Updated July 27, 2020
Very young chickens (also known as 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, chicks have diverse needs when it comes to health, nutrition, and socialization.
Intake For Chicks
When a new 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 chick should receive any location and age-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 Chicks
Chicks should eat a “chick starter” food with around 20% protein until they are 8-12 weeks of age. If chicks have been vaccinated against Coccidiosis, then you can buy an unmedicated food. If they have not, then a medicated food may help prevent Coccidiosis. If you use a starter food, these are typically followed up by a “grower food” which has slightly less protein. There are now some “starter/grower” foods for chicks that can be given up to 18 weeks. Always refer to manufacturer recommendations, as each formulation is different. At this point, you can start transitioning them to a diet appropriate for mature chickens, keeping in mind that residents who are laying eggs will have different dietary needs than roosters or hens who are implanted. You can read more about what to feed mature chickens here.
Scratch can be provided to non-large breed chicks, but only as a treat as it is not nutritionally whole. Chicks are good at foraging and chicks can go out on grass after a few weeks. 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 adults have been in order to prevent disease. See below for more information on how to safely provide outdoor time for chicks. As chickens have no teeth, chicks will need chick-appropriate insoluble grit to help them break down any food other than “chick starter”, though you must take care when feeding this to large breed chicks as they have been known to overindulge. If you find that they are eating too much insoluble grit, you will need to restrict their access. DO NOT offer grit that contains oyster shell or additional forms of calcium, as too much calcium can result in health issues for chicks.
Water For Chicks
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 Chicks
Young chicks will need a heat source. If they are with their mother, she will be the best heat source for them! Sadly, 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. Place them at one end of their living space so chicks can adjust where they’d like to be in proximity to the heat. An even safer alternative heat source is a radiant heater like the EcoGlo from Brinsea. You adjust the height each week until the chicks’ feathers have come in. 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. Make sure to offer enough heat discs so that everyone can get to a warm area if desired, but make sure they still have plenty of non-heated space too so that they can choose how near or far they need to be from the heat. Additionally, you will need to take care not to overheat chicks in warmer weather. If you live in a warmer climate and have draft-free living space for the chicks, they may not require a heat source. A regular 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 chicks and decrease temperature 5 degrees over each week until their feathers come in at 5-6 weeks.
Living Spaces For 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. You can use rubber drawer liners on the floor to ensure a non-slip surface.
Depending on the breed of chicken, you can begin providing short roosts for chicks as early as 4 weeks old. However, you must take care when providing roosts for large breed chicks in order to prevent injuries- keep roosts low and make sure the area the large breed chick will be jumping down to will provide proper traction and cushion. A wide, flat roost such as a wide board or straw bale might be better options than rod-style perches- 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). Pine or aspen shavings may be a safer choice. Cedar should never be used in avian living spaces, as it can cause severe respiratory issues. Large breed chicks may benefit from deeper bedding, but you must ensure it is not so deep that it makes walking difficult, and you should always be on the lookout for signs that they are obsessively eating their provided bedding (in which case, you may need to switch them to sheets or non-woven blankets until this behavior subsides).
If the weather is warm and calm, you can begin taking chicks out for miniature supervised “outings”, 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.
Social Considerations For 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 chicks who come in together without their mothers, while missing out on important developmental time with their parent, can generally be adequately cared for.
Chick Health Considerations
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 possible vaccinations or protective measures from diseases as soon 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 chicks should walk and run without any sign of lameness, and when they stand both legs should be evenly under them.
Aspergillosis is a fungal infection that affects a number of animals, including chickens. Chicks between 5 days and 8 weeks of age are the most commonly affected, though older birds can certainly be affected as well. Signs of this infection include heavy or rapid breathing and yellow or grey nodular lesions in the respiratory tract, occasionally including the mouth. These lesions can also occur in the eyes and brain.
Clean housing and ventilation keeps Aspergillosis at bay, as well as the use of avian-safe fungicide spray after deep living space cleanings. Avoid wet housing conditions, and don’t allow an avian living space to get too warm and humid in the winter as spores can grow and be released from straw. When keeping a space warm for chicks, it can be a good idea to substitute straw with wood shavings and ensure that their living space does not get too dusty, moist, or moldy.
Many chickens rescued out of commercial chicken farming might be Coccidia carriers without being symptomatic, which can cause problems to their new flock or if they are struck with another disease. Signs to look out for include bloody droppings, thin and low appetite birds, huddling together in groups, sluggishness and fewer eggs laid, or sudden deaths in the flock. Coccidia can spread through dirty and wet bedding and contaminated clothing, shoes, and equipment. Good hygiene can prevent infection. Regular fecal testing can detect the disease. If detected, you can administer a veterinarian-recommended deworming treatment. Dewormers can be purchased at farm supply stores in simple formulas that are added to a chicken’s water. Coccidia is not easy to eliminate, so you may need frequent treatments to get rid of it. Be sure to discuss coccidia treatments and fecal results with your avian veterinarian- they will be able to help determine when treatment is necessary and what to do if a treatment is unsuccessful.
Marek’s Disease is caused by a variant of a highly contagious herpes virus that infects the immune system of both chickens and turkeys. Chickens are the most important natural host for Marek’s Disease Virus (MDV). This virus causes neurological signs and tumors, typically in birds younger than 5 months old. MDV is considered one of the most ubiquitous avian infections worldwide; because of this, almost every flock is presumed to be infected. Most chickens raised in industrial settings are vaccinated against it, but the vaccine is only effective when the birds are very young, before they have had any exposure whatsoever to this herpes virus. Chicks are typically vaccinated when they are one-day old. The reasoning behind this practice is this: whichever virus the bird is exposed to first (be it the vaccine or the field virus), this is the one that takes control and the one that the bird will develop a lifelong immunity for. Unfortunately, some of the stronger strains of MDV can overcome the vaccine strain no matter the age of the bird when they were vaccinated- this is why some birds can still develop Marek’s disease despite being vaccinated at an early age. The vaccine does not prevent a bird from spreading MDV to other non-vaccinated birds; the vaccine will only reduce shedding and infections from the virus but does not completely eliminate it. One study found that the vaccine actually caused the disease to spread more quickly and can lead to significantly worse outbreaks of the “hot” (most harmful) strains. Some breeds, like Silkies and Sebrights, are very prone to catching it. It is extremely contagious and is released into the environment from the feather follicles- the dust and dander from chickens serve as the primary method of the disease spreading. MDV can live in the environment for many months. Signs for concern are extremely variable, often making the disease hard to suspect by clinical signs alone. This is a reason why MDV is so commonly discussed as a possibility when a veterinarian examines a sick chicken. Birds with Marek’s may just show signs of being depressed and then pass away suddenly. The most common syndrome that can raise a red flag for MDV includes a progressive paralysis in one wing (resulting in a dropped wing) and paralysis in the leg, head tilting, and abnormal droppings. MDV later causes neck paralysis, irregular-sized pupils, blindness, and extreme weight loss. It ultimately results in enlarged nerves and in tumor formation in nerve, organ, muscle, and epithelial tissue. Some chickens can suffer from progressive neurological issues, but if they are able to fight off the virus while you provide supportive care, they can recover and then will have a new immunity to that strain. There is no cure for Marek’s disease. Some recommend trying out a regimen of lysine (which inhibits herpes virus growth) or hypericum and supplementing with vitamin E. Although it can be hard to find symptoms of the disease in affected flocks, chickens with weakened immunity or new birds who enter a disease-carrying flock and are not vaccinated can exhibit symptoms of the disease. Affected chickens can be more susceptible to other diseases, but can potentially live for years with it. Only a necropsy can completely confirm Marek’s as the sole cause of death. A blood test or testing on the feather can be performed, however, these tests cannot differentiate between a vaccinated bird and an actively infected bird, so even if the results come back positive you cannot say with 100% accuracy that the bird is suffering from a MDV infection or if there is another cause.
Omphalitis (Or, “Mushy Chick Disease”)
Omphalitis is a bacterial infection of the navel in newly hatched chicks. The abdomen of infected chicks becomes enlarged and the navel will remain unhealed. The chick will feel “flabby”, and there will be a putrid odor from the chick. Death can occur within the first 24 hours of hatching, and there is a high mortality rate. This issue generally starts with poor incubator hygiene. If you receive newly hatched chicks, this is something to be aware of. Call your veterinarian immediately if you suspect this disease.
Also known as Paratyphoid, the bacteria Salmonella is in most bird intestines. Usually this is not problematic to mature chickens, but it can infect humans if they eat food with contaminated hands. If chickens suffer from salmonellosis, they can be successfully treated with antibiotics recommended by your veterinarian, but it can take months before they are free of the infection. Chicks are most susceptible to the disease. Symptoms in chicks include loss of appetite and diarrhea. Additionally, vents pasted up with white diarrhea may be observed in newly hatched chicks. This can harden and prevent defecation, causing death.
The most common cause of Spraddle or Splayed Leg is a slippery floor. If a chick cannot get proper traction on the floor, their legs will slide to one side, preventing them from developing their leg muscles. Rubber drawer or cabinet mats can help ensure chicks have enough traction.
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.
Chicks are susceptible to worms just like their grown up counterparts. Sometimes the infection may be mild, but other times worms can be serious in chicks if left unchecked. Be sure to speak to your veterinarian about the best deworming options and protocols for your resident chicks!
When Chicks Grow Up
As we have covered, chicks have different nutritional, environmental, and health needs than adult chickens. 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 “laying” hens will start laying eggs around 4-5 months old.
The age at which you slowly start introducing the chicks 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, roosters may behave more territorially and should be closely monitored. You should watch for any signs of older residents “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 chickens as a species and as individuals will help ensure your residents are happy and healthy!
Spraddle Leg And Crooked Toes: Causes And Treatment | The Chicken Chick (Non-Compassionate Source)
Understanding Chicken Feed | Farminence (Non-Compassionate Source)
How Long Do Baby Chicks Need A Heat Lamp Or Heat Source? | Wide Open Pets (Non-Compassionate Source)
Caring For Baby Chicks with Pasty Butt | Backyard Poultry (Non-Compassionate Source)
Polytetrafluoroethylene Toxicity in Chickens|Backyard Chickens (Non-Compassionate Source)