Health is defined as the absence of illness or injury. Things that affect our birds’ health include bacterial or viral infections, scraps and wounds, heat stress, nutritional imbalances, etc. The primary system within the body that works to maintain health is the immune system, although the digestive system and microbes that live within it play a key role. A couple of physiological indicators show how important the digestive system is to the overall health of a chicken. The first is the dynamic nature of the intestinal cells.
The primary role of the digestive tract is to digest and absorb nutrients necessary to keep our birds alive and thriving. The secondary, yet still mandatory role, is for the intestinal cells to maintain a barrier so feed and other items ingested don’t enter the body and create illness.
To ensure the intestinal cells are at their optimal function, the body replaces them every couple of days. Even though birds have a relatively short digestive tract when compared to mammals, the intestinal tract is still the largest surface area in the body. This means their intestinal tract must maintain a barrier of the largest surface area in the body while still absorbing and digesting nutrients.
Microbes at Work
Plus, trillions of microbes live within the intestinal tract. Some of these microbes are good, some are bad and cause harm to our poultry, and some are neutral. These microbes play a vital role in helping with digestion and producing compounds that our intestinal cells can use.
Much is still unknown about the microbiome. But its role likely goes beyond the intestinal tract.
The dynamic role of the intestinal cell, the large surface area and the trillion of microbes is part of the reason about 70 percent of the immune system is in the intestinal tract. The digestive system is challenged daily with foreign invaders such as pathogens and allergens. So the presence of the immune system is essential.
The intestinal tract is also a place for the immune system to sample the environment to see what potential disease they could be challenged with.
It’s evident that the digestive system plays a key role in the overall health of our birds. But how do we tell if something with our bird’s digestive system went awry? Some of the following signs and symptoms are indicators of imbalances or disease in the intestinal tract.
Diarrhea happens when something activates the immune system and is an attempt to clear the potential pathogen and prevent more severe disease.
Thus, the intestinal tract is flushed—aka, diarrhea. It is usually an early sign of disease or stress.
Reduction in Appetite
Reduced appetite is another early sign of disease or stress and can have a compounded effect on our bird’s health. For example, a heat stressed chicken will decrease their feed intake to try to reduce their internal heat production associated with metabolism.
The drop in feed intake can also cause a reduction in the barrier function of the intestinal cells. This can cause diarrhea and impair nutrient uptake, turning stress into disease.
Reduced Egg Production, Poor Eggshell or Feather Quality
These are all signs that nutrient digestion and absorption is impaired. Many different dynamics within the digestive system can cause this, such as:
- birds consuming less feed due to a bacterial, parasitic or viral infection
- factors affecting absorption and digestion such as antinutritional factors or mycotoxins in the feed
- nutrient imbalances within the diet.
All of these challenges can cause an unhealthy digestive system.
Staying on Tract
So how can a chicken owner ensure digestive health for their birds?
1. Feed a good quality & balanced diet.
This is key to a healthy digestive tract. Factors that affect the quality of a diet include poor quality ingredients that have high amounts of undigestible nutrients, diets that aren’t formulated properly, contamination with molds or high amounts of anti-nutritional compounds.
2. Provide supplements.
These are good tools to control the microbes within the intestinal tract. We can’t always control what our birds eat or what environmental challenges they face. So providing a high quality, daily probiotic supplement provides a source of good bacteria.
A higher population of good bacteria versus bad bacteria reduces the chances of getting sick.
3. When possible, reduce stress.
Stress comes in many different forms, and poultry are prone to it. Stressors such as heat stress or feed restriction can increase the level of their stress hormone, which affects the function of intestinal cells.
4. Keep a clean henhouse.
The cleaner the coop, the less risk a flock will ingest something harmful.
As flock owners, we can’t change the biological systems within our birds. What we can do is keep a watchful eye and implement beneficial and preventative practices to reduce the risk of injury, infections or stress. Supporting your chicken flock’s digestive tracts will benefit their health and allow them to be better equipped to face any new challenges that come their way.
This article originally appeared in the January/February 2023 issue of Hobby Farms magazine.