A dust bath is how a chicken keeps herself clean. The basic idea is that the chicken gets into loose soil and covers herself with it. If the chickens are free ranging or if there is appropriate soil in their run, they will dig a pit, pulling away any surrounding vegetation. When we let our chickens out for a run around the yard, they’ve found the best place for a dust bath and dig it a bit deeper and use it each time they’re out. Luckily I have a deep foundation in my house, because they’re starting to get quite a pit dug! They then like to sit deep in the pit, which also helps them keep cool on hot days, and they’ll squirm around to spread soil on top of themselves. After an extended period they’ll come out and ruffle their feathers, putting up a small cloud of dust.
The whole thing is pretty entertaining to watch!
Beyond keeping herself clean, a dust bath also asphyxiates (suffocates) mites, fleas and lice. The layer of dirt over top of the chicken prevents the insects from breathing and will kill some of them off.
Chickens seem pretty happy while they’re taking their dust bath. A few times I’ve needed to get the chickens back in their run while they are in the middle of a dust bath and it is VERY hard to convince them to leave the bath.
It can be hard to figure out what’s going on between chickens, but there seems to be a social element to dust baths as well. Often you’ll see two or three chickens nestled together during their baths. This could just be all of them cramming in wanting to take a bath at the same time.
Dust baths are an instinctive behavior, and baby chicks will start trying to have a dust path in pine shavings if soil is not available.
A Dust Bath in Their Run
If your chickens don’t get out of their run, you’ll need to provide a dust bath within it. Chickens will survive without one, but it seems a bit cruel to me not to let them perform this act of self-maintenance. And, if you get parasites because your chickens can’t keep themselves clean, curing that may be more trouble then providing a dust bath would have been.
In terms of the container, the recommended dimensions are something along the lines of 12″ deep, 15″ wide and 24″ long. This wouldn’t have fit into our run (too tall), so we went with 6″ deep and the chickens seem ok with it. After we’d bought it and installed it, I realized that I could have just dug a pit to put it in and could have gotten a container that was as deep as we wanted it to be.
Some suggestions for containers are cat litter boxes, small kiddie pools, wooden boxes or shoe boxes.
There are all sorts of recipes for dust bath mixtures. At the simplest end you can just provide dirt or soil. If you want to get fancier, consider equal parts of as many of the following ingredients as you can provide:
- Sand – go with “builder’s sand” or construction grade sand. Kid’s play sand is more expensive and unnecessary.
- Soil – make sure that it’s free of fertilizer, chemicals and vermiculite.
- Wood ash – this can be from a stove or fireplace. You don’t want anything that has had lighter fluid on it or charcoal briquettes
- Road dust – I include this just because some people have it as part of their recipe. I guess it’s easy to get, just head out to a highway / interstate and fill a bucket. I wouldn’t want to expose my chickens to whatever pollutants have been mixed into this from traffic
- Diatomaceous earth – This needs to be labelled as FOOD GRADE or FOR LIVESTOCK FEED. It’s possible to buy this for swimming pools, which would be poisonous to chickens. There are warnings for humans against breathing diatomaceous earth, and many enthusiasts therefore don’t want their chickens breathing this either. It’s well know as a great way to get rid of insects, so every chicken owner will have to weigh the trade off themselves.
What do your chickens use for a dust bath? Do you provide the with something, or do they sort it out themselves? Have you had any problems related to dust baths?