Backyard chickens are pretty easy to care for on any homestead. But what happens if they get sick? How can you tell if your chickens need medical intervention?
Finding a veterinarian that treats chickens can be difficult, and this leaves chicken owners pretty much on their own to learn to recognize the signs and symptoms of chicken illness.
So I reached out to some of my colleagues in mixed animal practice to see if any of them would mind answering some of my questions about keeping backyard chickens.
Luckily, Dr. Susan Williamson agreed to do just that, and she let me share her answers with you here on the blog.
First I’ll let Dr. Williamson introduce herself.
Hey, everyone! I’m Susan Williamson, DVM, and I’m happy to be sharing some chicken health tips and tricks with you today.
I’m a 2002 Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine graduate where I studied mixed animal medicine. I grew up on a small farm, and I myself own a small farm.
I breed Swedish Flower Hens and various rare breeds of waterfowl, miniature Nubian goats, American Guinea Hogs, and Great Pyrenees livestock guardian dogs, along with keeping alpacas and Arabian horses. My husband and I have four boys we homeschool. Currently, I work as a relief veterinarian.
That’s pretty awesome! I’m so jealous of all those farm animals plus working AND homeschooling four boys. I’m super impressed!
Chickens are the new backyard pet, thanks to their gentle natures, ease of management and the delicious fresh eggs. But that means many new chicken owners have questions…lots of questions.
What signs might make you wonder if a bird is sick?
The most common signs of illness in chickens include:
- Not eating well: going off feed is a tell-tale sign of illness in animals
- Bubbly or watery eyes or nose
- Rasping when breathing
- Swelling around the eyes
- A strange odor to the bird(s)
- Swelling of the comb and/or wattles
- Unusual lesions (sores) on the comb and/or wattles
- Limping or inability to stand
- Diarrhea or stools that look or smell different
- Parasites visible in stools
- Feathers that look bedraggled, broken, with an unusual loss pattern
- Bloody stools
- Visible wounds and sores
- Enlarged crop
- Hunched appearance when it isn’t cold
- Standing by itself
- Straining to pass an egg
- Holding the wings in an odd position
If we see a bird with any of these symptoms, what should we do?
If you have a bird that seems ill, your first and most important move should be to remove the bird to an area that is completely separate from your other birds.
Quarantining sick birds is the most important factor in preventing the spread of disease to rest of your birds.
Chickens can also be very nosey, and they will peck at sores on sick birds in the flock. Separating an injured bird from the rest of the group will help it heal faster.
What’s the best way to quarantine a sick bird?
To quarantine simply means to keep the bird completely separate from the rest of the flock.
It is not sufficient to just take it out of its pen and put it in a pen next door. The sick bird needs to be removed from the chicken house and placed it in a crate or pen in a different building. It should have its own food and water supplies and don’t carry feed buckets in and then back out.
To prevent spreading disease, care for this bird AFTER you’ve fed, watered, and collected eggs from the rest of your hens. In the case of very contagious illnesses, wear boot covers or place a foot bath of bleach water just outside the pen. Step in the foot bath on your way out of the quarantine pen to disinfect your footwear and prevent carrying germs out of your quarantine area.
Use a disinfectant, made up properly, to disinfect any items used in the area. Wash your hands after every encounter with the sick bird, and monitor the other birds for illness removing any that show symptoms right away.
Keep your state veterinarian and state lab phone numbers handy. They will be aware of any disease outbreaks and may be able to help you find a veterinarian to come out and treat your bird. If the bird dies, you may want to consider a necropsy to determine the cause of death.
Since most chickens won’t just walk over to be picked up and removed, how do you catch them??
Trying to run a chicken down is an exercise in futility that will only result in you wearing yourself and/or your children out! I promise you can’t outrun a chicken unless you happen to be Usain Bolt!
The simplest way to catch a sick chicken is waiting until dark and then taking the bird in question off the roost.
I also find it useful to have trained my birds to come when called for grain, and as they peck at a treat, I can scoop up a chicken that needs some attention.
If this isn’t an option, I round up my kids to help me herd the chickens into a fenced area like the garden, backyard, or chicken run. Then use a catch net for chickens or a large fishing net to catch the bird.
A leg crook can also be purchased and adjusted to fit the leg of the chicken that needs catching. If I get the chance, catching the hen in a coop or run can also be useful.
Bear in mind that some breeds can and will fly if especially upset, so they may very well fly over a low fence to escape.
Once I catch a chicken, what is the best way to restrain it for its own safety…and mine?
I restrain the wings by tucking them gently into my arms. A towel is also useful, as you can cover the chicken’s eyes and wrap their wings. Handle them gently but firmly and most chickens will calm down and not move.
It’s very important not to squeeze tightly and restrict breathing.
If their chest is compressed, they can’t breathe and that will cause panic or suffocation.
You may have seen pictures of people restraining chickens upside down; it does not harm them if done for short periods of time but it is usually not necessary.
Words of caution:
If the wings are loose, the chicken may flap wildly and injure you. Especially if they hit you in the eye!
Some chickens will peck, and an older rooster may have strong and large spurs, and those can injure you if he kicks or flails. Just be aware of these possibilities and protect yourself as needed.
How do I care for my sick chicken?
For most illnesses and injuries, providing first aid and nursing care is usually all that is needed.
In many cases, all that is required is to provide safety and shelter, fresh food and water nearby, and keep injuries clean to prevent infection. Given some peace and time to heal, your chicken will often recover on her own.
Read more from this interview:
The information within this post is for informational purposes only. Always consult a veterinarian before treating or administering medications to your pets.