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Serious infestation Budgies and many other bird species can be struck by one group of parasites that feeds on dead skin cells: the burrowing mites (Knemidokoptes ssp.). There are two major varieties that affect different body areas. In budgies, mostly the head is affected (especially the beak, the cere, and the eyelids). Also the legs and feet can be affected and in severe cases the area around the bird's vent.


Cockatiel suffering from burrowing mites    Budgie with scaly face mites

Scaly leg mites
Scaly leg mites infestation The Latin name for the so-called scaly leg mite is Knemidokoptes mutans. As the name suggests, these mites affect bird legs. An infestation of this mite variety occurs mainly in canaries but other bird species, among them budgies, can also be affected. Male scaly leg mites have an orbicular body that is 0.25 millimetres long. The females are 0.5 millimetres in length. Scaly leg mites burrow into the skin of the host animal and reproduce there as well; i.e. they lay their eggs inside the skin.


Symptoms of an infestation of Knemidokoptes mutans
As mentioned above, an infestation of the scaly leg mite affects only the legs. This mite species does not affect the upper mandible. The legs of a diseased bird become dry, very scaly and show white plaques early on that later turn into encrustations. Knemidokoptes mutans excrete metabolites that can severely irritate the skin and result in itching, swelling and often skin rashes. The presence of mites inside the skin results in massive symptoms in the affected bird. Since most German budgies are ringed, swellings caused by mites can lead to extremely dangerous constrictions and the birds are in danger of losing their affected legs!

Scaly face mites (or burrowing mites)
Scaly face is a term used for an infestation of burrowing or scaly face mites (Knemidokoptes pilae). The females of this mite species are round-shaped and measure about 0.4 millimetre x 0.3 millimetre. Like scaly leg mites, they are invisible to the naked eye. Unlike scaly leg mites, however, Knemidokoptes pilae affect not only the legs but also the beak, the eyes and the area around the vent. In budgerigars, Knemidokoptes pilae affects chiefly the beak. In most cases, an infestation originates there and spreads to the legs and the area around the vent later on.

Severe infestation affecting the feet and the beak
Severe infestation affecting the feet and the beak

Symptoms of an infestation of Knemidokoptes pilae
The infestation with scaly face mites has just begun If an infestation of Knemidokoptes pilae has occurred, the bird affected will experience severe itching if the mites are not limited to the upper mandible. In the initial stage, an infestation with burrowing mites is hardly visible and hardly affects the general condition of the diseased bird. There are initially crusty plaques in the corners of the beak and on the beak itself.

In the early stages, they have the appearance of a bright white deposit that becomes thicker and crustier over time. The upper mandible becomes increasingly cavernous since the burrowing mites dig subtle tunnels (paths). If the skin around the eyes, on the legs or around the vent is also affected, this is accompanied by strong itching. The bird appears restless and is scratching itself perpetually.

Massive infestation with scaly face mites If the infestation progresses untreated, serious complications usually occur that are not only extremely painful for the affected bird but often result in its death! In especially serious cases, the mites punctuate the beak so intensely that it ultimately falls off and the bird either has to starve or suffers such an immense blood loss that it dies. It would thus be grossly negligent to not consult a veterinarian if an infestation with burrowing mites is suspected!



The cere has been destroyed by scaly face mites Relatively unknown is the fact that not only the beak of budgerigars and other bird species can be destroyed by the burrowing mites but also the cere. Thus the serious consequences that an untreated infestation with burrowing mites is mentioned here with the aid of a case study. The female budgie Happy, shown on the right, has experienced a horrifying tale of woe. Her former owner did not take her to an avian vet even though she looked "strange." Since Happy continued to sit on the perch, ate and chirped occasionally, her former owner did not see any need to take her to the vet. By the time Happy was saved from this poor condition, her cere had been almost completely dissolved by the burrowing mites. The subjacent sensitive areas of the nose, which are normally protected from defilement and blows by the cere, are now lying open. The risk of infection is therefore high and the current owner of the bird has to ensure constantly that Happy doesn't suffer any injuries on the nose. The destroyed cere won't grow again; the bird has only tiny remains of the protective horny skin.

Name and synonyms for scaly face mite infestations
Crusts in the face due to scaly mites If a bird carries mites of the Knemidokoptes pilae species on its body, one generally refers to scaly face. Some sources refer to the disease as burrowing mites. Yet all names refer to the same parasite infestation. Caution: If only the legs of a bird are affected by mites, it could be either caused by Knemidokoptes pilae or Knemidokoptes mutans!



Burrowing mites are transmitted mainly in the nest box during feeding; i.e. during direct body contact from parents unto the chicks. A transmission between adult birds has also been observed, although this rarely happens. Thus special attention should be paid in pairs of birds and flocks if an infection with burrowing mites has occurred! A couple of years can pass between the time of infection and the appearance of first symptoms. In most cases, however, a mite infestation in a budgie occurs between its 6th and 12th month of life; thus often shortly after the bird has been bought.

Deformed beak due to scaly mites

First of all: there are different opinions amongst bird experts, owners and veterinarians as to the best and most effective method of treatment.

Paraffin can be put on like this In mild cases of burrowing mites, the treatment of the bird with medical paraffin (also known as paraffin oil and generally available in pharmacies - please never use the fuel paraffin which is toxic for birds!) is deemed sufficient according to many vets and publications. So far, I have experienced a lasting success with this treatment and no further treatment was needed. If only the beak is affected, the upper mandible and the skin in the corner of the beak should be treated according to this procedure for two - or better four - weeks once or twice a day. You should use a fresh cotton swab every time. Please be careful that the bird doesn't swallow paraffin since it would get diarrhoea from it.

Different stages of an infestation

The area around the vent and the legs can also be treated with paraffin; the eyes, however, should not be treated by a layperson with this oily substance, since there is a risk that the bird won't be able to see anymore. This treatment should last for at least two or four weeks, even if the crusty plaques fall off after a couple of days. By the way, paraffin suffocates the mites by covering the openings of the tunnels with a thin oily film. Thus the air needed for breathing is taken away from the mites. The treatment has to last for a long time in order to ensure that the freshly hatched mites die as well. There is a risk that there are remaining eggs in the tunnels or on the skin that have not been destroyed by paraffin. It could thus happen that another infestation with burrowing mites occurs some time afterwards.

Spot-on-method If the area around the bird's eyes is full of mites, you should definitely take it to a vet. In strong cases, the vet will use a medicine containing the ingredient ivermectin. Some time ago, a drug called Ivomec was usually used. Due to its toxicity, its usage has been discontinued. Nowadays, most vets use a drug called Stronghold. Drops of a drug with the ingredient ivermectin get dribbled onto the neck of the feathered patient ("Spot-on-method") or, in serious cases, are injected via a syringe. When it has been dropped onto the neck, it enters the organism of the bird, accumulates everywhere on the skin and the upper mandible and thus poisons the gluttonous mites.

Scaly mitesIt has to be mentioned, however, that this poison is not without risk for birds; some wild birds, for example finches, die after being exposed to the tiniest dosage! The organism and the immune system of a bird receiving this treatment generally do not suffer strongly. There remains, however, the risk that the bird dies because of the ivermectin inside its body. Thus you should take the bird to the vet in due time so that the vet doesn't have to use this poison a couple of times because of the seriousness of infestation. In most cases, birds affected by these mites have to be treated twice with a drug containing ivermectin.

Please note:
Since burrowing mites only live on the body, it is not necessary to treat the cage with an anti-mite-spray. These agents are usually highly toxic and harm the birds! Burrowing mites are harmless for humans; there is no risk of an infection!

Similar disease: beak fungi
Beak fungus If birds are kept in an unhygienic environment or if their immune system isn't fully functional for a lengthy period of time, an infection with fungi in the beak area can occur. Such an infestation with fungi usually expresses itself with a softening of the horn or with the horn adopting a spongy composition. Furthermore, a change in colour might also take place. An infestation with beak fungi shows almost the same symptoms as an infestation with burrowing mites. Thus it is important that an avian veterinarian makes a precise diagnosis!



German version of this text: Gaby Schulemann-Maier,
English translation of this chapter: Melanie Ebenhoch.

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