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Atherosclerosis is a chronic inflammatory disease of the arterial wall, which occurs frequently in birds. So frequently in fact, that birds have been used as animal models for medical research in humans for years. It is the leading cause of coronary heart disease and stroke in humans, and leads to 25% of all human deaths in the United States.

It is a vascular disease which is caused by the accumulation of fatty substances, cholesterol, cellular waste products, calcium, and other substances (referred to as plaque) inside of an artery. This buildup may eventually obstruct blood flow, or travel to other parts of the body.

In chickens, the two predominate factors involved in the onset of this disease is diet and infection with the Marek's disease virus.

Chickens receiving a diet low in polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA) and high in saturated fatty acids, high-cholesterol diets, and high-fat diets enriched in linoleic acid are more at risk.

Marek's disease virus can cause atherosclerotic-like lesions in multiple arteries of chickens and the infection of smooth muscle cells caused by this virus can cause accumulation of cholesterol.

Signs of Atherosclerosis in Chickens

Atherosclerosis usually doesn't cause signs and symptoms in birds until it severely narrows or totally blocks an artery. Many times, the first indication of the disease is apparent sudden death related to an unknown cause. When clinical signs do occur, they are usually associated with the complications caused by reduced blood flow through the arteries. This can cause chickens to demonstrate signs associated with cardiac failure, such as lethargy, exercise intolerance, difficulty breathing, ataxia, and behavioral changes.

Clinical Signs

Exercise intolerance
Difficulty breathing
Sudden onset blindness
Behavioral changes
Sudden death


  • History
  • Radiographs
  • CBC
  • Necropsy


Change in dietSwitch to a low fat diet with supplemental omega 3 fatty acids
NiacinUsed to help lower total cholesterol.
HMG-CoA reductase inhibitorsRosuvastatin (Crestor), Pravastatin (Pravachol), Fluvastatin (Lescol), etc.
IsoxuprineA peripheral vasodilator that was used successfully in managing clinical signs in a parrot with presumed atherosclerosis.



  • Feed a low fat, low cholesterol diet with plenty of omega-3 fatty acids, particularly long chain EPA and DHA sources.
  • Vaccinate chicks for Marek's disease

Scientific References

Risk Factors

  • Unhealthy diet. Foods that are high in saturated and trans fats, cholesterol, sodium (salt), and sugar.
  • Infection with Marek's Disease virus (MDV) or Chlamydophila spp
  • Heavier breeds and/or obesity
  • Older age. As chickens get older, the risk for atherosclerosis increases.
  • Lack of physical activity
  • Stress