Chickens are generally hardy, healthy, busy little creatures.
They don’t really need much care and maintenance. However, they do get sick. And they’re sneaky about it — like cats, they mask their symptoms to protect themselves.
Knowing your chickens well and being able to recognize signs of illness are the best ways to prevent disease. Here are some common signs that your sick chicken needs a vet’s care.
1. Changes in Physical Appearance
Weekly comb-to-toe checkups will help you learn to recognize what’s normal. Watch out for:
- Combs and wattles: Dull, pale-red color with sores, scabs or swelling
- Head: Sores or scabs; facial swelling
- Eyes: Cloudy, watery or irritated; visible discharge
- Beak: Cracks or a twisted-shaped beak — upper and lower parts don’t match up at the tip
- Nose: Visible discharge
- Respiratory health: Breathing through an open beak
- Crop and abdomen: The crop is the prominent bulge in the middle of the chest (slightly to the right), and abnormal crops feel hard or mushy; gently feel your bird on both sides of the breastbone to check for thinness or excess weight
- Vent: Sore, irritated or bloody vent area; tissue sticking out from the vent
- Skin and feathers: Visible external parasites; sore, red irritated skin or scabs
- Wings, legs and feet: Droopy wing(s) or pain when wing is stretched out; inability to put weight on one leg or foot; sores, scabs or swelling on bottoms of feet or between toes; rough leg scales
All of these abnormalities warrant further examination. Seek the advice of your veterinarian.
2. Abnormal Behavior
In a healthy chicken flock, the cliché stands true: Birds of a feather flock together. Lone chickens are alone for a reason. Ask yourself these questions:
- Does the bird look sick or uncomfortable?
- Is she quieter and withdrawn?
- Is she hiding in a corner, or isolating herself from her flock mates?
- Does she appear to be unsteady, sluggish, sleepy or blinking?
- Is her head hanging down?
- Is her tail hanging down?
- Do her feathers look messy?
3. Changes in Activity Level
Busy chickens are happy chickens. So a change in activity level is a big red flag. Something isn’t right.
This happened recently with my Black Australorp, Abby. Typically vocal and busy, she started keeping to herself and lying beneath the hatch ramp or right in the middle of the doorway to the run, blocking access for her annoyed flock mates. She got around slowly and with difficulty. Instead of roosting, she slept on the floor.
My vet and I concluded that she’s suffering from arthritis. Yes, chickens can get arthritis, as can dogs and cats. This is bad news for an otherwise busy social bird. But Abby still has that spunk — she doesn’t miss a beat and responds with a little coo-like warble when I call her name.
4. Changes in Consistency and Color of Droppings
Chicken droppings may be the first sign of sickness. Birds can’t fake poop!
Because normal droppings vary greatly depending on temperature, diet, water intake and more, abnormal-looking droppings coupled with physical changes, behavioral changes or any of the other signs of illness will help with a diagnosis.
- Normal droppings: These are typically solid brownish-green with a white cap. They can be softer, watery because of increased water intake or tinted with color from excessive berries, grass, weeds or seasonal vegetables. Also, they can be cecal droppings (which may appear as reddish-brown, softer and smellier — but they are quite normal and can occur a few times a day).
- Abnormal droppings: Diarrhea or poop that is green or yellow-green, foamy or bloody. Worms — yes, worms — may be visible.
5. Drop in Egg Production
A healthy hen might lay fewer eggs. This happens for several reasons:
- She is molting.
- She is broody.
- She is 3 years old or older.
- She is responding to the decreased daylight hours and cooler temperatures during autumn and winter.
- She is stressed (for example, from overcrowding, flock or coop changes, inadequate ventilation, poor nutrition, extreme heat, inadequate water supply and distractions such as nearby construction work).
If these reasons don’t apply to your hen’s decline in egg laying, then she’s most likely sick, and the only thing to do is notify your vet.
But remember, chickens are hardy — and still the best pets ever, in my opinion. Just consult your veterinarian if you’re concerned about your flock.
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Editor’s Note: This is Part 3 of a 5-part series on chicken keeping for beginners. Previous articles were The 3 Best Breeds for Beginning Chicken Keepers and 5 Simple Tips for a Healthy Flock of Chickens. Next, we’ll discuss great supplements for healthy chickens.
- Damerow, Gail. The Chicken Health Handbook. North Adams: Storey Publishing, 1994.
- Gauthier, Julie, DVM, MPH, Dipl. ACVPM, and Rob Ludlow. Chicken Health for Dummies. Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2013.