Nutritional approaches to reduce or prevent feather pecking in laying hens : Any potential to intervene during rearing?

Mens, A.J.W.; Krimpen, M.M. van; Kwakkel, R.P.


Feather pecking (FP) by laying hens is a significant welfare issue in the poultry industry. Pecking at and pulling out feathers of conspecifics can seriously reduce the well-being of birds and causes economic losses for the farmer. Records of FP in laying hen flocks from the last 20 years show a prevalence of between 24% and 94%. Several research groups worldwide have hypothesised about the causes of FP. From a nutritional point of view, re-directed behaviour and feather eating seem to be the most plausible causes. The gut microbiome seems to be involved in FP due to its influence on hormonal pathways and as it is influenced by the diet, which might include feathers ingested by the hens. Bird experiences during the rearing period are related to FP in later life by possible effects on the physiological development of the pullets. Most likely, pullets experience a sensitive period within the first few weeks post-hatch during which FP can develop due to various factors such as hormonal influences, nutrition and (the lack of) environmental enrichment. Nutrition could influence FP in two ways. Imbalances in certain nutrients, such as amino acids may have a direct effect on physiological mechanisms that trigger FP. Furthermore, ingredients such as roughages, fibres and non-nutritive ingredients may have an effect on exploratory and foraging or feeding behaviour. Literature (mainly in adult layers) shows that nutritional interventions increased eating time by 23–45% and/or the mean retention time of feed in the gut by 2.9–6.0 min/g fibre, and reduced or delayed FP. Using nutritional strategies (i.e. provision of specific AA profiles and/or high fibrous ingredients) during the sensitive period during rearing could prevent ultimately the development of FP, by altering the pullets’ (gut) physiology and/or her time allocation. Research focussing on critical periods during rearing should be initiated.