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Low levels of chicken body louse (Menacanthus stramineus) infestations affect chicken welfare in a cage-free housing system.

BACKGROUND: The chicken body louse is an obligate ectoparasite of domestic chickens. Chicken body lice feed on feathers, and infestation with this louse is linked to decreases in egg production, hen weight, and feed conversion efficiency. However, it is unknown how chicken body lice impact egg-laying chickens in cage-free environments. Welfare and behavior metrics were collected from flocks of egg-laying chickens either infested with chicken body lice or left uninfested.

METHODS: In two trials, two flocks of cage-free commercial egg-laying chickens were infested with chicken body lice or maintained as uninfested controls. At three timepoints, behavior and welfare of all chickens was measured. On-animal sensors were used to quantify pecking, preening, and dustbathing behavior. Other animal-based welfare metrics included recording comb wounds and skin lesions.

RESULTS: Birds infested with chicken body lice exhibited significantly more preening behaviors than uninfested birds, even at low louse levels. Moderate or severe skin lesions were detected on birds that were moderately infested with chicken body lice while skin lesions were never detected on uninfested birds.

CONCLUSIONS: The welfare of chickens was impacted by the chicken body louse, a chewing louse that primarily feather feeds. Evidence of skin lesions on infested birds suggests that lice may cause more damage to birds than previously thought, and further evaluation of louse economic damage is necessary.

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