Baby Chick Health 101

Chick season is fun, but make sure you're prepared to welcome new chicks to your backyard and keep them healthy. Good baby chick health early on gives your birds the building blocks they need to become healthy adults.

Good baby chick health early on gives your birds the building blocks they need to become healthy adults.

Be Sure You’re Ready

One of the most important steps you can take for your birds is to be prepared and know what type of commitment you’re making before you purchase your birds.

“These birds are your pets. This is an investment for the long term. People should consider not just buying them at the holidays and think that this a short-term situation. These birds can live for two to three years or up to eight years. It’s not just to get the birds for maybe teaching children about chicks when they’re young and then, in essence, discarding them,” said Dr. Sherrill Davison, director of the Laboratory of Avian Medicine and Pathology at Penn Vet.” Just as if you would purchase a dog or cat, horse or cow, or any other animal, it truly is important to understand that these are animals and that they need care and that care could be a long-term situation. They need to understand that before they go into this.”

While the cost of purchasing an individual baby chick is relatively low, there’s more to consider.

“I’ve had people say to me that it only costs a few dollars for this bird and they put the value of that animal’s life based on the monetary value, and I think people need to understand that that’s not the way you should be looking at this before you go in. And to truly understand the costs that you may incur with the coops, the feed, the care, and that it does take work to keep the chickens clean and to be able to feed them,” said Davison.

Getting Your Birds and Vaccinations

Lots of folks get their day-old chicks from their local feed store and others purchase directly from a hatchery. If you’re making that direct purchase, you’ll have some choices about order minimums, heat packs if you’re shipping in cold weather and available vaccines. If the birds come from a feed store, those choices have been made for you, but don’t be too shy to ask where the birds have been purchased and whether they have been vaccinated or not.

What is Marek’s Disease?
Marek’s disease (MD) is a viral, tumor-causing disease that is found worldwide and is so common that most people consider their birds have been exposed whether they show symptoms or not. Only a small portion of exposed birds actually develop the disease. Marek’s disease is highly contagious and is transmitted from bird to bird contact, especially through feather dander and dust. There are four forms of Marek’s disease — skin, nerve, eye, and internal organ. Marek’s disease is nearly always fatal.
For many, the question of whether to vaccinate or not can be tough. Dr. Davison recommends choosing to vaccinate for Marek’s disease. “The only vaccine I would do would be the Marek’s vaccine. That’s given at the hatchery at a day of age,” she said. “I get concerned. You’ll have flocks of birds that never have Marek’s and will potentially never get it. But my concern is the many clients that come here with birds that have to be euthanized because they’re paralyzed and they didn’t get the vaccine. I would prefer them just to have gotten the vaccine and not have to worry about the heartbreak of losing the bird.”

Good baby chick health early on gives your birds the building blocks they need to become healthy adults.

Whether your birds are vaccinated or not, proper sanitation is the key to baby chick health and long-term health.

“It’s not just getting the vaccine, the second part of the control of Marek’s disease is the sanitation of the coop. If you don’t clean the coop properly and you let things build up, that virus can build up and actually overcome vaccination. So it’s a two-fold approach, you need the vaccine, but you also need the sanitation.”

Good baby chick health early on gives your birds the building blocks they need to become healthy adults.

Getting Set Up and Proper Sanitation

Once you’re ready to take the plunge, it’s best to have everything ready and waiting for the day your new chicks arrive.

Baby Chick Health Essential Equipment
BrooderSpace needed will increase as chicks grow. A minimum of
two to three square feet is needed, per chick, from hatch
to six weeks old. Six to 10 square feet per chick is needed from six weeks and up.
Heat SourceHeat lamps are commonly used. Beware of the fire hazard.
Brooder plates use less electricity and have less fire hazard threat.
ThermometerThe temperature should be measured on the brooder floor where chicks are located.
Feeder and WatererSpecial chick-sized equipment for water and food is available.
BeddingWood shavings work well. Place four to six inches on the floor of the brooder.
“I think the key problem that I’m seeing with baby chicks is they don’t truly have the proper set up with the appropriate heat and the appropriate enclosure. The important thing is to start these birds off correctly,” said Davison.

In addition to the right equipment, cleanliness is a must for good baby chick health.

“Proper cleanliness of the brooder area is essential because they (baby chicks) can get bacterial infections or the fungal infection, aspergillosis. And they’re very susceptible at a young age to those two diseases. They’re very small so the dose of what they could breathe in could overcome or overwhelm them at a higher rate than an adult would,” said Davison.

What is Aspergillosis?
Aspergillosis is sometimes called brooder pneumonia. This is primarily a lung and air-sac disease of chicks. Affected chicks will gasp, lose their appetite, and look sleepy. The disease spreads through the mold, not from chick-to-chick. There is no effective drug treatment or vaccination. Chicks must be nursed back to health and the mold must be removed.
Feeding Your Chicks 

One of the first decisions you’ll need to make for your chicks is what to feed them. Chicks should be fed chick starter until they are of laying age, usually around 18 to 21 weeks. If you have a flock of mixed ages, everyone should be switched to starter feed. The starter feed won’t hurt the adult chickens, but the added calcium in layer feed can hurt the chicks.

There are choices with chick starter — medicated or non-medicated. The difference between the two feeds is the addition of amprolium in the medicated starter feed. This reduces the number of coccidia eggs that can live in a baby chick and reduces the chance of young chickens developing coccidiosis.

What is Coccidiosis?
Coccidiosis is caused by the microscopic coccidia parasite that, unchecked, can damage the gut wall of a chicken when it multiplies to overwhelming numbers in the digestive tract. Outward signs of this disease include chicks that are pale and droopy with ruffled feathers and a lack of appetite. Sick chicks will pass bloody or watery diarrhea. Coccidiosis can lead to poor growth and death.
Medicated feed has its opponents, and not all choose to use it, so it’s important to understand how to prevent your chickens from getting coccidiosis.

“The key here is dry litter and making sure you keep things dry and clean because what will happen is coccidia like to multiply in warm, moist areas. And a chicken coop is a wonderful environment for it to multiply in because of the warm, moist environment,” said Davison. “Coccidia is picked up by the chicken eating pieces of litter, which they will do, and then the coccidia goes in and starts multiplying and then they’ll (chicks) excrete more coccidia in their feces and then they’ll pick up more and it just keeps building up and building up until the birds get sick. A little coccidia is ok. Because it will, in essence, immunize themselves against the coccidia, too much is bad.”

Some believe bringing dirt from outside into the brooder allows baby chicks to develop gradual immunity.

“You don’t know what too much is if you’re bringing dirt in. And you also have the potential for other problems. Are you bringing dirt in or are you bringing in salmonella? If you bring dirt in, are you bringing in E. coli? You’re bringing in things that you may not want to bring in at such a young age because the baby chicks are more susceptible to multiple diseases at that age. What you do is you slowly introduce them to the environment when they’re older and then they have more of an immune status and they can handle more of the coccidia and handle more of the E. coli or whatever else is in the environment.”

Heading Outside 

The ultimate goal for your chicks is to live in the backyard and as they get older, you’ll want them to go outside. But when is that possible?

“The birds during the first couple weeks of life cannot maintain their temperature. And so you do want to keep them in for at least the first three to four weeks of age. You want to keep them in, keep them warm, and make sure that they’re eating and all that,” said Davison. “Then when they’re about five to six weeks of age, if you want them out for a brief visit, that’s great.”

Davison recommends the temperature outside for first visits should be at least 75 degrees Fahrenheit.

“Watch carefully, see how they’re doing, if they’re shivering and huddling with each other, then it’s too cold for them. And I think that’s key. The birds will tell you whether they’re uncomfortable. If they’re huddling in an area, that means they’re cold.  If they’re spread out, then they’re doing ok. You have to watch the attitude of the bird,” she said.

Chicks hatched in the spring can begin to live outside full-time around nine to 10 weeks of age, but it may take longer if you’ve gotten chicks in the winter. Davison advises to carefully watch the night temperatures which can be fickle in the spring.

“With the young ones, because they just don’t have a lot of body mass, I would suggest no lower than 50 degrees Fahrenheit. That’s sort of my breaking point,” she said.

***Originally published in Backyard Poultry magazine and updated as needed.***

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