Diseases in Chickens

Feather Lice

Feather lice can affect both cage birds and domestic chickens. Lice are species specific.

Infestations of feather lice cause the birds to look very untidy with unkempt, dull plumage. However, missing feathers and rough plumage does not always mean that feather lice are to blame. There are many factors that may cause poor feather quality or self-mutilation. Broken tail feathers can be caused by badly placed perches. Other causes are viral diseases, nutritional deficiencies, toxins and skin infections. Over-crowding may also result in stronger birds bullying and pecking weaker occupants.

Orpington HenCredit: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/8/89/Orpington_chicken_head.jpg/640px-Orpington_chicken_head.jpg?uselang=en-gb

Feather lice  may bite or suck, depending on the type of lice. They attach themselves to the shafts of the feathers and feed on the scales and feathers themselves. With such attention, the plumage soon becomes bedraggled. Generally, lice appear along the vanes on the undersides of the wing and tail feathers. By holding the feather up to the light, the lice can be seen as small clusters of tiny, dark spots.

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Symptoms include untidy, unkempt plumage which may also be dull. There may be missing and broken feathers.


As with all diseases, prevention is always a better option than cure. For cage birds, regular bathing will assist in preventing infestations of lice. Given a shallow bowl of clean water, most birds will look after their own bathing needs. Others may enjoy being sprayed with a hose. A clean, hygienic aviary also means less trouble with pests and diseases.

Backyard domestic chickens will love access to a patch of sand and regular dust baths will help keep them free of lice and mites. It is helpful if Sevin garden dust is sprinkled under nesting areas to assist in eradicating insects.


Ivermectin, Pyrethrin spray or a 5% carbaryl dust are probably the easiest ways to treat lice. To kill off any unhatched eggs a second dose 7 to 10 days after the first will be necessary. As lice are easily transmitted from one bird to another, it makes good sense to disinfect the aviary or fowl pen.

Ivermectin is safe to use with breeding stock and will kill a number of undesirables such as lice, roundworm, flies, mites and blood parasites. Ivermectin is easy to administer as it can be added to drinking water.

Pyrethrin can be mixed with water and used as a bath or as a spray disinfectant. It is a natural insecticide.

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Another suitable all-purpose, water-based product is Avian Insect Liquidator (AIL).  It does not have any side affects but will kill a variety of pests. Other products will be available from your local avian or pet shop.

If using a spray or dust, be sure to dust under the wings and tail, along the back and on the ventral surfaces. After a few minutes, by holding the bird over a sheet and ruffling the feathers you will be able to see the insects dropping off.

Oily ointments are not suitable for birds and chickens as they interfere with the natural regulating mechanisms which control the body temperature of the bird. Steer clear of products containing lidocaine as even small doses of this topical anaesthetic can be fatal to birds and chickens.

As mentioned before, hygienic husbandry and preventative measures will lessen the impact of any occurrences of feather lice.