Neem oil to control chicken lice – a.k.a. I am such a geek

Soaking Blanca

Soaking Blanca in a soapy neem oil bath

Yesterday was sunny and ‘warm’ (45 F), so rather than watch the Superbowl, we treated our chickens for lice. After talking with fellow members of the Seattle Farm Co-op, I opted for the soapy bath with neem oil treatment in conjunction with a deep coop clean.

We filled a 6 gallon bucket with warm water, stirred in ~1/8 c. of dish soap, and ~2 tsp neem oil (neem concentration ~ 1:2000). Scott held each hen in the bath for 10 min, massaging the water into her feathers (while simultaneously holding wings to prevent freakout in the flightiest birds). Then he would lift the bird out, wipe down the excess water, and wrap her in a towel.

My job was to blow dry them. I kept my hair dryer on low and my hands bare so I could sense the heat. With a hen on her back nestled in my lap, I carefully moved the warm air over her breast and haunches, then flipped her over to get her neck, back, wings, and butt. But 10 min is not enough time to dry a sopping wet chicken. So after I moved on to the next bird, each damp hen joined her friends in the waning sun. Nobody died of exposure.

As I ‘blew out’ the hens, I saw a lot of dead lice and some, but not all, of the eggs masses had loosened. I saw no moving lice. If we killed all of the adults, then we have only the unhatched to deal with. A louse that hatched yesterday would start laying eggs in 14 days. So that is the absolute latest that we can do a follow-up treatment.

Turns out it wasn’t just Blanca who was infested. Four of the five birds had egg clusters on the feathers of their lower abdomen. When I picked up neem oil at the Seattle Farm Co-op today, Fynn told me that every fourth person was complaining of lice on their hens. It turns out that many flocks experience autumn or winter lice infestations, most of which are caught from wild birds (sparrows are particularly susceptible to M. stramineus).

Toweling off Blanca post-bath

Toweling off Blanca post-bath

Blow-drying (on low) a soggy Blanca

Blow-drying (on low) a soggy Blanca

After treating the hens, we emptied, and then vaccumed, the coop. Finally, I sprayed all of the crooks and crannies with a dilute neem solution (1 tsp in a 20 oz spray bottle).

And then I geeked out on chicken lice.

Menacanthus stramineus is a member of the ‘chewing’ (rather than ‘sucking’) family of lice, taxonomically belonging to the same Order as human head lice, but not the same species, genus, or family. As a result, they only live on some birds and die within a week of separation from their host.

Scientific classification

Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Arthropoda (includes animals as diverse as beetles, butterflies, scorpions, crayfish and crabs)
Class: Insecta (insects)
Order: Phthiraptera (chewing lice, including human head lice)
Suborder: Amblycera (most primitive group in Phthiraptera)
Family: Menoponidae (bird lice)
Genus: Menacanthus
Species: stramineus

I even delved into the scientific literature on chicken lice and treatment methods.

The only highly relevant study on neem oil and chicken lice was a 2009 paper by Pablo et al. published in International Journal of Poultry Science [8(9):816-819] in which various plant extracts, including neem oil, were applied to treat M. stramineus. They found that neem was highly successful as a ‘dip’ at a ratio of 1:2000 (oil:water). Not only did the neem eliminate lice over three treatments (84%, 94%, 100% removal), lice continued to be 100% susceptible to neem treatment after two sets of reinfestation. Wow.

UPDATE: I did not have to do a follow-up treatment!

This entry was posted in chicken coop / run, chickens, education, geek, pest control, Scientific, Sustainability, update and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

16 Responses to Neem oil to control chicken lice – a.k.a. I am such a geek

  1. solarbeez says:

    Why would someone want to watch the Superbowl when they could be dunking their chickens in Neem Oil? πŸ™‚
    I hope you are aware that your Seattle Seahawks won.

  2. Memo Tellez says:

    Jen, you Rock!! This is call applied research, you are an amazing scientist

  3. Nicole says:

    I would bathe my hens before watching the Super Bowl any day! This is just what I was looking for as far as information. all of my 10 hens will be having a dip this weekend! Did you really hold them in there for 10 minutes?

  4. conantdoyle says:

    I’ve been using commercial pesticides and diatomaceous earth to treat my parents’ flock. The pesticides only kill the adult lice, and they returned quickly, but I found that the diatomaceous earth was effective when applied liberally over clean bedding. I also started making wood ash and spreading it in the hens’ favourite dustbathing sites.

    I want to apply neem oil to the timbers of the henhouse to prevent reinfection. Does it have to be an emulsion, or can it be painted onto the henhouse timbers as a wood treatment oil?

    • jkmcintyre says:

      I don’t see why you couldn’t use it as a wood treatment, unless there is a strong volatile component that would affect the birds when they are sleeping…

  5. Michelle says:

    Thanks for sharing! This is exactly what I was looking for to help out my chickens. Did you do the second treatment about <14 days later? Also, if the second treatment was necessary, did you clean out the coop a second time? Thanks!

    • jkmcintyre says:

      We didn’t even do the second treatment – that first one fixed them right up!

      • Sharon (Australia) says:

        My chickens got a bad infestation and today I had to completely clean out and scrub the coop. I sprayed it very generously with a neem spray and dusted DE and then put sand in the boxes this time instead of wood shavings. I then proceeded to bath my girls in the neem bath mentioned ed above. I think they liked it. They loved the blow dry, just sat there enjoying the warm air. My husband then raked the little run arwa we have and we limed it and then put a couple of inches of sand. By this time I was itching like anything and went of to shower and treat my bites. We then went out for a few hours and when I came home I went to check my hens and there was still some persistent live ones still crawling around the nest boxes. Should I wait a few days and spray neem again or wait the 14 days and do it all again.
        I read an article that sand was much easier for cleaning and pest control

      • jkmcintyre says:

        Dang! Sure it was lice in the boxes, not mites?

      • Sharon (Australia) says:

        I am not sure to tell you the truth, (they were very tiny) it could have been both, as my local farm supplies said there was a lot of lice around at this time I assumed t was lice. But good news is, it is under control now. Especially as I have a broody hen sitting on some fake eggs. I am going to try chicken grafting

      • Hi Sharon. In case it’s helpful, I did a lot of research on this, using BackYard Chickens and other sites, and here is what I found and the protocol I ended up using. Instead of using a commercially prepared neem oil spray, I bought pure neem seed oil and mixed it 1-1 with canola oil. That is what I used to spray the coop crevices. I didn’t use that much product overall — I just focused on the places where wood joins other wood, under and around the joints to the roosting bars, etc. I also rubbed this solution on the roosting bars. I did this treatment weekly, two or three times, also dumping out the pine shavings in the nesting box and coop each time. In addition, I made a much more diluted solution of neem and canola oil (maybe just a drop or two of neem oil to a tablespoon of canola oil), and one night I put a very small drop under each bird’s wings, using a dropper. This all seemed to help. But I should also say that I think my infestation was pretty minor in the first place — I never saw or felt them on myself, and saw only a couple of live mites in the coop once and a few dead ones after I did the first oil treatment.

  6. I wondered if I could ask a follow-up question and see if this is still working for you, if it has controlled the mites, and if the chickens have had no adverse effects? I sprayed neem oil in my coop but am also looking for non-chemical treatments for the girls themselves. I am new to chickens and also not totally sure how to tell if these treatments are actually working. Thanks.

  7. seetachaganti says:

    Could I ask follow-up questions — i.e., has this continued to work, did your chickens have any adverse effects, and have you continued doing it as maintenance? I am also especially interested in mite control, though it seems like here you are mostly discussing lice — did you have a mite problem? Did you see mites after this treatment? And did anything in your research indicate any hazards to human beings from the neem oil exposure? Any info would be much appreciated — non-chemical routes are still not very well-paved in the chicken world (at least where I live), and I am trying to gather reliable info and protocols for my own birds. Thanks.

    • jkmcintyre says:

      Hello Seetachanganti,
      I only needed the one application to clear up the lice problem. I knew it had worked because no new lice appeared when I checked the poor girls. Mites or fleas still bother them, which we know can be happily harbored by the coop and nest spots. I have sprayed the nest boxes with neem oil and periodically dust with diatomaceous earth, but have not made a concerted effort to make their space mite-free. I’m sorry to say I don’t recall if there was much in the way of human health -related literature on neem oil use. I will let you know if I find anything on that topic when I have some free time!

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