I’ve now featured 15 chicken keepers in my series ‘Having Chickens Is A Great Way To Meet Your Neighbours’. One of the things I’ve noticed is several people’s birds have scaly leg mites (SLM). When I pointed this out, their owners were surprised and didn’t know that their chickens’ bumpy legs were actually a sign of trouble.
It’s hard to keep up with all the things that might affect your flock. I get concerned, that with the popularity of backyard chickens, people might think that chickens are a no maintenance pet. Not true. Keeping chickens healthy requires some on-going work. I find that my daily chores (cleaning, feeding, watering) are punctuated, on occasion, by an real emergency (e.g. prolapse, bumblefoot, an egg bound hen), or an outbreak of parasites. Even the healthiest flock is vulnerable to lice, mites and worms, which are often brought into your pen and sometimes, even your coop, by wild birds and rodents, or are present within the soil.
The first time one of my birds had mites I didn’t know there were different kinds (i.e. body, feather and leg) and I misdiagnosed her and treated her for a species she didn’t have. This article will focus on scaly leg mites.
Sometimes we only notice our birds aren’t doing well when they are already quite sick. As prey animals they do their best to hide any signs of illness. Do you examine your birds regularly? Pick them up and look for anything unusual? Ever see bumpy, crusty scales on their legs? Bingo. That’s a sure sign your bird has scaly leg mites, and probably has for some time.
SLM are a relatively common, burrowing mite found on the legs and feet of free range and backyard chickens around the world. Just like their name implies, these mites burrow underneath the scales of the bird’s feet and legs, feed on skin and deposit poop. Over time, this causes the bird’s scales to lift and thicken, sometimes protruding outwards. Unlike body mites which you can see or feel, these mites are microscopic and you won’t even know they are present until your chickens start showing signs.
Healthy chickens have scales that appear smooth and lie flat against their legs. When chickens are infected the appearance of their legs and feet will slowly deteriorate. Early signs include flaky, crusty, peeling, rough or uneven-looking scales, with some lifting upwards. Eventually, the heavy crusting of the scales can cause serious problems. SLM can also lead to bacterial infections and major tissue inflammation. One, or more, flock members might be infected, since the mites will move from bird to bird.
There are several treatment options – all of them require consistency to fully eradicate your flock and coop of the mites. If you’ve got a few birds it’s quite easy. A larger flock might require some help.
Option 1: Oil & Vaseline
Soak your birds’ legs up to the shank in warm, soapy water and use a soft toothbrush to gently scrub the scales. This will exfoliate the crusty scales and remove some of the mites’ excretions. Then dip their legs into a container of oil (vegetable, canola, linseed etc), followed by a coating of Vaseline, rubbing it into the scales. This will soften the dead, loose scales and smother the mites. Apply several times a week until you see an improvement.
Option 2: Sulphur & Vaseline
Mix 2 tablespoons of sulfur powder with ½ cup of Vaseline and apply on their legs daily for a minimum of two weeks.
Option 3: Ivermectin
In severe cases, or for many birds, you can use Ivermectin. Several drops of pour-on (rather than oral) Ivermectin are applied directly on the skin at the base of the neck or on their back between their wings. It is the least messy option and the easiest to do without assistance. Ivermectin is well studied in large livestock, but is used off-label in poultry. Repeat in 10 days.
One side benefit of using Ivermectin is it is effective in treating other types of mites, lice and worms (except tapeworms).
Option 4: Spray-on Oil
If you have a mild case or only a few birds you can use a spray-on cooking oil (like Pam). It’s easy to apply at night when they are on the roost bar, but it takes a bit of work to get the whole leg uniformly covered.
I belong to several online farming groups and people advocate and swear by all kinds of treatments. Dipping your birds legs into gasoline or kerosene is one of them. It may be effective but I think it’s caustic for birds’ skin, especially if they have open areas. Another is diatomaceous earth (DE). It’s the fossilized bodies of microscopic algae whose sharp edges are said to be effective in killing mites, lice and other pests. The problem with using it for leg mites is their entire life cycle is spent on the host, and under their leg scales, rendering DE ineffective.
I think it’s a trial and error process. Use what matches your philosophy of health care and see what works for you.
Some words of advice:
- Tackle the mite problem early before it spreads to your whole flock or becomes serious. Even though you can’t see them, scaly leg mites can cause major health issues including lameness, deformity or even the loss of toes.
- Feather legged/footed birds (e.g. Marans, Silkie, Cochin, Brahma, etc) are more likely to harbour leg mites and will be more difficult to diagnose because their scales are obscured.
- Don’t pick the raised scales off – it’s painful and their legs might bleed.
- Try to work at night when your birds are in the coop and quiet. There’s nothing like chasing birds around for a bath and oil dip to get them all excited.
- If your coop has lights, don’t turn them on, but wear a headlamp instead.
- If you’ve got a few birds work systematically and maybe make a checklist as you treat them so you don’t miss any.
- If you’re using the oil or Vaseline methods wear as little as possible. I go into the coop wearing only underwear and a large garbage bag over me (with cut outs for my head and arms). I guarantee that no matter how careful you are you’ll get splashed with oils that stain clothes.
- Don’t empty you coop and nest box bedding where your birds will have access to it as it may contain mite eggs or larvae. Compost it well away from your coop and run.
- Once you’ve eradicated the mites keep an eye on their legs for any sign of a re-infestation.
- When bringing new birds into your flock quarantine them and treat them for lice, mites or worms, before integrating them.
- Be consistent in treating them. The life cycle for scaly leg mites is 10- 14 days, so it’ll take a while to kill the adults and then, the larvae that subsequently hatch.