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Thursday, August 11, 2011

Poultry Lice

It can be hard enough to remember when to take ourselves to the doc for a routine checkup! But its important to do... and its just as important to put on your scrubs and be "doc" for your chickens from time to time as well. Its easy to keep a close watch on the health of your flock. But its hard to narrow down the cause of the symptoms you're seeing.

That being said... we have decided to start compiling all the pertinent information for you including description, prevention, symptoms, diagnosis, and treatment for many of the major health issues in the chicken world. Our first one is going to be lousy. Literally. :) We chose to write about lice!

Read it, use it, send us feedback, and stay tuned for more! 

Backyard Chicken Keeper’s Guide to Understanding, Identifying and Treating Poultry Lice


Poultry lice are small, wingless insects that live as parasites on the skin and in the feathers of birds. They grow up to 6mm in length and have elongated, flat bodies, 6 legs, and broad heads with chewing mouth parts. They live off their host by feeding on the dry skin scales, scab tissue, and feathers. If a bird’s skin or feather quill is punctured, lice will also feed on the blood that is present.
Lice hiding under feathers, and visible egg clusters

Life Cycle

Lice lay eggs on the shaft of a chicken’s feathers. Depending on the species, the eggs hatch in 4-7 days. The lice mature in 10-15 days, and females will lay anywhere from 50-300 eggs. The total lifespan is 3 weeks. They spend their entire life cycle on the host and will die within a few days to a week of being separated from it.


Chickens are susceptible to lice infestations if they have contact with wild birds, or with infested chickens from another flock. It is spread easily from chicken to chicken when they are in close contact with each other, or even just feathers that have lice in them. The numbers of poultry lice are generally the greatest during fall and winter.
Poultry lice are host specific, meaning they feed only on one or a few closely related species of animals. So poultry lice are not transferrable to humans or to non-bird pets.
Lice eggs on a de-beaked hen


Prevention is difficult, but not impossible. Early detection is the best way to control lice infestations.
  • Keep coops clean by doing regular maintenance on the bedding, and occasionally washing down the floors, roosts, and nest boxes with soap and water.
  • Regularly inspect your flock (approximately twice a month) for signs of lice.
  • Never use hay or straw as bedding.
  • Never de-beak your chickens or order de-beaked chicks as they cannot clean themselves to control lice infestations on their own.
  • Inspect all chickens you purchase for poultry lice, and de-louse them before they are introduced to your flock.
  • Make sure your flock has access to dirt for dust bathing – their natural way of preventing lice infestations.
  • Occasionally (once every month or two, especially in fall and winter) provide a litter box of food-grade Diatomaceous Earth for them to dust in.

Symptoms and Signs

Because early detection is the best way to control lice infestations, it is good to make sure you are always managing your flock’s overall health. Be aware of changes in your flocks behaviors, health, and appearance.
  • Excessive cleaning, scratching, or dusting due to the irritation of the lice on their skin
  • Poor feather condition (dull, broken, or missing feathers) from excessive cleansing, scratching, or dusting
  • Decreased egg production due to stress
  • Increased susceptibility to disease
  • Decreased food intake or weight gain due to stress and possibly other diseases
  • Reduced fertility


Gently holding a hen for inspection
To determine if your flock has lice, you will have to inspect a portion of your chickens. It is best to inspect them during the day. Pick the chicken up and gently turn it over onto its back, with its head slightly lower than its tail. This will cause the tail to fall away from the vent to allow for close inspection. Part the fluff and feathers all around the vent and search the skin for fast-moving, straw-colored insects, or clusters of eggs near the base of the feathers. You will also want to do the same search for different species of lice on the feathers of the thighs, under the wings, around the head, and lower back. If lice are found on even a few birds, you can assume most or all of your flock that comes in contact with them will have it as well.


Complete treatment includes cleaning and treating coop walls, floors, roosts, nesting boxes, and birds at the same time. For best results, it is imperative to treat thoroughly and diligently. Incomplete treatment can lead to a rapid re-infestation as lice can live off of the host for up to three days, and spread quickly.
Lice eggs are resistant to insecticide so it is necessary to treat chickens three times in 7 day intervals to kill the parent population and any newly hatched lice. Because the list of approved pesticides changes frequently, it’s always a good idea to double check before applying any pest control chemicals. Also, please read and follow the pest control product labels carefully.
Each treatment comes with its own set of pros and cons that can include: use of chemicals, levels of effectiveness, levels of stress on the birds, and time required for treatment. You must choose which treatment(s) will work best for your flock and you by keeping your priorities for the health of your flock in mind.  
  • Permethrin found in Garden & Poultry Dust is a safe and excellent pesticide for lice. Use it directly on birds and in the coop.
  • Diatomaceous Earth (food-grade) can be sprinkled in the bedding and dusting areas, or provided in a litter box for dusting.
  • Dust baths are a natural way for chickens to rid themselves of lice, so providing access to an area for dusting will help lower the numbers of lice.
  • Orange Guard is an organic, non-toxic treatment that can be used in the coop, but not directly on the birds.
  • Pet shampoo can be used to wash individual birds to remove most of the lice and some of the lice eggs.
  • Carbaryl found in Sevin Dust is a popular and effective pesticide for lice that is used directly on birds and in the coop. However, Carbaryl is a carcinogen so we do not recommend it.
  • Induce molting to rapidly remove egg-laden feathers from the birds, and clean out the feathers from the coop.


Damerow, Gail. Storey's Guide to Raising Chickens. North Adams: Storey Publishing, 2010. 161-163. Print.
McCrea, Brigid, Jeffrey Joan S., Ernst Ralph A., and Gerry Alec C. "Common Lice and Mites of Poultry: Identification and Treatment." University of California, Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources. Regents of the University of California, 2005. Web. 11 Aug 2011. <>
Pickworth, Carrie L., and Teresa Y. Morishita. "Common External Parasites n Poultry: Lice and Mitesq." The Ohio State University Extension Factsheet. N.p., n.d. Web. 11 Aug 2011. <>.

Pictures by Dare 2 Dream Farms

Visit our website for lots more information on other chicken health issues!


  1. Great guide- i use Diatomaceous earth on my poultry which works well.

  2. DE is the best! I use it in the nesting boxes and on their food and sprinkle it on the floor of the coop once a week!

  3. Thank you. I just wanted to know where to ship it since I know now to keep producing it

    Lice Guard Shampoo