Being a livestock owner can bring out some unique skills. Investigator being at the top. I was totally unaware of how much Sherlocking (spell check refuses to admit that is a word) I would have to do. To help we are going to talk today on warning signs of a sick chicken. Another great tool to have in your backyard chicken toolbelt to help you raise a flock of healthy and happy chickens.
As with most birds, chickens tend to mask their symptoms well beyond treatment time, basically until it is too late. That is why it is so important to know the signs that your chicken is feeling sick so you can catch things early on. Luckily chickens do have several warning signs to tell us when they are sick. In the beginning, those signs are subtle, but if you know what to look for you can save yourself and your chicken from loads of heartache. Just like with most of our animals, when you can catch your backyard chicken before they get too sick for care you will help to restore the health of, not only, that one hen but also the safety of your entire flock.
5+ Warning Signs of a Sick Chicken
Have you ever felt a cold coming on? It’s like a little tap on your shoulder letting you know that you are going to be getting sick, and soon. A tickle in your throat or a light throb in your head. Subtle clues that, if you can catch them, will give you a bit of time for pretreatment so your upcoming cold will not be quite as severe. We learn quickly what those subtle clues are so we can watch for them. The same is true with our hens. We as their caregivers will want to learn what their subtle signs are. This will help us not only give them care more quickly but also protect them, if needed, from the rest of the flock.
Sign #1 – Dull feathers with or without bald patches.
This is an easy one to spot and can mean many different things. If you have a hen or group of hens showing this symptom you may want to investigate further the possible cause. Henpecking, external parasites, seasonal molting, or an illness should be first on your radar if you see dull or lackluster feathers. A healthy and happy hen should have shiny thick feathers and be free of bald patches.
If you have a rooster in your flock, missing feathers especially on the back and/or neck can be from mating. Sometimes a rooster can be a bit rough when mounting the hens and missing feathers with no other symptoms may be a result of this. To help you can purchase a chicken apron or chicken saddle to better protect your chicken flock. These protectors seem to work quite well but the trick is to have a hen that is people-friendly. Something to keep in mind early on.
How can I have chickens that don’t run from me?
The main way to raise chickens that are people-friendly is to touch them from day one. Pick your chicks up, talk to them, pet them and hold them. Get them used to your touch, your feel, your voice. If you take any advice from this article I hope it is this.
What to check first with your chickens:
Watch the interactions of your chickens at feeding time. If you see lots of fighting, pushing, or squawking then bullying might be the cause of this symptom. To help, try putting out more than one feed source to discourage henpecking. You can also set up a few obstacles inside your chicken coop and chicken run to help bullied chickens get away from any aggressive hens. I find branches work the best for this. Not only will they provide lots of protection from hen pecking they will also give your hens leaves and bark and bugs to search for which will help to combat boredom. Boredom is one of the top reasons why hens begin pecking other chickens in a flock.
What is molting in a chicken?
Molting is when a chicken sheds its feathers and grows new ones which can last approximately 6-8 weeks. It usually occurs as the seasons get cooler and the days get shorter. Most chickens do not lay eggs during this time to help preserve energy needed to regrow feathers. This is something to keep in mind if you find 1 or more of your chickens slowing down or not laying eggs at all.
What if your chicken has parasites?
If you suspect parasites you will most likely be dealing with lice or mites. The difference is that lice are more commonly found on the hen itself whereas mites are usually found in the coop. To deal with both situations you will want to use the poultry dust that you can purchase at your local feed mill. A natural dust is best if you can find it, like this natural poultry dust HERE.
Sign #2 – A dull comb and/or wattle.
A healthy chicken will have a beautiful bright pink or red comb and wattle. On older hens, the color may be a lighter pink but this will still indicate a healthy bird.
What is a comb and wattle on a chicken?
The comb and wattle are the extra skin above and below the head. Its purpose is to help with blood flow and allow the chicken to better deal with the heat of summer. If you happen to have a breed of hen that is hardy in the hot months then you may see a larger comb.
If you notice the color of your chicken’s comb or wattle is dull or grey and looks dried out, then it is time to look further. Illness, poor diet, or overcrowded conditions can all lead to this result so you will need to dig a little deeper to find the root cause so you can more quickly correct it.
What to check first:
Stress can be the primary cause of comb and wattle issues. Watch how your hens interact when you close your coop up at night. If you see fighting for spots on your roosts, then overcrowding might just be the issue. Be sure you have plenty of room on your roost to comfortably hold all of your chickens. If you notice dull to grey or even black combs and wattles in the winter, then your coop may not be adequately protecting your flock from the cold weather. Luckily there are a few things you can do to fix this. Apply vaseline to the comb to protect against frostbite and update your coop to keep out the wind and protect your flock more adequately when inside.
If none of the above reasons have solved this problem then diet is your next place to look. Be sure you are feeding your poultry with a high-quality chicken feed that contains nutrients specifically for chickens.
Sign #3 –Disinterest at feeding time.
For me, one of the top warning signals with any of my animals that something is off is a loss of appetite. If an animal is not eating or drinking for that matter, something is seriously wrong. This is why I always recommend sticking around when you feed your chickens. Watch them. See who rushes up to you at feeding time and who stays back. Observe who is eating and who is not. Now, with all that being said, just because a chicken is not eating on a particular day does not necessarily mean they are sick. It does, however, give you a clue if you see it occurring more than once.
What to check first:
Check the feed and water in your chicken coop. Is it free from debris such as dust, bedding, or manure? Is it free from pests? Yes, it’s true chickens like to eat bugs but not dead ones that are floating in their water or dried up in their feed. Does the feed smell okay? If not you may have a bad batch and you will want to check the bag you are currently using. If you find that all the answers are good then move on and check your chicken.
If it is warm out, check immediately for heat stress in your hens. Remember, some chickens handle the heat better than others. If you see you have panting hens then you will want to offer them more water options. By adding a few extra sources of water throughout your coop and run you can quickly correct this issue in your flock.
I would also suggest feeling your hens with your hands and checking their body condition. If you feel your hen is underweight then you can be sure this symptom has been going on for some time. Check her comb, feathers, and skin for any other clues as to what may be wrong.
Finally, check her poo to be sure it is healthy and not slimy, overly smelly, or too watery. You can send in a sample to your vet if you suspect worms. This will help you better determine what is causing the no-eating symptom.
Sign #4 – Coughing or raspy breathing.
Although this is a late-term warning sign, the good news is that it is not always a death sentence. I have had coughing hens before that recovered completely to return to back the flock. The trick is to act fast to first save your hen and second keep any possible contagious illnesses from the rest of your flock.
What to check first:
Look at the condition of your chicken coop. Is there adequate airflow? Are the walls covered in dust? When was the last time you added fresh bedding? Sometimes a cough can be simply a reaction to a dirty coop, if there are no other symptoms, clean out the chicken coop and see if that helps. Check the bedding in your coop as well. Is it wet or moist? Both of these conditions can cause your chickens to cough from the ammonia smell that is given off by wet bedding. Remove the wet bedding and replace it with a fresh layer to see if this helps.
If, after fixing any issues you find your chicken is still coughing you will need to remove her from the coop. Separate your sick chicken until you can find out just what is making her cough. This will keep any illness from spreading throughout your entire flock. If you do not have a place to keep her separate you can use a small dog crate as we do. This works remarkably well and has saved many hens in our flock.
If you do not have a dog crate you can turn a large sturdy box into a sick chicken crate quite easily.
- Cut a hole in the front and back to allow for good airflow.
- Attach chicken wire or mesh netting over the holes you just cut out.
- Put in a layer of bedding and a place for your chicken to eat and drink with room to rest as needed.
- Keep the box near the coop if possible so they can hear the other chickens. This will help them to recover more quickly.
If you see your chicken’s cough is wet and/or raspy and is accompanied by a runny nose then there is a good chance your chicken has pneumonia or CRD, Chronic Respiratory Disease. Both of these conditions can be life-threatening and spread throughout your flock. It is important to contact a vet right away so you can get antibiotics to treat these conditions. Please know that not all vets will treat chickens in the office, many will, however, help you over the phone giving you steps on how to treat your flock.
Sign # 5 – A Dirty back end.
This one is easier to see on some birds than others. A few years ago, I had a flock of all Black Star Hens. These hens are solid black-feathered chickens and unless the mess on their back end was light-colored I could very easily miss it. For that reason, I needed to check my coop and run at every feeding, looking at the ground and checking out droppings. By inspecting my chicken’s poo routinely I am able to catch any parasite problems before they become widespread. Runny is normal for some hens from time to time, but if it is different than normal you will want to check it out. Different as in, extremely watery, slimy, foamy, or has an overly foul odor. These are all clues you will want to take note of.
What to check first:
If you see a change in the color, texture, or odor of your hen’s droppings then check their diet first. Did you give spoiled or rotten produce by chance? What about something completely new to their diet like a feed change? Is their water cleaned and freshened every single day? Are there rodent droppings in their feed that they may be ingesting on accident? If you can eliminate these causes and find that you still have an issue with runny or watery feces, you will then want to do a fecal test for worms to determine your next step.
The same is true if you see blood. This is another indication of a medical problem and would need to be discussed with a vet. If you do think you are seeing blood take a closer look first. Sometimes food can trigger red in manure that looks like blood but isn’t. To be certain look closely and use a stick or twig to move things around a bit.
Sign #6 – A Hunched up Hen.
If you notice one of your gals is hunched up, something is definitely wrong. Hunching means she is either in pain, sick, or bound up with an egg. Egg bound means your hen has an egg stuck in her oviduct and a call to your vet is warranted. Usually, my hunched-up hens are moving pretty slowly or not at all so they are a bit easier to spot in the flock.
What to check first:
Pick up your hen and check for injuries, if you find one remove her and treat her. Next, check her vent. Make sure she is not clogged or injured there. You are looking for signs that there is an egg stuck which can kill a bird quickly. If you find no injury or vent issue, remove the hen for a few days and monitor her. Wait to see if she gives any other clues that will help you to treat her.
What if your chicken has more than one symptom?
More often than not when I pick up a hen with one or more of these symptoms I will see right away that she is thin and weak. Chickens, like most animals, will hide when they are sick and unless you are watching daily you will miss the early warning signs.
So, what do you do if you have a hen with one or more of the symptoms on this list? I always err on the side of caution. I have found that isolating the hen in question is the best and most effective way to keep my flock healthy. Anything will do to house your sick gal, but if you need ideas you can read my post What to Do If You Have a Sick Chicken to get tips. Once you have your hen away from the flock you will be able to inspect her more closely and decide on a plan of attack. Choosing between home care and calling on a vet all depends on the situation.
Watch your animals daily so you will notice any changes as soon as they happen. Catching things early can be the difference between life and death in livestock so keep your eyes open. Knowing the signs of a sick chicken will keep you on top of things so you can stop a serious issue before it starts.
Looking for more?
You can find all my posts on Raising Chickens here!