Mites are found on all bird species and are so easily spread that they must be considered one of the most serious threats to the health of your pet bird, even though death is rarely the result of an infestation, although hatchlings can be overwhelmed by a really severe mite attack. The mite is a member of the spider family and although most often discovered on the bird they are very mobile and so even if the bird is examined regularly, if the mite is one which leaves the bird during the day and hides in the crevices of the cage or aviary it will not be easily discovered.
How to spot mites
There are many different kinds of mite and they all have a slightly different effect on your pet bird. Even if there is no apparent physical damage on examination, the bird is likely to be agitated, with feather ruffling and excessive preening present in its behaviour. If the infestation is very severe and is not spotted reasonably early, the bird can become anaemic and will then present as lethargic and depressed. If the infestation is of red mite, the bird may begin to sleep a lot during the day; this is because the mite is nocturnal and keeps the bird awake during the night because it causes itching and irritation with the bites. If you suspect red mite then they can often be discovered by dismantling part of the cage by day. They will be found in cracks and crevices and although individually very small, in groups they will be clearly visible.
Some mites are very easy to spot as they tend to congregate in one place on the bird, for example the legs and face (knemidokoptic infestation) or the air sacs. It is very important to contain bird mite infestations as the mites will happily live for some time off the bird, biting humans and other mammalian hosts for some time with no apparent ill effects.
Treatment of a bird mite infestation
The main treatment is the immediate removal of the mites and if the infestation of not only the cage and aviary but also the home environment is severe this may be a job best left to pest control experts, who have the equipment required to get into every nook and cranny where the mites will be congregating. Unlike most parasites, which tend to be fairly immobile (for example ticks) mites can move quite easily and being so small; even after a full meal of blood, the mite is only as big as a full stop – . – they can travel from bird to bird to mammal to the back of the sofa and not be spotted. Up to ninety per cent of any mite population is female and they exude pheromones to make their presence apparent to all the mites in the area so they can gather and breed incredibly quickly. From the laying of the egg, the adult mite is breeding seven days later, giving a huge potential for an overwhelming infestation in very few weeks. A severe infestation will be treated by the vet with ivermectin, but it is essential that the habitat is purged of mites as well, or they will simply return. Some people have had success using mineral oil topically to smother the mites as they are skin breathers, but there is a risk here that the bird may aspirate the oil into their lungs accidentally, which will cause a whole new set of problems.
Lifecycle of bird mites
The lifecycle of all mites is the same – egg, larva, nymph, adult – but the main difference is how they live on the bird. The scaly leg mite burrows into the skin of the legs and around the beak (the cere) and this produces the scaly effect as the top layer of the skin dies and turns white and flakes off in powdery scales. The red mite lives in the feathers and leaves the bird during the day. Other mites live in folds under the wings or around the vent and yet others infest the airways and can easily kill a weakened bird.
Risk to humans
The risk to humans is quite serious, given that mites can carry diseases which can affect them, as well as give an irritating bite. And of course the point really is that there is never one mite; there are always hundreds and every single one can bite and every bite will itch and be scratched and soon the skin can become very inflamed. Bird mite infestations costs the country large amounts of money every year in lost hours as whole office blocks have to be fumigated when bird mites, carried into the building by – usually – pigeons, get a hold on the furnishings, carpets and finally workers, causing illness and distress.
Prognosis for birds infested with mites
The prognosis is usually good, but treatment can be long and messy, if you decide to go down the ‘smothering’ route. If the infestation happens around nesting boxes, the hatchlings may be overwhelmed by mites and die, but a healthy bird which is being regularly checked should survive with no permanent ill effects. The problem remains that the mites must be totally eradicated and this will is not always easy. Although professional pest controllers can remove the mites almost completely, they will not be able to treat the habitat with the birds in situ so they must be rehoused temporarily. The aviary will not be ready to be used for a while until all the fumes have gone and if any mites remain on the birds, they will re-infest quickly unless treatment is continued for a while to completely break the lifecycle.