Formula Problems

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Q: We recently had some problems with slow passage of formula out of the crops in some of our very young baby birds. In some cases, the food completely stops moving. We have lost several chicks this way. We have asked advice from several different people whom we know. One of the things that we keep hearing is that feeding formula that is too cold can cause this. How hot does formula have to be in order to keep this problem from happening?

A: Formula should be fed between the temperatures of 98 and 108 degrees Fahrenheit. The older a baby bird is the more finicky it becomes regarding the temperature of the formula. As they get older, they prefer temperatures on the warmer side of the range. Older babies have reached a psychological stage of development where likes and dislikes have a greater effect on whether their feeding response is turned on or off. They will almost never willingly accept formula that is too cold. The only way that cold formula can be administered is by tubefeeding directly into the crop. It is interesting to note that although older babies are stressed the least by formula that is too cold, they are the least willing to accept it. Younger babies are often overwhelmed by their instinctive desire to feed. They are much less likely to be “turned off’ by formula that is too cold. Even though they are the most willing to accept it, they will be stressed the most by it.

The key word in the above explanation is “stress.” If the baby is in good enough condition to handle the stress, no harm will come from an accidental feeding of cold formula. Cold formula in and of itself does not cause “slow crop” in young babies. What happens is an overall function of body temperature. When body temperature is too low, the digestive process is slowed. This is why correct brood temperatures are so important in the early stages of development. Newly hatched chicks are not capable of producing enough of their own body heat to survive. Hence, a brooder that is too cool will cause a drastic slow down of metabolic functions. We initially become aware of this by noticing that the baby is suffering from “slow crop.” The stress caused by cold formula is created by the formula drawing the body heat out of the baby. The cold formula lowers the overall body temperature of the baby and digestion is drastically slowed or stopped until the chick’s body temperature returns to normal.

The effects of this process can be magnified by brooder temperatures that are too low. At the Institute, we have a separate brooder for all babies that are younger than 4 days old. The temperature is set at 97.5 degrees Fahrenheit. The first sign that something has gone wrong with the heating element or thermostat is when we open the brooder for their every two hour feeding and find that all of the babies still have most of their food from the previous feeding. If a baby is strong and healthy, it can make it through this stress period without being harmed. Nature has allowed for the fact that Mom may not always be able to return to the nest before the babies cool. When the babies are warmed up, their metabolism returns to normal. The reason that older babies are affected less is because they have the ability to start warming the food with their own body heat rather than depending to the greatest extent on external sources.

In babies that are younger than 4 days old, slow crop is almost always caused by underhydrated formulas or brooder temperatures that are too low. Once a baby passes the age of 1 week, the possibilities broaden. In some cases, problems can be caused in unfeathered babies by manufactured formulas that are not hydrated sufficiently or separate after feeding or in any age baby by blockages in the digestive tract. In the greatest majority of cases, however, slow crop is caused in very young babies by brooder temperatures that are too low or in any age baby by numerous types of bacterial infections.

Since you have not stated in your letter at exactly what age your babies began suffering from this problem, I suggest that you consider all of the possibilities I have mentioned. If they are over 1 week of age or if the mentioned possibilities do not yield results, you must have a choanal swab submitted to a lab for bacterial analysis. If there is an avian veterinarian available in your area, bring one of the affected babies to their clinic for examination and culturing.

When you return home, keep the baby isolated from the rest of your babies. Try to find a veterinarian who will supply you with the proper materials and who will teach you how to take the “swabs” in your own home. If there are any problems in the future, you can bring the “swabs” to the clinic, and the vet will submit them to the proper lab for analysis and a readout of antibiotic sensitivities if there is an infection. Being able to take the “swabs” yourself will not only save you money in vet bills, it will keep your babies from being exposed to whatever diseases might be circulating in the waiting room from the other “patients.” Bear in mind that you do not need an avian veterinarian to have cultures submitted to a lab. You also do not need one to prescribe the antibiotic of choice as long as he or she is willing to consult available texts. Any vet can supply you with this service. Although it’s always advisable to work with an avian veterinarian, if there are none in your area or there are none who will cooperate, any vet is better than none.