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How to Recognize Problems of Growing Chickens

The most common problems of the growing period of backyard chickens’ lives are respiratory illness, diarrhea, and nervous system problems. Young chickens can suffer from all the causes of respiratory illness in adult birds and diagnosis and treatment are the same.

Respiratory problems in young chickens

Brooder pneumonia and gapeworms are two special respiratory problems of chicks that aren’t usually seen in grown-up chickens in backyard flocks. Symptoms include the following:

  • Brooder pneumonia: Gasping, rapid breathing, and drowsiness are typical signs of this condition in chicks.

  • Gapeworms: When a chick has gapeworms, the infested young bird gasps for air with outstretched necks.

Diarrhea in young chickens

Coccidiosis is guilty, until proven innocent, in cases of diarrhea in young chickens. The intestinal disease, caused by parasites called coccidia, is enemy number one for poultry raisers around the world.

If you see runny poop or blood in the droppings of young chickens, promptly begin treatment for coccidiosis. In backyard flocks, young chickens sick with coccidiosis get better quickly with anticoccidial medication. Without treatment, many affected birds will die.

Common Causes of Diarrhea in Young Chickens
Disease Age Typically Affected Distinctive Signs of Illness
Coccidiosis 3–5 weeks Bloody droppings, more common in warm weather
Roundworms and threadworms 1–3 months Not gaining weight despite a good appetite
Necrotic enteritis 2–5 weeks Depression, sudden death, more common in warm weather
Infectious bursal disease 3–6 weeks Watery diarrhea, inflamed vents, staggering

Identify nervous system illnesses in young chickens

A dizzy chicken sounds like a comical concept for a video shared online, but there's nothing funny about the miserable diseases affecting the brain and nerves of young chickens. Young chickens with nervous system disorders can show these signs: staggering, incoordination, weakness, paralysis of one or both legs and wings, or twisted neck.

If the disease progresses, eventually a chick with a damaged nervous system may not be able to get up to eat and drink, and its flock mates may trample it.

Birds of any age can show nervous system signs due to viral or bacterial infections, or botulism and other toxins. Marek’s disease and avian encephalomyelitis are two diseases that unfortunately are often found in young chickens in backyard flocks. Two nutritional disorders, vitamin B1 (thiamine) deficiency and crazy chick disease caused by vitamin E deficiency, occasionally pop up, usually in flocks fed poorly balanced homemade diets.

Nervous System Disorders of Young Chickens
Disease Age Typically Affected Distinctive Signs of Illness Mortality Rate in Affected Birds
Marek’s disease Older than 6 weeks Lameness, twisted neck, droopy wing, paralysis with one leg forward and one leg back, or wasting Nearly 100 percent
Avian encephalomyelitis (AE) 2–16 weeks Trembling of the head, paralysis with both legs held out to one side 25–60 percent
Crazy chick disease (vitamin E deficiency) 2–4 weeks Chick is unable to walk, falls on its side, or stands with head between its legs; head may also twist sideways or over the back Depends on severity of deficiency
Vitamin B1 deficiency Less than 1 week Chick can’t stand and draws its head back into a star-gazing position Depends on severity of deficiency

The best chance of making an exact diagnosis is ultimately through postmortem examination and testing of dead birds at a veterinary diagnostic laboratory.

No treatment for Marek’s disease or avian encephalomyelitis exists for affected birds, although vaccinating and raising young birds in isolation may prevent the illnesses. You can treat crazy chick disease with a vitamin E supplement; some chicks will get better, but some will be left with a permanent head tilt or other nervous system disorder.

Vitamin B1 deficiency is the most treatable of the four diseases; chicks given vitamin B1 by mouth usually bounce back within hours.

Follow these steps for treatment of an affected young chicken at home, if a trip to a veterinarian isn’t an option:

  1. Isolate the young chicken and provide good nursing care.

  2. Administer a vitamin supplement.

    Give 1 mL (about a quarter teaspoon) of a liquid vitamin supplement by mouth drop by drop. The vitamin solution should contain vitamins A, B complex, D3, and E — other vitamins or iron won’t hurt as a single dose.

    You can find a vitamin supplement formulated for poultry at a feed store, or in a pinch, you can use a child’s liquid multivitamin. After the emergency dose, use a vitamin-electrolyte solution for poultry in the drinking water and feed a chick starter or grower diet.

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