A Definitive Guide to Worms, Lice, and Mites in Backyard Chickens

Updated: 21 May 2022

backyard-chickens-worms-and-worming

This article may make you squirm. But it's important we talk about worms and other parasites that can infect your backyard chickens and infest your backyard chicken coop. 

Common parasites include worms, lice, and mites

Many of my Chicken Coach clients who are starting with chickens are shocked to learn that parasites can be so prevalent in backyard chickens. But don't be alarmed, it's no different to owning a dog or a cat! Parasite prevention and management are just part of animal husbandry. 

Our comprehensive guide will dish the dirt on all things parasite so that you and your lovely ladies can relax in complete comfort.

Worms

Before you freak out thinking your flock is riddled with internal parasites, know that it's absolutely possible your flock may be completely worm free. It's also possible that they have a very small number of worms or particular species of worms that are not going to cause harm and don't require treatment.

In my opinion, there's no point in worming your flock unless you first address their environment and diet. If you don't, you'll just have the problem return in a few weeks time.

Also, not all wormers treat all worms! The treatment will depend on the type of worm your chickens have.

How do chickens get worms?

  1. Some worms are transmitted by worm eggs being excreted in your chickens' faeces and then ingested by them or another flock member as they scratch and peck at the surrounding litter and soil.
  2. Other worms are ingested via a 'host' such as infected earthworms, ants, beetles, flies, slugs, and snails.
  3. Worms thrive in wet conditions. Even if your property is spotless, heavy rains can create the perfect conditions for worm infestations.

A note for breeders: Worms can impact growers’ growth and vitality, particularly between 3 and 9 months. While worms are unlikely to cause death directly, they steal nutrients from your chickens, decreasing immunity and opening them up to secondary infections. If you have slow growers or birds that don't look 100%, worms could be a factor. 

How do you know if your chickens have worms?

mother hen and three chicks foraging in the grass

Signs your backyard chickens may have worms include:

  • Weight loss
  • Slow growth
  • Diarrhoea
  • Dirty vents
  • Lethargy
  • Depression

You may see worms in their faeces, but not all worms are visible.

Types of Worms

We’ll list the four most common types of backyard chicken worms in Australia and some lesser-known culprits. I’ll also suggest the treatment so you know what to buy for backyard chickens who have worms.

Large Intestinal Roundworm (Ascaridia galli)

These are the most common backyard chicken worm in Australia. They have a natural lifecycle and don't need inserts as a host. 

Symptoms: Often symptom-free, but some hens will look malnourished as worms steal nutrients from the bowel. You may see worms in their faeces. 

Treatment: Kilverm Poultry Wormer or Elanco Flubenol™

Caecal Worm (Heterakis gallinarum)

These worms live in the caecum of the gut. They have a natural lifecycle and don't need inserts as a host. They are small white-ish worms with a pointed tail, around 7mm-1.5 cm long.

Symptoms: Diarrhoea, poor growth, depression. Caecal worms cause inflammation in the lower gut. You may see them in their faeces. 

Treatment: Kilverm Poultry Wormer or Elanco Flubenol™

Threadworms (Capillaria worms aka Hairworms or Capillary worms) 

There are two types of threadworms. Intestinal threadworms have a direct lifecycle, and crop threadworms have an indirect lifecycle through an intermediate host, e.g., earthworms.

Symptoms: Diarrhoea, anorexia (no breast fat), poor growth, looking sickly and depressed. Caecal worms cause inflammation in the lower gut. You may see them in their faeces. 

Treatment: Kilverm Poultry Wormer or Elanco Flubenol™

Tapeworms

Can chickens get Tapeworms? Absolutely.

Tapeworms are a problem in Australian backyards, in particular, the tropical parts of Australia. Some types of tapeworm are microscopic; others are up to 15 cm long. 

Beetles, earthworms, slugs, snails, ants, flies etc., can transmit Tapeworms. 

Can humans get tapeworms from chickens? No, chickens cannot transfer Tapeworms to humans. 

Symptoms: Depression, lethargy (tapeworms can produce toxins), unexplained diarrhoea. Generally, tapeworms only affect growth and health when in large numbers.

TreatmentElanco Flubenol™ or Avitrol Plus Tablets*

Less common poultry worms

Gape Worm

If only I had a dollar for every time people suspected Gape worm! Gape worm is exceedingly rare in Australia. I've never seen a case of it personally, nor has my avian vet. It's more often a case of Aspergillosis in young chickens or older birds. It could be attributed to many respiratory diseases (bacterial or viral) or issues with dust or ammonia. 

TreatmentElanco Flubenol™ or Avitrol Plus Tablets*

Gizzard Worm

Very rare in Australia; people shouldn't be too concerned about the possibility of infection.  Birds will look anaemic and sickly. 

TreatmentElanco Flubenol™ or Avitrol Plus Tablets* 

Eye Worm

These worms can be present in tropical parts of Australia and are transmitted by cockroaches. Worms travel from the gut to the eye, where it causes irritation, itchiness, and eventually blindness (due to the bird scratching and damaging the eye). 

Treatment: Physical removal.

*As mentioned below Avitrol Plus is an effective, easy to use tablet. The advantage of a tablet is that you know how much the bird has consumed. But Avitrol Plus is classified as "off-label" for egg-producing hens. I recommend getting a faecal float test done before using it to confirm your hens have these worms and using this product.

3 steps to staying on top of worms 

three backyard chickens in the chicken house facing away

If your chickens have worms you need to address their environment and diet. 

Worms thrive in a compacted, moist, and soiled litter. Maintain a clean chicken coop, and a good diet and your flock are unlikely to need constant worming. 

1. Prevent

Environment
  • Keep housing and run litter dry and friable. Dryness and sunlight are essential. Ensure you're using appropriate bedding/litter in the chicken coop and the run. 
  • Make sure your chickens' outdoor area drains well after heavy rain. Spots in the chicken coop or run area that don't drain well and are always wet and smelly will cause health problems. You can look at adding corrugated perspex roofing or horticultural plastic sheeting over these areas and then cover them with shade cloth or remove them in the summer months.
  • Sand (the coarser or quartz types that drain well) and wood shavings are great bedding options.
Diet and Feeding 

Studies found chickens that had worms were often deficient in vitamin A. 

  • Ensure your flock has a balanced diet of grains/pellets, greens, hard grit and shell grit suitable for chickens. Using a feeder and not throwing feed on the ground will also help. Need advice on feeders? Check out my article on the best automatic chicken feeders.
  • Keep feeders and drinkers clean. Ask yourself, would you drink it? Raising the height of drinkers may help if they are always dirty. 
  • Avoid overcrowding. Reducing stress in your flock is the easiest way to reduce parasites and illness in your chickens.

2. Test

Have a professional test your chickens' faeces for worm eggs to give you a holistic view of what's going on. 

A faecal test can be an excellent investment. Before you commit, ask your vet:

  • The cost of a faecal float test

  • Whether they can tell you the types of worm eggs present

  • Whether you'll also have to pay for a consultation on top of the test 

Expect to pay around $50-$73 at Melbourne Bird Vet (no consult necessary). Para-Site Diagnostic Services are also excellent at diagnosing roundworm, caecal worm, and threadworms. They don't specifically look for tapeworm but will let you know if they see any. 

3. Treat

Treat your flock using a COMBINATION of natural and commercial worming products. The three commercial wormers I recommend to people, depending on the situation:

  • Piperazine
  • Vetsense Kilverm. A solid choice for the most common backyard chicken worms
  • Avitrol Plus* tablets are popular with Australian poultry breeders because they are easy to use and you can be confident each bird has received an effective dose. But use with caution because they're "off-label" for egg-producing hens. This means a withholding period is not currently available. I encourage you to test your chicken's faeces before you use it or consult your vet.

 

worming and worm treatments for backyard chickens

 

Worming Syrups

Don’t worm on a hot day, and ensure your flock has no access to alternative water sources - that includes puddles! 

The night before you plan to worm your flock, Vetsense recommends you withhold water from birds 2 hours before nightfall. Then, ensure medicated water is available so that the birds can start drinking it in daylight the next morning. Replace with clean water after 8 hours or when they have consumed the medication.

Read the directions carefully to avoid under-dosing. This can lead to surviving worms building up a resistance over time. 

Piperazine and Kilverm are both bitter-tasting - your chickens won't enjoy it!

how to get chickens to drink medicated water 

 

Fresh garlic - not dried or powdered

I do not promote garlic as a wormer, but from my experience, I believe fresh (not dried or powdered variety) garlic can help prevent roundworms. Perhaps it's the sulphur-containing amino acids or copper - whatever it is, it helps.

Simply chop one clove per 4-6 hens into small slices or small chunks. Have two drinkers - one with plain water and add the garlic to the other. This gives them a choice; garlic or no garlic. The garlic will float to the top of the water. If your birds are craving it, they'll eat it, and if not, they won't! Repeat this process daily until they are no longer interested in it. 

Diatomaceous Earth (DE)

DE is an interesting organic resource I'll be exploring more in the future. Bennett et al from the Avian Research Centre at the University of British Columbia in Canada found that adding 2% DE to chicken feed reduces caecal and threadworms in less hardy chickens.

Only ever use 100% organic food-grade DE. Never use commercial pool filter quality DE. 

Lice and Mites

red mite in backyard chicken coop

Red Mite lurking in the chicken coop

How do you know if your chickens have lice or mites?

The best way to check if your chickens have lice or mites is to check the feathers of their vent (under their tail) like this - 

How to check a chicken for lice and mites

Image: Checking a cockerel's vent for lice and mites

Lice are larger than mites and quite easy to see with the naked eye. They are straw coloured and move quickly when disturbed. They'll be moving around the skin and the base of the feathers. You may even see white clumps around the feather base - these are the nits (lice eggs). If there are clumps of nits, they've been there for a while. Of all the parasites, I believe lice are the easiest to treat and manage because their lifecycle is on the bird.

Mites are more challenging because there are so many varieties (see red mite below) and they can survive in the coop, litter and nest boxes. Mites are tiny and require you to treat the birds and chicken coop, paying special attention to the nesting boxes and perches. If you find your hens have live or mites you must treat them, They're not going away on their own!

How do you treat lice and mites on chickens?

Apply a poultry powder such as Chicken Coach Feather & Skin Poultry Powder (which is free of DE and Rotenone) or Pestene and dust it through the base of the feathers around the vent and under the wings with your fingertips. These are most effective when you aim to make contact with the skin, not the actual feathers.  

Be sure to wear gloves and a mask when using pest powders. Repeat after 7 days. 

If you only see a few lice on your hens, you don't need to have a drastic clean out of the litter in your hen house. But if you find mites or the lice return after the first 2 treatments, I would recommend you completely remove all litter from your chicken coop, and scrub the walls, perch and nesting boxes down with hot soapy water. You can also add a small amount of lice powder under the litter in the nesting boxes.

If lice and mites are a constant problem for you, switch to course river sand as bedding/litter in your chicken house and run and stay away from straw. 

Red Mite

In Australia, Red Mite is unfortunately very common. These blood-sucking parasites will not be present on the bird, and you won’t see them during the day. Instead, they hide in the crevices of wooden perches and around the coop and will suck blood from birds at night. 

 

How big is a red mite?

Image: A single red mite, they are so tiny they're barely visible.

 

How Do You Know You Have Red Mite?

The best time to spot these parasites is at night. Run the light of a torch (I use my phone) along the underside of the perch. Red mites are visible to the naked eye and light brown-grey until they have taken a fill of blood when they turn red.

How Do You Treat Red Mite?

Target the perch, nesting boxes and coop. Hot water from the kettle will work, but you need to repeat it daily until you're on top of the infestation. While I'll always promote natural and organic methods over chemical use, I've seen some extreme red mite infestations that needed chemical treatments. These are almost always timber chicken coops - red mites love timber. Whether you take a natural or chemical approach to red mite treatment, applying Chicken Coach Scaly Leg Balm to your flock's legs will prevent red mites from crawling up their legs for a feed. This can buy you some time while you get on top of the infestation.

Does Diatomaceous Earth (DE) work on red mite? Yes and no. I've found DE ineffective with lice and most mites. But many old exhibition poultry breeders and organic farmers swear it works in combating red mites. It can be made into a paste using water and smeared onto the perch and left to dry. While organic and natural, DE harms bees and microorganisms in your garden. This fine silica powder should not be inhaled by your birds, or you. Never use it to dust walls as a dry powder. I believe it's something we'll look back on in years to come and think "I wish we'd known more".    

Scaly Leg Mite

Scaly leg mite in backyard chickens

Scaly Leg Mite is a microscopic parasite known as Knemidocoptes Mutans. This pesky parasite burrows under the chicken's scales on their legs and feeds on the skin underneath.

What is the Best Scaly Leg Mite Treatment? 

Avoid your entire flock from becoming infected. Once you notice Scaly Leg Mites, treatment for chickens must start immediately. Fortunately, the treatment is painless.

What's the best natural scaly leg mite treatment for chickens? 100% natural and organic Scaly Leg Mite Balm.

Here's how to use it - 

  1. SOAK 

Take a bucket of warm (not hot) soapy water. Soak the bird's legs for up to 5 minutes to soften the scales.

  1. BRUSH

Using an old toothbrush or soft nail brush, lightly brush over the legs. You are trying to clean the legs and remove dirt and old crusty scales – if they don't brush away easily, leave them.

  1. RINSE 

Grab a bucket and add clean water with a small splash of white vinegar to remove the soap and rinse the legs.

  1. LATHER

The aim is to suffocate the mites, so apply Scaly Leg Mite Balm to all areas. Start from where the feathers end on the legs down to and around each of the toes.

  1. REMOVE 

Clean out and replace all litter from the chicken coop.

  1. REAPPLY 

Continue to apply the balm weekly for the first four weeks to the affected birds.

  1. PREVENT

Even if the other birds in your flock are not showing signs of scaly leg mite, apply balm to all birds that have been in contact with the affected bird. Doing this once will minimise the chance of mites infecting others. This preventative step will save you time down the track!

If there are still many crusty scales after four weeks of chicken mites treatment, repeat the washing process. Then reapply balm fortnightly for a further eight weeks, 12 weeks in total.

 

There you have it! That’s everything you need to know about worms, lice, mites, red mites and scaly leg mites in your backyard chickens.

I’d love to hear your success stories and any questions you have on worms, lice, mites and other parasites. Drop a comment below, tag me on Instagram or Facebook, or send me an email at - elise@chickencoach.com

Want your chickens to be the healthiest and happiest they can be? I offer backyard chicken workshopsonline programsphone coaching, and in-person support to families, schools, and free-range egg farmers. Visit my online shop for natural, tried-and-tested poultry supplies in Australia.

Grab my free guide, The First 8 Steps To Naturally Healthy & Happy Backyard Chickens now! 

Elise McNamara, Chicken Consultant & Educator.

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