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Coccidiosis in Chickens | Diagnosis, Prevention, Treatment

Last Updated: 29.11.21

 

When raising chickens, it is not enough to know what and how much they need to eat and what the chicken coops should be like. Knowledge about the various diseases that can affect chickens is mandatory in order to prevent them or apply the necessary treatment when needed. 

By being aware of the various health problems chickens can develop, you will be able to intervene properly when the need arises and thus help the chickens recover so that they can grow and live healthily. Coccidiosis in chickens is one of the issues you are likely to encounter since this disease is one of the most common ones encountered among chickens and other avian species. 

Given that it can be fatal to chickens, it is essential to know how to identify the symptoms of coccidiosis in chickens so that you can apply the right treatment. Early diagnosis goes a long way toward treating the affected chickens successfully. Here is more on coccidiosis, its symptoms, coccidiosis prevention methods, and treatment.

 

What is coccidiosis? 

Coccidiosis in chickens refers to a gastrointestinal disease caused by protozoa, which are single-celled organisms from the genus Eimeria. These microscopic parasitic organisms attach themselves to the intestinal lining and damage the gut tissue. That’s why blood in the chicken stool can be a sign of coccidiosis.

Since these microorganisms affect the gut health, the chickens affected by them no longer absorb the nutrients from the food they eat properly, which, in turn, leads to various other health issues. Moreover, by disturbing the gut health, these harmful microorganisms also create a favorable environment for the development of bacteria. 

This disease primarily affects chickens under six months because their immune system is not completely developed, but it can also affect adult chickens. All chickens carry these single-cell organisms, yet only some of them develop coccidiosis. 

It all starts when an oocyst, or a microscopic egg that is unsporulated, is shed in the feces. What makes it even more complicated is that such eggs can lay dormant for months, and they can sporulate if they sit in humid conditions for several days. This is one of the reasons why feeders and waterers must be properly cleaned as they can become dangerous with such microorganisms around.

It is enough for a chicken to eat a sporulated oocyst in order for the egg to hatch and infect the intestinal cells. This happens because the digestive acids found in the chicken’s intestines break down the oocyst’s protective layer. Once that happens, the egg hatches, and during each of its multiple life stages, the parasite invades and destroys thousands of intestinal cells, which leads to ulceration.

The fact that these oocysts remain viable for so long is not the only one that favors the transmission of these harmful microorganisms. Chickens carry nine species of coccidia, and since a single medicine cannot fight all these species, it is highly important to identify the symptoms and which of these species has infected your chickens in order to get the right medicine for coccidiosis. 

In some cases, multiple species can infect chickens at the same time, and some medicines might work to treat several of them. Seeing your vet is always the best thing to do. 

 

Symptoms of coccidiosis in chickens

Early diagnosis holds great importance since the earlier a treatment is administered, the higher your chickens’ chances to get better. This calls for great attention to the various symptoms of coccidiosis in chickens. 

Since the incubation period in the case of this parasite is somewhere around eight days, the disease can develop rapidly and thus can create significant damage over a short period of time. Symptoms might develop and be visible gradually or suddenly. Keeping an eye on the following symptoms will help you reach your vet in time for the right treatment.

The most common, but not always present, symptom is blood in the chicken stool or mucous-like diarrhea. That’s why whenever you notice such signs that may indicate coccidiosis, it is best to see a vet since they will perform an analysis on stool samples. 

Other symptoms that may occur when chickens are affected by coccidiosis include listlessness, pale skin, anemia, loss of appetite and hence weight loss, ruffled feathers, reduced egg production or no egg production at all, dehydration, and stunted growth. 

If left untreated, coccidiosis can be fatal to chickens, and since the symptoms mentioned above can also occur in other diseases, only your vet and the tests they can perform will get you the proper diagnosis. 

 

How do chickens get coccidiosis?

As we’ve said above, this disease is transmitted through the fecal-oral route. The oocysts can contaminate various areas and the soil where chickens live and items found in these places, such as waterers and feeders. What’s worse is that these eggs remain viable for months, and it is enough for a chicken to ingest such an oocyst for the parasites to find a way toward intestinal cell damage. 

Since oocysts need to sit in a wet or humid environment for a few days to sporulate, it is highly important to control the litter and substrate moisture levels. The litter and the substrate shouldn’t be too wet or dry. If they’re too wet, they can create the perfect environment for bacteria to develop, while if they’re too dry, they can be easily inhaled by your chickens.

If exposed to low or moderate oocyst numbers for a certain amount of time, healthy chickens usually develop immunity to the strain they have been exposed to. However, when they’re exposed to a new strain, they are at risk of developing coccidiosis caused by that specific strain. 

Also, other health issues that your chickens may have can also make them more susceptible to coccidiosis as they may not build up the required immunity to prevent this disease from developing. Plus, when affected by coccidiosis, chickens can also be more vulnerable to other intestinal infections, including salmonellosis and necrotic enteritis. 

Since humans can also carry the oocysts from one place to another through the equipment and shoes they use, it is essential to take prevention steps and even limit access to your chickens. 

 

Coccidiosis – diagnosis and treatment 

Once you notice any of the symptoms mentioned above or any sign that may indicate that your chickens have a health problem, the best thing to do is to talk to your vet. The vet will run some tests and prescribe the appropriate treatment for coccidiosis if the results show that your chickens suffer from this disease. 

However, sometimes the tests may come back negative despite the clinical signs of coccidiosis. These are called false negatives. Typically, if a bird shows clinical signs of this disease, yet the test comes negative, it is euthanized, given the risk of transmitting it to other birds. The vet will run a postmortem examination for a definitive diagnosis. 

When the test comes back positive, your vet will let you know how to treat coccidiosis in chickens. Even if only a bird has the disease, the entire flock should be treated. The first thing to do when treating coccidiosis in chickens is to isolate the sick chickens from the ones with no sign of this disease. 

Then, make sure to clean the chicken coop and living area thoroughly so that they are clean and dry. To block the parasite’s ability to multiply, you’ll need Amprolium, a commonly-used commercial treatment that is available over the counter. However, if you’re not sure about it, ask your vet about how to administer it.

This liquid is typically added to the chicken’s water, but if the chickens are so affected that they cannot drink water or they drink too little, the treatment should be taken orally. The treatment is typically administered for up to seven days, but that’s something only your vet can tell you for sure, depending on your situation. Sometimes, a second dose of treatment might be required to eradicate it, especially if the chickens live in a warm and humid environment. 

In other cases, the vet might prescribe sulfa drugs as part of the coccidiosis treatment for chickens. Such drugs should not be used if the sick chickens are laying hens. Plus, such a treatment should be used only when the vet recommends it and should not be administered as a preventive method. 

Using the same anti-coccidial medicine repeatedly might also make coccidia develop resistance to that specific drug. That’s why your vet will prescribe a rotation of different such drugs if your chickens get coccidiosis, and such treatments are required regularly. 

 

Coccidiosis prevention 

Preventing a disease is more desirable than treating it. Taking all the necessary steps to prevent coccidiosis is thus a healthy approach. The prevention methods are simple and should be embraced by any poultry owner. 

One of the most important steps to take is to keep the chicken coop and living space clean and dry. The feeders, waterers, and the living area should be regularly cleaned in order to prevent the chickens from spreading the oocysts all over the place. Plus, using nipple drinkers instead of regular trough drinkers is recommended since such items reduce the risk of water spillage onto the litter.

The water and food must be clean, and so should be the equipment you use for the chicken coop and living area. Contaminated equipment favors the transmission of these harmful microorganisms. Using feeders that prevent the chickens from throwing food on the ground will also help reduce the risk of contamination.

Coccidia, like other harmful microorganisms, thrive in humid conditions; therefore, to prevent them from multiplying and thus from putting your chickens’ health in jeopardy, it is best to control the moisture levels in the coop and where the chickens live as much as possible. The market now offers various types of moisture-controlling systems that can simplify the process. 

When buying day-old vaccinated chicks, get all the information possible regarding the vaccines they got. If they haven’t been vaccinated against coccidiosis, it is recommended to introduce medicated feed into their diet in the first month of life. This will help the chicks develop their immunity. However, make sure you contact your vet to learn more about the right levels of medicated feed you should introduce into the chicks’ diet.

Whenever you introduce new members to your flock of chickens, it is best to keep them quarantined for at least two weeks. This way, if the new members are infected, symptoms should appear, and in case they do, you will know not to keep them with the rest of the flock. 

It is always best to provide the chickens with a spacious living area. Overcrowded coops and environments can only contribute to the transmission of this disease. An appropriate coop should provide each chicken with four square feet of space. 

Another preventive method that will help you reduce the risk of coccidiosis in chickens is to move their location from time to time if possible. Keeping the chickens only in one place can lead to the development of bacteria, parasites, and viruses and thus a high load of harmful organisms in the area that is regularly covered with manure.

To reduce the pathogen load in the areas where your chickens live, it is recommended to move them to another area and leave their initial living space fallow for a few weeks. 

Then, make sure you always use clean equipment, as we’ve said above, and that you wash your hands thoroughly before and after working with your flock of chickens. Some chicken breeders, especially those living in humid areas, also use Amprolium as a preventive method. If you want to do the same, make sure you talk to your vet. 

Taking these steps should help you minimize the risk of coccidiosis in your flock of chickens. However, make sure you keep an eye on their behavior and any symptoms of the disease. If caught early, this disease is treatable. 

 

 

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