Impaired feathering/feather loss: What's wrong with my birds?

In poultry, feathers serve important roles in terms of protection and insulation of the body. While moulting, or renovation of older feathers by new ones, is a natural process occurring in mature layers upon completion of a laying cycle (which itself can be influenced by many factors), feather loss or impaired feathering may be indicative of other problems in the farm.

Feather-related problems in poultry can be roughly divided into two groups, either:

  • They are not properly developed (linked to feather formation) which is often related to nutrition or the presence of mycotoxins.
  • They are pulled off by birds (feather pecking), which is a management-related issue.

In each case it is critical to understand the foundation of the problem so that it can be properly solved (see table right).

Stressful conditions in the barn, especially during brooding, such as heat, cold and existence of air currents, amongst others, can result in feather loss and poor feather quality in the birds. In this case, it is crucial that the behavior and interaction of animals is observed. Often, feather pecking and pulling can also be triggered by inadequate intake of nutrients. Due to the high protein content in feathers, higher protein levels in feed may encourage faster feather development and shedding.

Imbalance of amino acids in the feed, particularly sulphur amino acids cysteine and methionine, may cause feather abnormalities and/or rough feather appearance. The dermotoxic effect of trichothecene mycotoxins, such as T-2 toxin and others, may also contribute to low feather quality along with other negative effects, such as oral lesions and decreased performance.

Overall, excessive feather loss or impaired feathering adversely affects feed conversion as birds have to allocate extra energy from the diet to compensate for heat loss.

As such, management, housing and nutrition should be optimized to reduce this occurrence. In terms of mycotoxins, prevention can be undertaken through the use of a proper mycotoxin risk management tool which adsorbs and/or biotransforms mycotoxins, thus eliminating their toxic effects for the animals, while guaranteeing liver and immune protection.