brought lice home from a few sleepovers and school. One year our entire family got it. I needed to figure out how to treat chicken lice.
What are chicken lice?
Read page 11 in this free online book link to understand lice biology and identification. Or, this entire book is on the subject.
Naturally Treating Chicken Lice:
Possibly the most important thing to do is look over your whole flock and see who has them. If they all are in the same coop then chances are they will all have lice. Treat them as if they do but dust the worst-off chickens first.
If you keep multiple breeds in segregated housing or have a news bird from another flock then focus on finding the chicken with the most eggs and adult lice. If you find only very immature lice on only part of your flock it’s best to separate them right away. Do not doddle, lice spread like wildfire and early detection and immediate treatment are key to their eradication. This now outlines how to treat chicken lice for beginners:
Once the most infested are separated head to the local hardware store to buy some food grade diatomaceous Earth, or commonly known by chicken folks as “DE”, for treatment. It’s a real mouthful of a word. If you’re a Mainer you’d pronounce it “die-ah-tah-may-shis” if you’re from away it’s more like “di-a-tom-a-shis”. This stuff is how to treat chicken lice and will quickly eradicate them IF they are not full-out infested or loaded with eggs.
For each bird, you will need about one cup of DE.
Now that we can say it, let’s figure out what this weird stuff is. Here’s a diatom below from a lakebed that’s several millions of years old.
Diatomaceous earth is made by powdering silica deposits that are actually layer upon layer of fossilized microscopic organisms that once lived in streams, lakes and rivers. These deposits are commonly found in the Earth’s crust and mined. Silica is so common that it makes up over a quarter of the earth’s crust by weight. These teeny creatures are called diatoms and the deposits are pulled from the Earth.
So, now that their strange name makes some sense: let’s dig into how to use powdered fossils to treat chicken lice. Yep.
Your family and animals are completely safe with DE treatments as long as large amounts aren’t inhaled like any our dust. In fact, it’s even used as an anti-clumping additive in some animal feeds and to clarify some commercial wines and beers. DE has been used as an insecticide since the 1960’s and is found in 150 products in the US today. Chances are, you have been in contact with it as some point in your life.
Lice can live for a short time in the coop as eggs on disregarded feathers (left: photo of eggs on a feather) and can continue to crawl onto your chickens. The coop should be treated at the same time as the flock. A key factor in learning how to treat chicken lice for beginners is to wipe out everything and start over.
How to treat chicken lice for beginners . . .
The floor will need to be fully shoveled out, the nesting boxes stripped and the perch wiped clean. Never use harsh cleaning products around your flock. Unfortunately, DE is only effective when it’s completely dry and cannot be used on damp soil outside. This being said, it should be sprinkled liberally on the chickens’ favorite dusting holes outside when there is a few days of solid sun in the forecast.
When adding more bedding and nesting box material add DE to all the new stuff. A soft but very dry straw will hold a lot of DE within the blades and chickens love to kick it around the nesting boxes. As long as they aren’t dumb enough to eat it. (I have rarely seen hay-eating, but I’ve never herd of straw-eating. Mine don’t eat either.) You will need to do this for the next few months to ensure the lice have been eradicated. Honestly, it’s a great preventative measure to take each time you change your coop bedding and won’t harm any of your animals.
If you have a broody on eggs, it’s okay to use around the eggs too. In fact, this is a prime location for lice and mites, so give her and the eggs a big sprinkle. Where she won’t get up off those eggs no matter what—ensure she’s not inhaling a bunch of dust. Her immune system is already lower with her decreased diet, fresh air and water during brooding.
If you can and want to spend some hands-on time with your flock and really want to nip the lice issue, each chicken can be hand-dusted. This dusting should be in addition to the precautions and treatments already discussed. Our homestead currently houses a total of 38 chickens. Hand-dusting each one took me a total of four hours.
In half-hour sessions at a rate of 5 birds per dusting session it was an all morning ordeal. The process was physically tiring, dirty and stressful to the flock. I do handle them often enough so they weren’t panicked, which helped. DE dusting should be done outside on a dry day. Keep the birds from flapping to reduce the dust cloud. Once done, keep them where they will be dry and make sure plenty of DE is around to dust in.
Burn the bastards! No really.
Every shed feather in the coop, pen or nearby should be raked up and disposed of—we burned ours as we didn’t want to risk them sticking around in the compost pile for a wild bird to pick up. Even after doing all of this and six DE treatments, our lice persisted in 6 out of 32 birds after two weeks.
If I had more time I would have continued dusting every other day or so. But, alas—I have other things to do with my time and had reached the end of my chicken rope. I butchered the meat birds early and sought UN-natural methods to put an end to the madness.
When Lice Persist Beyond Several DE Treatments: How to Treat Chicken Lice with Liquid Pesticides
After treating my chickens, turkeys and keets [update 12/2/19 we only have chickens available for poultry now] this many times I ended up having to resort to Ivermectin, a liquid spray-on pesticide to get my flock freed from the grips of lice outbreaks.
This is used for deworming cattle, but can be SUPER diluted and sprayed onto chickens. The amounts are listed on the bottle for larger livestock. I was saddened and felt very much defeated to have to go to this extreme. In the end my birds are healthy and lice-free.
Chatter on liquid pesticide types, uses and dosages from top chicken chat rooms:
“I’ve always used Ivermectin 1% injectable on a large flock by measuring 1 ml/cc of Ivermectin to 1 litre of water (quart) twice a year or when needed. I’ve also used the Ivermectin pour on when just treating a few hens. None died or got sick and neither did we as we ate the eggs as well as fed them back to the chickens. Side note here, I also treat my dogs and cats with Ivermectin 1%.“
-User: Toast n Jelly @backyardchickens.com 2007
“Most poultry dose info for Ivermectin on this board seems to be the pour-on, applied to the skin on the back of the bird’s neck. The dosages are apparently largely experiential — what has worked (and not harmed) for worming and skin parasites. To wit: 1-2 small drops (from a syringe or fine-tipped pipette) for the smallest bantams (e.g. 1 drop for OEG bantam hens and Seramas of both sexes, 2 drops for OEG bantam roosters), 3 drops for average-size bantams, 4 drops for medium standard chickens, 5 drops for the largest breeds.
In my own experience, I’ve found that the above dosages do no harm to the birds and in fact do kill lice. Northern fowl mites, not so much. And I don’t know whether the Ivermectin is effectively worming the flock, to be frank. I have been using Piperazine, which definitely does work but needs to be followed up with a second dose in 2 weeks.”
-User: GarenderGal @backyardchickens.com 2008
“I have been using ivermec for years now. I even do chicks that at least 3 weeks old with no adverse at all. I like using the pour on best. I do use both pour on and the injectable also. Now I am a poultry tester and do much with drawing blood from chickens for testing. I have found this to be informative when worming with ivermec. If any of you are like me you are doing this by yourself. I found that trying to do the neck can get time consuming for those of us with large flocks.
What I do (and maybe a help to others) is take the chick or adult and hold in one are lift the wing (for me its the silkies right wing. when you do (lift it high enough and across the back a bit. It will expose the right shoulder just below the hackle area. When that is exposed it is bare (without feathers or very few) drop your drop of ivermec and your off for the next bird. Really really easy and you can see that is went on the skin as where you dropped the drop it turn blacker for a second until its absorbed. So you know you got it on the skin. Hope this helps some of you.”
-User: cjexotic @backyardchickens.com 2008
“Dr. Silver prescribed “PanaCure” which is exactly the same thing as SafeGuard dewormer for goats.(fenbendazole 10% suspension) and told me to give them each 0.03 ml for 3 consecutive days. I had to go back into the vets office and ask them to show me 0.03 ml because I could not believe what a small dose that was. Not one third of a 1ml but one third of one tenth of 1ml. They told me that after I sucked up 0.03ml safeguard I could suck in some water to dilute it so there is more than a drop of liquid. This stuff must be safe because I had given my little bantams birds 10X that amount in the past. Anyways after 3 days of treating my birds every morning before I fed them the worms were gone and haven’t come back since.“
-User: roostorf @backyardchickens.com 2010
DO NOT EAT THE EGGS FOR A WEEK AFTER TREATING WITH IVERMECTIN. Either scramble them and feed them back shells and all or toss them in the compost pile so they aren’t completely wasted—they could also be incubated as there is only a trace amount if any in the eggs. It’s a precaution worth taking.
Don’t get this tuff on your hands either, it will soak right in—the good news is you won’t get lice, mites or worms. But seriously, be careful with this stuff.
The best defense is early detection and to use DE a few times a year a regular dry, dust bath area to prevent outbreaks. Stop wild birds from visiting your flock to reduce transmission. If handling another person’s birds, change your clothing and shoes before entering your own coop or pen. Never bring feathers home from wild or domestic birds as they could have tiny attached eggs on them.
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