What Medicated Chick Feed Is All About
How to Control Coccidiosis in Chickens
Originally published in Backyard Poultry April / May 2017. Subscribe for more helpful tips like this!
Medicated chick feed exists for one reason and one reason only: to confuse you. Alright, that’s not true, but for many beginning backyard flock owners, it sure seems to be one of the many unexpected things you find along the way. Medicated chick feed (or medicated chick starter) is a solution to a longstanding chick rearing problem known as Coccidiosis.
What is Coccidiosis?
The disease known as Coccidiosis is not a virus or a bacteria, but instead an infestation of coccidia. Coccidia are protozoan parasites, which is a fancy way of saying it’s a microscopic critter. These microscopic critters are very common in the world of poultry, and the lion’s share of backyard chickens have experienced a run-in with one of the many varieties of coccidia. Under healthy circumstances, a chicken will ingest an oocyst (coccidia egg), the oocyst will “sporulate” (hatch) and the protozoan parasite will invade a cell in the wall of the intestine. In that cell, this little critter will produce more oocysts, which will cause the cell to burst and the new oocysts are carried out with the feces. One coccidia parasite can destroy over a thousand cells in a host bird, but chickens will build an immunity when faced with a low-level infection.
Chickens with low-level infections will not show any signs of illness, however, when you have a group of birds living in the same pen, one infected bird can cause a chain reaction and the whole coop can become a coccidia factory. When a chicken ingests too many oocysts, its gut gets overrun and too many cells become damaged for them to absorb food. Because of all the broken cells in the gut, chickens also start bleeding inside, which comes out looking like bloody diarrhea. Not only will birds be losing blood, but a secondary infection will occur, which leads to septicemia (infection of the bloodstream) and then death. All this can happen quickly and without warning, and before you know it you’ll have sick chicks everywhere.
Medicated Chick Feed
One of the facts about baby chicks is they are born with underdeveloped immune systems and immunity to coccidia is not passed down through the egg. Fragile chicks are a prime target for coccidia, and that’s why medicated chick feed is so important to us. No; the medication in question is not an antibiotic, instead, it’s a product that serves as a coccidiastat, or retarding agent that slows down the reproduction of coccidia. Amprolium is the most common brand name of coccidiastat sold in medicated chick feed, but whatever brand it is, it’s still a coccidiastat. Thankfully the FDA was wise enough to exclude Amprolium and it’s cousins from it’s Veterinary Feed Directive (VFD) order, which is why we can still buy medicated chick feed here in the United States. Additionally, Amprolium also falls under the “Small Animal Exemption Scheme” (SAES) in the United Kingdom, so expect to see it readily available wherever you are.
Medicated chick feed is an all-or-nothing sort of thing; either you use it or you don’t. If you intend to use it, start from day one and keep feeding it per the feed mill’s feeding directions (usually found on the feed bag’s tag, or their website). Be careful that you don’t accidentally buy a non-medicated bag of feed, otherwise, you just sabotaged yourself and left your birds unprotected. Switching back to a medicated feed after an accidental feeding of non-medicated feed is effectively throwing money out the window and is ill advised. Chicks should be fed a medicated feed continuously with no interruptions for best results, and be sure to follow the feed mill’s advice on how long it should be fed.
An organic alternative to Amprolium treated feed would be the widely used apple cider vinegar trick. Organic certification groups suggest that their growers use apple cider vinegar in the water of chicks when brooding to control Coccidia populations within the gut. The theory is that the vinegar acidifies the digestive tract, making it difficult for Coccidia to thrive. This method has not been officially studied, but it is widely used. In my travels, I like to ask the opinion of people who know far more about chickens than me, and the unilateral response I’ve received when asking about this method is “Can’t hurt, might help”. That’s coming from poultry scientists and poultry veterinarians alike. The theory appears sound and it’s widely accepted, but no official study has been done to prove or disprove the practice.
If you’re a progressive type then you likely bought birds that were immunized for Marek’s disease, but did you know there’s a relatively new inoculation available called Cocivac? Cocivac is an optional inoculation hatcheries can perform, which is effectively a spray of solution on the back of day-old-chicks that is full of compromised (weak) Coccidia oocysts. These compromised Coccidia are ingested by the chicks as they preen, which then go about the business of infecting the bird. The trick here is that these Coccidia are weak compared to wild strains and give your chicks the opportunity to build resistance before they can do any harm.
If you did receive Coccivac treated chicks, do not use medicated chick starter or apple cider vinegar. Using either of these methods will wipe out the “good” coccidia and put your chicks in harm’s way.
What Do You Do?
Do you use a medicated chick starter or an organic alternative? Have you ever had coccidiosis in your flock, or have you ordered chicks that are inoculated? Clue us in below and join the discussion!