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    Care Recommendations For Turkey Chicks

    A young large breed turkey stretching out on grass.
    Elijah enjoys some supervised time outdoors. Photo: Rocky Schwartz

    This resource has been partially reviewed and updated by a member of The Open Sanctuary Project’s team as of March 23, 2022.

    Very young turkeys (also known as turkey poults or turkey chicks) have their own special care needs to help them reach adulthood in good health and comfort. Depending on how old they are when they enter your care and whether they have had or continue to have access to their mother, turkey chicks have diverse needs when it comes to health, nutrition, and socialization.

    Intake For Turkey Chicks

    When a new turkey chick finds their way to your sanctuary, it’s critical to follow appropriate intake and quarantine guidelines in order to protect your new resident and the existing flock. The turkey chick should receive all location-appropriate vaccinations (be sure to talk to your veterinarian about which vaccines, if any, are appropriate for your residents), and they should be tested for any health issues. If they are with their mother, you should not separate the two unless absolutely necessary, such as if one of them has a communicable illness or needs extra space to recover from a health issue.

    Nutrition For Turkey Chicks

    Watch Their Weight If They're Large Breed!

    Large Breed Turkeys have been bred to gain a lot of weight in a short period of time. This causes serious health problems for the turkeys and, as a result, their diet will need to be closely monitored. Adult large breed turkeys should not be free-fed. Very young large breed turkey chicks can potentially begin with free feeding, but you will want to monitor their intake and growth closely. Though they can certainly overdo it and gain weight too quickly, they tend not to gorge themselves in the same way as young large breed chickens who might eat so much that they damage their crop. If you find that they are developing crop issues or gaining weight too quickly, you will need to offer frequent, smaller meals. Speak to your veterinarian about a healthy diet and weight for your young turkey residents (keeping in mind that many veterinarians are unfamiliar with the specific needs of large breed turkeys!). Non-large breed breed turkey chicks typically should not have their food intake restricted.

    Unfortunately, much like with large breed chickens, not much is known about what turkeys need nutritionally in order to thrive and live long, healthy lives. Food marketed for turkeys, as well as nutrition recommendations, are almost exclusively coming from individuals or companies that view turkeys as commodities meant to be consumed. Because of this, it can be difficult to know exactly what to feed turkey residents of all ages. 

    Most sources state that turkey chicks require more niacin and protein than chicken chicks. However, it is important to consider that lower protein diets are usually recommended for sanctuary bird residents, where the goal is health and longevity rather than exploitation and rapid growth. According to Nutrient Requirements Of Poultry, “reduced levels of protein can decrease early growth,” and because the authors’ intended audience is producers looking to maximize profits, slowing down growth is something to be avoided. Of course, protein is necessary for any growth, including healthy growth, so the question is how much protein do turkey chicks really need for proper development while avoiding unhealthy weight gain? Unfortunately, we have yet to find enough non-industry information to offer a concrete recommendation. Instead, we will look at two different options to help you make an informed decision. 

    Starter Food Designed For Turkeys

    Starter food designed for turkeys is higher in protein than those designed for chickens. Different brands offer different formulations with different protein percentages, but many recommendations we found suggest starting with 28% protein for the turkey chick’s first 8 weeks of life and then transitioning to a turkey grower food consisting of 20-21% protein (which is similar to the protein content of many starter foods designed for chickens). If you do choose to go with a starter food designed for turkeys, keep in mind that this food is intended for rapid growth, so be sure to keep an eye on each turkey chick’s weight and body condition, especially large breed turkey chicks. Because of the higher protein content, attempting to free feed large breed turkey chicks may result in unhealthy weight gain, so you may need to feed them frequent smaller meals. Of course, you’ll also have to take care not to restrict their diet too much in order to avoid nutritional deficiencies. 

    Starter Food Designed For Chickens

    While online recommendations almost all recommend turkey starter, based on our conversations with experienced caregivers in the sanctuary community, it seems more common for sanctuary turkey chicks to be fed a chick starter designed for chickens. Online recommendations (which, again, are likely focused on maximized growth or based on those recommendations), suggest that turkey chicks who are fed a starter food designed for chickens should receive supplemental niacin and protein by adding brewer’s yeast to their food (2 to 3 cups brewer’s yeast per 10 pounds of starter food). However, those we talked to who use this type of food for their turkey chick residents stated that they did not supplement for protein or niacin and report that the chicks went on to be happy and healthy adults. If you choose to use a starter designed for chickens, be sure to use a non-medicated formulation as some contain coccidiostats that are not safe for turkey chicks. We talked to multiple experienced caregivers who were able to free-feed very young large breed turkey chick residents for a period of time before transitioning them to a restricted diet. 

    Do Not Feed Adult 'Layer' Or 'Breeder' Food To Chicks

    No adult “layer” food should ever be given to chicks of any kind, not even as an emergency food source. It is toxically high in calcium to chicks and will cause serious health problems, and even death. If you must provide emergency food, try a 1:1 ratio of oats and cornmeal, blended to a crumble consistency. This should only be used as a one-time emergency ration. Do not continue feeding this as it cannot meet a chick’s nutritional needs.

    Scratch can be provided, but only as a treat as it is not nutritionally whole, and it may not be appropriate for large breed residents. Turkeys are good at foraging and turkey chicks can go out on grass after they are 2-3 weeks old. These should be short visits on warm, sunny days then they should return inside. At this age, they should only be allowed on land where no chickens or turkeys have been in order to prevent disease. See below for more information on how to safely provide outdoor time for turkey chicks. 

    As turkeys have no teeth, turkey chicks will need chick-appropriate insoluble grit to help them break down any food other than their starter food. Watch large breed turkey chicks closely to ensure they are not overdoing it, and limit their access if necessary. DO NOT offer grit that contains oyster shell or additional forms of calcium as too much calcium can result in health issues for chicks.

    Turkey chicks can typically be transitioned to the same food you provide to your mature turkey residents some time between 12-16 weeks of age, but keep in mind that a layer pellet will have more calcium than a turkey who is not currently laying eggs will need, and turkeys typically don’t start laying until after 8 months of age.  

    Water For Turkey Chicks

    Turkey chicks should always have access to fresh, clean water. Ideally water will be lukewarm- not too cold or hot. A chick fountain is a good water solution, as it is not recommended to offer an open dish because they will track through it and leave droppings in it. Another benefit of a chick fountain is that it prevents chicks from getting wet, and subsequently chilled, if they decide to get into the water dish. There have also been heartbreaking stories of chicks drowning in open water dishes. If you absolutely need to use a water dish, be sure to use a shallow dish, and try filling it with rocks or pebbles that are too large for the chicks to ingest. This gives the chicks access to small pockets of water without the drowning risk associated with a large, open dish. To prevent chicks from scratching food and bedding into their water, you can start by laying a towel underneath it, then raising it onto a slightly elevated surface.

    Heat Sources For Turkey Chicks

    Young chicks will need a heat source. If they are with their mother, she will be the best heat source for them! Sadly, turkey chicks often come in without their mothers, and therefore need supplemental heat. Many online sources will recommend the use of a heat lamp, but you must be aware that these come with serious risk. Not only are heat lamps a fire risk, some glass bulb heat lamps are coated with substances containing polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE). At high temperatures, these bulbs can put out highly toxic fumes, resulting in Polytetrafluoroethylene Toxicosis (also known as Teflon Flu and Polymer Fume Fever). PTFE coated bulbs (and any other items containing PTFE or Teflon) should never be used around birds. Ceramic bulb heat lamps are a safer option,  but be sure they are set up OUTSIDE of the housing and at least 18 inches away from any flammable materials to prevent burns and fires. An even safer alternative heat source is a properly positioned radiant heater, such as a radiant heat lamp or radiant heater panel. For an option that carries no fire risk and requires no electricity, you can use Snuggle Safe microwavable heat discs, but you must ensure it is enough to keep chicks appropriately warm. Be sure to keep discs in a Snuggle Safe cover or wrapped in a blanket or towel, and pay attention to when they need to be reheated. Regardless of which type of heat source you use, be sure to arrange the space so that there is enough room for everyone to comfortably choose to be close to the heat source or away from it. It’s a good idea to arrange food and water near to, but not directly under the heat source so they can eat and drink without becoming too hot or too cold. Additionally, you will need to take care not to overheat turkeys in warmer weather. If you live in a warmer climate and have draft-free living space for the chicks, you may not require a heat lamp. A regular incandescent light bulb may provide enough warmth for any young chicks in this situation. Observe the chicks’ behavior. If they are too cold, they will crowd and huddle near the heat source. If they are too hot, they will attempt to spread out along the edges, away from the heat. Start off at 95 degrees Fahrenheit for newly hatched turkey chicks and decrease the temperature 5 degrees over each week until their feathers come in at 5-6 weeks.

    Living Spaces For Turkey Chicks

    It is important that chicks live in a draft-free living space with proper ventilation. Drafts and poor ventilation can cause unwanted health problems. Their living spaces should include soft bedding or grass. Do NOT place them in cages with wire bottoms, as this can cause serious foot injuries. They should have clean, dry bedding, but be sure not to use tiny shavings in the first week or so as they may ingest them. Never use cedar wood shavings as they can cause severe respiratory issues. You can use rubber drawer liners on the floor to ensure a non-slip surface.

    Depending on the breed of turkey, you can begin providing short roosts for turkey chicks as early as 3 weeks old. However, you must take care when offering roosts to large breed turkeys. When they are young, they can fly and perch up on elevated spaces, but as they grow this will become more and more difficult, and they could be more vulnerable to injury when jumping down from a great height. At this point you will need to offer lower, and likely wider roosting areas (such as a straw bale or wide board-style perch-  just make sure these surfaces are regularly cleaned). Also keep in mind that the use of straw in living spaces carries an increased risk of leading to aspergillosis, so it may not be appropriate in all living spaces (more on this below). Large breed turkey chicks may benefit from deeper bedding, but you must ensure it is not so deep that it makes walking difficult. 

    Once turkey chicks are a few weeks old, you can begin taking them out for miniature supervised “outings” if the weather is warm and calm, but they should not be left unattended or remain out all day until they are around 6 weeks old. Additionally, they may need to be encouraged back into their living space during inclement weather.

    Protection From Predators

    All turkeys require safe and secure housing that will protect them from predators. Chicks are particularly vulnerable and care should be taken to ensure predators cannot get into their housing and any outdoor spaces where they spend time. Be aware that cats, who rarely pose a risk to mature turkeys, have been known to kill turkey chicks. All turkeys should be safe and secured in their indoor living space each night.

    Social Considerations For Turkey Chicks

    Chicks are social and should be brought up with other chicks when possible. They learn important skills from their mother and, when possible, should be kept together during this time. They can later be introduced and integrated into an existing flock or be their own little flock.

    If you are caring for a single chick, be sure to still follow proper intake and quarantine procedures as placing them within the flock could potentially spread disease. In the case of a single chick in quarantine, you might place a stuffed animal in with them as “company”. Groups of chick that come in together without their mothers, while missing out on important developmental time with their parent, can generally be adequately cared for, though they can be more challenging to care for than chickens.

    Turkey Chick Health Considerations

    Turkey chicks can be particularly susceptible to certain illnesses and diseases. At this stage in life, they need time to build up their immune systems before risking exposure to disease. It is important to speak with a veterinarian about appropriate vaccinations as early as possible.

    Chicks should be monitored closely for any signs of illness including lethargy, decreased appetite, diarrhea, labored breathing, and sinus flaring. If a chick appears to be separating themselves from the flock, this could be a sign of illness or a sign that they are getting picked on. Pay close attention to their mobility- healthy turkey chicks should walk and run without any sign of lameness, and when they stand both legs should be evenly under them.

    Aspergillosis

    Aspergillosis is a non-contagious fungal infection that affects a number of animals, including turkeys. Turkey chicks are the most commonly affected, though older birds can certainly be affected as well. While aspergillosis can manifest in different ways, respiratory illness is the most common manifestation. Signs of this infection include heavy and/or rapid breathing, lethargy, inappetence, and increased thirst. Poor ventilation, unsanitary conditions, wet bedding, moldy food, and warm, humid conditions increase the risk of aspergillosis. Because straw bedding can harbor mold and fungus, it’s a good idea to substitute straw with low-dust wood shavings or other non-straw (and non-hay) bedding while keeping spaces warm for chicks. 

    Be sure to contact your veterinarian if you suspect aspergillosis. Diagnosis can be challenging, so be sure to work with your veterinarian to see what diagnostics they recommend. Treatment is also challenging and often requires aggressive and prolonged antifungal treatment as well as supportive care. In addition to treatment, be sure to take steps to reduce your residents’ exposure to spores by keeping living spaces clean and dry, improving ventilation, ensuring food and bedding are not wet or moldy, and, if using straw, switching to a safer bedding option.

    Blackhead

    Turkeys are particularly susceptible to this disease, and turkey chicks even more so. Blackhead or Histomoniasis is caused by Histomonas meleagridis, a parasitic protozoan that can be transmitted by the cecal worm Heterakis gallinarum. Because chickens can spread this protozoa without being obviously affected, most sources recommend never housing turkeys and chickens together. Many sanctuaries have been able to house chickens and turkeys together without issue, but because turkey chicks are most vulnerable, it’s recommended that turkey chicks younger than 12 weeks of age be kept away from chickens and spaces chickens have inhabited. Some sanctuaries have made it a policy to wait until turkeys are at least 6 months old before introducing them to chickens, while others feel it is best to always house chickens and turkeys separately so as to further reduce the risk of this serious disease. If you decide to house your chicken and turkey residents together, we recommend having a discussion with your veterinarian about the risk of blackhead disease and how to best mitigate this risk (which may include frequent fecal testing and/or routine deworming. They can also offer recommendations regarding how long to wait before introducing growing turkey chicks to chickens or spaces that have been inhabited by chickens.

    Turkeys can become infected by ingesting food, earthworms, or feces containing H. meleagridis. Transmission is also possible through a process called cloacal drinking (rhythmic contractions of the cloaca carry contaminated fecal material from the environment into the colon). Signs of blackhead disease include decreased appetite, lethargy, drooping wings, ruffled feathers, and mustard-yellow droppings that may also contain flecks of blood. Sadly, mortality in turkeys is typically between 80% and 100%. Currently, there are no approved treatments for blackhead disease in the US, but according to information provided by Merck Veterinary Manual, “Historically, nitroimidazoles such as ronidazole, ipronidazole, and dimetridazole were used for prevention and treatment and were highly effective.” Be sure to contact your veterinarian right away if you suspect a resident has blackhead disease. 

    Coccidiosis

    Coccidiosis in turkeys refers to disease caused by the protozoal parasites Eimeria spp. While turkeys of all ages can become infected, disease is most often seen in younger chicks. Eimeria oocysts are spread in the feces of infected turkeys, which can result in contamination of food, water, soil, and bedding. Oocysts can also be spread by mechanical means on shoes, equipment, and other fomites. After being shed in the feces, oocysts sporulate and become infective. Other turkeys become infected by ingesting infective oocysts, with clinical disease occurring in susceptible individuals who ingest relatively large numbers of infective oocysts. Following infection, the turkey develops protective immunity against the particular species of Eimeria they were exposed to. Of the species of Eimeria that affect turkeys, four are considered pathogenic: E. adenoides, E. dispersa, E. gallopavonis, and E. meleagrimitis. Signs of coccidiosis in turkeys include diarrhea, bloody feces, loss of appetite, weight loss, ruffled feathers, droopiness, and other more general signs of illness. Eimeria oocysts can be detected via a fecal float, and if necessary, your veterinarian can recommend an anticoccidial treatment.

    Hemorrhagic Enteritis

    Hemorrhagic enteritis (HE) is a viral disease caused by Hemorrhagic Enteritis Virus (HEV). Transmission of HEV is primarily via the fecal-oral route or through cloacal drinking. Clinical HE is rarely seen in turkeys younger than 4 weeks old, primarily due to maternal antibody protection. Most cases of HE occur in turkeys between the ages of 6 and 11 weeks old. Acute HE causes a rapid onset of depression, bloody droppings, and potentially death, all within 24 hours. Turkeys who recover from HE develop temporary immunosuppression and may develop secondary infections within 10-14 days of exposure to HEV. Secondary Escherichia coli infection is especially common following HE. Subclinical HE does not present the same clinical signs as acute disease but can cause immunosuppression and secondary infection. Be sure to contact your veterinarian if you suspect your residents have HE. If initiated early during an HE outbreak, vaccination can reduce clinical signs. In the past, HE has also been treated with antiserum from recovered turkeys. Secondary infections that develop should be treated based on your veterinarian’s recommendations. Immunity against HE following infection is long-lasting and may provide lifelong protection.

    Leg Issues

    Turkey chicks may be born with obvious leg deformities or develop leg issues as they grow (the terms “splay leg” or “spraddle leg” are often used to refer to deformities that result in one or both legs turning outward). There are many potential causes of leg issues in turkey chicks, including incubation issues, nutritional deficiencies, or injury. Depending on the specific issue, correction may be possible, but this requires veterinary assessment to determine the cause.

    Always Consult With A Veterinarian Regarding Leg Issues

    While some leg issues may require the turkey chick’s leg to be splinted or hobbled or may benefit from physical therapy exercises, it is imperative that you have the chick evaluated by a veterinarian first. Without knowing exactly what’s going on (typically through diagnostic imaging), you may implement interventions that actually cause more harm than good. Additionally, improper splinting or hobbling can make the primary issue worse or result in secondary issues, so you must be shown how to do this properly.

    To help prevent leg issues caused by slipping injury, be sure to provide adequate traction for turkey chicks.

    Omphalitis (Or, “Mushy Chick Disease”)

    Omphalitis is an infection of the navel and/or yolk sac. This may be caused by contamination of the egg or incubator, or due to chicks being exposed to contaminated environments before their navel has closed. Chicks with omphalitis may have an inflamed navel, there may be discharge or a scab, and it may fail to close. The abdomen of infected turkey chicks becomes enlarged, the turkey chick may feel “flabby”, and there is typically a putrid odor from the turkey chick. Other signs include refusal to eat, lethargy, huddling near heat sources, and droopiness. Death can occur within the first 24 hours of hatching, and chicks may appear healthy until just a few hours before death. If you rescue newly hatched turkey chicks, keep an eye out for this disease and contact your veterinarian immediately any time a chick is showing signs of illness.

    Vent Pasting (Pasty Butt)

    Very young chicks are prone to a condition called “pasty butt” where feces stick to their vents, clogging them, and making it impossible for them to defecate. Left untreated, this is fatal. While some health issues, such as Salmonellosis, can cause diarrhea that leads to vent pasting, other times stress or even temperature changes can cause vent pasting as well. During the first two weeks of life, you should check their vents at least once daily, gently cleaning anyone who needs it. Be aware that chicks can chill easily, so clean their vent without getting them overly wet. A dampened cotton swab or q-tip can usually do the trick. Chicks who have shown signs of vent pasting should be checked a few times daily.

    Worms

    Turkey chicks are susceptible to worms just like their grownup counterparts. Sometimes the infection may be mild, but other times worms can be serious in chicks if they’re left unchecked. Be sure to speak to your veterinarian about the best deworming options and protocols for your resident turkey chicks!

    When Turkey Chicks Grow Up

    As we have covered, turkey chicks have different nutritional, environmental, and health needs than adult turkeys. The younger the chicks, the more protection, heat, and protein (amino acids) they need. As they grow, their downy fuzz will become feathers at about 5-6 weeks. This will allow them to regulate their body temperatures. Female turkeys will typically start laying around 8 months old.

    The age at which you slowly start introducing the turkey chick to the flock will likely be dependent on personalities, diets, flock arrangements, and your set-up. In most cases, you should wait until they are at least 6 weeks old, though some prefer to wait quite a bit longer. Ideally, introductions are done in short, supervised meetings, spread over at least several days. If it is spring, toms may behave more territorially and should be closely monitored. You should watch for any signs of older turkeys “picking on” or biting the chicks and intervene immediately. Alternatively, if there is a hen who has taken to the chicks, you can place them with the chicks during their outside time. You can read more about the introduction process, here.

    Taking time to consider the specific needs of turkeys as a species and as individuals will help ensure your residents are happy and healthy!

    SOURCES:

    Turkey Care | Farm Sanctuary

    Keeping Turkeys As Pets | Dog Breed Info

    Aspergillosis | Niles Animal Hospital And Bird Medical Center

    Overview of Omphalitis in Poultry | Merck Veterinary Manual

    Overview of Hemorrhagic Enteritis/Marble Spleen Disease in Poultry | Merck Veterinary Manual

    Pediatric Diseases of Pet Birds | Merck Veterinary Manual

    Avian Respiratory Emergencies | MSPCA Angell

    Nutrient Requirements of Poultry: Ninth Revised Edition, 1994 (Non-Compassionate Source)

    Diseases of Poultry 13th Edition | David Swayne (Non-Compassionate Source)

    Backyard Poultry Medicine and Surgery: A Guide for Veterinary Practitioners (Non-Compassionate Source)

    Infectious Enteroheptatitis (Blackhead) | C.D. LEE, D.V.M., M.S. (Non-Compassionate Source)

    Overview Of Coccidiosis In Poultry | Merck Veterinary Manual (Non-Compassionate Source)

    Histomoniasis In Poultry | Merck Veterinary Manual (Non-Compassionate Source)

    Care And Feeding Of Baby Turkeys | Island Feed And Seed (Non-Compassionate Source)

    Read This Before You Get Turkey Poults | Community Chickens (Non-Compassionate Source)

    Keeping Turkeys Is Becoming Popular | Poultry Keeper (Non-Compassionate Source)

    Raising Healthy Turkeys From Poults: 6 Things to Know (Non-Compassionate Source)

    Common Diseases And Ailments Of Turkeys And Their Management | Livestock Conservancy (Non-Compassionate Source)

    Blackhead Disease in Poultry | U.S. Food And Drug Administration (Non-Compassionate Source)

    Non-Compassionate Source?

    If a source includes the (Non-Compassionate Source) tag, it means that we do not endorse that particular source’s views about animals, even if some of their insights are valuable from a care perspective. See a more detailed explanation here.

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