By Margaret A. Wissman, DVM
The leg and face mite Knemidokoptes pilae, also called scaly leg mite or scaly face mite, is the most commonly diagnosed mite with pet birds. Budgerigars (parakeets) are most likely to be infested with these mites, but mites can also affect other parrots and passeriformes (e.g., doves, pigeons, finches, canaries). The mites typically infest the bare skin around the eyes, cere, beak, vent, feet and legs, causing a honey-comb appearance to affected tissue, which is usually powdery grayish-white.
Other types of mites are also found in pet birds. Air sac or tracheal mites are commonly found in canaries and finches, but will occasionally infest budgies, cockatiels or other parrots. Feather mites may be found on pet birds, most often parrots. They tend to be found on immunocompromised birds. Many are non-pathogenic; however others may cause skin or feather damage. Red mites, also called Dermanyssus sp. mites, are insects that feed on blood at night. During the day, they crawl off to sleep in cracks and crevasses in and around the cage, so they will not be seen if the infested bird is examined during the day.
Mites are detected by examining skin scrapings or by using sticky tape that entraps the mites. In some cases, the mites may be seen moving around on the bird’s skin or feathers, and they also may result in stress bars on flight feathers. Magnification and a strong, focal light source are helpful in identifying mite infestation.Young birds are more commonly affected than adults, though birds of any age can have mites. Canaries infested with mites on their feet and legs may have proliferative lesions, also called tassel-foot. Some types of mites will result in feather damage or loss. Mites infesting the trachea, air sacs, bronchi or sinuses of certain birds can cause weight loss, change or loss of vocalizations, clicking respiratory sounds, dyspnea (difficulty breathing), coughing, sneezing, nasal discharge, open-mouthed breathing or even death in severe infestation. Birds infested with these mites often perform beak-wiping on perches or cage wire, and this may be one way that mites transfer from one bird to another. Red mites can bite humans when severe infestation occurs, involving mites that have infested furniture, carpeting, drapes or other household items. Since the mite only feeds on the bird at night, it crawls off during the day to reproduce and inhabit.
If you see mites on your bird, or if your bird develops powdery lesions on the face, around the beak, eyes, feet or vent you should have your bird evaluated by an avian vet who will diagnose the cause of the problem. Birds with red mites will often appear agitated or restless at night, and they may also appear itchy (called pruritis), and with severe infestation, they may become anemic or debilitated. Humans sharing environmental space with infested birds may develop small red, itchy spots from red mite bites. It may be necessary to bring the bird in to the avian vet in its cage, as red mites won’t be visible on the infested birds during daytime, but may be found in the cage.
After diagnosis, the bird will be treated with appropriate medication, and the cage and environment will also need to be treated in some cases. Follow-up treatments are necessary to eradicate the mites, so commitment and diligence in making all veterinary appointments is required. Sometimes both topical and systemic medications are utilized to best eradicate mites. Because the most effective medication to treat mite infestation must be dosed precisely, based on the bird’s body weight in grams, an owner should not attempt treatment without the supervision of an avian veterinarian. Over-the-counter mite treatments won’t take into account the life-cycle of the different parasites and will not be effective for certain infestations.
While scaly mites are not considered to be very contagious, it is recommended that all of the birds in a cage are treated if one is diagnosed with scaly mites. This is most commonly a disease of young birds, so if an adult bird suddenly develops scaly mites, this may be a sign of an underlying disease process (infection, tumor, etc.) that causes suppression of the immune system allowing the mites to proliferate unchecked. Mite protectors, sold commercially in some pet retailer facilities, are not helpful in preventing or controlling infestations. These are composed of paradichlorobenzene, or mothballs, which are carcinogenic when inhaled over a period of time and may also cause liver damage. Exposure to these fumes can be very dangerous and this product should not be used as a mite protector.
Scaly mites may cause deformity of the beak if the infestation is not caught and treated promptly. If the beak becomes misshapen, then it will require periodic trimming for the rest of the bird’s life, most likely. Also, scaly mites in some cases are never completely eradicated, and will require life-long periodic treatments.
Disclaimer: Petcha.com’s Bird Health Index is intended for educational purposes only. It is not meant to replace the expertise and experience of a professional veterinarian. Do not use the information presented here to make decisions about your bird’s health if you suspect your pet is sick. If your pet is showing signs of illness or you notice changes in your bird’s behavior, take your pet to the nearest veterinarian or an emergency pet clinic as soon as possible.