Emergencies/Illness Feeding Health Issues Physiology

Atherosclerosis In Chickens

Atherosclerosis is one of those tongue-twisting words that is probably easier to describe than to pronounce. It’s what your doctor would refer to as cardiovascular disease and your grandmother would call hardening of the arteries. Chickens fed the wrong diet are just as susceptible to getting it as people who eat similar foods.

Just like in us, it’s a disease that happens gradually over time. Regardless if it occurs in people or chickens the progression is similar: anyone who eats a high cholesterol diet will experience excess fats that collect on their artery walls.

The immune system is triggered to send white blood cells to attack it, similar to what it would do to fight a bacterial infection. After consuming the cholesterol the cells die and also start to clog the arteries causing inflammation.

If this process continues the arteries become scarred and the buildup called plaque hardens, narrowing the arteries and obstructing blood flow. Large plaque buildups can also dislodge and suddenly release the trapped blood supply to the heart. The sudden rush of blood can cause a deadly heart attack.


  • Diet containing high amounts of cholesterol, saturated or trans fats, salt and/or sugar.
  • Marek’s Disease can cause lesions in the arteries, leading to accumulation of cholesterol. Damage induced by viral infection, altered cellular metabolism, direct cellular transformation and inflammatory and immune reactions to viral infection may accelerate plaque development
  • Risk increases with age, in heavier breeds or obese chickens.

Symptoms are usually only noticed in later stages when the artery is severely narrowed or completely blocked.

  • Lethargy
  • Lack of coordination
  • Weakness
  • Fainting
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Muscle weakness or partial paralysis of the legs
  • Sudden death


  • Feed your birds a balanced diet and limit snacks.
  • If you are feeding people food be aware of the sodium (salt) content and sugars (fructose, glucose, dextrose are all sugar).
  • Many vegetables (e.g. carrots, beets, corn, peas, squashes) and fruits (especially grapes and melons) have a high sugar content.

We all know that eating the wrong diet (i.e. processed foods; high sugar, salt, saturated and trans fat content) can lead to a number of health issues in people. Unfortunately as more folks keep small flocks primarily as pets we’re starting to see the same health issues affecting them – obesity, heart and liver disease – due to overfeeding and providing the wrong foods.

We love our birds and want to share treats with them, but it may be to their detriment. Understand their nutritional needs and feed accordingly. Limit snacks to small quantities of healthy treats. Make sure they have plenty of exercise to burn off those calories.

Here’s what fat looks like inside our birds:

A Note On The ‘How’ Of Feeding: Nibblers Vs. Meal Eaters

There are generally two ways to feed chickens: free feeding where it’s available 24/7 or providing measured amounts of feed at particular times. I read a study in which birds were divided into those two groups and fed the same diet. The meal eaters – who were fed for two one-hour periods each day – had double the blood cholesterol levels and seven times the severity of coronary atherosclerosis as the nibblers.

When chickens who had atherosclerosis were later fed balanced diets the meal eaters’ cholesterol levels took longer to return to normal and they had a significant decrease in healing the coronary lesions compared to nibbling. The study concluded that how (in this case, not what) birds were fed played a role in the risk of getting atherosclerosis.

Credits: Oxford Academic; Poultry DVM

Related posts on feeding chickens: Feeding Chickens: Dos & Don’ts; Prebiotics & Probiotics; Understanding Manufactured Chicken Feed

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