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Diarrhea in Adult Chickens

Some loose droppings are normal for chickens. Several times a day, a chicken passes sticky, smelly brown cecal poops that you may mistake for diarrhea. Droppings that look like cecal poops should make up no more than one-third of the droppings you see in the coop under the perches in the morning.

Flock keepers usually recognize diarrhea in a flock of chickens when they see hens with dirty vents or stained eggs. Chickens with diarrhea usually have matted feathers around the vent, which is a helpful indicator to you about which bird has the problem.

A normal hen isn’t perfectly clean back there, but in a hen with a problem, the feathers and the vent area are heavily pasted with dried yellowish poop, and the vent area may be red and sore-looking.

[Credit: Photograph courtesy of Plum Island Animal Disease Center]
Credit: Photograph courtesy of Plum Island Animal Disease Center

What does the color or consistency of droppings tell you about a chicken’s health? Nothing specific. You can see a huge range of colors and consistencies in normal and abnormal chicken droppings.

Many things can cause adult birds to have diarrhea, and some of the most famous offenders are listed here. Flock keepers often think of intestinal worms as prime suspects, and intestinal parasites do cause a lot of trouble in young birds, but they’re overrated as causes of diarrhea in adult chickens.

Some Causes of Diarrhea in Adult Chickens
Type of Disease Common Causes Not-So-Common Causes Rare Causes
Accidents of flock management Heat stress
Vent prolapse
Excess salt in the diet
Hardware disease
Mold toxins in feed
Raw soybean meal
Toxic plants
Bacteria or viruses Colibacillosis
Lymphoid leukosis
Marek’s disease
Avian intestinal spirochetosis
Avian tuberculosis
Fowl cholera
Infectious coryza
Avian influenza
Newcastle disease
Parasites Coccidiosis Heavy infections with threadworms Blackhead

Diagnose diarrhea in adult chickens

Even poultry veterinarians and diagnostic laboratories are stumped about the cause of chicken diarrhea. Fecal exams will probably show a few intestinal worm eggs and coccidia, but that’s normal for adult free-range chickens.

X-rays may show problems in the abdomen, such as hardware disease or egg peritonitis, diseases which have miserably low chances for recovery. The hard truth is that the most useful test for flock diarrhea is a postmortem exam of affected birds by a veterinary pathologist.

For intestinal problems, a very fresh dead bird can provide the most useful information. In fact, it may be best to have sick birds euthanized at the laboratory and examined immediately. Call the laboratory ahead of time to make arrangements.

Give supportive care for an adult chicken with diarrhea

The following are do-it-yourself tips for dealing with adult chicken diarrhea while you’re waiting for a diagnosis (or if you’re unable to get one). You’ll know within a week if your efforts are paying off. If the bird continues to decline despite your care, something sinister is going on; consider euthanasia and a postmortem.

  • If a small proportion of the flock is affected, isolate the sick birds in a hospital pen and provide good nursing care. Birds with dirty vents may need to be housed individually in separate cages, because other birds like to peck at the raw area. If most of the flock is affected, leave the flock where it is and treat the whole flock.

  • Check the flock’s environment. Is it clean and comfortable? Take steps to cool heat-stressed birds or dry out a wet pen. Clean waterers and provide fresh, clean water. Examine the diet. Did you feed something new? Check for moldy or spoiled feed. If you have any suspicions about the feed, change it, preferably to a fresh batch of a well-known brand of commercial layer feed.

  • Be on the lookout for vent prolapse. If you see pink tissue protruding from the vent, read on for information about blowouts, which can be the cause or the result of diarrhea/dirty vents.

  • Add two tablespoons of vinegar to each gallon of drinking water. Vinegar is a “Why not?” remedy. Some evidence suggests that organic acids like vinegar may improve gut health in poultry, and vinegar won’t hurt if you give it at the recommended dose. Any kind of vinegar will do, although you probably won’t want to use your $50 bottle of artisan balsamic. Chickens don’t seem to notice it at this recommended dose.

  • Use a probiotic medication or offer yogurt. Most feed stores sell probiotics that you can add to feed or water. The organisms in yogurt and probiotics compete with the bad bugs, and sometimes the good bugs win.

Tetracycline medications (such as oxytetracycline, chlortetracycline) are commonly used in drinking water or feed to successfully treat diarrhea in livestock, including chickens. As a result of that common use, tetracycline medications just as frequently fail to cure diarrhea because bacteria are now often resistant to the drug.

If you’re a U.S. flock keeper, and you want to use an antibiotic for laying hens, you need to get a prescription and an egg discard time from a veterinarian if you want to stay on the right side of the law. An egg discard time is the number of days you need to throw out potentially contaminated eggs after you medicate a hen.

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