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Flea Infestation

Other Names: Sticktight Flea Infestation

The most common flea found on chickens is the sticktight flea (Echidnophaga gallinacea), followed by the european chicken flea (Ceratophyllus gallinae). Both fleas are found in tropical, subtropical, and temperate zones worldwide. In the United States, the sticktight flea is most abundant. In a survey conducted on backyard flocks in southern California (between June and September 2015), sticktight fleas were found on 20% of the 20 different properties visited.

Adult sticktight fleas are small (1.4-4 mm long), reddish-brown to black, wingless, blood-sucking insects. They embed their heads into the skin of their host and feed on their blood, where they may remain for up to 19 days. This flea prefers to feed from fleshy areas without thick fur or plumage (feathers). They are most often found on the chicken's face, in the area around the eyes, comb, and wattles. Their bites are painful and irritating, and when large clusters of fleas are present, it can lead to swelling, development of bullous lesions, weight loss, anemia, and death. Young chickens are at a greater risk, and infestations with fleas are often fatal.

Although poultry are the primary host of sticktight fleas, they have become increasingly more common in domestic dogs and cats. On dogs and cats, they are typically found between the toe pads or around their ears. They are often mistaken for ticks. Besides dogs and cats, these fleas have also been reported on horses, pigs, ground squirrels, rabbits, rodents, and even humans.

Sticktight flea Life Cycle



The complete life cycle of the flea takes about 1 to 2 months, varying according to the temperature. The adult female fleas lay their eggs at night, while remaining attached to the bird. Her eggs will drop to the ground, underneath where the chickens are sleeping. In about four days, small wormlike larvae emerge from the eggs. They will feed on organic material and feces from the adult fleas, and hide underneath bedding or the soil. They will molt several times before burrowing down into the soil and cocoon themselves where they will develop into adult fleas. This process takes about two weeks. Once the adult fleas emerge, they will seek one of your chickens to feed on.

How to Treat Chickens with Fleas


Sticktight fleas should be carefully removed by hand using tweezers, to pull each off individually. In order to help prevent the birds from becoming reinfected, both the bird needs to be treated with an pyrethroid insecticide and the environment thoroughly cleaned (since the flea larvae are found in the coop or run environment). All bedding materials (litter, straw, shavings, etc.) should be completely removed and replaced with fresh, uncontaminated materials. The new shavings should be sprayed with an insect growth regulator.

Bedbugs Vs Red Poultry Mites Vs Sticktight Fleas

BedbugRed poultry miteSticktight Flea
Adult Appearance   
 BedbugRed poultry miteSticktight flea
Size4-12 mm (0.15-0.47 in)1-1.5 mm (0.04-0.06 in)1.5-4 mm (0.06-0.16 in)
ColorReddish brownGray to blackDark brown
Turns redYesYesNo
WingsNoNoNo
Body typeOval and flatOvalFlat
SpeedQuick-movingSlow movingSlow moving
Visible to the naked eyeYesYesYes
Feeds onBloodBloodBlood
Where they are foundHide in crevices, cracks, behind floorboards, in walls, and behind wall outlets during the day, feed on chickens at nightHide in crevices and cracks during the day, feed on chickens at nightBare skin on the head - comb, wattles, near eyes
TransmissionContaminated equipmentWild birds, rodents, wildlife, dogs, cats, humans, contaminated equipmentTurkeys, wildlife, wild birds, dogs, cats, horses, pigs, people, soil, litter
Where eggs are laidTiny, microscopic whitish, sticky eggs that adhere to surfaces in secluded areasLays their eggs in their hiding spotsLay their eggs around the eyes anad wattles of chickens, causing nodules. Once the flea larvae hatch, they drop off the chicken to live in the soil for 2 weeks.
Average Life cycle4 weeks2 weeks1-2 months
How you can tellLook around the premises for the presence of bugsLook for them at night on the birds Visible during the daytime, found in clusters on unfeathered areas, such as the bird's eyes, comb, and wattles.
TemperatureTemperate regionsWarm weatherWarm and humid weather
Clinical signsExcessive feather loss, vent irritation, lesions on breasts and legs, anemia, reduced egg productionRestlessness at night, dermatitis, anemia, may cause chickens to alter where they roost at night.dark brown spots face, anemia, restlessness, swollen eyelids, crusted lesions, ulcerations, blindness
ZoonoticYesYesYes
Carry diseasesYesYesNo

Treatment of Fleas on Chickens


Treatment of fleas is two parts. The first part is removal of the adult fleas from the chicken's face, and basic wound care. The second part is removing the flea eggs and developing larvae that are present in the coop or run environment. All bedding and nestbox material should be removed and replaced. All housing components should be thoroughly cleaned and treated with insecticides.

Clinical Signs

Small black spots on comb, face or wattles that do not move
Skin irritation
Pale comb/ wattles
Frequent scratching/irritation
Restlessness

Diagnosis

  • History
  • Clinical signs
  • Physical exam
  • Identification of bug

Reported Cases

  • Case 1: Concurrent flea and lice infestation in a Chickens Five 30-week-old laying chickens were presented to the Texas A&M Veterinary Medical Diagnostic Laboratory (TVMDL) in Gonzales for necropsy. Birds were weak, lethargic, and depressed. The flock had a history of severe production drop starting approximately four weeks following housing in the laying facility at 22 weeks of age. Clinical signs included coughing, droopiness, loss of vitality, shriveled combs, and weight loss. Approximately 500 birds were left out of the original placement of 1,000. The house had a dirt floor with an outside run. The house had been sprayed three times with a poultry disinfectant approximately one month prior to placement. Upon necropsy evaluation, it was noted the birds had varying degrees of breast muscle atrophy. There were large numbers of small dark fleas attached to the skin of the comb, wattles, and face. Birds also had large numbers of lice under the feathers of the back and legs. Birds were relatively pale and the blood was watery in appearance indicative of anemia. Ref

Treatment

NameSummary
Physical removalIndividual fleas can be carefully removed using tweezers, by grasping the flea firmly and pulling from the skin. Followed by applying an topical antibiotic ointment to the area where the flea was found to minimize risk of secondary infections.P Koehler et al., 2015
Fipronil (brand name Frontline and Pronyl)Apply directly on fleas.G Damerow
Spinosad (Trade name Elector PSP)Applied as a spray on all coop housing components.B Mullens et al., 2017; A Murillo et al., 2017; Dow AgroSciences 2001
Diatomaceous Earth (DE) (food grade)Dust all housing components.A Murillo et al., 2016; C Martin et al., 2012; D Bennett et al., 2011, G Damerow
SulfurApplied as a dust to all housing components in coopA Murillo et al., 2016, G Damerow
MalathionUsed as a spray or powder applied to all housing components in coop.G Damerow
Carbaryl syntheticApplied as a powder (5% carbaryl) or spray (4 ounces of 80% carbaryl mixed in a 5 gallon bucket of water) on all housing components.G Damerow
PermethrinApplied as a powder (0.24% permethrin) or spray (3 ounces of 10% permethrin is mixed in a 5 gallon bucket of water) on all housing components. G Damerow

Support

Prevention

  • Perform regular physical exams on chickens, as well as all other domestic animals on the premises.
  • Minimize contact with wild birds.

Scientific References

Good Overviews

Blogs

Risk Factors

  • Presence of domestic dogs and cats on the property, especially if they have fleas
  • Wild birds in contact with your flock.

Seasonality

WinterSpringSummerAutumn