One spring afternoon, I noticed that one of my bantam hens seemed a little lethargic. Concerned, I made an appointment with my veterinarian and took the hen in for an exam. After determining the hen wasn’t egg bound (suffering from an egg trapped in her oviduct), my vet mentioned she would probably prescribe an antibiotic, thinking the bird may be battling an infection.
The hen was slightly under weight. Her energy, however, seemed normal once she was out of her coop and in a strange environment.
One spring afternoon, I noticed that one of my bantam hens seemed a little lethargic. Concerned, I made an appointment with my veterinarian and took the hen in for an exam.
After determining the hen wasn’t egg bound (suffering from an egg trapped in her oviduct), my vet mentioned she would probably prescribe an antibiotic, thinking the bird may be battling an infection. The hen was slightly under weight. Her energy, though, seemed normal once she was out of her coop and in a strange environment.
“Look at This”
As the vet continued to exam her, looking in her mouth, at her feet and around her face, she suddenly made a discovery. “Look at this,” she said, holding out one of the hen’s tiny wattles.
Deep in the folds, I saw what looked like dark brown splinters covering the inside of the red wattle. The vet scraped some of the brown matter off and put it on a slide, then went out of the room to look at it through the microscope.
As soon as she returned, she gave me the diagnosis.
“Your hen is infested with sticktight fleas,” she said. “They’re attached to her comb and wattles. See?” She lifted the hen’s comb up, showing me dark spots all along the underside.
I had never heard of sticktight fleas before—fleas that attach themselves! I thought fleas jumped around. Wasn’t that what they were known for? Leaping from one part of a cat or dog to the next, and jumping to new hosts after hatching in carpets or grass?
As it turns out, the sticktight flea is a very different creature from the cat and dog flea that most pet owners know. Sticktight fleas are technically fleas, but they almost seem like a cross between a flea and a tick, attaching themselves to their hosts.
Chickens and other poultry rank among their favorite victims.
What Are They?
I felt guilty I hadn’t spotted these parasites attached to my hen, but turns out I had a good excuse. Sticktight fleas—scientifically known as Echidnophaga gallinacea—are very small, even for a flea.
“Sticktight fleas are smaller than typical dog and cat fleas,” says veterinarian Heidi Watkins, with Wagly Animal Hospital in Rancho Santa Margarita, California. “In fact, they are about half the size of the fleas most people are used to seeing. It requires close inspection of chickens to detect them.”
Sticktight fleas tend to like the soft areas on combs and wattles. They can also attach around the vent area, according to Watkins.
“You have to look in wattle folds and under flaps, as they will often cluster there,” she says. “Sticktight fleas embed their mouth parts into the flesh. You will not see them running around on the skin like a cat or dog flea.”
All About Infestation
If you look at a sticktight flea under a microscope, you’ll see that it looks very much like what you would expect in a flea, with one exception. An elongated mouthpart helps it stay in place after it bites and takes blood from a host.
The month-long life cycle of the sticktight flea resembles that of other fleas. Females lay eggs on the host animal (in this case, while attached), which then fall to the ground. Once the eggs hatch on the ground, the larvae live on digested blood left behind by adult fleas, along with whatever organic material is in the environment.
This is why chicken coops are a favorite place for these parasites. The organic bedding we provide for our chickens makes a perfect nursery for flea larvae.
When the larvae are ready, they the form a cocoon made of silk and dust. Then they pupate inside. The adult fleas that emerge from the pupa are ready for a host and can jump 200 times their size to land on unsuspecting animals.
Some flea species, of course, are famous for spreading disease, such as the bubonic plague. Sticktight fleas aren’t known for this.
That doesn’t mean they can’t do significant damage, though. They irritate birds to the point of driving them crazy with constant scratching and cause enough blood loss to result in anemia. If a bird is already unhealthy, a sticktight flea infestation can put her over the edge.
You don’t want your chickens to endure the suffering of sticktight fleas. Luckily, there are ways to get rid of these parasites if they do show up in your flock.
“There are poultry-labeled products for the treatment of sticktight fleas and mites,” Watkins says. “These are typically made with permethrin, which is synthetically derived, and pyrethrin, which is naturally derived. These topical products are for use directly on the birds and can be also used to treat their immediate environment, like a coop.”
Products made with these active ingredients don’t require a prescription from a veterinarian. Pyrethrin is naturally derived from chrysanthemum flowers and is considered an organic insecticide as long as it is not combined with other synthetic ingredients.
Treat the Whole Coop Area
“It’s important to not only treat the individual birds but also their coop area,” Watkins says. “Remove and destroy contaminated litter, which will contain eggs and larvae. Then spray the permethrin or pyrethrin product all around the coop and nesting areas.”
Because the life cycle from egg to adult is about four weeks in warm temperatures, Watkins advises retreatment of the coop in about a month.
“When using these products, keep in mind that permethrins and pyrethrins are toxic to cats but not dogs,” she says. “Also, make sure to check the product label for egg or meat withholding times after treatment. This is true for any product used to treat and control parasites.”
Other Treatment Options
Some chicken-keepers also kill sticktight fleas by applying petroleum jelly directly on the bugs by using a cotton swab. This takes advantage of the fact that sticktight fleas are attached to the host. They won’t jump from place to place on the host’s body to avoid being touched.
If putting petroleum jelly right on the fleas is your preferred method, you’ll still need to remove all of the bedding in the coop. This is where unhatched and pupating larvae will wait for their chance to infect your birds.
Some chicken-keepers also dust their coops with diatomaceous earth to help kill adult fleas that may be hidden in cracks and crevices near the floor. If you take this route, do the dusting when your birds are out of the coop. And make sure to use food-grade diatomaceous. This is the only type safe to use around animals.
Keeping Fleas Away
Preventing sticktight fleas from returning to bother your chickens may be a challenge, depending on where the infestation came from to begin with. Sticktight fleas don’t only bother chickens. They also make their homes on rats, mice and squirrels.
In fact, if your birds have sticktight fleas, they likely got them from a rodent.
Most chicken-keepers know that rodents love chicken coops. Between the cozy bedding and the grain-based food, chicken coops are a magnet for rats, mice and squirrels. If these critters hang out in your coop and harbor sticktight fleas, it won’t be long before your birds get infested.
“Wild rats, mice, rabbits and even squirrels can be a source of sticktight fleas. So controlling these host pests to begin with can help avoid the introduction of fleas to your flock,” Watkins says.
Of course, keeping rodents out of your coop is easier said than done. Rats and particularly mice have a way of getting into the most secure coop. But you can take steps to make your coop less attractive to flea-bearing pests.
Start by enclosing your coop in wire too small for mice and rats to squeeze through. Chicken wire will do the job most of the time, although make sure it is tightly secured. Rodents will push their way through any section not bolted down in place.
If you find spots in your coop where rats or mice have chewed through the wood (this might happen under the coop, between the ground and the coop floor), fill the holes with steel wool. Then add a hardware cloth to the bottom of your coop.
This will help prevent rodents from creating a new entrance to your chickens’ home.
Rodents are usually attracted to coops because they enjoy the same food you give your chickens. Start by making sure that your bags of chicken feed are stored in metal containers. Metal trash cans work best. Rats can chew through cardboard and plastic, but metal will thwart them.
Be sure the metal container has a tight fitting lid that a rat or mouse can’t lift.
When you feed your birds, make certain all the food is gone from the coop by nightfall. Rodents roam at night, and they will find a way into your coop if they smell food inside. Consider buying a rat-proof chicken treadle feeder. This will prevent rats and mice from eating your birds’ food at night, and it will hinder squirrels that forage during the day.
Rodents are the most likely vectors for sticktight fleas and chickens the mostly likely hosts. But dogs and cats can also become victims of these unpleasant parasites. If you find sticktight fleas on your chickens, take a close look at your pets, too.
“Dogs and cats can also be affected by stick-tight fleas, but topical products that are labeled for use against fleas in dogs and cats should kill them,” Watkins says. “It’s a good idea to inspect your pets closely, looking for these fleas to be adhered around the ear pinna, eyes and between toes.”
If your chickens don’t mind being handled, check them at least once a month to make sure sticktight fleas haven’t taken hold. If your birds are difficult to catch, examine them in the coop after dark when they are roosting.
Treating an infestation of sticktight fleas can be daunting. But once you’ve removed these pests from your coop, your birds will be happier for it.
Keeping the coop free of mice and other rodents is simply an impossible task. Even if we built our birds bunkers surrounded by cement walls, mice would still find a way to get in. The best we can do is to limit our open invitation to them as best as we can.
Here are some steps you can take to do the same.
Seal all holes, gnawed or otherwise, with rodentproof materials.
Hardware mesh serves well, but get 1⁄8-inch hardware mesh as mice will fit through the holes of 1⁄4-inch mesh. If you caulk, use a silicone sealant instead of a gnawable latex one. Avoid sealing holes with materials such as rubber, plastic sheathing and green cement, as mice can chew through these.
Clean up spilled feed.
Yes, chickens are messy and scatter their feed everywhere. Trying to end that is a losing battle. If a human-caused spill occurs, however, don’t leave the jumble of crumbles for the chickens to eventually clean up. Doing so is the same as stating, “Dinner is served!” to the local mice.
Remove all feeders at night.
Mice are mostly nocturnal and avail themselves to your birds’ feeders while the chickens roost and snooze. Store your feeders in a spot rodents can’t access.
Collect eggs regularly.
Eggs are an excellent source of food for mice, and eggs left in nest boxes overnight can attract unwanted guests to your henhouse.
Keep the area 3 to 5 feet around your coop mowed and free from clutter.
Tall grass, weeds, trash, stacks of wood, abandoned yard tools and other junk make perfect temporary (or permanent) shelters for mice. A neatly mowed yard also allows you to easily check for rodent burrows and pathways.
Place mousetraps and rodent-control solutions.
Put these in areas where you see mice droppings. Position toward the walls, as mice tend to run along the walls rather than through an open space. To prevent accidents with inquisitive chickens, set your traps at night and remove them during the day.
If using poisons, use caution around livestock or poultry.
Always read the product label, follow all directions and use precautions, as suggested by the EPA.
This article originally appeared in the March/April 2022 issue of Hobby Farms magazine.