Emergencies/Illness

Botulism In Chickens

Spring is the time of year when we start to hear about birds getting into things that may cause troubling symptoms, including paralysis. Lots of folks’ go-to is Marek’s Disease or a vitamin deficiency, but another potential diagnosis could be botulism, a life-threatening condition seen in poultry and waterfowl. 

Botulism (food poisoning) occurs when birds eat food or drink water containing a potent toxin produced by the bacteria Clostridium botulinum. These bacteria are commonly found in the soil, untreated water, rotting vegetation, food or carcasses. It can be consumed by and concentrated in maggots. The ingested toxin affects the nervous system by binding to the nerve endings, causing weakness and paralysis. Botulism tends to be more common in the wet season, because birds are more likely to have access to decomposing feed or stagnant water.

It often affects several flock mates and usually the most dominant ones, which are the most likely birds to eat first.

Symptoms

  • Signs develop within 1-17 days post-exposure
  • Paralysis and weakness of the muscles, usually of the legs, wings and neck (wry neck)
  • Head on the ground
  • Difficulty swallowing or breathing
  • Drooping eyelids
  • Weakness of the tongue
  • Issues with gait (i.e. falling over, stumbling, shaking)
  • Drooped wings
  • Sudden death
  • Post-mortem: feathers may be easily removed
  • Maggots or rotting compost may be found in the crop

Treatment

  • Birds that have ingested only a small amount of toxin may survive, but they need supportive care until it wears off
  • Withhold food or water until they are able to swallow on their own
  • Put patient in a sick bay where they can be kept warm and quiet
  • Flush their digestive system with any of the recipes below
  • Give homeopathic remedy Nux vomica (30C/dose)

There are three options to flush their systems after onset of first symptoms:

Molasses:

  • 1 tbsp. molasses stirred into 2 cups/water
  • Give twice during the first 8 hours only, then switch to Epsom salts

Activated charcoal:

  • 1 tsp. activated charcoal in 8 ounces/water
  • Give twice/day for first two days

Epsom salts:

  • 3 tsp. Epsom salt dissolved in 1½ cups of water
  • Give 2-3 times/day for two days

All the above need to be given orally, via syringe, eye dropper or tube. They can be given consecutively, but not concurrently. When a bird is first affected it will have difficulty swallowing so read this post on how to safely give oral medications before attempting it.

Prevention

  • Don’t feed your flock spoiled feed or maggots
  • Remove spilled feed from your pen
  • Restrict their access to stagnant water (e.g. deep mud, swamps, or wetlands), especially in hot water
  • Dispose of dead animals (i.e. rodents, birds) away from your flock
  • Avoid feeding rotting vegetables
  • Put up fly strips to control their population
  • Install bird houses to encourage natural predators of flies
  • Clean your coop often as manure attracts flies
  • Be aware that home preserves and fermented feed may contain the toxin

Credits: Dept. of Primary Industry & Resources (Australia); Poultry DVM; Poultry Hub. Featured Photo: Eco peanut

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