Housing conditions and broiler and broiler breeder welfare: the effect of litter condition on contact dermatitis in broilers and breeders, and the effect of elevated structures on broiler leg health

Research output: ThesisDoctoral ThesisCollection of Articles


Contact dermatitis in broilers is a multifactorial condition that is most commonly caused by poor litter quality or otherwise unsuitable material affecting the footpad or hock skin. Footpad health is mainly maintained by keeping litter in a dry and friable condition. Hence, footpad lesions reflect litter quality that, more widely, describes the housing conditions and bird health. The evaluation of the prevalence of contact dermatitis denotes a commonly accepted approach to assess the welfare of broiler flocks. However, there is lack of knowledge about footpad lesions in broiler breeders. Although numerous studies on the effect of litter materials on footpad condition have been conducted, experiments with peat are scarce. Also, knowledge of the influence of peat on hock burns and litter quality is lacking. Modern fast-growing broilers spend excessive time resting and this inactivity has been suggested to increase the incidence of impaired gait and leg disorders. Tibial dyschondroplasia (TD) is one of the most common leg pathologies in broilers. Perches or elevated platforms add complexity to the broilers’ environment and may stimulate locomotion. However, research on the use of elevated structures under commercial rearing conditions and possible benefits for broiler leg health is limited. This thesis provides descriptive information about contact dermatitis and breast blisters in broiler breeders throughout the production period with respect to litter condition. Secondly, the study compared the influence of peat bedding with wood shavings and ground straw (fine crushed straw) on contact dermatitis and plumage cleanliness in fast-growing broilers and litter condition in commercial broiler houses. Furthermore, the study examined the use of perches and elevated platforms by broilers, and the impact of the additional equipment on contact dermatitis, plumage cleanliness, walking ability, the occurrence of TD and litter conditions under intensive rearing circumstances. Litter condition in broiler and breeder houses was evaluated according to the Welfare Quality® (WQ) protocol for broiler chicken. Additionally, litter height was measured, and litter quality determined according to moisture, pH and ammonia content. Footpad condition was visually inspected with the WQ-scoring method (broilers), the official Finnish system (broilers) or employing a method modified from the official system (breeders). Hock skin lesions and plumage cleanliness were assessed according to the WQ-protocol. Broiler gait was scored before slaughter following the WQ-protocol. The severity of TD was determined. The use of perches and platforms was monitored by video recording. Additionally, farmers estimated the platform and perch usage twice a week throughout the growing period. The condition of breeder footpads deteriorated towards the end of the production period, with the occurrence of severe lesions reaching a maximum of 64% on average at slaughter. However, hock burns and breast blisters were rarely recorded. The litter layer became drier over time. Although dry and friable litter in breeder houses was associated with healthier footpads, other factors were of greater importance, as footpad lesions, particularly severe lesions, appeared more often towards slaughter age. Broiler footpads were generally in good condition at slaughter age, 80% of the birds having healthy footpads. In broilers, hock burns were more frequently detected than footpad lesions. Inferior footpad and hock skin health was scored on wood shavings rather than on peat, without differences in litter condition and moisture. Moreover, the lack of difference in moisture between ground straw and peat still resulted in poorer litter, footpad and hock skin condition on ground straw. Farms differed for footpad and hock burn condition, and litter quality. In risk analysis, the impact of farmer on contact dermatitis severity exceeded the effect of litter quality. The platforms were used frequently while only single birds used perches. The study indicated no effects of platform treatment on footpad and hock skin health, and litter condition. The birds with access to platforms, however, had enhanced leg health: mean gait score, the percentage of birds scored 3, and TD percentage and severity were lower for birds in platform-equipped houses. Access to platforms most likely enables more versatile movement, such as walking forward, up and down, grasping by feet, and jumping, which may promote leg health and gait. This was the first study to follow footpad health in broiler breeders through the whole production period. The results indicate the need for further investigation because good litter condition alone appears insufficient to keep breeder footpads healthy for their entire life. Further, this thesis provides new knowledge about the applicability of peat as broiler bedding. According to our results, regarding footpad health, peat seems to be the optimal litter material for Finnish conditions. Furthermore, the study underlines the importance of farmer ability to manage litter conditions, regardless of the chosen litter material. Hock burn monitoring could represent a more sensitive indicator of litter condition and possibly also signal leg health status, therefore monitoring hock burns at slaughter should be considered. The advantages of traditional perches for broilers should be re-evaluated as they remained largely unused. However, the extensive use of platforms suggests that broilers are motivated to perch on elevated structures. Hence, platform availability could enhance their emotional wellbeing. Elevated platforms offering additional possibilities for locomotion seem promising because they show apparent potential to enhance leg health without compromising litter condition or footpad health. Based on all these findings, elevated platforms with ramps can be recommended as a way forward to enhance broiler welfare in commercial environments.
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of Helsinki
  • Valros, Anna, Supervisor
  • Norring, Marianna, Supervisor
Award date26 May 2017
Place of PublicationHelsinki
Print ISBNs978-951-51-3234-5
Electronic ISBNs978-951-51-3235-2
Publication statusPublished - 26 May 2017
MoE publication typeG5 Doctoral dissertation (article)

Fields of Science

  • 413 Veterinary science

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