Scaly Leg and Scaly Face are both relatively common conditions in domesticated birds and poultry. An infectious disease that can quickly spread to other birds, both conditions are caused by the Cnemidocoptes mutans mite, commonly known as either the Scaly Face Mite or the Scaly Leg Mite. In canaries the same mite causes a condition called ‘Tassle Foot.’ A smaller cousin of the spider, the tick and the scorpion, the eight-legged Cnemidocoptes burrows under the scales of the legs and into the keratin of the bird’s beak. It can also be found around the vent of birds and on their wing tips.
The mite spends its whole life cycle on the bird and is transmitted between birds by direct contact. Some birds appear to be genetically more susceptible to the mite than others.
Signs of Scaly Leg (and Scaly Face) differ between birds. Infected budgerigars will show a white, chalky and crusty beak with a honeycomb appearance. This crustiness can spread around the bird’s cere (the lump at the base of the beak) and its eyes. The crusty, scaly appearance also appears on the legs and sometimes around the vent. Left untreated the infection in the growing portion of the beak can cause the beak to become permanently deformed.
In canaries and poultry the condition usually shows first as a thickening of the scales on the legs, which develop areas that look something like corns with the scales raised or protruding rather than laying flat.
How is Scaly Mite diagnosed?
The condition is usually fairly obvious by visual inspection but we may confirm the infection by taking a scraping of the affected areas and examining it under the microscope. If mites are present they are easily visible, looking much like miniature mud crabs.
There are many ‘home remedies’ but the most effective veterinary treatments are Avomectin, Ivermectin or Moxidectin. These are all prescription medications available from the hospital which can be applied at home.
The most commonly used DIY treatment is to apply Vaseline to the the beak, the cere, and the legs of affected birds. It needs to be applied daily for up to 10 days. While Vaseline will not kill the mites it suffocates them over a period and helps soften the crusts and remove them from a bird’s face and legs. While this is a very popular home treatment, we really cannot recommend it. The petroleum jelly (paraffin oil is also popular) is difficult to apply sufficiently well to ensure all the mites are suffocated, and the Vaseline or oil can get onto feathers, where it is very difficult to remove.
The big problem is not how to treat individual birds but the fact that the condition is contagious and unless treated correctly and thoroughly can easily spread to other birds via direct contact. It’s essential to kill off all the mites. The use of swift acting products such as Ivermectin is far more effective than home remedies at killing the wee beasts.
If damage from the mites is causing an affected bird’s beak to grow abnormally, regular trimming may be required. This should only be undertaken by a veterinarian.
The mite can also burrow into tiny cracks and wooden perches in the cage. Perches in an infected cage should be replaced every week. Using branches from native trees helps discourage the mites.