It’s been over 15 years now since we experienced coccidiosis in our poultry. At that time, I had been fortunate enough to steer clear of the menacing specter for over 35 years. While I’d heard tales from fellow chicken keepers who had grappled with this insidious ailment in their backyard flocks, I had no personal experience to draw on. So when coccidiosis cast its shadow over my once-tranquil flocks, I found myself in uncharted territory. It was a stark reminder that even the most seasoned chicken keepers can fall victim to this relentless foe. The sudden encounter left me scrambling, and it’s a lesson I’m eager to share so that you may never find yourself in the same bewildering predicament. Don’t wait until it’s too late – join me on this journey towards safeguarding your poultry from the clutches of coccidiosis.
The severity of this disease cannot be overstated. The rapid spreading of coccidiosis in poultry is shocking. I was reeling from the voracity of this vicious killer. I was unprepared and so was the immune system of most of my young birds.
Coccidiosis is one of the more common diseases faced by backyard poultry keepers. Severe cases cause the death of large numbers of young poultry.
Coccidiosis in Our Flock
The first thing I noticed was a decrease in activity and appetite. The young turkey poults were fluffing their feathers out as if they were hot but I had not observed any other symptoms.
My turkey poults seemed to be experiencing more issues than my Speckled Sussex chicks so I quickly separated them. I continued to keep a close watch on them but when I went out to do chores a couple of mornings later, I found a turkey poult dead.
In a flash, I began to run all conceivable culprits through my head.
Another of the 6 remaining poults was very still and had its head and neck craned back between the shoulder blades. It was panting heavily.
Again, my thought was that the heat was the culprit. We had been experiencing 100° plus temperatures with 50% or higher humidity for at least 3 weeks.
Then I saw it.
I had enough knowledge to recognize that foamy, bloody poop means the deadly disease, coccidiosis. The race was on to save the rest of the flock.
I checked my copy of Carla Emery’s Encyclopedia of Country Living, as always, and read what she had to say. Then I checked with my chicken keeping friends whom I knew had dealt with this before.
What is Coccidiosis?
Coccidiosis is a pervasive intestinal protozoal disease that afflicts chickens and various other poultry species, caused by the microscopic malefactor known as ‘coccidia.’
This insidious parasite takes up residence within a chicken’s intestinal walls, where it attaches itself to the intestinal or gut lining leading to severe bleeding and distress. Protozoan parasites are present in every chicken yard, it’s a fact of chicken keeping. Coccidia can also infiltrate your flock via wild birds harboring avian coccidiosis.
But coccidiosis extends its ominous reach beyond poultry alone; it casts its shadow over a wide spectrum of farm animals. In fact, its presence looms even in the world of small homestead ruminants, Timber Creek Farm has a helpful article on coccidiosis in small homestead ruminants.
While healthy adult chickens may withstand the onslaught of coccidiosis more robustly, it is on the young birds that this malady exacts its deadliest toll. Unfortunately, the very young often succumb to coccidiosis, with secondary health complications, particularly dehydration, frequently sealing their fate.
What Environment Does Coccidia Thrive In?
The Coccidia parasite loves warm moist conditions. In regions like ours, characterized by sweltering summers and high humidity levels, the onset of summertime becomes a breeding ground for the insidious coccidia parasite.
This year, the conditions were a textbook example of what coccidia relishes. From early winter until the first week of July, our area experienced relentless flooding, only to transition abruptly into a scorching heatwave. Day after day, temperatures soared to a blistering 105 degrees Fahrenheit, not accounting for the punishing heat index.
The primary mode of transmission for this malevolent parasite is through the feces of already-infested animals. Put simply, coccidia oocysts, the parasite’s eggs, take up residence within fecal matter.
As curious chicks scratch and peck amidst damp bedding or moist litter, they unwittingly ingest these eggs, leading to contamination and infection. It’s important to note that complete avoidance of coccidia exposure is virtually impossible.
Chicks aged from newborn to eight weeks are particularly vulnerable, as their still-developing intestinal linings make them easy targets for the parasite’s onslaught.
Interestingly, chicks brooded (raised) by their mother rarely encounter issues with coccidiosis. This immunity stems from gradual exposure to her feces, allowing them to naturally build resilience against the parasite’s advances.
When motherless chicks are introduced to an environment previously inhabited by adult birds, they find themselves at the greatest risk. Deprived of the maternal protection and guidance that fosters immunity development, these young ones are left exposed. I believe this is why we’ve never experienced the disease before now.
We very seldom acquire birds preferring the natural course of hatching from our own hens. On the rare occasions when we have brought in chicks, we’ve been fortunate to avoid any issues with coccidiosis.
The perfect storm for coccidiosis, as I’ve come to realize, was undoubtedly the extreme weather conditions we experienced. I would never have put the turkey poults into that yard had I known this.
Turkeys, I’ve learned, are notably more delicate than chicks, demanding a higher level of care and a gradual transition in any environmental change.
Incredibly, not a single Speckled Sussex chick succumbed to coccidiosis during this challenging period. This remarkable breed is my favorite among heritage chicken breeds for many reasons, but their robust constitution which undoubtedly played a role in their resilience is one of the things I like best.
Signs and Symptoms of Coccidiosis for Definitive Diagnosis
- Lethargy and loss of appetite may be your first clue.
- Another first sign will be foamy stool caused by the microscopic parasitic organism as it attacks the natural resistance of the intestinal wall.
- Blood in the poop.
- You may notice the birds fluffing up their feathers as if they’re hot.
- They will also appear inactive, unresponsive, and droopy.
The reality of this intrepid intruder in your flock is they may appear perfectly normal and healthy up until death.
In my talking to friends who had dealt with it in the past, several of them told me an infected bird could be spotted before you see these signs. They’re smaller than those they hatched with, they will feel light as air, have little breast meat, and will also have a razor-sharp keel bone. I can’t confirm this with my own experience. I wasn’t looking for these signs.
Since some coccidiosis symptoms mimic vitamin and mineral deficiencies, it can be hard for some people to identify. You could always call a vet to examine their poop.
What Does Coccidiosis Poop Look Like?
The poop can have two different appearances and may exhibit both.
- Slimy and mucousy, with a frothy appearance and/or pasty white or yellow.
- If you see bloody poop, you know for certain, it’s coccidiosis.
Different strains of coccidia can cause varying symptoms, but these symptoms are general to all strains.
Prevention is the most important thing. Being prepared will do away with all the worry and need for treatment.
The biggest thing I did wrong was to put the poults into a recently used breeder yard. Scruffy, one of our Black Australorps, had hatched and grown out her brood just a few weeks earlier.
Our brooder houses are made of wood and set on a concrete base for elevation. This yard is on the low side of our chicken compound and had flooded several times that year. This created the perfect environmental conditions for the coccidiosis parasites to have a big growth rate.
- Don’t keep young poultry where an adult bird was housed within the past 6 months
- For best results, elevate chick feed and fresh water to their neck level so they can’t perch and poop in it.
- Litter should be kept clean and dry.
- Build their immune systems by providing apple cider vinegar water (raw, unfiltered) and dusting their feed with DE and garlic powder.
- Be sure your flock isn’t crowded. Allowing 3 – 5 feet per bird (if confined) is a good rule for average adult birds.
- Keep water clean and fresh – changing it at least once a day – especially until they’re eight weeks old.
- Once your chicks have been infected, they may always have compromised intestinal immunity issues.
First Steps I Took to Treat Coccidiosis
We’ve always been proponents of a chemical-free, holistic approach to managing the health of our livestock. It’s a philosophy we’ve upheld throughout our lives
However, in this crisis, I found myself at a crossroads where I felt I had let down my flock. I hadn’t adequately prepared with the holistic knowledge or assembled a comprehensive first aid kit for them.
The herbs and essential oils I needed would take time to acquire and take effect. Time was a luxury I couldn’t afford, so I reluctantly purchased Sulmet, an anticoccidial medication, from our local farm supply store.
I meticulously followed the prescribed instructions for adding the medication to the water and administering it to the entire affected flock, which included both the Speckled Sussex chicks and the turkey poults.
I approached this with cautious optimism, as there had been just one instance of bloody stool in the Sussex yard.
Everyone was receptive to the medicated water on the first day of treatment. By the second day, some had grown less enthusiastic, and by the third day, they collectively refused to touch the water with the medication.
The scorching outside temperatures left me with no choice but to alter my tactics.
Tragically, another turkey had succumbed to the illness, prompting me to seek advice from our veterinarian who was a dnvm (doctor of natural veterinary medicine). Their counsel led me to catch and individually medicate each turkey using a dropper, administering the medication directly.
The following morning, all four remaining turkeys were miraculously alive, filling me with hope. For the subsequent two days, they received the medication, and I began to observe stool that was only slightly tinged with pink and less frothy. It was an encouraging sign that we might have turned the tide.
As the four turkeys retired to their coop one evening, singing their familiar goodnight song, my optimism swelled. However, the following morning, I discovered one of the hens had not survived.
The loss was devastating, and it extended beyond the monetary investment of $215 in the turkeys. It encompassed the costs of their feed, the medication, the considerable time and energy invested, and, perhaps most significantly, the emotional bond forged during their care.
Throughout this ordeal, I fervently researched and sought guidance from fellow chicken keepers. I am aware that many people do not like Sulmet, particularly when administered undiluted. Nevertheless, in my case, it became the last resort.
The doses administered via dropper were minuscule, and I found solace in knowing that if they died, it would not be because I had not exhausted all available avenues in my quest to save them.
Our Next Steps in Treating Coccidiosis
Based on what I had learned, the remaining turkeys were removed from their brooding yard. I put them in a rooster yard that had been vacant for almost a year.
Nothing was taken from the infested yard except the tarp that was covering it, their waterer, and feeder which I disinfected with hot water, white vinegar, and then hydrogen peroxide.
- I learned that any wooden surface can hold the coccidia and let it thrive.
- I sprinkled DE over everything in the infested yard and their new yard. Diatomaceous earth kills so many nasty things.
- While DE alone will not eliminate the parasite that causes coccidiosis, it is a tool in the treatment and prevention of it.
- They were given new roosts.
- Their food and water were elevated on uncontaminated blocks.
- We started giving them apple cider vinegar water again, 2 tablespoons of raw ACV with the mother to 1 gallon of water. I did this for the Sussex chicks as well.
There are well-known chicken keepers who oppose the use of diatomaceous earth. I understand their points and respect them, but we simply don’t agree.
We’ve used it on our farm for many years for all kinds of purposes. We believe moderation is key in all things.
If you don’t agree with something I did, that’s fine. As my grandfather would say, “There’s as many ways of gettin’ a farm job done as there’s farmers. Ya gotta be willing to listen, help, and learn from ’em, even if it’s just to see what not to do.”
On the day I write this post, the good news is the two remaining turkeys, Crazy Cora and Cocoa Roo, are now 12 weeks old!
They are living in the grow-out yard and have a “turkey tower” which they share with their friends, the Speckled Sussex chicks.
They have normal healthy poop, as any Ma can appreciate. They are growing fast and endearing themselves to us daily. You can read about raising Chocolate Turkeys in our post about them.
How to Treat Coccidiosis
In the haste caused by my unpreparedness, I purchased Sulmet to stop the killing as we talked about earlier in this article. I highly recommend natural ways and in the future will be prepared just in case.
I don’t want anyone else to go through what we did. But if you are not averse to chemical medications for your animals, it is an option found in feed stores.
- Offer apple cider vinegar water to chicks from day one – 2 tablespoons of raw ACV with the mother to 1 gallon of water.
- Remove soiled litter several times a day.
- Ensure the chicks don’t get chilled. If you have them under a brooder light, be sure they’re not too hot. A weak bird may not be able to move when it gets too hot.
Natural Treatments for Coccidiosis
While some poultry keepers prefer to rely on conventional medications for treating coccidiosis, others opt for natural remedies that align with holistic and organic practices. Through our ordeal, we learned we were doing some things right but needed more knowledge in managing and preventing coccidiosis naturally in our flock.
- Hydration is Key: Regardless of the treatment method you choose, ensuring your affected birds are well-hydrated is paramount.
- Coccidiosis leads to dehydration, so provide easy access to clean, fresh water. You might consider adding electrolytes or vitamins to the water to aid recovery.
- Herbal Solutions: Herbal remedies have been used for centuries to support poultry health.
- Some herbs, like oregano and thyme, possess antimicrobial properties that can help combat coccidiosis. You can provide these herbs in the form of fresh clippings or dried herbs mixed with their feed.
- Apple Cider Vinegar: Apple cider vinegar is a popular natural remedy known for its potential to maintain gut health in poultry.
- 2 tablespoons of raw ACV with the mother to 1 gallon of water.
- Probiotics: Probiotics can help restore the balance of beneficial gut bacteria. You can find probiotic supplements specifically formulated for poultry at many farm supply stores.
- We do this by providing fermented feed, which is rich in probiotics.
- Garlic and Turmeric: Both garlic and turmeric have natural antimicrobial properties and can be incorporated into your flock’s diet.
- Crushed garlic cloves or powder and turmeric powder can be added to their feed by placing a small dusting on top of their feed.
- Diatomaceous Earth: We use food-grade diatomaceous earth for all kinds of things including as a natural dewormer.
- It can help reduce parasite load in your chickens’ digestive tract. Make sure to use the food-grade variety and follow recommended guidelines for its safe use.
- Cleanliness and Quarantine: Prevent the spread of coccidiosis by maintaining a clean coop and practicing good biosecurity measures.
- Isolate infected birds to prevent the disease from spreading to healthy ones.
- You can learn how to practice biosecurity and isolate a bird in our post about common poultry diseases.
- Stress Reduction: Stress can weaken a chicken’s immune system, making them more susceptible to coccidiosis.
- Minimize stressors in your flock’s environment, such as overcrowding, sudden dietary changes, or exposure to harsh weather conditions.
- Consult a Holistic Veterinarian: If you’re uncertain about using natural remedies or if the condition of your birds worsens, consult a veterinarian experienced in holistic poultry care. They can provide guidance tailored to your specific situation.
It’s essential to remember that natural treatments may take longer to show results compared to conventional medications. Additionally, prevention through good management practices is often the best defense against coccidiosis and other diseases.
The End of Coccidiosis on Our Farm
The dying stopped, and healing began. Now I devoted my energies to learning how to holistically and naturally prevent and deal with coccidiosis.
My desire for you is that by following the preventative measures we shared, you will never have to face this devastating disease.
My complete sympathy and understanding lies with those whose hearts are gripped with fear at the mention of “coccidiosis”.
Should you come face to face with the arch-nemesis of every chicken keeper, you will have the resources you need to neutralize the threat.