What is Feather Lice?

Welcoming home a new or rescued feathered-friend is a wonderful occasion. You make sure that you have everything on hand to give the bird clean and pleasant living quarters, sound nutrition and lots of TLC. Experience teaches all animal and bird lovers that integration of a new pet into one’s home should be done carefully, and with a Plan B, C and D in case anything goes awry. As you confidently prepare to release your bird into its new cage or living environment, you notice something you hadn’t at all anticipated – what looks like tiny brownish-colored speck crawling along the edge of a feather. You gently lift a wing to search for more pests, but can’t spot anything other than some slight feather damage.  Throughout the day, though, you notice the bird is excessively preening. It looks uncomfortable and itchy. 

You contact your nearest avian veterinarian for an appointment. There, you will likely discover that your new bird has something you didn’t prepare for – feather lice. Don’t feel badly if you’re taken by surprise. New bird owners are often surprised that birds, like all humans and animals, attract pests. The good news about feather lice is both that the parasite is treatable, and also that it does not transfer from an avian host to a human host. Feather or bird lice stick to their avian hosts, and will not try to invade your skin or hair. However, they can successfully bite a human, and will cause generalized itching. Until the bird is treated, it is recommended that you avoid unnecessary physical contact. 

Parasites are divided into three categories: protozoa, helminths, and ectoparasites. Lice belong to the ectoparasite category, meaning that they can thrive outside of their hosts, attaching to skin or hair follicles. Examples of these pests include fleas, lice and mites. While feather lice can sometimes be visible on the bird, oftentimes owners will instead notice the bird excessively itching. There are unfortunately many species of lice that attack and infest birds, most of which are not visible without the powerful lens of a microscope. Bird lice, or feather lice, hop between birds that are close enough together for them to make a secure leap. Once they find their way onto a feathered friend, they can live for several months on the skin and feathers. However, if separated from the host, lice cannot survive more than a couple of days. Often, feather lice die upon fallen feathers. Unfortunately, in the meantime, they have likely laid their eggs along the shaft of the feathers, providing their own living replacements. Feather lice eggs are quickly-hatching, and within 2-3 days produce young lice, called nymphs. Nymphs pass through what is called the larvae stage before fully maturing. Some feather damage, such a slight “raggedy” edge, is also par for the course. If the infestation continues without treatment, the feathers may take on a moth-eaten or lacey look.  Thankfully, damaged or lost feathers will regrow once the lice are eradicated.

In any life stage, lice are treatable with insecticide and perhaps oral medications. The veterinarian will guide treatment depending on the degree of infestation, and the age and health of the bird. Do not try to treat your bird without veterinary help. Many over the counter insect treatments are ineffective or even dangerous. Also, some cases of feather lice may need specialized, supportive care beyond the basic insect treatment. For example, in young birds, anemia or even death can occur if the species victimizing your bird is a blood sucking parasite.

Feather, or bird, lice are parasites that live on the skin and feathers of birds. 

Book First Walk Free!

Symptoms of Feather Lice in Birds

  • Constant preening
  • Scratching
  • Feather ruffling
  • Slight feather damage and discoloration
  • Restless and aggravated behavior

Causes of Feather Lice in Birds

Feather lice are ectoparasites, parasites that live outside of their hosts. In the case of birds, feather lice can survive on the skin and feathers of birds for 2-3 months. Without treatment from a veterinarian, a feather lice infestation can become dangerous, particularly in the case of young birds, or those with underlying health problems. Some species of bird lice are blood sucking, and can cause severe anemia (blood loss) and even death in compromised birds. Birds may potentially have allergic responses to parasites, which can be dangerous, for example, if respiratory in nature. 

Diagnosis of Feather Lice in Birds

The veterinarian will diagnose a parasite through physical examination, and the presence of the parasite.  Diagnosis is helped along by the usage of a magnification device. An otoscope may be suitable for this purpose. The clinical signs will most likely be evident; the presence of the lice on the wing, ragged moth eaten feathers, and the constant itching that your bird will be experiencing may point to the diagnosis in rapid fashion.

Treatment of Feather Lice in Birds

At the very least, the vet will recommend a delousing treatment, but some cases may need additional veterinary care. Beyond bird-specific treatment, unfortunately, you will need to work to eliminate pests in your environment before re-integrating the bird. Of course, the bird’s cage must be scrubbed and disinfected. Since these are very small bugs, you cannot get closely enough into the nooks and crannies of the cage. Some bird owners choose to replace the bird’s cage and supplies, but that is unnecessary if careful cleaning is done. Remember that the wider environment of your home will also need to be treated. As always, ask the veterinarian before using any disinfectants or insecticides into your home; birds are particularly, and sometimes fatally, sensitive to chemical odors and fumes.

It is very important that you ask your veterinarian about each step of this process, including the potential need for re-examination and reapplication of any products.

Recovery of Feather Lice in Birds

Make sure only to use veterinary-approved treatment and cleaning products, and learn how often reapplication should occur, if necessary. Oftentimes, products found in stores can be harmful, if not fatal for pets. Never use human lice treatments on your birds or animals. Your veterinarian may want to see your bird in a few days to a week after treatment to ensure that the lice have been eradicated.