Thyme, oregano, a little vodka…not a recipe for pasta sauce, but herbal treatments from Amy Fewell for chicken ailments such as bumblefoot, external parasites, and respiratory ailments.
Poultry body language can help you recognize the first signs of sickness, and to help them prevent issues from arising. Prevention is key when it comes to keeping your flock healthy and happy! As Benjamin Franklin said, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”
Thankfully, naturally preventing common chicken ailments is fairly simple. With just a few herbs and a clean living environment, your chickens will thrive and live their best life.
If I had a nickel for every time someone came to me asking me why their chicken is sneezing or coughing, I’d be a millionaire. Let me preface this with the simple reality that chickens sneeze and cough when something irritates their respiratory system. They are pecking at a dusty or muddy ground all day long––something is bound to get in there eventually. As long as the sneezing doesn’t last longer than a day or so, your chicken is completely normal and doesn’t need intervention.
If, however, sneezing or coughing is accompanied by other symptoms (drooping wings, pale comb and wattles), then it’s time to take a look at treating the issue.
While there are many respiratory ailments that chickens can have, the most common “scary” respiratory ailments for the modern chicken keeper are Mycoplasma gallisepticum (bacteria) or Avian Influenza (virus). Both can also affect turkeys, ducks, quail, pigeons, gamebirds and passerine (parrots), both ailments are extremely contagious and can wipe out an entire flock quickly. You prevent and treat them in a similar way.
Before moving on, you should know that both of these ailments often require testing to confirm. They also may be reportable to your local extension office. Make sure you do your homework if you suspect either of these ailments in your flock.
Mycoplasma gallisepticum (MG) is a teeny, tiny bacteria that raids the respiratory system of a chicken. It is often times transferred from migratory birds during peak migrating seasons. MG is easily transferable to other chickens and flocks. The reality is that so many flocks already have MG, they just don’t show the symptoms of it. Often times chickens don’t show the symptoms of MG until they have become stressed. For example, buying a chicken from another flock owner and bringing them to your property. Suddenly, a few days later, the chicken is sneezing and has bubbles in the corners of their eyes. These are tell-tale signs of MG. You blame the chicken owner, but in truth, this chicken was probably perfectly fine until it became stressed from the move. This is why it’s so important to quarantine new birds and offer preventatives to your flock.
Create a decoction of astragalus root, sage, garlic, and thyme, and give to your chickens three times a week during bird migration. You would do this by adding a handful of each herb to a pot. Cover the herbs with just enough water so that they are covered. Bring to a boil and simmer for about 20 minutes. You can use this concentrate for 12 hours, which gives you enough time to place half in their waterer in the morning and half in the late afternoon/early evening––preferably a 1-gallon waterer. Then simply fill the rest of the waterer up with regular water.
If you don’t want to make the decoction every day each week, you can simply add a dropperful of respiratory tincture (recipe in the treatment section) to their waterer a couple of times a week.
Another simple prevention is to not place bird feeders in or near your chicken coop or run. This helps keep migratory birds away from your chickens, though it doesn’t completely deter them.
Treating MG is a much harder task. Truly, it is much easier to prevent it than to treat it. I’ve successfully helped others treat MG in their flock or individual chickens. Just know that your chicken or flock should remain closed off away from others for 6 months after you suspect MG. Also know that your chicken(s) could be carriers of MG for life.
Because MG is a microscopic bacterium, it’s hard to tell if we’re actually curing the chicken or simply helping the parasite count drop low enough to get rid of symptoms. Either way, it’s worth a try. Keep in mind that if you are a large scale chicken operation, your best option would be to cull than try to save one of your birds. But if you’re a backyard chicken keeper, treating a sick bird is absolutely possible.
During this time, continue to give the preventative decoction (mentioned above) to your entire flock, including the sick bird. If only one bird shows symptoms, quarantine it immediately. If the entire flock shows symptoms, you’ll need to treat them all.
In addition to the decoction, I’d recommend keeping a respiratory tincture on hand at all times for your flock. It is jam packed full of herbal goodness, and you can place it in your chicken’s waterer for treatment, or administer directly to the chicken with one drop of tincture in their mouth. Here is the recipe for the tincture.
How to Make a Poultry Respiratory Tincture
.5 oz Echinacea
.25 oz Plantain
.5 oz Thyme
.5 oz Stinging nettle
10 oz 80 proof (or higher) vodka or glycerin
- Add all herbs to a glass jar and cover completely with 10 oz of vodka or glycerin. You may want to shred or powder the herbs to make it easier to cover with the vodka or glycerin.
- Cap tightly and set in a dark, temperature-controlled space (like a pantry or cupboard) for 4 weeks. Shake tincture each day.
- After 4 weeks, strain tincture into a glass eye dropper bottle. Label and store in medicine cabinet or cupboard. Administer by placing 1 eyedropperful into a gallon waterer, or administer 2 drops orally. Administer twice a day until symptoms subside.
This tincture is also a great preventative and is often times much easier and quicker to administer as a preventative than making the decoction.
Bumblefoot is a common occurrence in chickens, and isn’t generally anything to be too upset about. However, you’ll want to treat it as soon as you notice is, so that the infection doesn’t spread throughout the leg. Ultimately, it could cause death if the infection goes untreated, as with any infection in the body.
Bumblefoot occurs when your chicken gets a cut on the padding of their foot, or when something (like a splinter) gets stuck in the foot and doesn’t release. It is a STAPH infection, and will need to be treated immediately once discovered.
The easiest way to prevent bumblefoot is to make sure the environment that your chickens live in is free of anything that could cause bumblefoot. Any perch or item that they could scratch is a potential hazard if sharp or wooden.
You can also offer herbs in your chicken feed daily to help fight off infection before it ever begins. Add herbs like astragalus, echinacea, oregano, and thyme to their feed each day to help combat infection and build the immune system.
There are a couple of different ways to treat bumblefoot––the non-invasive way, and the invasive way. Both work and are healthy for the chicken.
The non-invasive way is to mix 1 to 2 drops each of oregano essential oil and melaleuca (tea tree) essential oil to a quarter size amount of fractionated coconut oil or olive oil. Place the oil mixture on the affected area and wrap in a bandage. Do this twice a day until the bumblefoot is completely healed.
Sometimes this doesn’t work, and you’ll absolutely have to do the invasive way. This requires you to do a simple incision in the affected area of the foot and clean the infection out manually. While this sounds like something a vet should do, it is so incredibly simple that anyone can do it. After cleaning the infection out, cleanse with the essential oil mixture mentioned above, wrap, and replace the wrap once a day until the hole is healed.
We all think external parasites are the worst . . . and they are. Not only are the creepy crawlies on your chickens, they can get all over you too! Two of the most common external parasites are lice and mites. Lice tend to be easier to get rid of than mites, but both are equally difficult to deal with.
External parasites often come, once again, with migratory birds. Make sure you check your straw over thoroughly before filling your coop with it. Birds like to make nests where straw is housed, and the mites will fall onto the straw and then right into your chicken coop they go!
Make sure you have a dust bathing area for your chickens at all times. This is probably the most efficient way of making sure your birds are able to free themselves of external parasites. Make sure you add wood ash to the dust bathing area, if at all possible. This is an extremely important additive, as wood ash instantly kills external parasites.
Should you find an infestation occur beyond the normal, you can treat your chickens by rubbing wood ash all over them, making sure the ash touches the skin. You can also spray your chickens down with a homemade spray. You can find the recipe (and a more in-depth approach about how to get rid of mites and lice) by clicking here. You can also use this spray as a maintenance spray every month. I like to spray down my roosting bars each day as well.
It can be a daunting task to keep your chickens healthy and happy, but it’s even more of a task to treat them once an issue arises. We take great pride in preventing ailments on our homestead by using all natural supplements and preventatives. It is so important for the health of your flock and your homestead!
When all else fails, do what’s best for your flock and your property. If you reach a point where nothing is working, it’s never a failure to reach for the chemicals and get your flock healthy again! That is, afterall, exactly what your goal should be––a healthy, happy flock.
Amy Fewell is an author, homesteader, and the founder of the Homesteaders of America. She is the author of The Homesteader’s Herbal Companion and The Homesteader’s Natural Chicken Keeping Handbook. She lives in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia, where her and her family holistically and naturally raise their livestock, gardens, and mini-homesteaders! You can follow her doings at The Fewell Homestead.