As a backyard chicken keeper, there likely will come a day when you realize you have a sick chicken on your hands. You may notice that your pet chicken isn’t eating or that she seems lethargic. Or you may notice physical signs of illness, such as a pale comb or a drooping tail. So what do you when your backyard chicken is sick?
I’m not a veterinarian, and this post shouldn’t be a substitute for medical advice from a qualified vet, but I’ve dealt with a sick hen or two in the seven-plus years that I’ve been raising chickens. These are my practical tips on chicken health care from one backyard chicken keeper to another.
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Just the other day, I noticed my hen Mabel wasn’t feeling well. Normally first or second out of the coop each morning, she hung back while the others hopped out. When she did leave the coop, albeit reluctantly, she didn’t go for the food or water or even the meal worm treats I offered her. Instead, she simply sat down just a few feet from the door as though she had no energy to go any farther.
Because Mabel is seven years old, and having just lost her sister Petunia to old age a few months earlier, I understandably was concerned. But I implemented my sick chicken protocol and Mabel was back to her old self in just a day or two.
Here’s how I handled the situation and how I recommend you deal with illness in your own backyard flock.
1. Examine the Sick Chicken
So you better understand what you are dealing with and what care your chicken needs, your first step should be to conduct a thorough examination of the chicken.
First, look at the hen’s general condition. A healthy chicken will be alert and active, with her head and tail held erect and bright red comb and wattles. An unhealthy chicken may seem lethargic and disoriented, with a slumped posture, drooping tail, and pale, shrunken comb and wattles.
What are the weather conditions? Extremely hot weather and lack of shade and water can contribute to heat stroke. Extreme cold can lead to frostbite.
What does her poop look like? Normal chicken poop is a formed mass that is brown or gray in color with a white cap, which is the urine. While food will change the appearance of poop (e.g., spinach turns it green, watermelon will make it runny), diarrhea or discolored poop is a sign of ill health.
- Milky white diarrhea, sometimes with blood in it, signals coccidiosis, which especially affects young chicks that have not built up an immunity to it, but may cause illness in older hens, too.
- Loose green or yellow poop, along with lethargy, darkened comb and wattles, decreased food intake, increased thirst, and a drop in egg production can signal salmonella.
- If you suspect internal parasites such as worms, which can be hard to spot but can cause a hen to decline over time, you can ask a vet test a fecal sample of the chicken’s poop for worm eggs.
Check for any wounds or obvious injuries. The sight of blood will attract other chickens, who may literally peck the hen to death. Remove an injured chicken to her own temporary hospital quarters until she is healed. More about this later.
If you see a black scab on the bottom of the hen’s foot, the chicken likely is suffering from bumblefoot, a staph infection that originates from a cut on the foot and can move up the leg.
Also check for evidence of external parasites. Does the chicken seem to be scratching a lot? Are her feathers dirty, broken or missing in patches? You may see lice, mites, or their eggs on the chicken’s body, particularly around her vent or under her wings. Crusty and enlarged scales on the chicken’s legs are a sign of scaly leg mites. A parasite infestation can cause a chicken to become anemic, lose weight, and stop laying eggs. A severe case may even cause death. Early detection and treatment is important to keep your flock in good health.
Eyes, Nose and Throat
Next, look for signs of respiratory issues. Is the hen breathing easily, or is her breathing labored? Is she coughing and sneezing? Are her nostrils clear, or is discharge present? Your chicken may be suffering from a cold or have a more serious communicable disease such as avian influenza, fowl cholera, infectious coryza, infectious laryngotracheitis, or infectious bronchitis. Take prompt action if you suspect these diseases.
Scabs on the hen’s head, neck, leg, and feet and in the hen’s mouth are symptoms of fowl pox, which also affects the respiratory tract in its “wet” form.
Look at the chicken’s eyes. Are they open and alert, or are they watery, swollen, or pussy? Watery, cloudy eyes are a sign of conjunctivitis, caused by dirty bedding or dust. Swollen, pussy eyes could mean the hen has eye worm, a type of parasite. Or the hen may simply have received a peck to the eye from an overly aggressive flock mate.
Carefully check the hen’s crop, which is located at the base of the neck and a bit to the right. The crop is part of the chicken’s digestive tract and is essentially a temporary holding area for food before it enters the stomach. In the morning, before the chicken has eaten, it should feel empty and soft. Two chicken ailments related to the crop are sour crop, which is a bacterial yeast infection caused by a crop that does not empty fully, and impacted crop, a result when food or indigestible substances get stuck in the crop and impact the hen’s ability to breathe.
Does the hen appear to be straining, sitting on the ground a lot, and going in and out of the nesting box frequently without laying an egg? The hen may be egg bound, which is a life-threatening condition in which an egg becomes stuck in the oviduct. Other symptoms are a lack of interest in food and water, droopy tail, pale face and comb, and a hard abdomen.
Handle a suspected egg bound hen carefully. A broken egg in the oviduct can lead to infection and death. Act promptly; if the hen cannot defecate within 24-48 hours because of the blocked oviduct, she will die.
In Mabel’s case, her comb was bright red, her eyes and nose were clear, there was no sign of external parasites or injury, her crop felt empty, and she didn’t appear to be egg bound. Although she was panting like she was hot, there were no signs of respiratory distress. The poop in the coop (which could have belonged to any of them) appeared normal. The only symptoms I could see were Mabel’s unusual lethargy and lack of thirst and appetite.
To further monitor Mabel’s condition, reduce exposure to the rest of the flock if she had something communicable, and to give her a chance to feel better without the possibility that the others would pick on her, I proceeded to step 2.
2. Isolate the Sick Chicken
Every chicken keeper needs a plan to isolate a sick or injured bird. Segregating the hen controls the spread of disease, prevents pecking, provides an opportunity to obtain a fecal sample, and gives the bird a chance to recover in a warm, dark, quiet place.
I have a pet carrier that serves as a temporary hospital bay (and also gives me a way to move my chickens in a hurry, as I had to do during the polar vortex.) Every chicken keeper should have at least one, in my humble opinion. I use clean straw in the bottom of the carrier for bedding and provide small food and water containers for the chicken to eat and drink.
Move the sick chicken to a separate location that is protected from the elements (I use my attached garage) and cover the top of the carrier with a towel to create a nice dark, quiet environment. Monitor the chicken to see if she is eating, drinking and pooping as normal. Also watch for signs of illness in other members of the flock.
3. Treat the Sick Chicken
Your examination of the chicken in step 1 may provide clues as to any needed treatment. Dr. Google can help you do the rest. For example, if you believe the hen is egg bound, this helpful article offers suggestions for treatment: Egg Binding: Symptoms, Treatment and Prevention.
If you are dealing with a case of impacted crop or sour crop, this article provides some helpful advice: How to treat sour crop and impacted crop and how to know which one you’re dealing with.
If you can’t pinpoint the issue and the hen seems seriously ill – extremely weak, inactive, and with severe coughing and sneezing or respiratory distress, seek prompt treatment from a qualified vet. Some communicable poultry diseases, such as avian influenza, need to be reported to the appropriate health authorities. But keep in mind these diseases are relatively uncommon in backyard flocks with proper care.
A Chicken Medicine Cabinet
Otherwise, a chicken that is under the weather often can be returned to good health in no time at all with some simple remedies kept on hand for just such a situation.
- First, give the chicken a good dose of extra nutrients to help her fight off whatever is ailing her. Nutri Drench Poultry Solution and Healthy Flock Poultry Vitamins and Electrolytes provide essential vitamins and electrolytes. These products can be mixed into the chicken’s water and administered by a catheter tip disposable syringe directly into the chicken’s beak if she isn’t drinking on her own.
- Use saline solution to clean wounds and flush eyes.
- Treat wounds with an antiseptic spray such as Vetericyn Plus Antimicrobial Poultry Care Spray and apply an anti-pick spray or ointment to deter pecking at the wound. A product I keep on hand is Blu-Kote Antiseptic Spray. In addition to germicidal and fungicidal properties, it covers the lesion with a blue coating that deters other hens from pecking at the wound. Use caution when applying it, however, as it does stain.
- Use Vetrycin Ophthalmic Gel to clean eye abrasions or treat conjunctivitis.
- Another great product to keep in your chicken medicine cabinet is VetRx Poultry Aid. It’s kind of like Vicks VapoRub for chickens and is helpful to prevent and relieve the symptoms of respiratory illness.
A Happy Ending
After moving Mabel to the sick bay, I mixed some Healthy Flock Poultry Vitamins and Electrolytes into her water dish and, since she wasn’t drinking on her own, also applied some directly into her beak using a syringe. I also rubbed some VetRx under her wings and on her comb. I tempted her appetite with fresh blueberries, and she did eat a few.
I monitored Mabel throughout the day. Her poop was normal, and she seemed to be perking back up. I also monitored the rest of the flock, but no one else was exhibiting any signs of illness.
I kept Mabel separated the rest of the day and all night. The next morning, she greeted me standing at the front of the cat carrier. It was clear she had eaten, and she was pecking at the straw around the food dish for spilled morsels. When she heard her friends squawking from their pen, she perked up even more, so I let her rejoin them. While she seemed a little more reserved than normal that day, she was fully recovered the next day.
And she’s been fine ever since.
Do you have any tips to share for handling a sick chicken in your flock? If so, please share in the comments section below.