All Cooped Up: Omphalitis, or “Mushy Chick Disease”
Reading Time: 4 minutes
All Cooped Up is a new feature, profiling poultry diseases and how to prevent/treat them, written as a collaboration between medical professional Lacey Hughett and University of Pennsylvania poultry specialist Dr. Sherrill Davison.
What is it? A noncontagious disease found in newly hatched poultry.
Causative Agent: A variety of opportunistic bacterial organisms.
Incubation period: 1-3 days.
Disease duration: One week.
Morbidity: Up to 15% in chickens, and as high as 50% in some turkey flocks.
Mortality: Fairly high.
Signs: An inflamed and open navel, depressed appearance, anorexia, dehydration, lethargy, and systemic failure to thrive.
Diagnosis: Generally can done at home with supporting evidence.
Treatment: Supportive treatment and prevention.
Omphalitis is a fairly common infection, also known as mushy chick disease or yolk sac infection, and it occurs in the first few days of a bird’s life. It is seen most commonly in artificially hatched eggs and is associated with contaminated eggs or incubators.
This infection affects the yolk sac and navel of a newly hatched chick. There isn’t a specific pathogen, but rather several common opportunistic ones such as Staphylococci, Coliforms, E. coli, or a Pseudomonas or Proteus species. Multiple infections at once are also fairly common. Omphalitis is infectious, but not contagious. A single chick with the infection cannot infect other chicks who have intact navels, but if one chick has an infection then the chances of multiple chicks having it are higher due to them hatching and living in the same conditions.
Generally, with this infection, chick’s navels will be inflamed and open. There may or may not be a scab over the site. The birds can’t gain weight and may seem disinterested in food and water, preferring to huddle near a heat source. They will act lethargic and depressed, and upon examination, the yolk sac may be unabsorbed and purulent. Likely, there will be abdominal swelling.
Treating for omphalitis is not recommended. Some chicks will fight off the infection, but generally infected chicks will succumb before they are two weeks old. Antibiotics are difficult to work with because of the nature of the infection. Most antibiotics are specific to the bacteria they are treating for, so without knowing the infecting pathogen, it would be pointless to dose the brood.
The best therapy for an infected chick, if culling were out of the question, would be isolation and supportive therapy. The chick likely won’t survive, however some do. Isolating the chick will prevent the stronger ones from picking at it while it tries to heal. Clean the navel area with an iodine solution and add electrolytes and vitamins to the water. Be mindful of chilling or overheating the chick, because that can be fatal to an already compromised bird.
The biggest key to treating omphalitis in a new brood of chicks is by preventing it from happening in the first place. The incubator needs to be completely cleaned and disinfected between hatches. Bacteria thrive in warm, moist environments, exactly the same it takes to hatch an egg. Invest in a higher level incubator if hatching for more than a casual hobby, because fluctuations in temperature and humidity have also been shown to increase the chances of an omphalitis infection.
When choosing eggs to incubate, only select clean and uncracked eggs. There are some egg sanitizers on the market that are safe for incubating eggs, however, the instructions need to be followed exactly because incorrect dilution may have negative effects on hatchability. Sources state that we may incubate eggs up to two weeks old, however, I would recommend using as fresh as possible. The number of bacteria on the egg’s surface can double in the span of two weeks.
With more bacteria on the shell comes a greater risk of contamination of the egg. If an egg becomes contaminated early in the incubation process, it becomes a ticking bacterial cesspool time bomb, and an explosion can happen. Not only will this compromise the rest of the brood, but it will also stink up the area housing the incubator for days. It is not good, take it from a pro. Fresh, clean, uncracked eggs are the only ones that should be set aside for incubation.
In addition to beginning with the correct eggs and a thoroughly disinfected incubator, what happens after the chicks begin hatching is key. There is the old, massive debate on if people should assist chicks to hatch or not, and from a disease standpoint, it’s not the best idea. Assisting chicks to hatch can introduce these bacteria types into the incubator and onto the chick during a key point in its development.
When handling freshly hatched chicks, be sure to wash and dry your hands. The same bacteria that exists on our hands are the ones that will infect these chicks given the opportunity. Monitor chicks open navel spots, and if found, swab with an iodine solution. Use a new swab between each chick to that if one if infected and asymptomatic at that time, the bacteria are not spread to the next chick.
Omphalitis is quite common and can happen to any owner. Preventing it and having clean practices will help reduce the first-week mortalities in any given brood of chicks and selecting the correct eggs will help overall hatchability. Much of success with poultry is the cumulation of good habits.
Originally published in the August/September 2020 issue of Backyard Poultry and regularly vetted for accuracy.