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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.
Scaly leg mites
Symptoms of an infestation of Knemidokoptes mutans
Scaly face mites (or burrowing mites)
Symptoms of an infestation of Knemidokoptes pilae
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.
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!
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
In mild cases of burrowing mites, the treatment of the bird with paraffin (also known as paraffin oil and generally available in pharmacies) 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.
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.
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.
It 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.
Similar disease: beak fungi
German version of this text: Gaby Schulemann-Maier,
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