This resource has been updated as part of the veterinary review process. It was originally published on May 28, 2019.
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 breedDomesticated animal breeds that have been selectively bred by humans to grow as large as possible, as quickly as possible, to the detriment of their health. 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.
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.
Scratch can be provided to older non-large breedA domesticated animal breed that has not been specifically engineered to grow as quickly as possible for the purpose of human consumption. In resources at The Open Sanctuary Project, "Heritage" breeds of turkeys, for instance, are "non-large breed", even if they are physically quite big. 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 gritSmall stones or sand swallowed by birds to help them digest food. 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 cropA crop is a pouched enlargement of the esophagus of many birds that serves as a receptacle for food and for its preliminary maceration. 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.
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 spaceThe indoor or outdoor area where an animal resident lives, eats, and rests. 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.
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.
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 Aspergillusany of a genus (Aspergillus) of ascomycetous fungi with branched radiate sporophores including many common molds, Aspergillus fumigatus, a ubiquitous soil fungus, is the most common cause in chickens, turkeysUnless explicitly mentioned, we are referring to domesticated turkey breeds, not wild turkeys, who may have unique needs not covered by this resource., ducksUnless explicitly mentioned, we are referring to domesticated duck breeds, not wild ducks, who may have unique needs not covered by this resource., and geeseUnless explicitly mentioned, we are referring to domesticated goose breeds, not wild geese, who may have unique needs not covered by this resource.. 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 fomitesObjects or materials that may become contaminated with an infectious agent and contribute to disease spread. 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.
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.
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.
To help prevent leg issues caused by slipping injury, be sure to provide adequate traction for chicks.
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.
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!
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