John Kenyon BVetMed MRCVS, The Chicken Vet

Backyard chickens are susceptible to a variety of diseases, normally caused by bacteria, viruses or parasites. This article will provide you with the first steps to take when you think one or more of your chickens may be sick.

Behaviours, why do you think she is sick?

When you think you have a chicken that may be sick the first thing that you will need to do is observe her behaviours and make a note of what she is doing. When birds are not feeling well, their water and feed consumption may drop, so check whether she is drinking and eating as normal.

Next, look for any other abnormal behaviours, is she being bullied by other, more dominant hens? If so, it may be best to separate her for a while until she is feeling stronger. Separating the hen from the other birds will also give you the chance to observe her behaviours in more detail, and will tell you whether or not she is still laying. This is important information, as suddenly stopping laying may mean that she has become ‘egg bound’, which is a fairly serious condition and may require veterinary assistance.

Make a note of whether it is just one of your birds behaving abnormally or several of them. Some diseases can be contagious and may spread rapidly between birds as they share water sources and air space.

Check your husbandry

As with all diseases in birds, prevention is better than cure. Good husbandry of birds will go a very long way in preventing disease in the first place, and can also help to bring birds back to good health when mild disease has crept in to the flock.

Excellent water quality is very important to the health of your birds. This should be clean and fresh, replaced at least once every day. Even slightly dirty water can easily predispose birds to bacterial infections.

Birds must be fed on appropriate diets, commercial layer rations are best, with minimal treats. Corn will quickly fatten birds up, predisposing them to becoming ‘egg bound’. Mixed grit (soluble and insoluble grit) should be given ad lib to help with digestion and egg shell quality.

Be sure that the coop environment is as clean as possible. Hens like to have dry, fresh bedding such as wood shavings and clean straw in nest boxes. Also, be sure to check crevices and corners of the coop for red mite, which can irritate the birds and spread disease.

Examine the bird

If possible without causing too much distress to the bird, she should be examined. As a rough guide, a rehomed commercial layer should weigh between 1.8 and 2 Kg.

Look to see whether she is in respiratory distress, which is shown by excessively laboured breathing or open beak ‘panting’.

It is useful to assess the bird’s crop, this is an out-pouching of the oesophagus that sits at the base of the bird’s neck to the right hand side. Food is stored in this pouch before it slowly empties into the stomach for further digestion. If the crop feels very hard, she may be ‘crop-bound’, meaning this emptying process hasn’t occurred. If the crop feels very soft, enlarged and fluid-filled, she may have a condition called ‘sour crop’. If you think the crop is abnormal, reassess the condition of the crop three to four hours later, when it should naturally have emptied into the stomach. If it has not emptied then it would be best to seek veterinary assistance.

Check your hen over for signs of wounds. Chickens can be surprisingly aggressive to one another and unfortunately cannibalism can occur from time to time between flock mates. Also, rats or predators have been known to attack chickens through chicken wire and cause injuries. Minor wounds can heal but other birds in the flock will be attracted to peck the wound and can worsen the injuries easily. Major wounds will require veterinary help.

Look at your hens feathering, she may look sick but is actually just going through a natural moult process. Birds moult in different ways, some may look a little scruffy, and others will look almost ready for the oven! If your hen has lost a lot of feathers but is otherwise well within herself, there is rarely anything to worry about, but be sure to check whether or not other birds are feather pecking her and isolate her if necessary.

Droppings and diarrhoea

Healthy chicken droppings should be fairly solid, dark and with a white urate cap on top of them. One of the most common presentations of sickness is diarrhoea in chickens, with loose, off-colour droppings being seen in the coop. Making the husbandry changes mentioned earlier can greatly reduce the risk of developing this condition. If a hen has diarrhoea but is still active, then consider adding a beneficial supplement to the diet, such as ‘Biostop’, which contains tannins to slow intestinal passage, or ‘Digesti Health’, which helps calm down intestinal upsets and bind any toxins which may be in the feed. These products are available from the chicken vet website.

If a hen has diarrhoea and is lethargic or reluctant to eat and drink then she will most likely require veterinary intervention and a short course of antibiotics. Follow the course of antibiotics with a course of probiotics 48 hours later. ‘Beryls Friendly Bacteria’ will help the bird to repopulate their intestine with an appropriate microflora of bacteria.

Further help

If you are still very concerned about the health of your birds, it would be best to contact a local veterinary practice that is confident in dealing with backyard birds. The locations of your nearest chicken-friendly practice can be found using the practice finder on the chicken vet website.