Coccidiosis is an intestinal disease that occurs when a microscopic parasitic organism (called a protozoa) attaches itself to the intestinal lining of a chicken. It damages the tissue of the gut, causing bleeding (which can be evident in their droppings), prevents the chicken from absorbing nutrients and creates an environment in which bacteria can thrive. Basically it is bad news for chickens. Younger chickens (under six months) are more at risk as they have not yet had time to develop their natural immunity, however adult birds can also become affected.
All chickens carry the coccidiosis organism in their bowels but only some will develop the disease. The disease starts with an unsporulated oocyst (a very simple analogy is to think of a microscopic egg), which is passed through a chicken’s droppings. An unsporulated oocyst can lay dormant in the soil for up to a year and doesn’t sporulate (become infectious) unless it gets the opportunity to sit for several days in wet and humid conditions, for example, in and around waterers and feeders that have not been cleaned properly.
When a chicken eats a sporulated oocyst, either through contaminated water and food or simply during its usual scratching around in the earth, the digestive acids of the chicken’s intestines will break down the hard protective layer of the oocyst. The oocyst will hatch and invade the cell lining in the small intestine. The parasite goes through several life stages, multiplying inside the chicken and at each stage rupturing more cells within the bowel, resulting in ulceration.
The coccidia oocyst will be expelled in the chicken’s poop and can then go on to cause infection to your other hens if they eat it.
There are several different strains of the parasite, some are more damaging than others, but you don’t need to know which species is causing the disease to treat it. In some cases, it may be several species of the parasite working together to cause coccidiosis.
WHAT ARE THE SYMPTOMS:
Coccidiosis works quickly as the incubation period is only about eight days. Symptoms can present either gradually or suddenly – it’s not uncommon for a chicken to appear fine one day and very sick or even dead the next day. The most common symptom you might notice is blood or mucous in the droppings.
However, don’t get this confused with caecal droppings chickens shed naturally that is also brown/red in colour. While you can take an educated guess as to whether or not your chicken’s poop is indicating coccidiosis, only your Vet can provide certainty by performing an analysis on dropping samples.
Also note, blood in poop is not necessarily always a symptom, so also look out for:
*Weak, listless looking chickens not moving around much
*Huddling together as if cold
*Pale comb and skin
*A loss of appetite
*Baby chicks failing to grow
*Inconsistent egg laying – or not at all
All these symptoms could be as a result of other diseases, so the only way to know for sure that you are dealing with coccidiosis is to talk to your Vet.
HOW IS IT SPREAD?
Unfortunately it’s easily spread. The oocyst can be transmitted via shoes, shovels, contaminated water, food and poop.
Healthy chickens will build up a natural immunity to coccidiosis if they are exposed to low levels of it over time. However, they will only build up an immunity to the particular strain they are exposed to. For example, if they wander off into your neighbour’s yard for a gossip with the hens over there, in their social dig around in next door’s dirt they may ingest a sporulated oocyst of a different strain.
They are at risk of becoming sick from that strain, even if they have already had coccidiosis and survived it once before. If there are other underlying health issues with your chickens they won’t necessarily build up their immunity and you may see repeated cases of coccidiosis. If you are seeing repeat cases of coccidiosis ask yourself why – perhaps your chickens have some other ailment that needs to be looked at.
So how do you keep it under control? Well, we don’t suggest keeping your chickens under lock and key. After all these are microscopic parasites that all chickens will be exposed to throughout their life. With any disease the best treatment is taking some common sense measures to prevent the outbreak before it occurs.
Freezing temperatures will kill coccidiosis, However, the warm, humid, and wet conditions are what cocciodiosis need to thrive . Basic hygiene is your first step for prevention – make sure your coops (Pen) are clean and dry. Also:
*Ensure water is clean and fresh
*Keep feeding areas clean and dry and don’t throw food on the ground where it can be contaminated
*Ensure your girls have enough space – coccidiosis will take off in an overcrowded area. Chickens need four square feet of space each in their coops (Pen).
For Synthetic Farmers, if your chicks have been vaccinated against coccidiosis, don’t give them medicated starter feed, it will simply cancel out their vaccination.
If you live in a particularly wet area consider giving Amprolium(or other related) as a preventative. You can buy it over the counter from Vets, produce stores or pet stores.
If you are introducing new members to your team of chickens, keep them quarantined for a minimum of two weeks, for the protection of everyone in the hen house.
If you are buying day-old from a reputable source they are more likely to be vaccinated against Marek’s disease and/or Newcastle disease as well as respiratory infections than coccidiosis. Vaccines only introduce a strain of the infection – given there are several hundreds of strains your chicks are likely to be exposed to a different strain in your environment and will be at risk anyway. Check with your hatchery as to what kind of vaccinations they provide.