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Nutritional
strategies to
support intestinal
health in poultry
by Leopold Jungbauer & Jan Dirk van der
Klis, Delacon Biotechnik GmbH, Steyregg,
Austria

T

he rising global human population and
the improving general human welfare
standards comes with an increasing
demand for animal proteins. According
to an outlook report by the Organisation
for Economic Co-operation and
Development (OECD) and the Food
and Agriculture Organisation of the
United Nations (FAO), the poultry meat
production will grow over the next 10 years at around 2.3 percent
annually to around 134.5 million tonnes of meat making it the
largest meat sector from 2020 onwards.
The major part of this growth will be realised in (sub)tropical
regions. Therefore, optimum production performance of birds
is crucial under a wide variety of climatic and management
conditions. Under all circumstances, good intestinal health is
a prerequisite, which is challenged by the worldwide tendency
for antibiotic-free poultry production. Moreover, continuous
selection for improved growth rate and feed efficiency has a
potential negative impact on adaptive immunity, metabolic
diseases and heat tolerance.
Optimised bird management and nutrition can help to safeguard
intestinal health and increase the disease resilience of birds. This
article reviews several nutritional strategies including application
of phytogenic feed additives to support intestinal health in
poultry.

Intestinal disorders in poultry and their economic
impact

Poultry has to face many intestinal health threats. Intestinal
health problems can be of nutritional, managerial or pathogenic
origin. An overfeeding of protein, or minerals (calcium, sodium,
potassium) leads to diuresis (excessive urination), characterised
by excessive clear fluids in droppings, resulting in wet litter.
High levels of anti-nutritional factors like phytic acid, trypsin
inhibitors, mycotoxins or some non-starch polysaccharides
(NSPs) increase the loss of endogenous fluid, due to impaired
intestinal barrier function, so-called physiological diarrhoea.
Last but not least, an imbalance in intestinal microbiota
(bacteria, protozoa and viruses) can impair intestinal health. Such
an imbalance can be initiated by the aforementioned nutritional
factors. Coccidiosis remains one of the most universal and major
concerns in meat producing poultry and is the most prevalent
disease affecting the industry. Williams (1999) estimated that 81

Table 1. Effects of nutritional strategies on the intestinal disease challenges
in broiler chickens (Van der Klis, 2014)
Measure
increased particle size

improved gizzard function and intestinal
(anti)peristalsis

changing energy delivering
nutrients (carbohydrates
for fat)

better energy absorption, fat digestion
being more readily affected in case of
intestinal disorders

change fatty acid
composition
(medium chain fatty acids)
(increased level of
unsaturated fatty acids)

MCFA with antibacterial effects
unsaturated fatty acids are less dependent
on emulsification

reduce (fermentable) protein
content, maintaining amino
acid supply
increased dietary inert fibre
level

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Effect

reduce proteolytic bacteria and their
fermentation products
reduce C. perfringens counts
improve gizzard function and intestinal
(anti)peristalsis
improved amylase secretion
improved bile acid secretion

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percent of production losses in broilers was due to direct effects
of coccidiosis on mortality, weight gain and feed conversion
and 18 percent due to the costs of prophylaxis and therapy.
Nowadays, global annual financial losses due to coccidiosis are
estimated to be 300 million USD.
Hafez (2011) reviewed the prevalence of enteric diseases
of poultry, with special focus on Clostridium perfringens. He
indicated that its prevalence was drastically increased after the
EU ban on AGPs, resulting in reduced animal performance,
increased mortality rates and increased medication costs. Skinner
et al. (2010) estimated that subclinical necrotic enteritis results
in a loss to producers ranging from 450 – 750 USD per 10,000
birds.
It is clear that a good understanding of these intestinal disorders
is needed to be able to develop effective nutritional intervention
strategies and feed additives to reduce intestinal disorders in
poultry or alleviate its consequences.

The impact of nutrition on intestinal health

As indicated before, intestinal health issues can have different
causes that need to be understood. Intestinal problems that have
a nutritional base can be prevented by using well-balanced
diets with good quality raw materials, although these are not
always readily available. Correct estimates of the nutritional
value of feedstuffs and a focus on e.g. reduction of fermentable
substrates, proper thermal processing of feedstuffs to eliminate
anti-nutritional factors and control for mycotoxins are crucial to
minimise intestinal health challenges.
It is well-accepted that using too high dietary crude protein
levels can increase growth of proteolytic bacteria like Clostridium
perfringens. Recently, Veldkamp at al. (2016) have shown that

Table 2. Effects of some feed additives on intestinal health in poultry
(Dhama et al. 2014)
Feed additive
Probiotic

Effect
Inhibits growth of disease causing organisms
Prevents digestive upsets and diarrhoea caused by
bacteria
Creates balance in gut microbial population

Prebiotic

Positive effects on host by stimulating growth and
activity of beneficial bacteria

Organic acids

Ability to reduce pathogenic and spoilage organisms
by lowering gut pH

Antimicrobial
peptides

Components of the innate immune system and
possess antibacterial and immune-modulatory
properties
Kill a broad range of microbes including bacteria,
fungi and viruses
Reduce anti-nutritional factors and degrade nonstarch polysaccharides
Degrade phytate and increase availability of minerals
Bind and immobilisation of toxic material
(mycotoxins) in the GI tract
Improve nutrient digestibility, especially crude
protein with focus on intestinal health
Reduce oxidative stress & fatty acids oxidation and
improve barrier functions in the GI tract
Exert antibacterial effects at high dosages
Inhibit quorum sensing and reduce toxin production
at low dosages

Exogenous
enzymes

Clay minerals
Phytogenics

reducing dietary electrolyte balance (dEB) significantly reduced
wet litter incidence in turkeys and subsequently improved paw
quality. In their study, soybean meal was exchanged by vegetable
protein sources with lower potassium contents to reduce dEB.
This approach however, can result in an increase in feed costs.
Fermentable substrates can also be reduced by the use of

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Milling and Grain - July 2016 | 59

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effects of infections on production
performance.

Feed additives to support
intestinal health

Recently, an extensive review
on the types of growth promoters
and feed additives was published
by Dhama et al. (2014). Apart
from feed antibiotics they dealt
with probiotics, prebiotics, organic
acids, antimicrobial peptides,
exogenous enzymes, clay minerals,
essential oils and herbs as feed
additives that control intestinal
health. Some of the effects of feed
additives on intestinal health are
summarised in Table 2
Several studies with
phytogenic feed additives
indicated positive effects on the
intestinal morphology, reporting
increased villus/crypt ratios
after feeding a phytogenic feed
additive based on thymol and
Figure 1. Effects of the duration of supply (day 0-21 or day 0-28) of Biostrong 510 in combination
anethole (Amad et al., 2013), or
with a mixture of medium chain fatty acids (marketed as Biostrong Forte, dosed 750 mg/kg) as
increased intestinal integrity as
a feed additive to broiler chickens (average of two trials using a clostridial challenge model).
was concluded from the effect
on transepithelial electrical
resistance of duodenal mucosa
of
broiler
fed
diets
supplemented
with thyme essential oils
exogenous enzymes to degrade fibre fractions and/or make
(Placha et al., 2014). Moreover, pungent substances like
fibre-encapsulated nutrients available to the host animal.
black pepper, chili and garlic improve intestinal blood flow
Carbohydrases such as xylanases have a significant impact on the
(Kochhar, 1999), which might reduce the adverse impact of
breakdown of insoluble fibre fractions in both corn- and wheatischemia of the gastro-intestinal tract on intestinal integrity
based diets. Thereby, xylanases reduces digesta viscosity but also
(Niewold et al., 2004).
generate arabino-xylo-oligosaccharides, which act as prebiotics,
Wallace et al. (2010) tabulated an overview of plant extracts
selectively stimulating the growth of beneficial bacteria.
with anticoccidial activity, antibacterial activity against E. coli
These beneficial bacteria can produce short chain fatty acids
and C. perfringens, and/or alleviate their effects on poultry. In
(SCFA) in the intestine by fermentation, which in turn can be
many cases essential oils were shown not only to reduce weight
utilised as an energy source by the animal and result stimulating
loss and to improve feed efficiency during a coccidiosis infection,
the growth of strictly anaerobic bacterial species. Eckhaut et
but also reduce oocysts shedding (e.g. for oregano (carvacrol and
al. (2008) have shown that the addition of xylanase reduces
thymol), artemesia (1.8-cineole and camphor)).
Salmonella in birds` caeca, cloaca and spleen, possibly mediated
Lillehoj (2014) presented data from her lab on the effects of
by a specific effect of butyric acid on invasion gene expression.
phytogenics on coccidiosis in birds, not only via improved cellSome nutritional interventions that alleviate the consequences
mediated immunity, but also reducing viability of the Eimeria
of intestinal disease challenges in broilers have been summarised
parasites.
(Table 1).
Finally, combinations of essential oils with medium chain fatty
These nutritional interventions (Table 1) might exert direct
acids have been shown to have synergistic effects. To evaluate
antibacterial effects in the intestine (e.g. short and medium
the efficiency of such combinations compared to AGP Delacon
chain fatty acids), improve the function of the gizzard and
conducted two necrotic enteritis challenge trials. A summary of
(anti)peristalsis of the gastro-intestinal tract reducing luminal
these two trials (Figure 1) show that independent of duration of
pH, decrease coccidiosis incidence and/or consequences, and/
application this combination product improved feed conversion
or reduce supply of substrate to the bacteria by improving
ratio (FCR) and body weight (BW) on day 49. Compared to the
nutrient digestibility values. Moreover, physical form of
positive control including an AGP, no differences in body weight
cereal components of feed may affect the morphological and
gain were observed when this product was applied, which shows
physiological characteristics of the intestinal tract (Brunsgaard,
that this combination is an additional tool in drug-free broiler
1998; Engberg et al., 2004). Branton et al. (1987) reported that
production.
using wheat ground with a roller mill (coarse ground) compared
to a hammer mill (fine ground) reduced necrotic enteritis and
coccidiosis related mortality from 29 percent to 18 percent,
Conclusion
respectively.
Good intestinal health is crucial for a successful poultry
Nutritional interventions can be designed to improve the supply
production. Although farm management is a main factor to
of nutrients to the host animal, preventing intestinal challenges
control intestinal health, it can be supported by nutritional
or improving the bird’s resilience aiming to reduce the adverse
interventions and the right selection of feed additives.
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