One of the best parts of having your own flock of chickens is sustainability and feeling as though you’re a part of the natural world! Many people enjoy the peace that comes from a zero-waste, all-natural, and environmentally-friendly way of life and couldn’t imagine raising poultry any other way. Here we are going to touch on a natural remedy, apple cider vinegar and chickens.
This natural lifestyle gets a little trickier when it comes to health and wellness, especially for poultry species! There have been so many scams over the years, especially when it comes to medical cures. Despite so much research being done into animal nutrition and wellness, particularly commercial species, we still don’t really know what we’re doing. Bodies are super complex and we’re only scratching the surface!
Antibiotics and medications can be difficult to get your hands on, qualified chicken veterinarians are increasingly rare, and everything is becoming more and more expensive every year. So what is a chicken owner to do? How do you keep your precious babies healthy and safe without causing more problems in the end? There are a few easy to find “natural” products that are taking the world by storm, but do they work? What apple cider vinegar and chickens all about?
Apple Cider Vinegar
A current trend that has been popping up everywhere is apple cider vinegar – a.k.a. “ACV”. You get bonus points if you can grab a bottle of the natural stuff that includes the mother! The vinegar mother is a rather revolting looking gooey blob of gel that’s made of acetic acid bacteria and cellulose. Despite being gross looking, this is what turns apple cider, or many other beverages, into vinegar!
You can see ACV almost everywhere now. There are pills and gummies, hair rinses, tonics, topical gels, and even supplements for your pets! The purported health benefits range pretty far – it helps you lose weight, cures acne, lowers cholesterol, lowers blood sugar, and makes your hair beautiful and healthy. Sounds like snake oil, right? Unfortunately, like so many trendy natural cure-alls the benefits appear to be quite overblown.
ACV and Chickens
As with most natural cures and remedies that pop up in the human world, apple cider vinegar has quickly found its way into the chicken world as well. It’s supposed to help boost their immunity, aid their digestion, make their poop smell better, cure respiratory infections, detoxify their bodies, increase egg production, and kill or repel internal and external parasites! Despite the craze there is actually very little evidence that it does very much.
While a little apple cider vinegar in your chickens’ water will likely be totally fine, overuse or improper use definitely can lead to problems! Ask about ACV and you’ll probably be showered in anecdotes about someone’s hen bouncing back from a respiratory infection, and sickly chicks suddenly recovering from diarrhea, or even a dramatic leap in egg quality and production. For every glowing endorsement there’s been someone who has seen, well, nothing. Even worse, there are people out there (largely ignored) that ran into actual problems from using ACV – like sudden brittle eggshells! Always be cautious with apple cider vinegar and chickens .
Hazards of Apple Cider Vinegar
While vinegar is generally considered pretty safe, it IS an acid and will dissolve certain things. Vinegar is the key ingredient in that fun childhood science experiment where you make “rubber eggs”! By soaking an egg in vinegar you can dissolve the shell and are left with a squishy, bouncy version.
One big risk is putting it in a metal waterer! ACV will corrode the metal, which can leach into the birds’ water and cause health issues. Galvanized waterers are made of steel or iron that are coated with zinc to prevent rusting. Vinegar can cause this zinc coating to corrode and leach into the water, which your birds will then drink.
Other galvanized risks? Those bits of poultry fence you snipped off and accidentally dropped and modern pennies, for a start. Birds love shiny things and may swallow those without a second thought. Their stomach acid will then get to work and give them a big dose of zinc. Yikes!
Zinc poisoning can be a little difficult to identify because the symptoms are vague. The birds will appear weak and/or unsteady, have trouble walking, their combs may appear pale, they can lose weight, and they may show signs of diarrhea. Since most metal feeders and waterers designed for outdoor use are galvanized you are better off sticking to plastic, especially if you want to use apple cider vinegar!
There is also evidence that apple cider vinegar can interfere with a hen’s ability to absorb calcium if used improperly, which is definitely not good for egg production! There have been a few studies that show acetic acid (the acid in vinegar) may help the body absorb calcium. On the flip side, there has been more evidence that it doesn’t actually help or may even hinder this process. The reason? Acetic acid is incredibly weak! Depending on how much you add to your water it might not even affect the natural pH.
Water Hardness, pH, and Vinegar
I’m sure you’ve heard about water hardness, whether you live in a city or a rural area. If you have a well you may be even more in tune with your water quality! What does this mean and how does this affect your chickens?
Water hardness is measured by checking how much calcium carbonate is dissolved in it. There is also a link between how much mineral content there is in your water with its pH. The calcium (or magnesium) tells you how “hard” it is while the carbonate part is related to how alkaline it is. This is important, particularly if you use copper pipes or want to avoid scrubbing hard water stains out of your toilet.
Water is measured on a pH scale of 1 to 14 with 1 being the most acidic, 14 the most basic or alkaline, and 7 being neutral. If your water is very acidic it can dissolve copper pipes, but if it’s very alkaline you may end up with a lot of lime buildup in your pipes.
If you have hard water and give it to your chickens it probably has a lot of calcium in it! You throw in some acetic acid with your apple cider vinegar and it drops down the pH by a tiny bit, because the alkalinity from the carbonate part buffers it. There has been evidence that hard water actually supplements calcium in humans and may actually be good for you. Your chickens may also make use of this extra calcium, but keep in mind you will get a lot of lime buildup on everything.
Everything in Moderation
The take-away from all this talk of water, pH, vinegar, and calcium is that anything in excess can be detrimental. While vinegar can help dissolve calcium and make it more bioavailable, excess calcium can actually do the opposite. If you add too much acid your body will use the calcium in your bones as a buffer! Yikes! Don’t do that to your poor hens, because they need their calcium!
A little bit of ACV in the water is perfectly safe, granted the water is not too acidic and you’re not using a metal container. Clean, cool water is the best thing to provide for any animal and should be your first priority when it comes to chicken health. What about if you want to treat a disease? There is very, very little concrete evidence that apple cider vinegar actually cures or prevents disease in a significant way.
Apple Cider Vinegar and Coccidiosis
One of the most quoted studies you’ll see when you look into the benefits of apple cider vinegar is said to show the link between ACV in the water and prevention of coccidiosis in broiler chicks. The protozoa that causes this disease is present in all chickens, but they are usually not affected and show no sign of disease. When chickens, particularly chicks, become stressed they may have an overgrowth of coccidia and become ill. Usually commercial chicks are fed a diet that contains amprolium, which many backyard chicken keepers are concerned about. It doesn’t sound very “natural” and can be a bit off-putting!
Luckily, amprolium is actually not an antibiotic! It is a special chemical that blocks thiamine absorption in the species of protozoa that cause coccidiosis in chickens and other animals. If you give an overdose of amprolium to poultry for long enough they can experience thiamine deficiency as well, so it is important to follow dosage instructions if you mix your own. While it is not extraordinarily effective, it has very few issues with resistance and is one of the safest anti-coccidial drugs on the market! People that raise turkeys are often very familiar with the benefits of using amprolium laced feed for their babies!
The study down resulted in the ACV broilers not having any coccidiosis while the control groups, one of which had amprolium-laced feed, did. It sounds promising, right? Like all research studies, you need to read the whole thing! The researchers point out that, while the results are very promising and appear statistically significant, the number of chicks used is inadequate to say for sure! The water and feed intake of the chickens was not monitored and they point out that the coccidial counts were only taken from three birds. You read that right – they only checked THREE birds.
Apple Cider Vinegar: What is it good for?
You might be feeling a little discouraged, especially if you’ve been carefully adding ACV to your chicken’s feed to prevent coccidiosis and boost egg quality and production. Is there anything that you can really DO with apple cider vinegar? Yes! There are a lot of uses for a gentle acid, like ACV, so you can keep it around!
Apple cider vinegar, like white vinegar, makes a really nice, all-natural, gentle cleaner! Before the invention of all these chemical cleaners, people used what they could get. Luckily for us, urine has fallen out of style. Unless you want to include ammonium, which is what you get if you let pee sit out too long. Since vinegar contains acetic acid you can use it to clean and shine windows. Vinegar can also remove hard water stains and gunk from counters, except natural stone! It also works on hard water in coffee makers, and water dispensers and even deodorize mildewy clothes! It also works well, when diluted with distilled water, as a hair rinse!
Vinegar is a great way to naturally clean a chicken coop, because the acid content will kill many bacteria and, despite the vinegar smell, it will help reduce odors! You can also feel confident that you aren’t bringing harmful chemicals around your precious birds.
Probiotics are popular and do have health benefits. Fermented feed is becoming more popular for poultry and humans have long noticed that other fermented foods can help gut health. While they won’t flat out cure anything, they can definitely give you a little boost! Sauerkraut, kimchi, yogurt, kefir, and miso all give people the benefits of good microbes. Research shows that the natural flora in your digestive tract are very important for overall health. Apple cider vinegar and chickens are no different.
Balancing the Diet
ACV might not be the magic bullet you hoped, but if used sparingly and as part of a balanced, varied diet it is safe and delicious! Worst case scenario is you can keep it all for yourself and make an amazing salad dressing. The added fat from the oil has been proven to boost the nutrient absorption. This addition from vegetables and the small amount of acetic acid can help unlock that calcium!
If adding a couple drops of ACV to your chickens’ water makes you feel better, then go for it! Low levels will not hurt your birds. A lot more research needs to be done to make the decision on the benefits. There has been a lot of interest in supporting gut health and natural flora and science is supporting more fermented foods. It can be very difficult to not put too much weight into anecdotal evidence that supports your feelings. Be sure to think critically!
If you want your chickens to stay healthy the best way is to keep their environment clean, allow them access to plenty of space to be a chicken, and provide them with plenty of clean water and balanced feed.