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 chicken vet can be difficult, and this leaves chicken owners pretty much on their own to learn to recognize the signs and symptoms of common chicken illnesses.
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 figuring out what to do with a sick hen (or roo).
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 care 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.
Most of the time, chickens require very little care and illnesses are less common in a well-maintained coop. Hopefully, you’ll be buying your chickens gifts more often than taking care of then when they’re sick.
But it’s necessary to be able to identify symptoms of chicken illness in your flock. So let’s go over some ways to determine 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
- Sneezing or coughing
- 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
- Bald spots 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
Here’s a video of a chicken coughing:
What should I do if I think my chicken is sick?
If you notice any of the above sick chicken symptoms, 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 as soon as you identify them 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 coop and put it in a pen next door. The sick bird needs to be removed from the main chicken coop and placed it in a crate or pen in a different building.
A wire dog crate like this one is great to have around when you need to isolate a sick chicken.
You’ll need to have dedicated food and water supplies for the sick bird, and don’t carry feed buckets in and out of the quarantine area. This helps prevent accidentally carrying the disease pathogen into the coop with the well birds.
Additionally, to prevent spreading disease, care for the sick chicken 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.
How do I catch a chicken to examine or quarantine it?
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.
How do you restrain a chicken for its own safety…and your own?
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.
Here’s a great video with more information about how to hold a chicken:
How do I care for a 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: First aid and feeding a sick chicken
What medications can I give a sick chicken?
I do not recommend antibiotics for treating respiratory illness. Antibiotics do not cure respiratory illnesses in chickens.
Chickens do not get colds.
They get infections that never go away. Antibiotics simply decrease symptoms, but then you have a carrier in your flock.
It’s sad to terminally cull a chicken — and it’s usually your favorite — but better than your entire flock becoming infected or dying!
Antibiotic use is also strictly limited in farm animals, including backyard chickens, so you should ALWAYS discuss antibiotic choices and usage with your veterinarian!
For my own birds, I limit antibiotic use to severe wound treatment which are honestly quite rare in my own birds.
What about antibiotics I can buy at the feed store?
Yes, you can buy oxytetracycline and penicillin OTC at the feed store, along with a myriad of topical and oral treatments.
But ALWAYS discuss usage with a veterinarian. There’s a tendency to throw these two antibiotics at everything, and they may not be effective or even indicated for some conditions or diseases.
What are withdrawal times for meat and eggs?
All drugs have withdrawal times for meat and eggs that need to be kept in order to maintain food safety. A withdrawal time is the period of time after administration of a medication that the food animal should not be used for human consumption.
This means, do not slaughter or collect eggs from your chickens during the withdrawal time. After the set number of days recommended for withdrawal, you can resume using the eggs or dispatch for meat.
The withdrawal time for drugs is on the label, or your veterinarian can look them up.
Important note on giving antibiotics to a sick chicken: NEVER give Baytril (enrofloxacin) to chickens.
Baytril is a member of a class of antibiotics known as fluoroquinolones. They are very potent, broad-spectrum antibiotics, that are often reserved for very serious infections.
The use of Baytril for chickens (& all food animals) is not allowed even off-label, period. Administration of Baytril to chickens can lead to legal action against you and even result in jail time.
While it’s unlikely you would actually end up in jail after giving your chickens Baytril, you will certainly be contributing to the problem of antibiotic resistance in bacteria that cause significant disease in humans.
Here is a link to restricted drugs in food animals at FARAD.org. FARAD stands for Food Animal Residue Avoidance Databank. FARAD.org an excellent resource for learning about using medications in your food animals.
The information within this post is for informational purposes only. Always consult a veterinarian before treating or administering medications to your pets.