Coccidiosis is one of the most common ailments that affect chicks and is one of the most likely causes of death in chicks under 6 weeks old. Coccidiosis in chickens is caused by one or more of 9 species of coccidia protozoa that are very common throughout most areas of the United States. Usually these protozoa are rather benign and do not adversely affect mature, healthy, and well-cared for chickens. The disease, coccidiosis, however is very serious and can result in death, so knowledge in how to prevent and treat coccidiosis should be something every chicken owner should know!
Coccidia protozoa are present wherever there are chickens, but with gentle exposure, most chicks and chickens develop immunity to the protozoa in their locale. However, when chicks or older birds are exposed to new locales and thus possibly to new types of coccidia protozoa, they have to again establish immunity. Healthy chickens with lots of space usually have no problem doing so.
It is definitely best to prevent the disease by encouraging your chickens to establish immunity and manage your flock accordingly rather than waiting for symptoms of the disease to appear. Also note that chickens that have taken ill from Coccidia and recovered from it, usually do not produce as many eggs as they would have. Chicks are new to everything in this world, so they tend to be the most susceptible. Coccidiosis seems to strike chicks between the ages of 3 and 6 weeks old the most.
Symptoms of Coccidiosis include weak and/or listless birds, pale skin, pale comb, reduced appetite and thirst, blood in stool and in severe cases, yellow/foamy stool. Please keep in mind that not all chicks will suffer from all symptoms.
The very best and most effective way to manage this disease is proper husbandry. Adequate dry litter, ample access to clean water, and appropriate nutrition are key here. Chickens raised with access to pasture tend to develop resistance very quickly as the protozoa eggs are not concentrated in one small, heavily populated area. By providing good husbandry, you are setting up your chickens with healthy immune systems so they can develop immunity as quickly as possible when exposed to a coccidia protozoa.
Gradual exposure is a big factor in how effectively and quickly your chickens can develop immunity. If you have been keeping your chicks separated from your other chickens and indoors and suddenly mix them into a confined coop of mature birds, you may run into issues with coccidia, as the immune systems of the new chicks would be inundated with exposure to the protozoa. A much smarter way to integrate chicks would be to gradually expose them to ground that the mature chickens have been on, but have not been concentrated on. Set up an enclosure on a grassy spot 20-50 feet away from your main coop. Let your 4-6 week old chicks start to spend time in that enclosure during warm, dry days.
The oocysts or eggs of the coccidia protozoa cannot survive long in dry conditions or in temperatures below freezing. Warm, humid, damp weather is a perfect breeding ground for an outbreak though. Chicks confined in a brooder are especially at risk, and the more packed in they are, the more chances of the protozoa getting out of control.
Treating the Disease
There are drugs that can be used for prevention and to treat Coccidia. The two main ones used with chickens and chicks are Amprolium and the Sulfadimethazine group drugs. But be aware that not all the drugs are effective against all the species of coccidia.
Amprolium or Amprol is generally easier to use as it is less likely to be overdosed than the Sulfadimethazine group drugs. It can cause vitamin deficiency in chicks, so be sure to offer an appropriate vitamin supplement after treating with Amprol. Do not use the vitamin supplement while treating as the vitamins may decrease the effectiveness of the Amprol.
If the Amprol doesn’t seem to be effective, then try the Sulfadimethazine group of drugs. Always follow the label directions for dosages.
Medicated Chick Feed
Many chick feeds, and especially feeds for the broiler industry, come with medication meant to prevent coccidiosis. The problem with these feeds is that the chicks don’t get the opportunity to develop a natural immunity to coccidia, so once they are taken off the chick starter, moved out of the brooder, and put onto regular feed, they may succumb to the disease after all. These medicated feeds were really developed for big commercial enterprises with lots of chickens in confined space. They truly don’t make much sense in a small backyard situation or in pasture raised production.
Organic Production and Coccidiosis
When raising chickens organically, you cannot use any of these drugs or medicated feeds. So you must focus your attention on good management to prevent the disease, which is truly the most effective way anyway! Feeding crushed garlic and/or use of apple cider vinegar (1 tbsp per 5 gallons of water) in water are often recommended as natural ways to give chicks a better chance at developing immunity faster, and these things are normal and safe foods and certainly can’t hurt your chicks. There are anti-protozoal herbs one could also use, but good management usually is the most effective.
Don’t get confused – there are hundreds of different species of coccidia protozoa – but they are very species-specific. Puppies and other species of animals and humans are affected by very different strains. Even other birds won’t be affected by chicken coccidia.