Red Mite: Implications and Control Strategies

Dermanyssus gallinae, commonly known as red mite, are recognised as the most damaging parasite of laying hens worldwide. The UK, where the majority of flocks have a red mite infestation, is no exception. An infestation will have a cascade of negative effects on bird health and welfare, as well as the economic performance of the flock. For example, even a relatively low number of red mite will cause physical irritation, raised stress levels and increased vent/feather pecking. As numbers increase, egg production will be affected, birds may become anaemic and mortality will rise. In addition, red mite have been implicated in the spread of pathogens such as Pasteurella, Erysipelas, Mycoplasma, E.coli and Salmonella.

Introduction to a shed

Even new layer houses can succumb to red mite infestations. A broad range of avian species are natural hosts for red mites and therefore wild birds can easily introduce them to a flock which was previously mite-free. Red mites are able to survive for 9 months without a host, therefore may be present in the range prior to stocking of the shed.  Another possibility is a biosecurity breach and introduction from a poultry flock with an existing infestation; of particular concern are any equipment/tools which have been used in another poultry house and may harbour mite.

Health/welfare implications and economic losses

Even a low mite burden in a shed will have negative effects on a flock. However, without treatment numbers will grow and clinical signs will become more obvious. These may include:

      • Pecking/stress. Red mites will irritate and stress the birds as they feed, and studies have shown a 1.5x increase in corticosterone and 2x increase in adrenaline (two stress hormones) within affected birds. Stressed birds are more likely to feather and vent peck.  In addition, stress will cause immunosuppression (and therefore increased susceptibility to other diseases) and reduced egg production.  

        • Anaemia. Typical mite densities in an infested shed range from 25,000 – 500,000 red mite per bird. With these numbers feeding every night the bird may lose up to 3% of its blood volume, causing anaemia over time. Mildly anaemic birds will have pale combs and wattles, may be lethargic and will become immunosuppressed. In severe cases, birds will die.

          • Blood spots on eggs. Red mite will commonly feed around the cloaca of a laying hen, causing damage to the delicate skin. This can mean that eggs will sometimes get small streaks of blood deposited on the shell as they are laid, resulting in downgrading of the eggs.

            • Transmission of disease. As they move from bird to bird whilst feeding, mites are able to directly inoculate pathogens from one bird into the bloodstream of another. Studies have shown that Pasteurella, Erysipelas, E.coli, Mycoplasma and Salmonella can all be transmitted by red mite.

              • Economic losses. It is not surprising that the disease manifestations discussed above will translate into significant economic losses over the lifetime of a flock. This is predominantly a result of decreased egg production, increased egg downgrades, increased mortality and reduced feed conversion rate (FCR) (particularly important with current high feed prices). One 2017 study from the Netherlands estimated a €0.60 loss per hen across the country, and this figure can only have increased over time. It should be noted that this is an average figure and severely affected flocks may experience substantially higher losses. For example, average egg production which is 5% below breed standard in a flock, due to a high mite burden, will translate into £1400 per 1000 birds lost in egg sales (assuming depletion at 80wks and 91p/doz). This is before mortality, increased seconds, reduced FCR and overall poorer flock health status are considered.

                • Zoonotic potential. Red mites will feed on humans when no avian hosts are available. When they feed on humans, bite reactions may or may not occur, but may show as pruritic erythematous papules, vesicles or dermatitis.

              Control strategies

              The best control strategy for red mite is to keep it out in the first place through strict biosecurity and wild-bird deterrents on the range. However, after several years in operation most laying sheds will find themselves with a red mite infestation. Unfortunately, when this happens, complete elimination is seldom possible, and strategies must focus instead on controlling red mite populations at a low level which will cause minimum discomfort to the birds. The options described below are usually best employed in combination and in consultation with your poultry vet.

                  • Terminal cleaning and disinfection (C&D). A good terminal C&D programme is essential for reducing the red mite population on-site to a minimum prior to new pullets arriving. This should consist of a thorough wash-down, application of a detergent, another wash-down, drying and then application of a disinfectant active against red mite eggs (eg. Interkokask). Care must be taken to ensure that any disinfectant is applied to a dry surface and at the dilution rate specified to kill mite eggs.

                    • Exzolt. This is a unique prescription-only in-water medication which is very effective at killing red mite, even if they are at high levels in a shed. It must be given as two 12hr treatments separated by 7 days – the aim of this is to kill adult mite in the first treatment, then the next generation of mite as they emerge 7 days later. If used properly this product will kill >99% of mite in a shed, however over time mite will gradually return and more than one treatment over the lifetime of a flock may be required. Each treatment is relatively expensive, however when the full economic impact of red mite infestation is taken into account it is usually a cost-effective option.

                      • Insecticide spray-on products. In the past, these products were the mainstay of red mite control, however in recent years resistance has developed and many formulations have been removed from the market. However, they are still useful at controlling low to moderate infestations, particularly if a product with residual action is chosen and the shed system allows for easy spraying of hot-spot areas. We always advise rotation of products used to reduce risk of resistance build-up. Care should also be taken to ensure any products used are approved for use in the presence of laying hens.

                        • Dergall. Dergall acts through a physical mode of action. When applied, it creates a three-dimensional, air-permeable net, that tightly surrounds the red mite and immobilises them, making them unable to move and feed. This is a non-insecticide spray-on product. It also has the advantage of being non-toxic and non-irritant to birds. Unlike some insecticide spray-ons, it has no residual action and should therefore be sprayed at lights-out to maximise contact with active mite. Spraying should be repeated after 7 days. 

                          • Diatomaceous Earth. This material exists under various brands and can be spread around the shed and in dust baths/scratch areas. It physically desiccates the mites in direct contact with the powder and as it damages the exoskeleton the mites cannot develop resistance to the powder. Diatomaceous Earth is useful in controlling low level infestations, however, may be less effective at treating a high mite burden. Care must be taken to ensure any products you use in this category are approved by your farm assurance bodies.

                          • Predator mites.  These are a proven way of biologically controlling red mites and have been available on the continent for several years.  The Androlis and Taurrus mites will feed upon red mites therefore keeping populations under control. They are applied to specific areas of the house from where they will start to migrate and actively seek out red mites. As with red mite, the predator mite is sensitive to insecticides, so it is advisable not to spray the house for 4 weeks prior to the release/distribution of the predator mites. House temperature should be around 20°C, and humidity should be around 65 – 75%. Success of the treatment is usually visible after two to three weeks.


                        The future of red mite control
                        Due to changes in regulations, there is frequent movement in the availability and/or approval status of many commercial red mite treatments, in particular insecticide-based spray on products. In addition, due to the considerable economic losses associated with red mite infestations of commercial enterprises, new red mite products with varying degrees of efficacy are frequently added to the market.

                        A vaccine for red mite, following the principles of the anti-tick ‘TickGARD’ vaccine, has been in development for several years and research is ongoing. Depending on its efficacy and price, it may make a valuable contribution to red mite control in future.

                        Red mites have been the scourge of the laying industry for years and it is very rare to find a site without an infestation. If untreated, they will have severe impact on bird welfare and health, not to mention the eye watering economic impact which only mounts as the flock ages. In times of high feed and production costs it is more important than ever to have the best FCR, lowest mortality and highest possible egg production.