PhotoThe life of the chicken is not too swell, no matter how you look at it. And researchers at the University of California, Riverside, say the current fervor for backyard chickens may be misplaced.

The researchers found that backyard chickens are more likely than chickens on commercial chicken farms to be infested by ectoparasites, which are parasites such as fleas, lice, and mites that live on the exterior of an organism. Their work was published online today in the Journal of Medical Entomology.

The research comes at a time when several states, including California, have banned or limited the use of isolated "battery cages" in favor of "enriched cages" or cage-free operations. The European Union has also banned battery cages. And a bill that would have banned those cages in the United States was introduced in Congress but failed to pass.

In fact, the researchers -- Amy C. Murillo, a graduate student and Bradley A. Mullens, a professor of entomology -- believe that these more open, cage-free, or free-range type habitats increase the risk of acquisition and transmission of ectoparasites.

80% infestation rate

Such infestations make life more stressful for the chickens and may affect egg production, but researchers say there is no risk to humans who eat the eggs or meat of infested chickens.

The researchers surveyed 100 adult hens in 20 different backyards in southern California and searched the birds and their coops for ectoparasites. They found a much greater diversity of ectoparasites on the backyard chickens than has been found in commercial flocks.

Ectoparasites were found on 80 percent of the flocks surveyed, and lice were the most common and abundant.  Commercial poultry flocks suffer from few of the same ectoparasites, partly because their cages keep them off the ground and offer fewer crevices where ticks and bed bugs can lurk.

The study suggests that the perks of being a backyard chicken may be outweighed by the increased likelihood of ectoparasites. Murillo said many of the chicken owners that participated in this study were surprised to learn that their chickens had ectoparasites, and almost none were practicing parasite prevention.

With that in mind, she recommends backyard chicken owners focus on preventing ectoparasite infestations because control products are limited. Chicken owners should practice biosecurity, which includes excluding wild birds and other animals from coming into contact with the flock, limiting the addition of new birds to the flock, temporarily quarantining birds that are brought into the flock and limiting outsider visitation (many of these parasites can hitchhike on people or equipment).

If a chicken owner decides to use insecticides, she said to make sure to read and follow the label. The label is the law, and helps prevent unsafe insecticide exposure. If products not meant for use on laying hens are used, chicken owners risk exposure to insecticides when consuming the eggs or meat from the birds.

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