There are quite a few types of external parasites on chickens, which can pose a threat to their well-being. Smallholders might see different parasites on the head and body of chickens. These parasites appear as black, brown or red “spots” and they are mites, fleas, lice and ticks.

A parasite is an organism that lives on or in another plant or animal and which causes harm to the host.


There are different types of mites that affect chickens. They feed on the blood of chickens, which affects their growth and condition. There are three important types of mites that affect chickens.

The red mite is a large mite is the most common by far and is extremely difficult to eradicate from the housing. It lives in cracks and crevices of chicken houses and feeds mainly at night. Therefore it is difficult to find during the day. They are blood-sucking mites, so can cause significant anaemia and even death.

The Northern fowl mite is small. It stays on the chicken all the time. When there are many of these mites present they can cause blackening of feathers because of their droppings and eggs. They can cause scaling on the face, comb and wattles. Again, discomfort and anaemia along with scabby skin are the hallmarks of these mites. The feathers are also affected at the base where they grow, and can look as though they have been chewed at.

The Scaly Leg Mite lives on the chicken. It causes itching and even loss of feathers and/ or excessive scaliness, which may lead to thickening and even deformation of the legs.

The first step is to soak off the dead skin in warm water and Epsom salts, but care must to be taken to avoid bleeding. The mites are easily spread like this, and the chicken will need to be isolated if bleeding occurs. This problem is usually associated with damp conditions, so it is important to check that your chickens’ housing has adequate ventilation.


There are many kinds of fleas that infect poultry, the most common being the sticktight flea. They also feed on the blood of chickens. They can survive for a long time in the chicken house.


Chickens are mainly infested with biting lice. These can irritate chickens and as a result they do not grow well and produce fewer eggs. Biting lice spend their entire lives on chickens and can be found on the skin around the vent and on the breast and thighs. They feed on skin and feathers. To control lice you have to treat the birds directly — treating the environment doesn’t work.


The most important tick is the soft tick. Ticks also feed on the blood of chickens. They feed for short periods of time on chickens and spend the rest of their time in crevices and cracks.  When large numbers occur on chickens they can cause weight loss and a decrease in egg production. They can cause paralysis and can also transmit a disease called spirochaetosis, which is a gut condition that leads to diarrhoea. If you suspect ticks, go out and get a chicken several hours after dark and examine the skin closely in a good light. When filled with blood after their nightly meal, they’re large enough to see easily. Ticks are difficult to control. You don’t treat the chicken, you treat its surroundings. This means spraying housing and treating pasture areas and trimming or removing weeds and debris around poultry housing.


Flies are usually a source of irritation to chickens, smallholders and neighbours. They occur in warm places. They multiply in the bodies of dead animals and in the droppings of chickens.

Control of Parasites

Cleanliness is very important in controlling external parasites on chickens. Inspect your birds regularly for mites, ticks or fleas. Remove droppings regularly, once a day if possible. Clean, wash and disinfect cages/houses and remove dead birds as soon as possible.

Diatomaceous earth for mites
Dust each chicken in a bath of diatomaceous earth.

There are various chemicals available to kill these parasites, but SA Smallholder recommends starting with diatomaceous earth (DE).

Get yourself some food-quality diatomaceous earth and sprinkle it absolutely everywhere.

Immediately dust all of your chickens thoroughly with diatomaceous earth. It is harmless to poultry, but you should wear a dust-mask to avoid irritating your lungs.

Pour the DE into a bath and put one chicken at a time into it, it’s helpful if there is more than one of you to do it, so that one can hold, while the other is sprinkling the DE on and rubbing it into the skin in amongst the feathers. It’s unpleasant for the chickens for a short while but they soon shake themselves off and hurry off to join their companions.

You might see them pecking at the diatomaceous earth, but it is not dangerous for them to eat it and might even be helpful in ridding them of internal parasites.

If the chickens are free range, sprinkle DE in the places where they like to congregate or dust themselves.

To read our other articles on chickens, click here.

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