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Is Medicated Chick Feed Necessary?

Feeding your chicks medicated feed is one option. Another is to work to build their immune systems naturally.

There are lots of decisions to make when it comes to raising chickens and one of them is whether or not to use medicated chick feed. Personally, I choose not to. Just my own preference. 

There's nothing wrong with making the decision to use medicated feed, per se.  I just don't feel it's necessary, and in the spirit of raising my chickens naturally, I extend that to my chicks as well.

But each spring, invariably I am asked by new chicken keepers, "Is medicated chick feed necessary?" So let me explain why I don't feel that it is.

What is Medicated Chick Feed?

To back up and explain a bit, the purpose of medicated chick feed is to help protect chicks from coccidiosis, which is an infectious parasite and the number one killer of baby chicks. 

Medicated chick feed, designed to be fed for the first 8 weeks of a chick's life, contains Amprolium which is a coccidiostat and aids in coccidiosis prevention during the first few critical weeks. 

Older chicks and adult hens are generally able to fight bacteria, pathogens and other parasites off once their immune systems have developed. 

Amprolium works by interfering with the metabolism of Thiamine (Vitamin B1) in the coccidia parasite, rendering it unable to multiply. This keeps the cocciodisis in check until the chick is able to build a strong immune system.

Is Medicated Chick Feed Necessary?

Chick feed should be available from your feed store in both medicated and non-medicated formulas.  So is medicated chick feed necessary?

Well, let's talk about coccidiosis for a minute.

What is Coccidiosis?

Coccidiosis is a parasite that does damage to the intestinal walls of the host, reducing its ability to absorb nutrients. This leads to weight loss, lack of proper nutrition and loose stools. 

As the damage progresses, blood leaks through the damaged walls, ending up in the chick's droppings.  Bad bacteria takes over the digestive tract, preventing good bacteria from thriving. 

Anemia can result and eventually death will occur. Coccidiosis has a high mortality rate in chicks that aren't treated quickly.

Present in pretty much every area chickens frequent, coccidiosis is usually spread by infected chickens or bedding, wild birds and insects, and by humans via footwear or clothing that comes in contact with the parasite. 

Although cats and dogs can also get coccidiosis, it's species-specific and can't spread from your dog to your chickens or vice versa. It also isn't a health threat for humans.

But because of the danger to baby chicks, coccidiosis is a serious illness that every chicken keeper needs to be aware of. 

Older chickens build up a natural immunity to protect them, but chicks don't hatch with any immunity. That's why medicated chick feed was developed. It helps protect chicks before their immune systems are fully developed.

What Should I Do Instead of Using Medicated Chick Feed?

But instead of using medicated chick feed, I add a few natural supplements to my chicks' diet. I also add a few things to their brooder environment to help boost their immune system naturally.

Ironically, chicks actually need to come into contact with the bacteria in order for their immune systems to start to fight it. 

Low-level exposure to the coccidiosis bacteria, as well as other pathogens in the environment, is  an important piece in immune system health and strength. 

In their Environment

Interestingly, but not surprisingly, chicks hatched under a mother hen, while not being hatched with any immunity, seem not to suffer from coccidiosis at the rate that "brooder babies" do since they are outside and being exposed to the pathogen right from hatch.

Something I learned years ago is that baby chicks should be exposed to feces from older birds and to the outside environment early on to help them start building immunity. 

Although I don't go quite as far as some studies have recommended and put any chicken poop in my brooder with my chicks (!), I do put clumps of dirt and grass in. I believe this helps strengthen their immature immune systems by introducing pathogens and germs from the outdoors to them early on.

In fact, I don't use any shavings or other brooder bedding any longer at all. I just use rubber shelf liner over a few layers of newspaper with dirt and grass clumps. I figure that's making an indoor brooder as close to the outdoors as possible.

If you do use shavings, your brooder should stay relatively clean and dry, over-cleaning and replacing the litter too often can be counter-intuitive to allowing some bacteria to build up. 

Removing wet litter is important, but completely replacing all the litter too regularly isn't a good idea. It's better to leave the majority for several days.

I also try to get my baby chicks outside for at least a little bit during the warmest part of the day as early as I can. Getting them out on grass exposes them to all kinds of things, as well as gives them exercise, fresh air and sunlight.

In their Diet

Like my older hens, I also add some natural supplements to my baby chicks' diet right from hatch. 

A splash of apple cider vinegar, a sprinkle of dried oregano (proven to be a natural antibiotic), thyme to a lesser extent and fresh minced garlic have all shown positive results in protecting chicks from coccidiosis.

I also sprinkle some probiotic powder onto their feed which helps build good bacteria in their gut, and in conjunction also offer organic Coop Kelp which provides a bounty of nutrients and also acts as a pre-biotic, helping the probiotics work better and produce more good bacteria.

Symptoms of Coccidiosis

If you see any of the common symptoms of coccidiosis and are worried your chicks are infected despite your natural preventives, you can always make the choice to switch them to medicated feed at that point for the duration of the eight weeks.

Symptoms include

  •  lethargy
  • loose bloody stool
  • frothy droppings with mucus
  • fluffed feathers
  • weight loss
  •  and eventually death. 

If symptoms don't clear up after switching to the medicated feed, then a vet visit for some cocci medication is in order. 

But hopefully providing your chicks the natural path will be more than adequate to stave off the coccidiosis.

So is Medicated Chick Feed Necessary?

The short answer is no, you don't need to use medicated chick feed. 

However, if you feel more comfortable giving them that added layer of security and protection, then by all means go right ahead, but I urge you to try some natural methods instead.

If you have a mother hen raising chicks, she can eat the medicated feed without a problem as there is no withdrawal period for eating eggs after feeding Amprolium - and anyway a broody hen likely won't go back to laying until her chicks are five weeks old or thereabouts anyway.

In a decade of raising chickens, I've not fed medicated feed to any of them and not had any issues with coccidiosis.

One last note: If you do get your chicks vaccinated against Coccidiosis, then you shouldn't feed medicated feed as it will negate the vaccination. Be sure it's coccidiosis they were vaccinated for, as there is also a Mareks vaccination offered by hatcheries.

And if you are raising ducklings, be sure to only feed non-medicated feed. Ducklings aren't as susceptible to coccidiosis and should never be fed medicated feed.

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For more about Coccidiosis:
Coccidiosis Natural Prevention
Avian Coccidiosis: New Strategies of Treatment
Health and Common Diseases: Coccidiosis

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