Updated: Jul 28
Chickens, like any other household pet, can fall ill at times. Unlike household pets, chickens are considered food animals, which can limit the types of treatments available. The good news is that the most common chicken health problems can be treated at home with ease. Understanding the ailments your flock may face is the first step to helping a sick bird.
Before we get started, let’s not forget the old adage an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. The best way to treat illness is to prevent disease from entering the flock in the first place.
One of the most important factors in a flock's health is its environment's cleanliness. Change bedding and nest box pads regularly to help reduce both pathogens and bugs. Keep food and water dishes clean and remove any excess droppings as often as possible.
This is a big one, particularly during times of avian flu outbreaks. Keep your flock protected from wild bird interaction by keeping them within their coop/run area during an outbreak. Always quarantine new poultry for several weeks before introducing them to your flock. If possible, provide a covered run to reduce contamination from wild birds flying over. If the wild bird population is seeing high flu numbers, take it a step further by keeping a dedicated pair of boots or shoes to wear when inside the coop/run. This will help to reduce the risk of outside contaminants getting tracked in on shoes.
While this is not something that we personally do, this is a choice every chicken keeper must make for their own flock. For certain diseases like Mareks Disease, there are no treatments available, only vaccines, so you will need to consider that kind of risk.
Again, while this is not an option we’ve chosen for our flock, it is an available one and can help to reduce bacterial infections like Coccidiosis.
What to do When You Notice an Issue
If you go out to the coop to collect eggs and find you have a sick little hen on your hands, the first step is “don’t panic.” Now that you are done, not panicking, get ahold of the sick bird and remove it from the rest of the flock. An ill or injured chicken will need to be housed in a warm, safe space away from the flock for the duration of its recovery.
We keep an oversized portable dog crate set up in our mud room with clean bedding and empty food/water containers ready at all times. We’ve only had to use it twice, but let me tell you, not worrying about where the sick chicken was going went a long way to keep me calm.
As you can probably guess, one of the most common areas for things to go wrong is in the lying department. However, it can be challenging to identify egg-laying issues if you are not paying close attention to your chicken's behavior. There are a lot of different egg-laying issues, ranging from egg yolk peritonitis and egg binding to no-shell eggs and lash eggs. Because there are so many illnesses, there is also a wide variety of treatments.
The reasons for egg-laying problems are as varied as the list of ailments. Things such as vitamin deficiencies, parasites, infections, and even stress can prevent a bird from laying eggs. Be on the lookout for signs of egg-laying issues, including a loss of appetite, lethargy, abnormal droppings, weakness, and even respiratory problems.
The first step to treating egg-laying issues in chickens is to add calcium and protein supplements into a chicken’s feed. These can promote healthy egg-laying and strong eggshells. Serious issues such as egg binding, where an egg gets bound or stuck inside the hen, may require a trip to the vet. But as a first step, you can try soaking her in warm water and following these instructions on Fresh Eggs Daily.
Foot injuries are some of the less-serious but more common health problems in chickens. Often times they are the result of minor cuts getting infected. Foot injuries are characterized by a reluctance to put weight on the injured foot, and you may find that the bird is more lethargic or spends excessive time on roosts or perches.
Bumblefoot shows up in one or more pus-filled abscesses on the bottom of a chicken’s foot. Luckily, foot injuries are generally easy to treat with a combination of Epsom salt soaks and antiseptic wound wash. If the case is more severe and does not heal from soaking and washing, the chicken may need a trip to the vet to drain the abscess.
The crop is a small pouch at the end of the chicken's esophagus. It’s the first step in the digestive system. It stores and moistens food before being sent to the stomach. Sour crop occurs when this pouch fails to empty completely.
Sour crop can usually be identified by a swollen crop that is squishy to the touch. Impacted crops, on the other hand, are swollen and stiff. Other symptoms include lethargy, lack of appetite, liquid or gas exiting the beak, particularly if you gently touch the crop, and white patches in the mouth. To treat sour crop, start by isolating the bird and adding apple cider vinegar to their water. Clean all food and water dishes and provide ACV to the entire flock in case the bacteria was spread. You can find more information over at Dine-a-Chook.
Types of Chicken Diseases
There are four main categories of diseases that backyard chickens may contract. The severity of the disease and its treatment will vary depending on what type of disease is contracted.
Mites, lice, ticks, and worms are chickens' most common causes of parasitic diseases. Symptoms of parasitic infections vary but may include feather loss, skin irritation, lethargy, and a loss of appetite.
Chickens are more likely to contract parasites if their coop is not cleaned regularly. Parasitic infections can be treated with antiparasitic medications and supplements. We also dust our coop with First Saturday Lime (not an affiliate link).
Viral diseases will usually require a vaccination to treat. They are among some of the most dangerous infections because they can spread to the entire flock if an infected bird isn’t identified quickly.
Symptoms include sores on the skin, coughing and sneezing, declined egg production, nasal and eye discharge, and even paralysis. These diseases may include infectious bronchitis, Marek’s disease, avian flu, fowl pox, and Newcastle disease.
Bacterial diseases in chickens are not overly common but can quickly spread to an entire flock. Bacterial infections include colibacillosis (caused by e-coli), salmonellosis (caused by salmonella germs), and chronic respiratory diseases.
Symptoms include respiratory and breathing issues, halted egg production, and swollen faces and sinuses. Although rare, these diseases will usually require culling the bird to keep the rest of the flock healthy.
Fungal diseases, although rare, are some of the most manageable conditions to treat in chickens. The most common fungal disease in chickens is ringworm. Ringworms will typically present as a thick white layer on the comb. It tends to clear up on its own. You can prevent most fungal diseases by keeping a clean coop.
Keeping a Healthy Flock
As you can see, a lot of keeping a healthy flock has to do with keeping a clean coop. A typical cleaning schedule should include cleaning food and water dishes daily. Refreshing the coop weekly, replacing bedding monthly, and doing a deep clean about four times a year. Which, for us, means a “deep clean” Spring, Summer, Fall, and Winter. This also helps us to adjust litter depth as we do the deep littler method in the Fall and Winter as Colorado temperatures drop drastically during the changing seasons.
Tell us how you keep your flock healthy and what some of your go-to treatments are in the comments below, and as always, until next time,