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How to Create a Chicken Dust Bath for Winter Bathing

by Victoria Gazeley

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When you live in a rainforest, it rains.  (Right about now you’re probably thinking, “No kidding [or insert expletive here], Sherlock.”)

Stay with me here.

Are you ready for another ridiculously obvious statement? (I’m on a roll!)  Lots of rain means lots of mud.

So What’s the Problem, Lady? Are You Scared of Getting Mud on Your Shoes?

Before you think I’m whining about the rain or scared of getting dirty, it’s not about me. If I was scared of mud, I’d still be living in a townhouse.

Here’s the deal – when you live in a rainforest, and it rains all winter, and you have 20 chickens that need to keep their skin and feathers healthy, and you can’t let them free range very often because your property is surrounded by hungry coyotes and hawks, you have a problem.

Something I didn’t think about when we got chickens originally was how we’d create spaces for them dust baths if they couldn’t free range, because the plan was for them to free range.  When the coyotes arrived, that plan got shelved pretty quickly.  The birds still get out every couple of days for an hour or so to access their ‘under the porch spa’, but it’s not enough to keep them healthy in the ‘bathing’ department.  So what’s a person with chickens confined to a coop and run to do when the ground is either muddy – or conversely, frozen – when it comes to creating opportunities for their birds to do what chickens are supposed to do naturally: bathe in dust?

Why is Dust Bathing Important?

Bottom line – chickens don’t bathe like we (or many other animals) do.  Counter to what intuition might tell you, they get clean by getting dirty.  Naturally (i.e., in the wild or when free ranging), they’ll dig a shallow pit in suitable soil (the dustier the better), loosen it all up with their claws, and then roll around in it, fluffing it through to cover every possible spec of skin and feather.  Why would they do this?  It keeps parasites such as mites and lice from taking hold, and weirdly, even cleans their feathers to some degree.  Case in point – these are our young ones and rooster last summer:

The Family That Dust-Baths Together… Doesn’t Get Mites! from Victoria Gazeley on Vimeo.

So as you can see, if your chickens are confined to a coop and run, and the ground is muddy and/or frozen, you really need to provide them with an alternate way to do their thing.

Some Ideas from Us… and from Readers

Now that our chickens have to spend most of their time in the run, I needed to come up with a new way for them to bathe.  Here’s one idea I came across:

Place a box, rubber feed bin or (and this was the best idea I read) a Rubbermaid bin or cat litter box with a lid you can put on when it rains, on the floor of the coop/run (basically, somewhere it will stay dry) and fill it with about 6″ or so of a dusting powder made from: 1 part fireplace ashes, 1 part sand and 1 part diatomaceous earth (it also called for road dust, but I’m thinking I don’t want my ‘organic’ birds covering themselves with dust that’s laced with vehicle exhaust remains, oil, and other unmentionables.

Important Tip: If you use diatomaceous earth, make sure it’s the ‘food grade’ version, not the industrial/pool grade, and be careful not to breath it in.  Some readers won’t use it because it is a lung irritant, but many, many more use it regularly, apparently with no ill effects if appropriate precautions are taken.  It falls to earth fairly quickly and doesn’t hang in the air like dust, but still.  Guess what I’m saying is ‘use at your own risk’!  Very effective for mites and lice, etc., though.

Others have expressed concerns about fireplace ash, in that when it gets wet, it becomes quite caustic and will burn the birds’ skin.  I asked the people who use ash regularly in dust baths for their birds and they say they’ve never had an issue with skin burns or other maladies.  Worth trying, I think – but it should go without saying that you should only use ash from wood fires, and not from any garbage burns.  But I’m hoping you aren’t burning your garbage.  If you are, stop it!  Please!

Now some other ideas for creating artificial dust baths for your chickens from our friends on our Facebook page:

  • “I put the bottom of a litter box with dirt inside for them to roll around in. They enjoy it very much.” – Nancy
  • “We use the ashes from our burnt wood and toss it in their pen!” – Robin
  • “Our barn has a packed-dirt floor. Our chickens found a few spots where the dirt was loose and scratched up enough dirt to dust-bathe in. I’ve heard of people using cat litter pans full of dirt and sand in their coops though.” – Cheryl
  • “Some people use a big wash tub or kiddie pool. Put sand in it mixed with dirt and ash. One thing for sure though, add all your wood ash to their bathing area. You will never have mites if they bathe in the ash and they know it.” – Lisa
  • “A shoe box with sand and a shoe box with dirt. They love it.” – Sharon
  • “Diatomacious earth in a kiddie pool or shallow bin in the coop.” – Michelle

So there you have it – some easy, inexpensive ways to give your coop and run-bound birds the opportunity to carry on some of their natural behaviour when they can’t get out to make their own dust baths.  I’ll be creating one this week for our girls and will update the post once that’s done.

I’m sure we’ll know pretty quickly if it passes muster or not.

Do you have other ideas on how to create a dust bath for chickens?  If so, let us know in the comments below!  We’d love to hear your tips.

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{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

Cody May 23, 2014 at 6:06 pm

I read somewhere that you cant use paper to start a wood fire for your birds what should i use as a fire starter so i know the ash is safe for them?


Cody May 23, 2014 at 6:17 pm

wow, i just answered my own question after i closed this out, i guess i could use pine shavings or dry hay or wheat, sorry for the double post.


Victoria Gazeley June 12, 2014 at 9:02 pm

NO worries! :)


Ria June 2, 2014 at 9:53 am

Instead of “litter” in the coop (especially in the summer) we put 1″ (+/-) of river sand in the coop with DE mixed thoroughly through it. This cuts down on the cost of litter, makes clean up so much easier (simply run a cat poop scoop through the sand, now all you get is the fresh poop for the compost, no litter/bedding) and makes it so they can “dust bathe” when it’s rainy & wet outside.


Victoria Gazeley June 12, 2014 at 9:01 pm

I’ve heard from a whole lot of people who use this method and love it. Unfortunately we don’t have access to sand, but if we did, we’d be all over it! Thanks for sharing how well it works for you!


Linda October 29, 2014 at 7:19 am

Hello can I use ( PLAY SAND ) FOR THE HARDWARE STORE??????


Victoria Gazeley March 23, 2015 at 10:51 am

My understanding is yes, just not beach sand (ocean – I’m assuming lake beach sand would be fine).


Mary December 20, 2014 at 6:01 am

Thank you


Elizabeth January 10, 2015 at 4:40 pm

We lined our chicken coup with what is called reject lime. Bugs are not fond of it. Every place we had it there were very few bugs. This helped a lot to keep the flies out of the coup. We are in the process of redoing our coup. Now our chickens have a much smaller indoor space then previously. The back half my husband dug out all of the lime/composted chicken poo/ and dirt and tossed it outside the coup in the chicken pen. Now that there is a 6 foot overhang all that stuff stays dry and allows the chickens a place to bath in the bust. The chickens love it.


Victoria Gazeley March 23, 2015 at 10:40 am

Good to know – thanks for sharing!


Dawn Moulton February 9, 2015 at 1:27 pm

I live in Vancouver BC where it rains a lot. I struggled with giving my ladies a dry place to bathe, so I used an old kids sandbox and covered it with a clear plastic roof so they get both dry sand and sun. It is like a makeshift chicken greenhouse – and the hens love it. Unfortunately it got wet inside because the wood soaked up the water from the bottom. After thinking long and hard about a perfect solution – I just ordered this online today
It just looks like the perfect dust bath because it would also retain heat on sunny days. It is also elevated and plastic so it will stay out of the water.- I expect it will work well if I attach a little ladder on the side for accessibility.


Victoria Gazeley March 23, 2015 at 10:34 am

Let us know how it goes! I still haven’t figured out anything that will stay dry… at least not without doing some roofing work… 😉


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