How to Help Your Chickens Maintain a Healthy Digestive System

How to Help Your Chickens Maintain a Healthy Digestive System

Reading Time: 6 minutes

Knowing some basic chicken digestive system facts can make us better stewards of our feathered friends. Chickens don’t eat or digest in the same way we do, and they require some different things to maintain a healthy digestive system. Let’s look at some common issues found in a chicken’s digestive system, and I’ll give you a few facts you can apply to your flock’s feeding plan.

Where Are The Teeth?

As many of you may know, chickens don’t eat the same as mammals. Being a prey animal, they’ve got some handy features to their digestive system. One big difference between chickens and mammals is that chickens don’t chew. Mastication (crushing of food) is handled inside the digestive tract without teeth, which is why chickens don’t have teeth.

Chicken Digestive System Facts

Chickens still need to grind up their food, and since they don’t have teeth, they have a special muscular pouch in their digestive system called the gizzard. This muscular pouch is where all their food goes to be squeezed and ground up before moving on down the track. Since muscle is not harder than the food it’s grinding, chickens swallow little stones and hard bits to store inside their gizzard, and these small stones and hard bits act as teeth to grind the feed down.

Grit For Chickens

If your chickens free range or have access to a dirt pen, they’ll find things to add to their gizzard all by themselves, however, if your birds don’t have access to the ground, adding grit for chickens is a good idea. Chicken grit is typically granite chips, and you should know that there are different sizes for different ages. Chick grit and layer grit are two different sizes, so be sure to grab the appropriate size for your flock.

Birds that have access to the great outdoors will find their own bits of grit.

Identifying Issues

Sometimes sick chicken symptoms can be brought on or exasperated by digestive issues. Some birds may fail to gain weight if they don’t have access to enough food, the right food, or there is an underlying health issue making it difficult for them to process or absorb the food.

Malnutrition vs. Breed Type

Not all chickens get big, and not all chickens “fill out.” For instance, any Leghorn that stands next to a Cochin will look emaciated in comparison. If there is a bird that looks skinnier or feels lighter in comparison to a bird of the same breed, there may be cause for concern. Every bird will differ, but a vast rift between bird weights within the same breed may be indicative of a health issue.


Intestinal parasites are an ever-present issue for the flock that has access to the ground. Intestinal worms use their poultry host to live and reproduce and may not cause the bird excessive harm. Once the population of these worms inside the bird hits a tipping point, however, the bird’s decline can be rapid.

Intestinal worms are one of those less glamorous chicken digestive system facts that we as chicken keepers need to keep in mind. These parasites inside the digestive tract suck nutrients from the bird and deny it the ability to absorb what it’s eaten. Chickens can have worms without showing symptoms, so be sure to worm your birds regularly.

When to Deworm

Deworming chickens regularly is an important part of keeping them healthy. At a minimum, it’s advisable to worm your birds every fall and spring. If you notice evidence of worm infestation, such as diarrhea or even see worm-like creatures in your bird’s stool, it’s a good time to do something about it. Many experts suggest worming birds up to every three months, but to many backyard keepers, it’s a bit much to ask. Some people have found success with adding diatomaceous earth to their birds’ feed, but there is an inhalation hazard associated with it, which keeps me from trying it myself.

How to Deworm

Deworming chickens is quite easy. There are multiple products available to us as poultry keepers, and it’s wise to switch it up to avoid creating a resistant populous of worms. There are products like piperazine which you dose your birds’ water with, and there are products like fenbendazole which are added to your birds’ feed. In either case, follow the product’s directions for use carefully.

What to do While Deworming

Do not eat the eggs your birds lay while treating them. All eggs you collect while you’re medicating your birds with a deworming agent should be discarded. Don’t feed them to other animals. Discard all eggs from the day you start treatment until at least 10 days after the end of treatment. This is known as a withdrawal period. When treating birds, pay close attention to prescribed withdrawal times, and be sure that the product is approved for poultry use.

After Deworming

After deworming, be sure to clean out your coop and thoroughly sanitize it. Once all the bedding, dirt, and manure is removed, be sure to disinfect it for good measure. I prefer using Virkon S, which is some serious stuff designed for poultry. Be sure to wet down your barn and equipment with your chosen disinfectant and let it dry. Allowing a disinfectant to dry gives it the surface contact time it needs to do its job.


Coccidiosis is a serious issue, especially in chicks. Coccidiosis is a single-cell parasite that infiltrates the cell wall of a chicken’s intestine. This critter, known as a protozoan parasite, makes its way into an individual intestine wall cell and begins duplicating itself. Eventually, that cell bursts and dies, and all the new protozoa each find a new cell to call home.

This chain reaction will continue until the intestine wall is hemorrhaging blood. Most birds infected with coccidiosis, especially chicks, die of anemia. Bloody stool, sick chicks, and mortality are common signs of a coccidiosis infection in a flock.

Medicated chick starter, contrary to popular belief, has an anti-coccidiostat for medication, not antibiotics.

Coccidiosis in Chicks

Coccidiosis is especially deadly to young chicks. If you’ve had an issue in the past, or you don’t believe your biosecurity is all that stringent, use a medicated chick feed. Most people think that medicated chick feed has antibiotics in it, which is incorrect.

The medication used in medicated chick feed is an anti-coccidiostat, such as Amprolium. An anti-coccidiostat is a medication that holds coccidiosis at bay, giving the chick the opportunity to grow and build an immunity to coccidiosis. If you decide to use medicated chick feed, you must start with medicated feed and feed medicated feed exclusively until the recommended change in feed for your type of bird. Don’t switch between medicated and non-medicated feeds with chicks, otherwise, they’ll be left unprotected.

Coccidiosis Inoculations

Today we have a new way to combat coccidiosis in chicks. Many hatcheries offer a vaccination for coccidiosis, which is an inoculation spray. As chicks are packaged for shipment, they are sprayed with a fluid carrying coccidia oocysts (coccidia eggs). As the birds preen, they ingest the coccidia eggs and infect themselves.

The trick here is that the coccidia they’re ingesting is a compromised variety that will populate the chick’s gut, but is not strong enough to cause a massive infection as normal coccidia can. This reduced strain of coccidia helps chicks build a natural immunity to coccidiosis. If you buy chicks that all have been inoculated with this treatment, don’t use a medicated chick feed. Using a medicated chick feed will reverse the entire effect and wipe out the modified coccidia.

Hardware Disease

Hardware disease is less of an illness and more of an injury. All birds can ingest things they think are food but are really something they shouldn’t be eating. Nails and screws are a perfect example. I had a turkey I was raising for Thanksgiving swallow a framing nail and live without issue. I didn’t know it had swallowed a nail until we processed it. Upon inspecting the crop, there was a nail sticking clear out of the muscle.

The turkey thrived despite the injury, but not all birds will be as fortunate. If that turkey had fallen wrong, that nail could have punctured something else, caused an infection, and he could have died of septicemia (infection of the blood). Avoid leaving nails, screws, tacks, and any other hardware laying about where birds can find them.


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