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Acidosis and Alkalosis in Chickens

Acidosis and alkalosis are two conditions that can be brought on by heat stress in chickens.

Temperatures between 55-75 degrees F are optimal for chickens. Anything higher than that, especially coupled with high humidity, starts to cause stress to their bodies. 

This signals their blood to flow to their extremities, and this added blood flow to their combs, wattles and skin as they struggle to stay cool reduces the flow to their vital organs. This can cause other detrimental changes in their bodily functions.



Acidosis and Alkalosis in Chickens

Respiratory acidosis and alkalosis are two potentially dangerous, and even fatal, conditions that can be brought on by heat stress in chickens. So it's imperative to do what you can to keep your backyard flock cool in the summer.

When chickens get hot they start panting and this causes a reaction excessive panting leads to a pH imbalance. This pH imbalance can cause illness and even death. 

The best way to handle heat stress is to do everything you can to prevent it, watch for signs and symptoms, and use all available resources if you notice that your chickens have signs of becoming overheated. 

These include shade, plenty of cold water and as little stress as possible. Keep your chickens calm to the extent possible.


Acidosis in Chickens

Respiratory acidosis generally occurs when chickens are exposed to high temperatures for extended periods of time without relief. However, there can be other root causes of acidosis and the inability to breathe correctly. 


Causes of Respiratory Acidosis in Chickens

  • Heat stress
  • Respiratory diseases that obstruct the airways
  • Nerve or muscle disease
  • Chest injury or deformity
  • Obesity

When a chicken suffers from heat stress or other breathing problem, they will start breathing more shallowly and their lungs won't be able to keep up with expelling the carbon dioxide from their body. 

They will begin to dehydrate and lose bicarbonates. Bicarbonates are one of the electrolytes and important for balancing acid/base (pH levels) in the body. 

In addition, the dehydration will result in either too much acid or carbon dioxide in the blood (or both). This also upsets the pH balance. 


Symptoms of Respiratory Acidosis in Chickens

This pH imbalance in the body can produce symptoms such as:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Purplish comb
  • Droopy wings
  • Ruffled or disheveled appearance
  • Reduced appetite
  • Reduced fluid intake
  • Weak chest muscles
  • Confusion
  • Fatigue and lethargy
  • General weakness and overall poor health

If you notice any of these symptoms in your chickens, you need to move them to someplace cool, provide cold water and add baking soda (in a 2% ratio) to your chickens' water to try to prevent acidosis from occurring. 

Be sure to provide cool water, plenty of shade and refresthing, water-laden, cooling treats like lettuce, cucumber, melons, and other leafy greens.


Other Types of Acidosis

Chronic respiratory acidosis occurs over a long period of time instead of very suddenly - as in response to an unexpected heatwave. 

Although "chronic acidosis" sounds bad, it's actually a more desirable condition that actually "cures" itself, because the body's kidneys will naturally increase production of things such as bicarbonate to help restore the body's pH balance.

Acute respiratory acidosis is a condition in which carbon dioxide builds up very quickly, before the kidneys can work to return the body to a balanced state. This eventually can lead to coma or death.

Interestingly enough, the state of respiratory acidosis can be partially balanced by respiratory alkalosis, which is the opposite of acidosis.


Alkalosis in Chickens

Alkalosis is a condition in which the acid levels in the body are too low. This can happen when prolonged heavy breating occurs and carbon dioxide levels drop.

Cause of Alkalosis in Chickens

Since chickens don't sweat, they combat the heat in part by panting.  That's entirely normal.  But when faced with extreme heat stress, chickens will start to pant almost continuously and this can lead to alkalosis.

Their panting in an effort to keep cool increases their respiratory and heart rate. This also causes them to lose carbon dioxide at too fast a rate. This loss of CO2 at a much faster rate than normal also upsets the Ph balance in their bodies and can ultimately lead to alkalosis.

Alkalosis is also a potentially fatal condition, so it's important to keep your chickens cool and not overheated.


Symptoms of Respiratory Alkalosis in Chickens

The main symptom of alkalosis in chickens is excessive panting.


Apple Cider  Vinegar for Chickens in the Summer

I am, in general, a huge proponent of adding Apple Cider Vinegar to my chickens' water several times a week.  

The vinegar has health benefits and also increases calcium absorption, which is especially important during the summer months when the hens' feed intake goes down and they aren't ingesting as much calcium as they normally do.

But the apple cider vinegar also changes the chickens pH levels in their bodies.  

So to err on the safe side, I suggest in the summer only adding apple cider vinegar to your chickens water once a week or even every other week - and try to add it on the cooler days, if possible. 


Electrolytes for Acidosis and Alkalosis in Chickens

A far better water additive during times of extreme heat is plain baking soda or, even better, electrolytes. You can offer your chickens plain Pedialyte or Vitamins & Electrolytes to replace some of the minerals and nutrients lost.

Here is a simple Homemade Electrolyte Recipe that is easy to mix up in a pinch:

1 cup water
2 teaspoons sugar
1/8 teaspoon sea salt
1/8 teaspoon baking soda

Whisk ingredients in a cup or glass until fully combined. Use full strength on severely ailing chickens, otherwise mix into their drinking water as needed at a ratio of cup per gallon of water.

Replacing the electrolytes lost during times of oppressive heat could mean preventing acidosis and alkalosis in chickens - and possibly the difference between life and death.

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For more tips on helping your flock stay cool, read HERE

Further reading

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