Sick Chicks: 7 Common Illnesses You May Encounter
Recognize and Prevent Illness in Chicks
Whether ordering through a hatchery, buying baby chicks from the farm store, or hatching your own, there are seven common illnesses from which they might suffer. You should be aware of these diseases so that you can recognize them quickly. For some, quick treatment can save your sick chicks. Most of these are also preventable, if you follow good practices when caring for your baby chicks.
Aspergillosis (Brooder Pneumonia) – Aspergillosis is caused by a fungus. The spores spread in warm, moist, dirty environments such as a dirty incubator or brooder. Aspergillosis is not spread between birds, only environmentally. Chicks are especially vulnerable because the new cilia in their throat aren’t matured enough to move the fungus spores up and out. Symptoms include open-mouthed breathing and gasping for air among other respiratory symptoms such as nasal discharge. They may also have nervous system symptoms such as tremors, inability to balance, and head twisting. Symptoms may look similar to Marek’s disease and is typically diagnosed by microscopic evaluation of the fungus taken from the internal respiratory system. The best prevention is to keep everything clean and remove wet litter. There are treatments when chicks become ill such as Nystatin and Amphotericin B, but they are expensive. The spores can infect humans, as well.
Coccidiosis – Coccidiosis is caused by an intestinal parasite. Because birds peck at everything, they do also peck at poop. By doing so, they ingest cocci eggs, which hatch and then burrow into the chick’s intestinal wall. This causes some bleeding, characterized by orange to red color in their poop which may also be frothy and contain mucous. The chicks may become withdrawn, droopy, and eat less. While your chicken may survive without treatment, they will likely never be as healthy and productive as they could have been. You can work with your vet on treatment and doses. Good ways to prevent coccidiosis is by changing out bedding often and keeping your coop or brooder dry. Because there are different strains of coccidia, your birds may be infected multiple times especially in times of stress or changing environments.
Infectious Bronchitis (Cold) – Called the chicken “cold”, infectious bronchitis comes from a type of coronavirus and has several subtypes. Symptoms may look much like a human cold with nasal discharge, coughing, difficulty breathing, depression, and huddling together. If one chicken has a cold, within a couple of days all of your chickens will likely have a cold. This affects chicks under 6 weeks of age the most, and they have the highest mortality rate. There are vaccines to help prevent infectious bronchitis, but the prevalence of subtypes and mutations makes it difficult to completely prevent. There is not much you can do to treat besides raising the temperature 3-4℃. Chicks that are sick with a cold are very susceptible to secondary infections, so keep them clean with good food and water. (Duchy College Rural Business School)
Marek’s Disease-Marek’s Disease is a viral disease that is almost always fatal. Because of this, most hatchery chicks are vaccinated against it in their first 24 hours after hatching or even while they are still in the egg. You should consider vaccinating your day-old chicks as they will quickly have less response to the vaccine as they age. While most chickens have probably been exposed at some point to Marek’s without becoming ill, becoming stressed can weaken their immune system enough to catch it. Marek’s has a 2-week latency period while still contagious before the chick becomes visibly ill. In chicks, it typically manifests by weight loss even with good diet and death within about 8 weeks. Older chickens have other symptoms such as cloudy eyes, leg paralysis, and tumors.
Omphalitis (Mushy Chick Disease) – While Omphalitis is usually caused by an infection of the navel soon after hatching, it can be caused by improper egg washing pushing bacteria into the shell. Chicks may even die before hatching. Symptoms in chicks may include an unhealed, swollen, or leaky navel. The abdomen may be distended. In general, they will be lethargic, huddling near the heat source. Omphalitis may be caused by poor sanitation in the incubator or brooder, by a chick pecking at another’s navel, or even by a handler confusing the navel scab or dried umbilical cord for pasty butt and attempting to clean it off. Prevention is in cleanliness, not incubating dirty eggs, and by applying a little iodine to any unhealed navels on your chicks.
Salmonella-There are many strains of salmonella; some of which are dangerous to humans, but usually different from the strains that are dangerous to chicks. Symptoms may include diarrhea, fatigue, loss of appetite, shriveled/purple comb and wattles, all leading to death. Conclusive diagnosis is typically post-mortem from lab identification of bacteria. Some antibiotics have been shown to eliminate Salmonella Enteritidis in very young (1 week or less in age) chicks (Goodnough & Johnson, 1991). That is specifically the Salmonella that can be dangerous to humans but only carried by chickens. While antibiotics may be effective in treating a sick chicken, Salmonella can still be latent and infect other chickens. Some salmonella strains must be reported to health authorities. It is best to avoid it getting into your flock at all by only purchasing from clean, tested flocks. The bacteria can survive on cast-off feather dander for five years, can be transmitted directly into an egg by the hen, by infected droppings of other chickens or rodents, or contaminated equipment.
Rot Gut- This illness produces very rotten-smelling diarrhea and listlessness in the chicks that are affected. It is a bacterial infection that typically spreads through overcrowding. Antibiotics administered in water can be used to treat infected chicks, but the best prevention is proper cleaning and not overcrowding.
While these illnesses can be scary, most can be prevented by keeping your brooder and coop clean. Practice good biosecurity measures such as isolation before introducing a new chicken. You can keep your little chicks healthy as you grow your flock.
Duchy College Rural Business School. (n.d.). Infectious Bronchitis in Chickens. Retrieved April 21, 2020, from farmhealthonline.com: https://www.farmhealthonline.com/US/disease-management/poultry-diseases/infectious-bronchitis/
Goodnough, M. C., & Johnson, E. A. (1991). Control of Salmonella enteritidis infections in poultry by polymyxin B and trimethoprim. Applied and Environmental Microbiology, 785-788.
Schneider, A. G., & McCrea, B. (2011). The Chicken Whisperer’s Guide to Keeping Chickens. Beverly Massachusetts: Quarry Books.