To DE or Not DE? The Diatomaceous Earth Debate!
Diatomaceous Earth has a place in treating external parasites in poultry, but it needs to be used responsibly and with full knowledge of how it works.
First of all, what is Diatomaceous Earth (called DE for those of us that don’t dig tongue twisters)?
Diatomaceous Earth is a fossilized mineral made up of mostly silicon dioxide that is mined from the earth. While it’s toxic to humans and can be a hazard, responsible and cautious use of DE can be a powerful weapon against mites and such in your flock. So, how does a fossilized mineral rid your birdies of lice and mites? Well, if you were to look at DE under a microscope, you’ll notice it has razor-sharp edges resembling shards of broken glass. It is these shards that make it work. The shards cut into the exoskeleton or shell of insects and mites and lice. Once the shards cut into these tiny creatures, it then starts to dry them out (like silica gel). Death from dehydration usually occurs in 24 hours. As you might guess, this same process is really harmful to humans, especially children, and the environment, hence the “responsible and cautious” qualifier I used earlier.
It’s important to note that there are two types of Diatomaceous Earth – amorphous and crystalline. We are ALWAYS looking for Amorphous, sometimes labeled as “food grade”, as it is considered the safer option. Crystalline is much sharper, too sharp for animal uses. Be aware that there are always some crystalline shards present even in amorphous grade Diatomaceous Earth, but Amorphous is what we want you to be using.
If you have a lice or mite problem within your flock, you can treat with DE by sprinkling it in the bedding, nest boxes, or dust bathing areas. As the chickens shift through the material, the DE comes into contact with the parasites on their skin and kills them. Some people sprinkle the DE directly onto badly infected birds. Some people also use DE for internal parasites, but this is not nearly as effective as its use in external parasite treatment. The digestive system is too moist in general to allow for dehydration of the worms. Also, there are some serious safety issues to consider about using DE internally.
I don’t want to write a post encouraging just anyone to use DE all willy-nilly. There are plenty of reasons NOT to use this stuff so I wanted to include those as well. It’s super important that I include all of the proper warnings. As mentioned before, Diatomaceous Earth is made up of tiny microscopic super-sharp shards. It cannot specifically choose which insects and organisms it tears up. For people who use the deep bedding method, you are counting on creating a balance of good bacteria and microorganisms as well as bad ones. If you use DE in your deep litter, the shards will cut up and dehydrate the fly predator larvae, earthworms, as well as other good microorganisms. So probably not a good choice for people using the Deep Bedding or Deep Litter Method.
In the overall environment, DE will kill any insects that come into contact with it such as the bees and butterflies that are attracted to your poultry yard. Xerces Society lists DE as highly toxic to beneficial insects. So it should be used sparingly.
Although many say that DE is safe for birds to ingest and bathe in, the tiny shards are almost guaranteed to be cutting into the skin, digestive tract, respiratory system, etc. Yes, the DE shards do much more damage to the smaller organisms like lice and roundworms, but it is also damaging the tissues of the birds it comes into contact with, just in such a tiny amount we can’t see it. So it is certainly not a substance you want your poultry to be constantly exposed to.
You should take serious precautions to avoid breathing in DE when applying it. The shards can also damage your lungs, and it is considered a carcinogen. DE is not environmentally responsible. There is a myth floating around that it is harvested from the oceans (probably because it is made up of the fossilized remains of prehistoric algae). But DE is found on dry land, and it is harvested through strip mining. The areas around the mines are extremely hazardous, and wildlife is decimated.
So there are a lot of things to consider before making use of Diatomaceous Earth for chickens. Perhaps it can be a useful tool for serious mite and louse infections. But it needs to be used carefully. Don’t use constantly as a preventive, keep the area of use as small as possible, and be sure to use a mask when applying it. An herbal alternative to using DE is to sprinkle Clove Powder and/or Thyme Powder in the bedding, nest boxes, roosting areas, and dust bath areas. For more in-depth information on Diatomaceous Earth, check out this fantastic guide from our friends at PestStrategies.com, including safety concerns, uses, benefits, differences in grades and other aspects.