PHOTO: Scott Woods Fehr
Jacquie Jacob
September 11, 2014

Q: Our chickens are 2 years old and were very healthy until about two months ago. Now some of them have feces collecting around their vents and rear feathers. What could be causing this? What can we do to solve this problem?

A: The accumulation of fecal material around a chicken’s vent is typically a result of a digestive upset—in other words, something is giving the chicken diarrhea. You indicated this has been going on for about two months, meaning that something likely happened around then to upset the normal functioning of your birds’ digestive tracts. It could be as simple as a change in the composition of the feed, or it could be indications of more chronic problems.

Feed mills typically use a least-cost ration formulation program to decide the ingredients and their proportions to include in a poultry feed. Most poultry diets are corn- and soybean-meal based. Sometimes a feed mill can get alternative grains, such as wheat or barley, at a lower cost and will include those in the feed.

These grains make good feed ingredients, but they contain non-starch polysaccharides that cause the intestinal contents to become thicker and stickier, which can cause manure to stick to the feathers in the vent area. Feed enzymes are usually added to alternative grains to break down these NSPs, so your first course of action should be to check with your feed manufacturer for any changes in the feed composition around the time the problem first arose.

As with all animals, the digestive tract of chickens is host to a diverse selection of harmless microscopic organisms, including bacteria, yeast and fungi. These microbes help keep out more harmful bacteria, such as salmonella and clostridium. If bacteria or stress disrupt the normal population of these microbes, diarrhea can result.

Antibiotics might help with the intruders, but they’ll likely kill off the good microbes, too. To restore the balance, you can give a probiotic, which is a collection of bacteria normally found in the digestive tract of healthy chickens, seeding the digestive tract with the good microbial population. This typically helps to restore balance.

If you start to notice blood in your birds’ manure, it could indicate a case of coccidiosis, which would require veterinary treatment—be sure to follow all instructions on the medication label, especially in regard to laying hens. If you do have a coccidiosis problem, cleaning out the poultry house is recommended to prevent infection. You can request that new chicks be vaccinated for coccidiosis when you purchase them from the hatchery. This typically involves giving them a low dose of coccidia, the protozoa that causes the disease, so they can build up immunity.

There are a number of different species of coccidiosis parasites, some of which cause a higher mortality rate than others. The vaccination can be administered in the chickens’ water, and it covers all seven species of coccidia that chickens can contract. Your local veterinarian and/or livestock feed and supply store might carry it in some areas, too. Coccidiosis normally only infects young birds; older birds will build up an immunity over time. However, E. coli affects hens of all ages and could also cause fecal problems.

Laboratory diagnosis for confirmation of the gastrointestinal problems in these hens would be a more objective means of identifying the problem. Other vectors or spreaders could be involved, including non-domestic birds or avian species that might be sharing the feed and water of your hens currently. Ensure that no wild birds have access to your hens feed and water sources to prevent any further chronic or acute health problems.

The best actions you can take for your flock include providing a nutritious, complete feed; ensuring availability of fresh, clean water; and keeping the poultry house and run clean and dry.

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