Fatty Liver Diseases in Backyard Chickens

December 1, 2013

I’ve been wanting to write this post for quite a while now and have spent a good deal of time learning and researching this syndrome. I was first introduced to this syndrome by fellow chicken keeper, Amy of The Spice Girls last year. Amy shared that she enjoyed treating her flock to handfuls of black sunflower seeds each day. What seemed to be a completely harmless way to show love and treat her flock, in fact lead to one of her girl’s demise. My heart sank.

Fatty Liver Diseases are illnesses that are not contagious. However, it is not uncommon to see an entire flock on the same diet suffer from the same fate if changes are not made to their diets. Often these chickens pass away with their owners wondering the cause. One moment they appear healthy and the next they are gone. Today’s post will touch upon both Fatty Liver and Kidney Syndrome and the more popular Fatty Liver Hemorrhagic Syndrome.

Fatty Liver and Kidney Syndrome (FLKS) mostly affects younger birds. It is caused by nutritional and metabolic issues- primarily a lack of biotin. To prevent FLKS, it is important that your chickens eat foods that contains biotin. For example, the organic chicken feed that I use contains soybeans. Manna Pro’s Life Lytes also contain biotin and so does sea kelp (Check out Cluck n Sea Kelp). Biotin is also known as Vitamin B7. Some sources of naturally occurring biotin include:

  • Peas
  • Broccoli
  • Cabbage
  • Cauliflower
  • Spinach
  • Strawberries
  • Raspberries
  • Oats
  • Soybeans
  • Peanuts
Fresh cabbage. One of the flock’s favorite treats on a winter day.
Fatty Liver Hemorrhagic Syndrome (FLHS)  is caused by many factors working together that can include hormonal, nutritional, and even toxicological causes. This disease can affect flock members of any age. Over time fat deposits in the liver. This causes the liver to lose it’s structural strength and become enlarged. Once this occurs, the chicken will hemorrhage from the liver and die. This usually occurs when the hen is straining to lay an egg. One paper by the USDA suggests that FLHS is the number one cause of death in egg laying hens!

Some Causes of FLHS Include:

  • high caloric intake
  • excessive fatty foods- sunflower seeds, suet
  • lack of exercise/sedentary lifestyle
  • lack of biotin and Choline chloride in the food- both necessary for fat metabolism
  • tainted chicken feed
  • hereditary

Signs and Symptoms of both FLHS and FLKS:
  • overweight
  • pale comb
  • egg laying is slowed or halted
  • fluffed up appearance
  • lethargic
  • sitting in one place, not moving around
  • excess of abdominal fat

Treatment Options:
  • Supplementing feed with 6 % oat hulls
  • Trying a high protein feed (up to 20% protein).
  • Adding Choline chloride, Vitamin E, Vitamin B12 and Inositol to their feed. (Merrick’s Blue Ribbon Poultry Electrolytes has all of these except for the Inositol.  A good source of Inositol is cantaloupe.)
  • Feeding biotin rich foods for proper fat metabolism
  • fish meal
  • alfalfa meal
  • Increase exercise and free ranging
  • Limit fatty foods
It is important to feed your flock a well balanced diet including fresh fruits and vegetables. They should have plenty of space to roam around, the more exercise the better. Lastly, avoid over treating your flock with one particular treat in general. Diversity is best, so mix it up! Hmm….this sounds an awful lot how us humans should be living our lives too. Yes, even we too can get fatty liver disease if we are not careful.
Photo Credits: Tilly’s Nest
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28 thoughts on “Fatty Liver Diseases in Backyard Chickens”

  1. I have heard about the dangers of overweight chickens, but how can you tell? My Orpington and Speckled Sussex look fat because they are so big!

    • Great question. Some people actually weigh their chickens. They use the breed weight averages as guidelines. For example, Orpington hens usually weigh between 8 and 10.5 pounds. You could always bring out the scale, weigh yourself, then weigh yourself plus the chicken and subtract the difference. This might give you an overall idea of where they fit into the ideal body weight. If you have more than one breed of that hen then you can always compare them to one another as well.

  2. Bravo for this post. I'm happy to report that the two hens diagnosed w/ FLD last year, they are still with me. I now rarely give seeds as a treat. Instead, they get lots of greens and fruits for treats. It's so hard to know how much to treat hens because as long as you keep offering, they keep eating.

    • Scratch grains should be considered high calories with not a lot of nutrition but they are a good way to keep the flock warm through the night. I would just be careful not to give them more than they can eat in about 5 minutes time. For me, I give my flock of 7 hens about 1 cup of scratch around 4 pm on days when I know temps are going to dip below freezing.

  3. I have an older hen, who has been fine till the past few days. Whe she trys to move around she topples over, uses her wings to steady herself. Haven't seen her walk in a few days. Could this be FLD? Of ourse she is my favorite. The other 5 girls have been fine. I have cleaned out the frrezer and found some bread and been tossing it out to them for the past couple of days. They have lay pellets and get some scratch in the evenings. Thanks for any insite. Janet

    • It's always hard to tell over the internet, but it sounds like she is having trouble standing and balancing which makes me think the problem could be neurological. Chickens illness can cause neurological problems like Marek's Disease, Lymphoid Leukosis, accidental poisoning, Newcastle disease (should have some other symptoms). I also think about stroke too. She is an older hen, so there are a bunch of possibilities. Might you have a chicken vet nearby willing to take a look? Email me if you have more questions: melissa@tillysnest.com

  4. Thanks for this article. I now know what my hen died of a couple of nights ago, and that it was my fault. No more of the wrong treats.

  5. Hello there, and thanks for the useful info. We have just started out 9months now, and culled 2hens for the kitchen, and found their livers came out in bits and were sooo fatty, even the cats refused it. they have meals adlib, and thrown in lots of left overs from a kindly aunts lunch club. So i reckon I'm have going to have to pass the left overs and perhaps reduce the linseed in their feed?

  6. HI! Last year, one of my old hens (she was around 51/2 years old) had been struggling. She was super skinny, but had a big liver??(I think it was liver). She was a buff-orpington, and got the name "Fatty" because she was pretty fat before all of this happened. After, she weighed only 4-1/2 pounds! I researched diseases and came up with this unfortunately when I had the cure she died that night, next to our chicks that she loved so much. I noticed she wasnt feeling good 2 months before she died. So I fed her through a straw and gave her water through a straw, and she died 2 months later. Just before her I had another old hen die with the same symptoms, I noticed that it was hard for her to stand up and when she was dieing she couldnt even stand straight or sit straight.. Are one of the symptoms of this, having really weak feet? Well anyways now I have another really sick chicken with the same symptoms. I am assuming that it is Liver disease but not sure. I have them on Layer Hen feed and give them grit. They are free range and spoiled with love and affection. The hen I have know cant seem to eat either, and has the same symptoms. What is something I can do to save her, before it is almost too late???

    • I think your best bet might be a visit to a local vet nearby that treats chickens. It is so hard to tell. Sometimes when they are free-ranging they can also get into mischief and eat the wrong things.

  7. This is all new to me. What does the stool of a fatty liver look like? Is it green with yellow urine? My bird isn't fat but she loves her corn that I mix in w/ their feed for a treat some times. I'm going to get some alfalfa powder for her today and mix it with plain yogurt, vitamin C and B12. She's not fat and is losing weight because she's not eating. Her crop is neither impacted or sour, its empty. None of my other girls have dirty hineys like she does. I also noticed that she has an ammonia smell coming from her vent, which is small and a little dry looking. Maybe kidney related? Her comb is fading and droopy, dehydrated perhaps? I'm giving her water by syringe. She hasn't laid an egg in a few months. I can't afford a vet so I'm on my own, sadly not like they would be much help anyway. I have her walking the green mile as it were, or free ranging until she either recovers or passes. : (

  8. I’ve just lost 2 hens, both Buff Orpingtons to fatty liver. Both 9-1/2 months old. I feed them New Country Organics without soy. They rarely get treats except meal worms. Recently I started giving them a few cabbage heads a week because it’s winter and occasionally hot oatmeal. I’m sick over this. I hate to change their feed because I allergic to soy, but I think it may be the cause.

    • Oh Gina, I am so sorry for your loss. I don’t think there is any way to know what caused their death without a necropsy. It could be related to their diet or something else entirely. I wish I had more information for you. Can you reach out to a local vet for help?

      • Oh, okay. Here are my thoughts about feed that is not in a pellet form. Chickens recognize their favorite “grains” and “ingredients” in these gorgeous feeds. Unfortunately, you can’t make them eat a bit of everything which would provide a balanced diet. Much like children when they can chose between “candy” or “broccoli” they will chose the candy. When chickens can see the individual grains, they will sort through to find their favorites which might also not be the healthiest. That being said, when the feed it made into pellets, the birds have no choice. The food looks uniform and you can be sure that no matter where the chickens are in the pecking order, they are all getting the same nutrition from the feed. I hope this makes sense to you. Again, I’m so sorry for your loss.

  9. I just received the results of Hemorrhagic Liver Disease back from UC Davis Veterinary Callf Animal Health Lab. My hen was a 1 yr old Americana. She was skinny. I am terrified! I have 25 other hens same age. I have been feeding them 4 – 16 oz packages of high quality human frozen white cut corn every night for the last 4 months. (total fat 1% – saturated fat 0% – sodium 0% – Carbohydrates 7%, no added sugars. Have I been killing them with this corn? I just started feeding them lots of black sunflower seeds for the last month and lots of scratch for the last 6 months. All non GMO the best I can buy. They were raised on all organic crumbles for the first 6 months of their life and now free choice mini laying pellets and they free range on 4 safe acres. I keep them spotless clean. I am scared to death I am going to lose the rest. I love them so much. How can I fix this? How much should I feed with fresh veggies. I have stopped the corn, scratch and all sunflower seeds. Please help me. I used to feed fresh greens everyday and stopped because I thought it was making their stool loose. That is when I switched to corn. I have tried to research feeding but, now see that I have been making big mistakes. I am heart sick. These birds are a big part of my life.

    • Oh dear, please forgive yourself, your actions were out of love. I would recommend feeding them a commercial layer feed and keeping the extra treats and stuff to only 10 percent of their diet. Chickens need appromiately 16% of their diet to be protein. Too much of anything is never a good thing. I hope this helps. I do have some posts regarding nutrition on the blog- a search might help you find them. Good luck and keep me posted.

    • Who are you feeding the eggs to? If the disease is to the point of hemorrhagic- then the bird is actively bleeding and death is imminent. If you are dealing with Fatty Liver disease- minus the bleeding, then I think feeding your chickens an occassional scrambled egg now and then is fine.

  10. Hi
    I culled nonlaying hens and one had a huge amount of fat in her abdomen. I’m guessing she had fatty liver desease. Is this hen still edible?


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Sharing an inspired life from the New England seaside. Chickens, Bees, Gardens, Art and Yummy Goodness.