Scientists Suggest Checking Your Chickens for Fleas

Stefano Corso via Wikimedia Commons
Stefano Corso via Wikimedia Commons / Stefano Corso via Wikimedia Commons

Attention, backyard chicken farmers: the cage-free lifestyle may not be as good for your birds as you think. A new study out of California found that infestation with fleas, mites, and lice was common among cage-free birds.

Researchers Amy C. Murillo and Bradley A. Mullens blame the free-range lifestyle. A cage-free existence may indeed be better for the birds’ well-being, they write in the Journal of Medical Entomology, but roaming around together in the grass exposes them to all kinds of would-be blood-suckers. And that’s no good for anyone.

Murillo and Mullens visited 20 backyard chicken habitats in Southern California, and selected five hens at random from each flock for what amounted to a day at the chicken spa.

Image Credit: Alec Yzaguirre

Each chicken was first subjected to a “visual inspection”—they were held and looked at—and any visible parasites were picked off with tweezers. Some of the birds were then sprayed under their wings, around their bellies and heads, and down their backs with a parasite-killing solution, which was then rubbed gently into their skin by hand. These chickens received a “gentle ruffling” of their feathers to dislodge any dead passengers, which were then collected. The other hens enjoyed “gentle bathing” in a dishpan. After the birds were scrubbed and rinsed off, the researchers used a sieve to filter all the parasites out of the bathwater.

Let me tell you: Those chickens deserved a spa day. The researchers found parasites on birds from 16 of the 20 sites. There were fleas, three types of mites, and six types of lice. Some chickens had more than 100 parasites apiece, and some were host to more than one species. These hens were not well. Parasite infestation raises a bird’s stress level and can keep her from laying or eating as much as she ought to. It’s a fate no backyard chicken keeper would wish on their birds.

The best way to maintain a parasite-free backyard flock is to keep parasites from ever getting in, Murillo said in a press release. People should keep their chickens from interacting with wild birds and other animals (including people), and should enforce a quarantine period for any new flock members. Insecticides should be used carefully and sparingly, as treating birds with the wrong chemicals can be unsafe for them, their eggs, and any people who might eat them.

So the next time you feel tempted to give your favorite chicken a big squeeze, maybe take a closer look first. Your chicken might be due for a little pampering.