Updated September 15, 2020
It can be a challenge to ensure chicken residents have healthy, happy lives after coming to a sanctuary, and there are many different aspects of care to consider each day. Unfortunately, toxic and poisonous hazards are sometimes overlooked in the hustle and bustle of operating a sanctuary. While minor exposure to many of these toxins are unlikely to cause serious problems, large amounts can cause severe health issues and sadly, even death. Many chickens may instinctively avoid toxic plants or avoid them because many are bitter to the taste. However, there are also some toxins that are highly dangerous even in small amounts and others that are quite palatable. In order to help ensure you never run into this problem, we have compiled this resource of common plants and other potentially toxic things that have been known to be a problem for chickens.
Plants That Are Toxic To Chickens
Please see The Open Sanctuary Project’s Global Toxic Plant Database and filter Species Afflicted by chickens in order to see a list of plants across the world that are toxic to chickens. Please note that, while comprehensive, this list may not contain every single plant toxic to chickens!
Other Potential Chicken Toxins
Blue-green algae is often found in stagnant water when temperatures are high. This algae can be toxic to chickens if they ingest contaminated water. The type of toxin ingested will determine the symptoms. Symptoms of neurotoxic cyanotoxins include muscle tremors, decreased movement, difficulty breathing, convulsions, or in many cases sudden collapse and death. Signs of hepatotoxic cyanotoxins are weakness, bloody diarrhea, pale comb and wattles, mental derangement, and eventually death. In order to prevent algae toxicity in chickens and other residents, be sure to clean water sources on a regular basis, especially when the weather is hot. Preventing access to other stagnant or slow-moving water sources such as lakes, bogs, and ponds can also help you keep residents safe.
Cantharidiasis (Blister Beetle Poisoning)
Blister beetles contain cantharidin, a toxic substance that is used as a defense mechanism against predators. While poisoning from these beetles is most concerning for horses and other mammals, they are potentially dangerous to your chicken residents too. While many chickens will avoid eating these beetles, some may be accidentally ingested. Younger birds are more likely to make the mistake of ingesting a blister beetle. They can cause erosive lesions and death, if consumed. If you suspect Blister Beetle Poisoning, contact your veterinarian immediately.
Cedar wood should be avoided in avian living spaces because it can cause respiratory issues. If you use wood shavings for bedding, make sure you are not buying cedar shavings. Aspen and pine are generally safer options, though there is conflicting information regarding the safety of pine.
Sometimes, copper sulfate is used to treat crop mycosis or digestive issues in chickens. However, copper sulfate in a single dose of >1 g is fatal and should be used with care. Symptoms of copper toxicosis are listlessness and watery diarrhea. At a necropsy, burns and erosions are found in the lining of the gizzard, along with a green mucous throughout the intestinal tract.
Hardware Disease refers to the injuries that can result from any animal resident eating something they shouldn’t, especially pieces of human-made hardware like nails, screws, and staples. Hardware disease can have devastating effects on any resident. Check out our resource on Hardware Disease prevention here.
Lead was once used in paints and pesticides, and can also be found from natural environmental sources. Even if you have never used any products containing lead, it may still be present in old barn or fence paint, or in the soil. Places where old machinery and leaded gas have been stored may also have caused contamination, as would old treated lumber and railroad ties. Chickens may ingest the lead in the environment through the consumption of paint flakes, plant material that has absorbed lead in the environment, and from tainted surfaces.
Signs of lead poisoning in chickens are:
- Greenish droppings commonly seen within 36 hours
- As poisoning progresses, the wings may be extended downward.
- Young birds may die within 36 hours of ingestion.
Having the soil tested at your sanctuary is an easy way to learn if the environment is safe for residents. You can check with a local environmental conservation service, or agricultural extension office to inquire about testing. It is usually a fairly quick and easy process. Prevent your residents from accessing buildings and fences with old paint.
Consult a veterinarian immediately if you suspect a chicken has ingested lead or is beginning to show symptoms of lead poisoning.
Mycotoxins are a toxin produced by molds (fungi) that are harmful to many animals, including chickens. Mycotoxins, specifically aflatoxins can affect chickens through contaminated food or bedding. Moist, warm environments make a perfect recipe for mold reproduction. Aspergillus and Penicillium can produce aflatoxins and can be a particular concern for birds.
Prevention is key in avoiding serious health issues. Luckily, there are a number of steps you can take to help ensure resident chickens do not suffer the ill effects of mycotoxin poisoning:
- Be sure to keep food, grain, and hay storage areas clean, dry, and cool
- Try to keep food storage areas protected from mice and rats and other wildlife, as they can chew holes in food bags, increasing the likelihood of grain being exposed to damp conditions
- Always feed the oldest sources of food first. Try to use up open food bags within a few weeks after opening in the winter and in even less time in the summer
- Clean any storage bins or cans thoroughly to remove old grain that may get stuck in cracks and crevices
- Check with your food manufacturer or supplier to see if they regularly test for the presence of mycotoxins in grains before mixing food. If they do not, avoid using them and find another supplier
If you are concerned about the possibility of mycotoxin contamination, have your food stores tested. This could be especially important if you have a chicken who shows initial signs of mycotoxin exposure.
Pesticides, Herbicides, And Rodenticides
It may not come as a surprise that herbicides and rodenticides can cause toxicosis in chickens if ingested. If chickens ingest plants or insects that have been sprayed with phenoxy acid herbicides, they can become ill or even die. For this reason, it is imperative that chickens are not given treated plants or are allowed access to pastures that have been treated with herbicides.
While rats and mice can pose challenges for sanctuaries, it is important to respect them and use compassionate mitigation practices. In addition to the compassion and consideration mice and rats deserve, many rodenticides are anticoagulants and act by preventing the blood to clot; chickens may find and attempt to eat the poisoned body of a mouse or rat and become poisoned themselves. There are many new and innovative ways to address rodent populations that are more effective and compassionate.
Early treatment is critical. If you suspect a chicken may have ingested any of the poisons above, contact your veterinarian immediately. Blood tests may confirm poisoning.
Polytetrafluoroethylene Toxicosis (Teflon Flu, Polymer Fume Fever)
Polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE) is found in many household items but those that are intended to be heated are the main source of toxicity. At high temperatures, items containing PTFE can put out highly toxic fumes, resulting in toxicity or even death. Make sure any heat sources you use in resident living spaces, such as a radiant heater or heat lamp, are free of PTFE. We advise against the use of glass bulb heat lamps due to their associated fire risk, but another reason to steer clear is that some are coated in PTFE. Other sources of concern include some hairdryers, heating pads, irons and ironing board covers, computer wires, and non-stick cookware. While polytetrafluoroethylene toxicosis is a concern for any avian resident, be especially vigilant if you share your home with an avian companion, since there are many household items that could contain PTFE.
Venomous snakebites are not common, but when they occur, should be treated seriously and immediately. If you notice a snakebite, look for others. Snake venom varies by species, and the severity of a bite can also be influenced by size, age, and the number of bites. Most venoms can impair blood clotting and damage the heart, while some others contain neurotoxins. Signs of a snakebite may include:
- Swelling at the bite site
- One or more puncture wounds
- Sloughing of tissues near the bite site
- Cardiac arrhythmias
- Impaired ability for their blood to clot
Seek veterinary care immediately if a chicken is bitten by a venomous snake. Do NOT try to suck the venom out or place a tourniquet. Keep the chicken calm while seeking immediate veterinary care. Depending on the severity of the bite, treatments may include antivenin, pain medications, fluid therapy, wound treatment, tetanus vaccination, and antibiotics. Check out our Compassionate Wildlife Practices At Your Animal Sanctuary for some tips on how to dissuade snakes from your property.
Wood Stains And Paints
Some wood stains and paints can be toxic to residents. Chickens may try to peck at painted or stained surfaces and can become ill if the stain or paint is toxic. When painting or staining fencing or the exteriors of buildings, look for products that are specially made for barns and fencing and listed as animal or “livestock” friendly. If you choose to paint the interior of an enclosure (or if you are painting an area of your home and share your home with a chicken companion), we suggest you opt for a zero VOC paint- some are even labeled “pet friendly.” Chickens are very sensitive to fumes and should be kept away from freshly painted or stained areas until you are absolutely certain there are no residual fumes.
Foods That You Should Not Feed To Chickens
In addition to the above, here are some foods that you should not feed to chickens:
- Avocado skin and pits contain persin, which is toxic to chickens.
- Avoid citrus juice and skins.
- Don’t give chickens any edible containing salt, sugar, coffee, or liquor.
- Uncooked raw or dried beans contain hemaglutin, which is poisonous to chickens.
- Raw green potato skins contain solanine, which is poisonous to chickens.
- Large quantities of onions can be harmful to chickens, affecting their red blood cells, causing hemolytic anemia or Heinz anemia.
- Avoid feeding or free-ranging chickens specific unshelled nuts of walnuts (Juglans spp.), black walnuts (Juglans nigrs), hazelnuts (Corylus), and pecans (Carya illinoinensis).
- Don’t give your chicken residents leaves of rhubarb, potato, or tomato plants.
Okay in Limited Amounts
- Spinach can interfere with calcium absorption.
- Iceberg lettuce has little nutritional value and can cause diarrhea if too much is ingested.
- Rice, pasta and bread should also be limited, especially white starches.
Most of the time chickens will avoid things that aren’t good for them, but if food is scarce, or it is included in with other things they normally eat, they can’t always be trusted to steer clear.
While this list isn’t exhaustive, it can certainly help you keep resident chickens safe, healthy, and happy!
Blister Beetles | North Carolina State University Extension Service (Non-Compassionate Source)
Toxic Plants A-Z | PoultryDMV (Non-Compassionate Source)
Plants That Are Poisonous to Chickens | Gardening With Free-Range Chickens For Dummies (Non-Compassionate Source)
Blue Green Algae Poisoning | Poultry DMV (Non-Compassionate Source)
Protect You Horses And Livestock From Toxic Plants | Washington State Department Of Agriculture (Non-Compassionate Source)