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Botulism in chickens - symptoms and prevention

Yes, chickens can get food poisoning. Chickens can even get botulism. Luckily, botulism in chickens is easy to prevent with a few simple steps. 

What is botulism?

Botulism is caused by the bacteria Clostridium botulinum. The bacteria itself is harmless and relatively common; spores are found in soil, wetlands and the intestine of wild birds. However, when C. botulinum reproduces - for which it requires a warm, moist and anaerobic environment like unturned compost - it releases a deadly neurotoxin, and it is consuming this toxin that leads to poisoning. Botulism in humans is caused in the same way, but is the result of a different strain of the bacteria so usually botulism isn't transmissable between people and birds. But that doesn't mean that you shouldn't still be careful!


Botulism in chickens - symptoms

Symptoms of botulism in chickens include a floppy paralysis where they lose control of their limbs. They won't be able to hold up their head, which is why the disease is also referred to as "limberneck," and their wings will droop. Sadly, botulism is usually fatal.
 

How do birds get botulism?

Birds get botulism when they consume food containing the neurotoxin produced by C. botulinum. It's gross, but most chickens actually get botulism from consuming dead flockmates, so removing bodies is the first thing you can do to prevent the disease. However, botulism can also come from:

  • Decaying meat

  • Decaying vegetables or plant matter (including in compost)

  • Stagnant or slow-moving water

  • Mouldy, rotten or otherwise spoiled food

  • Insect larvae (usually maggots) which have been feeding on contaminated food (e.g. dead birds)

Note that birds more rarely get botulism from bacteria in the caecum.

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Preventing botulism in chickens

Fortunately, preventing botulism is so easy that it seems like common sense. Where good coop management (like removing dead chickens from the pen) is practiced, chickens are unlikely to contract the disease. However, even chicken keepers with the best intentions can unwittingly expose their birds through silly mistakes like putting the compost bin in the chicken run or failing to pick up uneaten scraps.

To prevent botulismin chickens:

  • Supply clean feed and water

  • Immediately remove dead animals from the pen (chickens, birds, toads, mice etc)

  • Provide feed (including scraps) in containers and not on the ground

  • Clean up uneaten scraps after an hour on hot days, or at least at the end of the day 

  • Clean up spilled feed

  • Prevent access to stagnant water

  • Never use feed or scraps that are decaying, mouldy, rotten or spoiled

  • Keep your chooks out of the compost

  • Avoid feeding chickens meat 

  • Don’t use maggots or insect larvae that have been feeding on decaying matter

These botulism-preventing measures will also protect your chickens from other food-bourne illnesses, keeping them healthier. This is particularly important in the warmer, wetter months when bacteria in food multiplies far more quickly.

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