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Poultry Cannibalism: Causes, Prevention & Treatment

Rowan Burgess |

Poultry cannibalism is a serious issue, one that not many farmers want to deal with. The easiest way to control it is to prevent it from occurring. However, this is not always possible. Let us go over the causes, prevention, and treatment of cannibalism in poultry.

Causes of Poultry Cannibalism

Cannibalism by fowl is caused by a combination of genetic and environmental factors. The exact cause is unknown, but many management conditions and genetics can make a flock more prone to cannibalism. Some sources of poultry cannibalism are listed below.

1. Overcrowding

The overpopulation of poultry birds in a limited space can cause competitive behaviour, leading to cannibalism. Birds can and do become stressed due to the lack of space in a coop.

2. Food and Water Shortage

Like overcrowding, the competition for resources can cause poultry to become stressed and exhibit cannibalistic behaviour. If the flock does not have adequate food and water, they will compete over the limited supplies, leading to pecking. Further, if the birds are always hungry, they will look for other ways to satisfy their nutritional needs (cannibalism).

Make sure you have the right equipment to provide the correct food and water supply to your birds.

3. Imbalanced Diet

Chickens sometimes eat an imbalanced diet that gives them high energy and low fibre. If this happens, they will exhibit aggressive pecking and cannibalistic behaviour. A shortage of proteins and other nutrients such as methionine and salt will make chickens hungry for feathers and blood.

4. Excessive Heat

Like humans and many other animals, high temperatures will cause chickens to feel annoyed and exhibit irritable behaviour. These emotions can cause the fowl to start aggressive pecking others and even lead to cannibalistic behaviours.

5. Bright Lights

Excessively bright lights or exposure to too much sunlight can cause chickens to become irritable, leading to hostility and cannibalistic behaviour. Hostile behaviour among members of the flock can lead to pecking and cannibalism.

6. Parasites and Illness

Internal and external parasites can cause chickens to peck at themselves or each other. Healthy chickens will also peck at sick or injured birds, both out of curiosity and self-preservation. Too much feather pecking can lead to cannibalistic behaviour.

7. Abrupt Changes in Environment or Management Practices

Chickens are creatures of habit and do not enjoy abrupt changes in their environment. They may even exhibit cannibalistic behaviour if they experience abrupt changes. If you plan to move your birds to a new location, move some of their feeders and waterers. If you do this, they have something familiar in an unfamiliar environment. If the animals are not familiar with their environment, it can lead to pecking and cannibalism.

8. Introducing New Birds to the Flock

Anytime you remove or add birds to a flock, the changing environment can stress the birds and disrupt their pecking order. It can also take up to a week for the flock to re-establish a new pecking order, leading to cannibalism.

How to Prevent Poultry Cannibalism

Even if you’re an expert poultry farmer and manage your flock properly, outbreaks of cannibalism can occur. However, outbreaks are less likely if you take preventive measures.

Give Your Flock Enough Room

Your birds should have enough room to run around freely. Below are the recommended floor spaces:

  •     2-week-old birds: 230cm2 per bird
  •     3-8-week-old birds: 460m2 per bird
  •     8-16-week-old birds: 930cm2 per bird
  •     16 weeks old+: 1400cm2 per bird or more

You should also have a laying hen box for each laying hen.

Provide Adequate Feed and Water

All your chickens should have access to enough feed and freshwater. Provide your birds with a well-balanced diet for each stage of their development. You should also provide your birds with a healthy amount of greens, clover, or another herb. Greens that are rich in fibre will make the chickens feel full and satisfied.

Provide Salt Solution for Deficiencies

Sulphur and salt deficiencies in bird feed could trigger a pecking habit by increasing the birds’ appetites for blood. Ensure that the birds’ feed is rich in nutrients and that they are getting enough salt from it.

Maintain the Right Temperature

The space in which your birds reside should be the correct temperature. Keep the temperature for chicks at 35°C. After a week, reduce the temperature by 2.7° every seven days until the temperature reaches 21°C. Keep the temperature constant as well as you can.

Maintain Adequate Light Intensity

Do not use white light bulbs over 40W during chick growth. If you need powerful light bulbs for heat, use infrared lamps. If your birds 12 weeks or older, use 15W or 25W lamps where the birds reside. Do not light the environment for more than 16 hours per day.

Add Foraging Items

Foraging items will encourage your animals to peck at objects instead of each other. Foraging items include shiny articles, a broken pumpkin or squash, and foraging toys. Foraging is vital for stimulation and to avoid harmful pecking behaviour.

Deworm Your Birds

You should be deworming your birds and regularly medicating them against parasites. Birds with parasites often resort to cannibalism, so keep them adequately protected from worms and other parasites.

Remove Sick and Injured Birds from the Pen

If any of your chickens are sick, mutilated, or injured, separate them from the healthy birds to prevent the others from messing with it. Chickens will imitate others around them. If one bird starts feather pecking, others will do the same, and cannibalism will spread.

Make sure you treat these birds fully with sprays and medication before you bring them back to the flock. 

How to Treat a Cannibalism Outbreak

It is better to prevent cannibalism than let it happen and try to stop it. However, if an outbreak occurs, you must control the behaviour before it spreads. There are many methods to accomplish this objective.

Identify the Root of the Problem

You cannot treat a cannibalism outbreak until you identify the source of the problem, which is why it’s easier to prevent than treat. The first thing you must do is understand why the cannibalistic behaviour is happening. Once you’ve identified the source of the problem, you must address it.

Separate Birds

The next step you must take is to separate the birds that are feather pecking and remove any badly injured birds. Badly injured birds will only encourage others to continue pecking them, which perpetuates the behaviour. Remove the victims of cannibalism (especially laying hens) and care for them separately.

Darken Facilities Using Red Bulbs

If the cause is too much light, you can darken your facilities using red bulbs. Red bulbs will be darker and less harsh than blue or white light, which can calm your poultry and encourage them to reduce their feather pecking behaviour.

Add Additional Feed, Water, and Space

Double-check that each bird has adequate space given the recommendations above. If they do not have sufficient running space, expand your pen to accommodate the birds or move some to a different area. Add additional feeders and waterers as well so everyone does not fight over resources.

Add Nest Boxes and Perches

When there is not adequate space, birds will fight over nest boxes and perches. Make sure each laying hen has a nest box and that there are sufficient perches throughout the pen. Laying hens fall prey to pecking often, so laying hens should have their nest boxes.

Use Anti-Cannibalism Spray

Anti-cannibalism spray is a simple way to calm poultry down and discourage pecking. The strong scent of the spray knocks out the animals’ characteristic smell, calming them down and preventing them from pecking each other. Dalton offers an anti-cannibalism spray that works for both poultry and pigs. 

Frequently Asked Questions

How Do I Stop Cannibalism in Chickens?

To stop cannibalism in chickens, start by identifying the root causes, such as overcrowding, lack of resources, or environmental stress. Separate aggressive or injured birds to prevent further pecking. Darken facilities using red bulbs to reduce aggression. Ensure sufficient space, feeders, and waterers for all birds. Consider using anti-cannibalism spray on damaged birds to deter aggressors.


Cannibalism in poultry is much easier to prevent than treat. All you must do is make sure your poultry is adequately fed with nutritious food, have enough room, get enough light, and are healthy. If outbreaks of cannibalism occur, treat them quickly. If you follow these tips, you’ll maintain a healthy and happy flock.