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Parasites: Backyard Chickens More Susceptible Than Those From Poultry Farms

Jan 12, 2016 04:00 PM EST

Fleas, lice and mites can be a huge annoyance for chickens, not to mention down right painful. In a recent study, researchers from the University of California, Riverside, found the environment in which chickens are raised largely controls the amount of skin parasites they are exposed to. It turns out backyard chickens, free to frolic through grasses run the risk of encountering far more parasites than those caged at commercial poultry farms. 

While surveying 100 adult hens living in 20 different backyards in southern California, researchers combed through the birds' feathers and scoured their coops looking for ectoparasites - parasites, such as a flea, that live on the outside of its host. In doing so, they discovered there was a very diverse suite of pesky skin bugs crawling on the backyard birds, according to a news release. Their findings were compared to data previously collected from commercial flocks.

Nearly 80 percent of the backyard flocks surveyed had ectoparasites, with lice being the most common and abundant - nearly six different species of lice were reported and individuals with lice could be crawling with hundreds of these teeny tiny pests. While chicken lice do not suck blood, they can chew on the bird's feathers, causing unwanted irritation that can be so annoying hens fail to thrive.

On the other hand, sticktight fleas - also known as hen fleas - were only found on 20 percent of flocks, but infestations could be quite severe, researchers say. These fleas can embed themselves deep into their host's skin for long periods of time, encouraging on their blood. When sticktight fleas attach to chickens a dark colored flea patch often forms, especially in areas beneath their eyes, near the combs and wattles. (Scroll to read more...)

In regards to mites, the northern fowl mite (Ornithonyssus sylviarum) was the most common mite, but the scaly leg mite (Knemidocoptes mutans) and the chicken red mite (Dermanyssus gallinae) were a close second. Mites cause a problem for chickens because they bite and chew, sucking blood from the host. This can lead to discomfort, feather loss, anemia, and in some extreme cases, death.

So why do backyard birds harbor more diverse ectoparasites? Scientists Amy C. Murillo and Bradley A. Mullens of UC Riverside explain it's because backyard chickens are allowed to roam green grasses and are exposed to real dirt, while commercial poultry flocks are kept in "battery cages" and their contact with the ground is limited. Furthermore, researchers suggest birds in commercial flocks may be exposed to fewer parasites because they are all generally the same age and breed.

Often times, chickens take "dust baths" to remedy lice, mites and flease themselves. They will roll around in piles of fine sand or dirt, making sure to really grind it in to the base of their feathers. Ironically, this not only prevents ectoparasites, but is also a chicken's way of keeping clean. 

According to Murillo, many of the chicken owners that participated in this study were surprised to learn that their chickens had ectoparasites, and almost none were practicing parasite prevention. Researchers hope their study will lead to the development of effective prevention and treatment techniques. These birds may be "enjoying the good life" in their comfortable coops, but it turns out to be fairly itchy lifestyle.

Their study was recently published in the Journal of Medical Entomology.

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