Spotting and Treating Chicken Nutritional Deficiencies

Common Chicken Nutritional Problems and How to Treat Them

Raising chickens can be one of the most straightforward undertakings on a homestead. In many ways, chickens take care of themselves.

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​However, as a flock owner, you find that there will always be a few hiccups along the way–many of which can be avoided with nutritional know-how and learning how to spot issues early.

Chicken Nutritional Ailments and Treatments

You could spend hours–maybe even days–reading through all the illnesses and deficiencies chickens can suffer from. However, this can quickly become overwhelming, especially if one of your birds is sick.

​So, here are the most common issues and what nutrient deficiencies or other issues are linked to them:

1. Feather Plucking or “Feather Picking”

Feather picking is one of the most common problems small flock owners report. This issue can be caused by several factors, but the two most common are a nutrient deficiency (methionine) and a lack of opportunities for chickens to express their natural desire to dust bathe and forage [1].

Feather picking can put a huge strain on your chicken’s egg production and the flock dynamics. It can also lead to the often-unspoken issue of cannibalism.

Here’s how:

​Chickens are drawn to contrasting colors, especially red. When one chicken pecks another in pursuit of feathers, it can cause the victim to bleed–resulting in further pecking and injury–even to the point of death.

What to do to combat feather plucking in your flock:

Adding enrichment to your chickens’ enclosure should always be a top priority. Many negative chicken behaviors, such as bullying, can be a sign of displaced instinctive needs. The two primary behaviors that chickens need to express are foraging and dustbathing [2].

The two easiest ways to provide an outlet for these are to:

1) Switch your flock from pellets to crumbles since pecking at crumbles adds more mental stimulation and fulfills a chicken’s need to contrafreeload (work for their food).
2) Allow your flock to forage for snacks by spreading them out in their run or where they free-range.

As far as nutrition is concerned, if a chicken is not getting the appropriate amount of methionine, they will often try to supplement this themselves with feather or even tissue eating.

​Grubs are one of the few natural protein sources that are high in methionine. They also contain ample protein, lysine, and other nutrients that can fulfill a chicken’s nutritional desire to feather pluck.

2. Bone Issues/Leg Issues

Free-range chickens are a bit more prone to bone fractures–primarily in the legs. This is due to hard landings from high perches or branches and calcium and phosphorus depletion due to egg production. Commercially raised birds are less prone to these issues but experience leg deformities at a higher rate.

What to do to prevent bone and leg issues in your flock:

Supplementing your flock’s calcium and phosphorus can lead to fewer skeletal problems for your hens [3]. Again, grubs are a great way to boost your hen’s calcium and phosphorus intake while providing them with extra protein for strong muscles to support their joints and bones.

​In addition to calcium and phosphorus, lowering your chickens’ roosting bars and keeping them at a healthy weight can reduce strain on their legs.

3. Bumblefoot

how to spot and treat nutritional deficiencies in chickens

If you notice one of your chickens limping, there’s a good chance they’re suffering from bumblefoot. This common infection can be caused by a small injury to the foot pad or toe.

​Although all chickens can be affected by bumblefoot, it’s more commonly seen in chickens with Vitamin A and biotin (Vitamin H) deficiencies.

What to do to treat bumblefoot in a chicken:

Treating your chicken’s bumblefoot by cleaning and dressing the wound is the first thing you should do.

However, if you have multiple chickens with this issue, you will want to check roosting bars for splinters, lower your roosting bars, and ensure you’re giving your flock feed with adequate Vitamin A.

Laying hens need 8,000 to 12,000 IU/kg of Vitamin A daily [4].

Biotin or Vitamin H supports foot pad health. Without enough of these nutrients, chickens’ feet become rough and calloused, which can lead to cracks and open wounds.

​Black soldier fly grubs are an excellent source of Vitamin A and biotin [5]. Brewer’s yeast, cooked eggs, and vegetables also contain biotin.

4. Neurological Issues

Have you ever heard of “crazy chicken disease”? While this name may sound like it’s plucked out of a sitcom, it’s a serious condition caused by a lack of Vitamin E.

Crazy chick disease or “encephalomalacia” affects chicks in their second to fourth weeks of life–and it literally causes the brain to soften. Encephalomalacia causes chicks to lose coordination, fall on their sides, or droop their heads between their legs. You may also notice contractions and relaxation in the leg muscles.

​This disease can also affect adult birds, but this is less common.

What to do to prevent crazy chicken disease and chick encephalomalacia in your flock:

Providing adequate Vitamin E and selenium can prevent encephalomalacia.

It’s also important to purchase your chicks from reputable breeders since this problem can be traced back to yolk quality.  We frequently use Hoover's Hatchery to supply our chicks.

​Supplement your flock's diet with sources of vitamin E.  Some great sources of Vitamin E include sunflower seeds, pumpkin, and peanuts.

5. Muscles Issues

Muscular problems in chickens can be two-fold.

The first is a lack of coordination caused by a neuromuscular problem.

The second issue could be a lack of muscle mass or weak muscles. One of the most common muscular diseases is called “white muscle disease” or nutritional muscular dystrophy. This is primarily caused by a lack of Vitamin E or selenium [6].

Green muscle disease or “deep pectoral myopathy” is caused by a chicken carrying around too much weight.

​Avian encephalomyelitis is the most common neuromuscular disease to infect young adult chickens, turkeys, and other poultry species.

What to do to prevent muscle issues in chickens:

Keeping your chickens at a healthy weight is the first step to helping them maintain adequate muscle tone. Providing enough Vitamin E and selenium can also prevent white muscle disease.

As for avian encephalomyelitis, one of the best ways to avoid this issue is to purchase chicks from a reputable breeder since it can be passed down from generation to generation and spread among an infected flock.

​Commercial producers often vaccinate their pullets about a month before laying begins to help prevent the spread.

6. Skin Issues and Molting

Humans aren’t the only ones that can get dry, flaky skin. Chickens can, too.

​You may notice that during molting season, your chickens’ skin can appear dry and irritated. This is pretty normal. However, if you notice your girls are scratching excessively or have scaly skin on their legs, you may be dealing with mites.

What to do for skin issues and mites for chickens:

The best way to support your flock through molting season is by providing them with supplemental protein, Vitamin D3, lysine, methionine, and calcium. Protein, calcium, and methionine help them regrowth feathers while lysine strengthens the immune system.

For scaly leg mites, you will want to give your gals a warm leg bath, then brush their legs with a toothbrush. Afterward, you can coat the legs with coconut oil and orange essential oil drops.

​Adding a little more Vitamin H to your chickens’ diet can also support healing.

7. Lethargy

If you have a chicken that appears less active than normal or is seeking out space from the flock, your chicken may be sick or injured. The exception is if there has been a sudden change in temperature–however, this will likely cause more than just one bird to become lethargic.

Lethargy can be caused by a lack of carbohydrates, protein, or magnesium. It can also be a symptom of an impacted or sour crop, being egg-bound, or eating something toxic.

​All of these conditions are serious and can be fatal.

What to do if you have a lethargic chicken:

how to spot and treat nutritional deficiencies in chickens

The first step you will want to take is to quarantine the chicken and give them a pretty thorough exam.

Look for signs of parasites, wounds, or any external infection.

Pay attention to their droppings, as well. A lack of droppings could indicate an impacted crop or bullying to the point of not eating enough.

Bloody droppings mean it’s time to call the vet. To check for an impacted crop, feel your chicken’s crop–if it’s extremely hard or your chicken's breath is really bad, this may be the issue.

Egg-bound chickens will be reluctant to move much. They will also not want to eat and may pant or strain, trying to push out the egg.

Take a peek at your chicken’s vent, if it’s red and swollen, this may be the issue.

If you suspect your chicken is egg-bound, you will want to treat the case or call the vet. Your vet will likely give your chicken fluids, provide an antibiotic, and prescribe oxytocin to encourage egg passage.

​Providing laying hens with free-choice calcium and a diet rich in Vitamin D3 can prevent egg binding.

8. Respiratory Issues

how to spot and treat nutritional deficiencies in chickens

A pale comb and wattle along with discharge around the nostrils and mouth can be a sign of a respiratory problem–most often caused by a Vitamin A deficiency.

​Poluneuritis, which causes slower breathing, can be linked to a thiamine (Vitamin B1) deficiency.

What to do to prevent and treat respiratory issues in chickens:

Supplementing your chickens’ diet with Vitamin A is as easy as adding some fresh vegetables to their diet. Shredded carrots, leafy greens, and sweet potatoes are excellent sources of Vitamin A.

​As for thiamine, feed rich in flax seeds and peas can help. Adding brewer’s rice or brewer’s yeast to your flock’s diet can also boost thiamine levels.

Chickens: They Are What They Eat

When it comes to your flock’s health, their primary diet is foundational. Providing healthy snacks and free-ranging opportunities can also help your hens develop a more robust immune system while preventing behavioral issues. When you feed your chickens a high-quality, nutritionally balanced feed, they will thrive, and you will reap the benefits of nutritious eggs and fewer health scares.
​If you haven't yet, grab your FREE copy of the Homemade Chicken Recipes guide and get instant access to 25 recipes for making homemade feed, treats, herbal blends and more that your flock will love!

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Hey, I'm Shelby!

Founder of Garden. Farm. Thrive.

I'm a multigenerational homesteader, former high school and college agriculture teacher, and your guide for embracing a simpler, more traditional lifestyle. Come along as I teach you how to grow your best garden, raise chickens and other livestock, learn traditional skills and create the homesteading haven of your dreams.

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