Buying baby chicks from a reputable breeder or hatchery and providing them a clean, warm place to grow with 24/7 access to clean fresh water and good-quality chick starter feed will generally result in healthy chicks, but sometimes you’ll still encounter issues. Here’s a quick guide on how to naturally care for sick chicks. After all, one of the reasons we raise our own backyard chickens is to avoid eating eggs laid by hens pumped full of antibiotics, medications, and chemicals. Start your babies off right with natural treatments. You’ll be glad you did.
Here are seven common problems that you may encounter when caring for baby chicks:
1. Marek’s Disease
What it is: The collective name for several highly contagious viral diseases that cause tumors and paralysis in sick chicks and spread bird-to-bird or via infected dust and dander. Some level of immunity is achieved by healthy chicks exposed to small amounts who are able to fight the virus.
Prevention: The Marek’s vaccination offered by many hatcheries and breeders is not 100% effective. A clean brooder is your best prevention, as is helping chicks build a strong immune system by adding apple cider vinegar, garlic and probiotic powder to their diet.
Treatment: Chicks you suspect have contracted Marek’s should be separated. There is no treatment for Marek’s disease, but by making sure affected chicks continue to eat and drink, and are keeping their immune systems strong, those chicks have a better chance at surviving.
What it is: The number one cause of death in baby chicks, coccidiosis is a highly contagious parasitic disease of the intestinal tract. Red-tinted or bloody stools and lethargy are some of the sick chick symptoms that indicate coccidiosis.
Prevention: Skip the medicated feed and instead add apple cider vinegar, probiotic powder and garlic to your chicks’ daily diet to build strong immune systems, so chicks are hardy enough to combat any coccidia they encounter in their environment. Add some oregano oil and cinnamon as well — both of these herbal remedies are natural antibiotics. Fermented chicken feed for older birds can help prevent coccidiosis.
Treatment: If you do suspect a chick has contracted coccidiosis and is exhibiting these symptoms, separate her and feed equal parts chick feed and milk mixed with some plain yogurt. This will cause diarrhea to help flush the intestines of the parasite. Follow up with a sprinkle of probiotic powder in the feed to help rebuild the good bacteria, and you can avoid antibiotics for chickens affected with coccidiosis.
3. Pasty Butt
What it is: This potentially fatal condition occurs when feces stops up a chick’s vent so they can’t excrete.
Prevention: This symptom is most common in shipped mail order chickens, so if possible purchase chick locally or hatch your own. Also caused by stress or temperature fluctuations, keep your brooder temperature constant and don’t let children or household pets harass your chicks. Change out wet and soiled brooder bedding regularly.
Treatment: Dirty vents should be cleaned off carefully with a q-tip dipped in olive oil and rechecked/relubricated as needed (usually takes a few days). Cornmeal or ground raw oatmeal can help clear up pasty butt, as can adding probiotic powder to your chick’s feed. Chick-sized grit should also be provided in the brooder.
What it is: This sick chick symptom is a condition where a chick is unable to hold its head up. The chick will be unable to walk normally and instead walk backward.
Prevention: Thought to be partially caused by a Vitamin B (thiamine) deficiency, so try sprinkling some Brewer’s Yeast over the chick’s daily feed.
Treatment: Same as for prevention, adding Brewer’s yeast is an excellent source for thiamine, or you can administer Nutri-Drench to the affected chick. Massage the chick’s neck carefully for a few minutes several times a day. Monitor to ensure the chick has access to feed and water and isn’t being trampled by the other chicks.
5. Scissor Beak (or Crossed Beak)
What it is: A deformity in which the top and bottom of a chick’s beak don’t line up properly. It is most often genetic and will likely worsen over time as the chick grows.
Prevention: To prevent future cases, don’t breed any chicks with the condition (or the hen who’s egg hatched the chick with scissor beak)
Treatment: Filing down the beak with an emery board can help it to close better. Moistening the chick feed and raising the dish or feeder to shoulder-level can help the chick eat a bit easier. Feeding the chick separately can also assure it is getting enough to eat.
6. Spraddle Leg
What it is: A condition whereby one or both legs slip out to the sides making a chick unable to stand or walk, often caused by incubator temperature being too high or fluctuating too much. It can appear in day-old chick hatches if the brooder floor is too slippery for the chick to grip. Sometimes spraddle leg is caused by a vitamin deficiency.
Prevention: Cover your brooder floor with rubber shelf liner or paper towels, not slippery newspaper.
Treatment: Wrap a band-aid or some Vetwrap around the legs to stabilize them for a few days. Monitor the chick to ensure it isn’t being trampled by the other chicks and can access the feed and water. Add some Nutri-Drench to the water if you suspect a vitamin deficiency.
7. Respiratory Issues
What it is: With their elaborate respiratory systems, chicks are very susceptible to breathing problems. Sick chick symptoms related to respiratory issues are runny or bubbling eyes, coughing, sneezing or runny nostrils. Sometimes also the symptom of a more serious illness, often these sick chick symptoms are merely caused by irritants in the brooder.
Prevention: Use large-sized pine chips as brooder bedding to cut down on dust. Never use cedar shavings since the oils and aromatic scent can irritate chicks lungs and sinuses. Use white vinegar and water to clean the brooder instead of bleach, which when mixed with the ammonia in chick poop can create toxic fumes.
Treatment: Separate the sick chick and try a squirt of saline solution for a few days to clear debris out of the eyes. Sometimes that is all it takes. If symptoms continue, chopped fresh basil, clover, dill, and thyme all aid respiratory health. ( a respiratory illness that doesn’t clear up in a week or so or continues to get worse can signal a serious illness and a vet should be consulted.)
Despite how scary all this might sound, rest assured that purchasing chicks or hatching eggs from a reputable source and practicing good biosecurity/brooder management as well as a few natural supplements to aid in immune system strength will more than likely assure you never encounter any of these problems, but if you do, now you’ll be prepared.
Now you know how to care for baby chicks who are suffering from common illnesses. Do you have a great natural solution to these illnesses?
Originally published in 2104 and regularly vetted for accuracy.