It rarely fails that when you check into a forum or social media group it is all about keeping chickens, either on a farm or as part of your homestead, you’ll see an owner posting about some outrageous thing that they cannot believe their chickens are eating.
Surprisingly, there are some things that might be cause for alarm for us, but are completely safe for chickens to eat. How about thorny plants? Can chickens eat thorns?
Yes, chickens can sometimes eat thorns, but they really shouldn’t. Thorns are supposed to be a deterrent against animals eating them, and though chickens might be able to swallow and even digest them, the risks of a blocked digestive tract or even perforation of internal tissues is just too great.
You should not feed your chickens anything with thorns on it or allow them to eat thorns.
It seems obvious, but chickens have such a reputation for being smart and savvy eaters that some folks think it is okay.
Just because your chickens can and will eat thorns does not mean you should let them do it.
Keep reading to learn everything you need to know about thorny plants and the chickens that may try to eat them.
Chickens Will Usually Avoid Eating Things that are Bad for Them
Chickens have a pretty good reputation along with most domesticated animals. Where other critters like dogs and sometimes even cows and goats will happily wolf down things that are patently inedible or overtly harmful, chickens tend to be more cautious, and choosier, you might even say more intelligent in their eating.
Plenty of anecdotal and scientific evidence confirms this. There are all sorts of plants that are genuinely dangerous for chickens that they will avoid instinctively, or at least most of them will most of the time.
This definitely contributes to the success rate of our modern chickens ancestral jungle fowl relatives, and also helps our own flocks stay happy, healthy, and out of the veterinarian’s office.
But Not Always!
Unfortunately, chickens aren’t geniuses and some chickens seem particularly predisposed to adventurous eating.
Sometimes, if a chicken is hungry, bored, or just doesn’t know better it might indeed eat something that is bad for it.
A toxic plant, dangerous piece of fruit, or something like that is one thing when it might look, smell or taste appealing, but something that is physically dangerous and difficult to eat like a thorn?
It doesn’t seem possible. What animal could stand to contact or handle much less eat a thorny stalk off of some plant or flower?
As it turns out, chickens will, and there are too many anecdotal accounts on the internet of perplexed and scared owners trying to figure out why their chickens might be engaging in this behavior. Roses are one common spiny plant that chickens will routinely eat.
But surely there must be a reason and a purpose for it if so many chickens do it, right?
Eating Thorny Stems or Leaves Can Cause Problems for Your Chickens
The bottom line is that chickens should not eat thorny or spiny plants. Just because they can, does not mean they should.
Even if the plant itself is safe, chemically, or even nutritious the thorns themselves are anything but.
Thorns have a high likelihood of causing damage to soft tissues in the chicken’s mouth, crop, throat and gizzard along with the rest of their digestive tract.
Though smaller thorns can be successfully broken down and digested when in the gizzard of the chicken, by then it might be too late.
Complications of Eating Thorns May Be Fatal
Thorns can cause serious problems and potentially fatal damage if ingested by chickens. They can get snagged in your chicken’s crop or throat, preventing or impairing swallowing.
They can become lodged in the gizzard or elsewhere in the digestive tract, potentially creating a fatal blockage.
Most worryingly, it is possible for large or sharp thorns to tear, puncture or lacerate the chicken internally; potentially resulting in bleeding that could result in death.
These are serious risks, and each and every one of them is a reason enough to avoid giving your chickens any plants that have thorns or allowing them to eat plants with thorns.
The More Prickly the Thorns the Greater the Risk
It should be obvious, but it is worth pointing out: the gnarlier the thorns a plant has the greater the risk to your chickens.
A plant that has merely pokey leaves, something like holly, will probably do very little harm if any although the risk certainly endures.
However, something like roses, firethorn, and other viciously barbed plants with thick, sharp defensive mechanisms are going to be highly likely to do damage.
Depending on the nature of your birds and how particular they are when eating from or around these plants, it might be reason enough to keep them from going near them all together.
Can You Safely Prepare Thorny Plants for Your Chickens?
Despite these hazards, it is possible to prepare otherwise safe thorny plants to be eaten without risk by your chickens.
In the case of something like the aforementioned roses, this is just a matter of pruning or cutting off the sharpest parts of the spines.
Other plants might have parts that are safe to eat and nutritious for chickens, like flowers, buds, berries or other fruit, you can harvest with care before serving to your chickens separately, completely eliminating any risks of them swallowing thorns.
So long as you are willing to put in the work, and risk a few punctures yourself, it is possible to still incorporate plants of this type into your chickens’ diet safely.
Baby Chicks Must be Especially Careful about Eating Thorns
One more thing to point out. Although it is unlikely that they will put in much effort to eat something that is so difficult to handle and swallow, you must never, ever allow baby chicks to eat thorns or other spiny plant material.
Their small size combined with their developing systems means that they are incredibly vulnerable to crop damage, choking, and other hazards mentioned above.
If you even suspect that one of your chicks has swallowed a thorn, a call to your veterinarian is probably justified. Only prompt intervention might save them without any long-term effects.
Tom has lived and worked on farms and homesteads from the Carolinas to Kentucky and beyond. He is passionate about helping people prepare for tough times by embracing lifestyles of self-sufficiency.