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    Care Recommendations For Chicks (Baby Chickens)

    Two older chicks sit in a soft-sided playpen on top of blankets. Both have some of their adult feathers but still have down on their head.
    Chicks like Pebbles and Bam Bam have different care needs than mature chickens. Read on to learn more about caring for chicks! Photo courtesy of Chicago Roo Crew

    This resource has been updated as part of the veterinary review process. It was originally published on May 28, 2019.

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    Veterinary Review Initiative
    This resource has been reviewed for accuracy and clarity by a qualified Doctor of Veterinary Medicine with farmed animal sanctuary experience as of January 2023.

    Check out more information on our Veterinary Review Initiative here!

    Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza
    For compassionate caregivers of avian residents, highly pathogenic avian influenza  (“HPAI”) has presented a dual pronged threat. HPAI is both a serious health threat to birds, and with regards to associated legal control measures. We strongly urge that sanctuaries caring for avian residents stay informed about HPAI risks both in their region and more broadly so that they can take appropriate measures to keep their residents protected. This includes implementing a biosecurity checklist as well as associated measures, such as cleaning and access logs to avian residents. Heightened quarantine measures are also highly suggested while the threat of HPAI persists.

    Baby chickens, or chicks, have their own set of care needs that differ from the care needs of mature chickens. Understanding these needs and ensuring you are meeting them is imperative if you are to take on the care of a chick (or chicks). Below we will discuss important aspects of chick care.

    Intake Recommendations 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. Upon intake, the chick should be evaluated for signs of health issues, and any issues should be discussed with your veterinarian. If your chicken residents are vaccinated against certain diseases, be sure to coordinate the administration of these vaccinations to the chick in consultation with your veterinarian. If the chick is 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 Recommendations For Chicks

    While there is more information available regarding the nutritional requirements of baby chickens than most other farmed bird species, sadly, almost all of it is focused on raising female chicks for eventual egg production or, in the case of large breed chickens, to raise them for their flesh. Because of this, sanctuary caregivers must think critically about what information can be applied to sanctuary residents and what cannot. In general, veterinarians recommend food developed by a poultry nutritionist, as these are balanced diets formulated for the health needs of chickens and other farmed bird species. Particularly in the case of large breed chicks, who risk obesity and related health issues as they grow, it is difficult to know what exactly they need in order to set them up for a long and healthy life. 

    Who Are We Talking About When We Say “Large Breed Chickens?”
    We use the term “large breed” to refer to Cornish crosses and other chickens who have been bred to grow quickly – not as quickly as Cornish crosses, but quicker than other breeds – and are typically marketed as “free-range broilers.”  As a group, they are often called “colored hybrid broilers” but include many different Trade names such as Freedom Ranger, Red Ranger, and Kosher King. Though other breeds of chickens, such as Orpingtons and Jersey Giants, are sometimes raised for their flesh, they do not face the same inherent challenges as Cornish crosses and chickens who fall into the category of “free-range broilers,” and are not who we are referring to when we say “large breed.”

    In addition to the challenges described above, we’ve also found that different sources offer slightly different recommendations in terms of specific nutrient requirements, particularly protein. Ultimately, the specific needs of chicks can vary based on their breed, health, and other factors. In this section, we will share some general recommendations, but we strongly encourage folks to reach out to their veterinarian for specific guidance regarding the chicks in their care. 

    Chicks should be fed a complete diet formulated for young, growing chicks. Options typically include “starter” formulas with around 20% protein or “starter/grower” with around 18% protein, though the exact nutrient make up will depend on the brand. Compared to “starter” formulas, “starter/grower” formulas are typically intended for a wider range of ages (sometimes from hatch until 18-20 weeks). In addition to differences in protein, chick food also comes in unmedicated and medicated formulas, with the medicated foods including a coccidiostat to protect against coccidiosis (described below). There may be detrimental effects to the chicken population as a whole when medicated foods are used. As mentioned above, when choosing a food formula, we recommend consulting with your veterinarian for specific recommendations for the birds in your care. Chicks should be fed free choice (allowed to eat as much as they want throughout the day), with the possible exception to this recommendation being large breed chicks, who we discuss more below. 

    Do NOT Feed “Layer” Food To Chicks
    “Layer” food formulas are not nutritionally appropriate for chicks and contain toxic levels of calcium. Even if you find yourself in a situation where a new chick arrives at your sanctuary after your local feed store has closed, and you do not have chick food available, “layer” food should be avoided. Instead, you can offer them 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 to older non-large breed chicks, but only as a treat as it is not nutritionally whole. When incorporating scratch or other chicken-safe treats, be sure to keep these in small quantities and ensure that their chick food formula accounts for at least 90% of their diet. Chicks will need chick-sized insoluble grit to help them break down any food other than their starter food, though if they have regular time outside, they should be able to get enough insoluble grit on their own (by eating small bits of sand or pebbles). DO NOT offer grit that contains oyster shell or additional forms of calcium as too much calcium can result in health issues for chicks.

    Feeding Large Breed Chicks

    Large breed chickens have been bred to gain a lot of weight in a short period of time which puts them at risk of serious health problems. Weight management plays an important role in large breed chicken care and, as a result, mature large breed chickens should be fed measured portions. Young large breed chicks can potentially be fed free choice in the beginning, but you will want to monitor their intake and growth closely. It is not uncommon for large breed chicks, particularly Cornish cross chicks, to gorge themselves on food, which could result in crop issues. If you find this is the case, you will need to regulate their food without being too restrictive. A good starting point is to offer measured meals every few hours, waiting for their crop to empty before offering more food. The amount fed at each meal will depend on the size of the chick, and you’ll want to keep a close eye on their body condition. 

    Similarly, large breed chicks may gorge themselves on insoluble grit, which can cause serious issues. If you feel your large breed chick residents need insoluble grit, you may want to discuss how to safely supplement with your veterinarian. Instead of offering insoluble grit free choice, which is the typical recommendation for non-large breed chickens, we’d recommend offering only very small amounts and watching closely, removing it if the chicks seem to be overdoing it.

    Keep Their Food Clean!
    It’s a good idea to provide food in dishes that cannot be tipped in order to prevent chicks from spilling and then soiling their food. Unfortunately, even with spill-proof dishes, chicks can be quite messy. Be sure to regularly replace food that has been soiled and to clean food dishes that have become dirty.

    Transitioning Older Chicks To An Adult Diet

    By the time chicks are around 16-18 weeks, they can typically be transitioned 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, and large breed chickens will have different needs than non-large breed chickens. You can read more about what to feed mature chickens here

    Water For Chicks

    Chicks should always have access to fresh, clean water, but this must be provided thoughtfully. Open water dishes are difficult to keep clean and can also pose a serious safety risk to very young chicks who may get into these water sources. Wet chicks will become chilled, which can have devastating consequences and, tragically, there have also been heartbreaking reports of chicks drowning in open water dishes. Chick fountains are typically a safer alternative to open dishes. Chick fountains prevent chicks from getting wet and are often easier to keep clean throughout the day. 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 an open dish. 

    Ideally, water should be lukewarm – not too cold or hot. Be sure to check their water often, cleaning and replenishing if water has become soiled from food, bedding, or droppings. To help prevent chicks from scratching food and bedding into their water, you can start by laying a towel underneath it, and then raising it onto a slightly elevated surface as the chicks grow (making sure they can still reach it easily).

    Living Space Recommendations 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. Do NOT place chicks in cages with wire bottoms as this can cause serious foot injuries. Their living spaces should include soft bedding that is regularly replaced in order to keep it clean and dry, and you can use rubber drawer liners or rubber mats on the floor to ensure a non-slip surface. Though straw is a frequently used bedding option, 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). Straw, because it does not absorb moisture, may also increase risk of bumble foot (infection of the feet, which can be caused by high moisture). Kiln-dried 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. As they grow, 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, towels, or non-woven blankets until this behavior subsides).  

    Depending on their breed, you can begin providing short roosts for chicks as early as 4 weeks of age. 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 might be a better option than a rod-style perch – just make sure these surfaces are regularly cleaned

    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 (though in cold temperatures, she will benefit from supplemental heat, too). Sadly, chicks often come in without their mothers, and therefore need supplemental heat at temperatures mature chickens do not. As a general rule, you should start off at 95 degrees Fahrenheit for newly hatched chicks and decrease temperature by 5 degrees over each week until they are fully feathered (around 6 weeks of age) or until you reach the ambient temperature of the space they are housed in. When providing supplemental heat, be sure to do so thoughtfully, avoiding heat sources that carry a high risk of causing a fire or injury, always be sure to follow the manufacturer’s instructions regarding safe and proper use, and keep heat sources away from flammable materials (such as their bedding).

    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 secured so that residents cannot come into direct contact with them, and keep them at least 18 inches away from any flammable materials to prevent burns and fires. Also make sure they are positioned so that curious chicks who are learning to fly and perch cannot reach the heat lamp. 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 does not need to be plugged in, you can use Snuggle Safe microwavable heat discs, but you must ensure this is enough to keep chicks appropriately warm. Be sure to keep discs in a Snuggle Safe cover or wrapped in a blanket or towel to prevent chicks from coming into direct contact with the disc, and pay attention to when they need to be reheated. Be sure to follow the manufacturer’s instructions regarding use and reheating. If caring for a group of chicks, 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. 

    Though keeping chicks warm is important, you also 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 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. 

    Venturing Outdoors

    If the weather is warm and calm, you can begin taking chicks out for miniature supervised “outings”, but they should not have access to spaces where other chickens have been. Chicks should not be left unattended or remain out all day until they are at least 6 weeks old. Even after they are old enough to spend time outside without constant supervision, be aware that they may need to be encouraged back into their indoor living space during inclement weather.

    Protection From Predators
    All chickens 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 chickens, have been known to kill chicks. All chickens should be safe and secured in their indoor living space each night.

    Social Considerations For Chicks

    Chicks are social and should be brought up with other chicks when possible. If you rescue a group of chicks, you can typically quarantine them as a group, separating them only if individuals aren’t getting along or if someone has a health issue that requires separation. Chicks learn important skills from their mother and, as mentioned above, should not be separated unless absolutely necessary.

    Despite their social nature, if you are caring for a single chick who is without their mother, it’s still important to follow proper intake and quarantine procedures. Failing to do so and immediately introducing them to your chicken residents could potentially spread disease. In the case of a single chick in quarantine, additional attention should be paid to addressing their social needs during this time. You might place a stuffed animal chicken in with them as “company” (some stuffed animals are even designed to hold a microwavable heat disc, providing both heat and comfort), and you can consider other safe social enrichment strategies as well. In some cases, sanctuaries that have rescued a single chick have decided to welcome another chick in need of rescue so that the two can grow up together after they have completed their quarantine and/or gotten the all clear from a veterinarian.

    Once new chicks have completed their quarantine and are deemed healthy, you can consider introducing them to your chicken residents. The age at which you slowly start introducing chicks to the flock will be dependent on personalities, nutritional needs, flock arrangements, and your set-up. In most cases, you should wait until they are at least 6 weeks old, though some caregivers prefer to wait quite a bit longer. Ideally, introductions are done in short, supervised meetings, spread over several days (or longer). If conducting a springtime introduction, keep in mind that roosters may behave more territorially and should be closely monitored – some roosters may be too rough for young chicks. 

    During introductions, you should watch for any signs of older chickens “picking on” or biting the chicks and intervene immediately. If it seems to be too much to introduce them to the entire group, but there is a chicken who has taken to the chicks, you might opt to set up a space for them to spend time with the chicks away from the rest of the flock. You can read more about the introduction process here.

    Chick Health Considerations

    Chicks can be particularly susceptible to certain illnesses and diseases. When caring for chicks, it’s important to be familiar with some of the more common health challenges they face, so you can watch closely for signs of these issues in your residents. 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. If you have any concerns about a chick in your care, contact an experienced veterinarian for guidance.

    While not an exhaustive list, chick caregivers should be familiar with the following health issues.


    Aspergillosis (also referred to as “brooder pneumonia”) is a non-contagious fungal disease that typically manifests as respiratory illness in birds. While there are numerous species of Aspergillus, Aspergillus fumigatus, a ubiquitous soil fungus, is the most common cause in chickens, turkeys, ducks, and geese. Aspergillosis is an opportunistic infection – while birds are constantly exposed to fungal spores, often without developing disease, immunosuppression (such as from stress, corticosteroid use, disease, or malnutrition) and being exposed to large numbers of aerosolized spores may result in disease. Poor ventilation, unsanitary conditions, wet bedding, moldy food, and warm, humid conditions increase the risk of aspergillosis. Therefore, you can help protect your residents by properly storing food, keeping living spaces clean and well ventilated, and ensuring spaces do not become warm and humid. Straw bedding can harbor mold and fungus, so wood shavings or other non-straw (and non-hay) bedding is a better option if aspergillosis is a concern. Signs of aspergillosis include open-mouth breathing, labored breathing, tail bobbing, gasping, and an elevated respiratory rate. Other signs include inappetence and lethargy. 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 (such as itraconazole) 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 dry, ensuring food and bedding are not wet or moldy, switching from straw to a safer bedding option, and improving ventilation. 


    Coccidiosis in chickens refers to disease caused by the protozoal parasites Eimeria spp. While chickens of all ages can become infected, disease is most often seen in younger chicks who have not yet developed any immunity. Eimeria oocysts are spread in the feces of infected chickens, 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 chickens become infected by ingesting infective oocysts. There are nine species of Eimeria that affect chickens, and following infection, the chicken develops protective immunity against the particular species of Eimeria they were exposed to. Signs of coccidiosis include diarrhea, bloody feces, loss of appetite, weight loss, ruffled feathers, and huddling together for warmth. Eimeria oocysts can be detected via a fecal float, and if necessary, your veterinarian can recommend an anticoccidial treatment.

    Internal Parasites

    Just like their grown-up counterparts, chicks are susceptible to other parasitic diseases besides coccidiosis. Sometimes cases are mild, but parasitic infections have the potential to be quite serious and, if left untreated, can even be fatal in chicks. Be sure to speak to your vet about the best screening protocols for chicks, and if you suspect an individual has an internal parasitic infection, be sure to consult with your veterinarian regarding diagnosis and treatment. 

    Leg Issues

    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 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 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 chicks.

    Marek’s Disease

    Marek’s Disease is caused by a variant of a highly contagious herpes virus that infects the immune system. 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 MDV, typically when they are one-day old. Unfortunately, some of the stronger strains of MDV can overcome the vaccine strain. You can read more about this complicated disease here.  


    The term Mycoplasmosis is used to refer to infectious diseases caused by micro-organisms called Mycoplasma. Chickens can be affected by numerous mycoplasmas, but one of the most common is Mycoplasma gallisepticum which can cause chronic respiratory disease in chickens, as well as other birds such as turkeys and gamebirds. This condition is spread from bird to bird through respiratory secretions and aerosols and can also be spread by contaminated clothing, equipment, or other fomites. Clinical signs can range from very mild to severe respiratory distress. You may note nasal discharge and bubbles around the eyes in addition to swelling around the eye. Chicks may also struggle to gain weight, affecting their normal growth. Birds affected by mycoplasma can become vulnerable to secondary viral or bacterial infections, impacting their prognosis. Be sure to contact your veterinarian at the first sign of respiratory illness. Your veterinarian can perform diagnostic testing to determine the cause and appropriate response. In the case of Mycoplasma gallisepticum infection, early identification is key, and proper antibiotic treatment can help alleviate clinical signs. More advanced cases may require more intensive care. Once recovered, individuals remain lifelong carriers and may have future episodes of illness, especially during times of stress or sudden temperature fluctuations.

    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 chicks becomes enlarged, the chick may feel “flabby”, and there is typically a putrid odor from the 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 chicks, keep an eye out for this disease and contact your veterinarian immediately any time a chick is showing signs of illness.

    Vent Pasting

    Very young chicks are prone to a condition called “pasty butt” where feces stick to their vent, clogging it, and making it impossible for them to defecate. Left untreated, this is fatal. While some health issues can cause diarrhea that leads to vent pasting, other times stress or even temperature changes can cause vent pasting as well. “Pasty butt” is a symptom, not a diagnosis, and in cases where this is a concern, a veterinarian should be consulted to diagnose and treat the underlying cause. During the first two weeks of life, you should check a chick’s vent at least once daily, gently cleaning as needed. Be aware that chicks can chill easily, so clean their vent without getting them overly wet. A dampened cotton swab can usually do the trick. 

    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 a chick matures, their needs change, so be sure to familiarize yourself with the proper housing, diet, and general care chickens require so that you can continue to meet their needs in every stage of their life! Taking the time to consider the needs of each individual will help ensure your residents are happy and healthy!


    Chicken Care: Large Breed | Farm Sanctuary

    Overview Of Omphalitis In Poultry | Merck Veterinary Manual

    Avian Respiratory Emergencies | MSPCA Angell

    Pediatric Diseases of Pet Birds | Merck Veterinary Manual

    Aspergillosis | Niles Animal Hospital And Bird Medical Center

    Session 3: Respiratory, Neurological And Musculo-Skeletal Diseases | Backyard Poultry Online ‘Mini Series’

    Overview of Omphalitis in Poultry | Merck Veterinary Manual

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

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

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

    Nutritional Requirements of Poultry | Merck Veterinary Manual (Non-Compassionate Source)

    Non-Medicated vs. Medicated Chick Starter Feed | Tractor Supply (Non-Compassionate Source)

    Mycoplasma gallisepticum Infection in Poultry | Merck Manual (Non-Compassionate Source)

    Mycoplasmosis | Poultry Hub (Non-Compassionate Source)

    Mycoplasma: How to Deal with a Persistent and Ubiquitous Pathogen  (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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