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Rickets in Chickens: Causes, Treatment & Prevention

rickets in chickens

Are your chickens beginning to have weird postures?

Do they walk funny or sometimes don’t walk at all?

If you happen to see these unusual behaviors with your chickens, you might want to know about rickets in chickens.

Rickets is often called “poverty of the bones” caused by an unbalanced diet with key nutrient deficiencies.

This metabolic bone disease weakens and deforms bones and causes other health issues, which I’ll cover in greater detail below.

Let’s read on!

Rickets in Chickens: What Is It?

Rickets are characterized by inadequate mineralization of bone tissue, which causes weakened or deformed bones.

It is usually the result of a lack of vitamin D (typically D3), calcium, or phosphorus.

Chickens need vitamin D to absorb calcium and phosphorus. So, if a chicken lacks that vitamin, the bird will likely lack other nutrients.

Chickens with rickets will be weak and lethargic, have trouble standing and walking, and may have misshapen legs (more common) or wings (less common).

Laying hens with rickets will lay fewer eggs, and their eggs will have much weaker shells, usually because they don’t have the calcium to produce strong shells.

Hens who lack vitamin D will also yield eggs with lower Vitamin D levels.

Your diet could also lack vitamin D if you’re not already receiving it through other means.

ALSO READ: How To Tell Which Hens Are Laying Eggs

chicken dislocated leg lying weak sick

What Causes Rickets in Chickens?

Rickets are caused by feeding an unbalanced diet or keeping birds indoors with little sunshine or artificial UV light exposure.

This also happens to chickens kept in small, overcrowded coops or cages. Some even refer to this as “caged layer fatigue.”

Exposure to UV light (natural or artificial) is what aids in the synthesis of vitamin D.

Vitamin D allows the body to absorb and use phosphorus and calcium.

So, this leads us to the primary cause of rickets:

Lack of Vitamin D

A Vitamin D deficiency is usually the culprit when it comes to rickets in chickens.

The average chicken needs about 3,000 to 5,000 IU/kg of Vitamin D daily.

Give your chickens as much UV exposure as you can, especially if they live indoors or you’re in a more northern climate.

This exposure to UV light allows chickens to produce vitamin D in their skin.

Let your chickens have at least 20 to 30 minutes of sunshine daily.

Morning and evening are better options in regions with extreme heat or harsh UV indexes. And yes, chickens can sunburn, in case you’re wondering.

Another option is intentionally adding more vitamin D supplements directly through their feed or water sources.

This D3 supplement is one good option. Add 15mL of the solution to every liter of drinking water.

If you’re more interested in raising the D3 levels naturally, use sunshine and add more Vitamin D-rich treats to your flock’s diet.

Milk, liver, mushrooms, salmon, cheese, oats, almonds, and other fatty fish species are great vehicles for Vitamin D.

Ironically enough, egg yolks are one of the best sources of Vitamin D. One whole yolk usually has about 218 IU of vitamin D.

ALSO READ: Can Chickens Eat Eggs?

Sunlight Vs. Dietary Supplements: Which is Better?

One of the best food sources of Vitamin D is the old-fashioned egg yolk.

It contains over 200 IU of vitamin D, but your average chicken will need around 3,000 to 5,000 IU of Vitamin D3 daily.

That means they would have to eat at least fourteen egg yolks per chicken daily.

That would also create unhealthy birds as the average egg yolk is 55 calories.

Remember that most chickens should only eat about 300 calories daily under normal conditions.

On the other hand, fifteen minutes of sunshine allows chickens to synthesize up to 5000 IU of vitamin D.

Humans can synthesize about 1,000 IU of vitamin D in ten to fifteen minutes so long as 22% of our skin is uncovered by clothing.

enteritis in poultry with sick chick

Calcium Deficiency

A calcium deficiency could be caused by a lack of Vitamin D3 in the body.

If your chickens also lack d3, start there before you try to treat the calcium deficiency.

Most laying hens need about four to five grams of calcium a day. The average chicken egg contains about 2.2 grams of calcium.

Some of the best sources of calcium are limestone (about 36-41% calcium) and crushed oyster shells (about 39% calcium).

Most chicken keepers opt to place bowls of either of these supplements in the coop. You do not need both.

Chickens know when and how much calcium to eat to self-regulate, so keep it separated from their main feed source. That way, they have a free choice.

Keeping plenty of crushed limestone or oyster shells on hand is always the best practice.

Still, your chickens will pull calcium from various sources if given the chance.

Here are other great sources of calcium that you can give to your flock in moderation:

  • Crushed eggshells
  • Yogurt
  • Navy bean
  • Assorted seeds
  • Figs
  • Cheese
  • Milk
  • Almonds
  • Molasses
  • Kale
  • Collards
  • Bok choy
  • Oranges
  • Okra
  • Soybeans

Not sure what you can and can’t feed your chicken? Be sure to read our definitive list of chicken treats.

Phosphorus Deficiency

The average laying hen needs about 0.32% of their diet to consist of phosphorus or 2.2 g NPP/kg of feed, according to this study.

The average chicken egg has 80 to 120 mg of phosphorus. Laying hens need a constant supply to create quality eggs while maintaining their health.

Phosphorus is most efficiently absorbed from organic sources, like red meats, poultry (I know), dairy, legumes, lime, bone meal, worm castings (worm manure), fish emulsion, and nuts.

Your chicken, much like your own body, will absorb phosphorus more efficiently from animal foods rather than plant foods.

Grass and greens are great plant-based sources your flock probably already has access to.

Beans, cereal grains, and oilseed meal are some of chicken feed’s most commonly added phosphorus-rich ingredients.

chicken dislocated leg limping cannot walk

Symptoms of Rickets in Chickens

Rickets in chickens will manifest in several noticeable symptoms.

Here are the most prevalent to watch out for:

Weakness or Lethargy

Chickens with rickets are sluggish, may lay down a lot, sit on the ground, or not want to move from their roost.

Feed will not motivate them like it used to, and they won’t be interested in foraging much.

This may be confused with laziness at first, but within a week or two, it will be obvious that your flock is losing muscle mass, appetite, and overall strength.

Deformed Bones

The classic sign of rickets is the development of deformed bones.

This usually includes bowed legs, crooked keels, “odd” wing placement, or other skeletal abnormalities.

The bones get soft and won’t remineralize, leading to serious structural deformities.

Reduced Egg Production

In laying hens, one of the earliest signs will be a noticeable decline in egg production or poor quality of the eggs.

The eggs will get smaller, the shells will be thinner or weaker, and they may miss the shell entirely.

Did you know that most speckles on eggs are calcium deposits?

These spots or speckles are deposits of excess calcium that the hen doesn’t need or cannot process.

Some eggs have raised bumps or dots mistakenly called “lice eggs.” But they are not—these bumps are also calcium.

How to Give Your Chickens Nutrients

Vitamin D

The most effective way to give your chickens more calcium is to allow them about ten to thirty minutes of direct sunlight daily exposure.

That is enough to synthesize for the entire day, and it’s free!

If you live in a darker region or it’s impossible to take your chickens outside, offer an artificial UV light and add Vitamin D3 supplements to their feed or water.


Chickens need consistent access to crushed lime or oyster shells to meet their daily calcium needs.

Feed this in a separate dish from their primary food container because chickens can accurately self-medicate and self-regulate exactly to their bodies’ needs.

Chickens cannot properly digest calcium if they don’t have enough Vitamin D, so make D3 the priority.


Phosphorus is generally found in the same sources as Vitamin D3 and Calcium.

If your chicken has enough Vitamin D and Calcium, then they should not have a shortage of phosphorus.

Like Calcium, the chicken’s body cannot absorb and use phosphorus without Vitamin D.

How to Prevent Rickets in Chickens

The best way to prevent rickets is to offer your chickens a balanced diet that meets their life stages and to give them plenty of time in UV light.

chicken feed mix with metal scooper

Proper Nutrition

Either buy and supply high-quality commercial feed or learn about chicken nutrition.

You can grow, mix, and make your own chicken feed with that.

You can also do a hybrid by buying feed and mixing it to your preferences.

Fermenting chicken feed makes nutrients more bio-available, though it is more time and space-consuming.

Supplementation is another great way to avoid nasty deficiencies like rickets in your flock if the chicken feed doesn’t meet all needs.

Supplementation could mean purchasing formulated supplements or adding more natural ingredients like leafy greens, animal livers, or homemade bone meal to your chickens’ diets.

If you haven’t already, give your chickens grit, too.

Grit helps your chickens break down the food they consume in their crop.

Chickens don’t have teeth, so they use grit (basically tiny rocks, gravel, or sand) to grind down the food so it is easier to absorb.

If you ever see your chickens picking in your driveway or the edge of the road, they’re probably scavenging for grit. Some people jokingly call grit “rooster teeth.”

Plenty of Natural Sunlight

Your chickens should have time in their chicken run or your yard daily as the weather permits.

This gives them the mental stimulation they need to be happy, more opportunities to socialize, a well-rounded diet thanks to the foraging they’ll do, and the freedom to absorb UV light from the sun.

If you cannot let your chickens outside to see the sun, supplement with a good-quality UV light.

animal feed what are the 6 nutrients animals need like chickens

How to Correct an Unbalanced Diet for Chickens

Act quickly if your chickens suffer from a significant deficiency or malnourishment.

Yes, their digestive systems are somewhat fragile, but nowhere near the fragility of a goat, cow, or equine animal.

While I don’t recommend drastic changes, sometimes that is the best option to save your animals from long-lasting issues or starvation.

General Nutritional Needs of Chickens:

  • 10-24% protein. 10% for non-breeding roosters, 24% for chicks and young broilers, and everyone else.
  • 3-5% fat. Higher for meat birds, lower for layers.
  • 2.5 to 4% fiber. Meat birds of all stages need about 2.5% fiber while laying hens need closer to 4%.
  • 0.35 to 0.5% methionine.
  • 0.75 to 1.3% lysine
  • 0.85 to 5% calcium. 0.85% for finished meat birds, or 5% for in-production laying hens.
  • 0.35 to 0.5% phosphorus.

Rickets in Chickens: FAQs

Here are some of the most frequently asked questions and answers about rickets in chickens.

How Do You Treat Rickets in Birds?

To treat rickets in chickens or other fowl, increase the amount of available calcium, vitamin D, and phosphorus.

Chickens cannot absorb calcium or phosphorus without vitamin D, so prioritize that.

This can be accomplished through increased UV light exposure and a well-balanced diet.

How Do You Treat a Vitamin D Deficiency in Chickens?

The fastest and cheapest way to treat a vitamin D deficiency in chickens is to give them 30 minutes of sunlight at least once daily.

The second best option is to supplement with an artificial UV light in the chicken coop.

Can People Get Rickets?

People can get rickets. It is more commonly seen in children.

When an adult has rickets, it is called “osteomalacia” or “soft bones.” Similarly to chickens, this is caused by a lack of vitamin D or calcium.

Is Rickets Contagious?

Rickets is not contagious.

Chickens cannot spread rickets to other birds (or people), but it is common for the entire flock to suffer from the condition.

They will generally share the same habits and diets that contribute to rickets.

Rickets in Chickens: Before You Go…

Addressing rickets in chickens requires a proactive approach centered on ample time in the sunshine, a well-balanced diet, and vigilant observation.

The sooner you interfere and correct this, the better your odds of improving your flock’s health without long-term damage.

Of course, prevention is always better than treatment.

Make a good diet and outside time a priority before it can manifest into rickets or another deficiency.


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