Red mites in poultry are scientifically known as Dermanyssus gallinae. Red mites are a parasite that feeds off the blood of poultry. Birds that can get infected by red mites include chickens, pigeons, turkeys, canaries, and various wild birds. Red mites can also bite humans but cannot infect them.
During the day, they live in the small cracks of poultry houses or under manure, depositing eggs. The parasites are nocturnal feeders, and in warm temperatures, the red mite population can quickly develop. In colder seasons, red mites populate slowly.
Red mites usually appear in shades of light grey, yellow or brown with an oval shaped body. Once it feeds off blood, the parasite turns red. The size of a red mite can range between 0.6 to 1 mm, making them almost invisible to the naked eye. When poultry is badly infected by red mites, they can experience a decrease in egg production and in worst case scenarios it can lead to anaemia and death.
The parasites are transmitted by mite dispersion or contact with infected birds, inanimate objects or animals. In the integrated poultry industry (where various types of poultry are together and using the same water source), mites are spread frequently onto objects. This includes crates, egg flats and coops. When farmers and poultry keepers travel to the house and farm, this can also increase the transmission of red mites.
Since red mites feed at night, some can remain on a bird (sometimes by accident) during the day. When infected birds are transported to new locations (usually to get sold), they can pass on red mites to other animals.
There are several clinical signs of red mites infecting birds. An initial sign is when poultry show reluctance to be in the coop at night, and the bird’s body language and perching habits may change. Infected birds tend to sit hunched up in a corner.
Poultry with red mites will feel itchy so will scratch and peck at their feathers, whilst infected birds will look anaemic and lethargic with pale combs (the red outgrowth on top of a chicken’s head) and wattles (flaps of skin around the throat).
Red mites are a vector of other pathogens. This means they can transmit infectious diseases passively or actively. Ideally, there needs to be further studies on their role as vectors of other pathogens in nature.
Diagnosis of red mites often takes the history of contact with poultry houses into consideration. There usually is a close examination of environmental conditions such as air conditioners and open windows with a building that are associated with nesting.
Mites can also be found on skin scraping. Suspected mites are removed from an infected host, and are then cleared in lactophenol (a solution for staining fungi) and examined under a compound microscope (viewing samples at high magnification). Key features are identified to determine if a bird has been infected by red mites, including the size and the number of eggs.
Treatment and control
Eradicating red mites can be challenging. The parasite can escape from a deep cleaning process and quickly multiply again. Prevention methods are the best cure to lower the risk of infection. This includes:
- Spraying or dusting birds and litter
- Removing felt roof off the coop (if applicable)
- Use chopped Hemp Bedding instead of straw
- Treat second-hand equipment before introducing birds
Practising good sanitation methods are necessary to prevent a buildup of mite population.
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