It is generally good practice to spend time with your flock on a regular basis (as if you don’t already!), apart from the regular feeding and cleaning, but really observing them, so that you know what is ‘normal’ and immediately notice any changes in appearance or behavior. The faster you can identify a health issue and treat it, the better. Chickens, being the ultimate prey animal, are masters at hiding symptoms and often by the time you notice something is wrong its too late.
Take the time to pick up each chicken and give her a good once-over. Look for anything out of the ordinary. Also judge how she is acting – calm and content or ruffled, uneasy or even possibly in pain.
You want to see a nicely-colored rosy comb with no black spots, which may indicate frostbite in the cold weather or the more serious fowl pox in the warm months, which is transmitted by mosquitoes. There is no treatment for fowl pox but the affected bird should be separated, kept warm and given extra nutrients. Black spots should be covered with Vaseline to prevent further damage and aid healing.
You are looking for bright, clear eyes. If you notice excessive blinking, it could just mean there is dust or a particle in the eye and a twice daily flush with regular saline solution for a day or so should take care of it.
Cloudy eyes, watery eyes and beak or rubbing of the eyes can also mean conjunctivitis which can result from a build up of ammonia in the bedding. Again, flush the eyes with saline and change out all the bedding in your coop.
Wheezing, watery eyes and nose, sneezing or coughing can be the signs of respiratory illness. Chickens are extremely susceptible to respiratory illnesses.
Swollen, pus-filled or watery eyes, or eyelids that are stuck together can be signs of eye worm. Sometimes the worms are even visible under the lids, swimming around. (Sparing you all the gross details, it’s basically a worm contracted from cockroaches.) Your chicken will begin to scratch at its eye with the tip of its wing and could literally scratch her eyeball out.
Eye worm treatment is easy with VetRx. Add 1 teaspoon of VetRx to a cup of warm water. Wet a cotton ball with the mixture and then liberally dab onto the roof of the chicken’s mouth, holding the chicken almost upside down, so the pus will drain from the eyes. The water mixture should come out of both sides of the beak also. Repeat daily until the eye clears up.
In the morning the crop should be empty. If the crop feels hard and distended or full and mushy you may have a case of sour crop or an impacted crop. Immediate treatment is necessary.
You should be able to feel the breast bone, but it should not protrude. This is a good check of overall health/weight. A featherless breast can mean that you have a broody hen or it can signal Breast Blister which occurs in the heavier breeds from rubbing against the roost. Drain the blister, treat with Neosporin and then wrap the roosts with soft cloth to prevent further blistering.
The abdomen should be soft. If it is extended or you feel a hard spot, your hen could be egg bound if she also seems to be straining or her tail is pumping.
Check under the wings for mites, lice, ticks and other parasites. A soak in a tub of warm water, salt, white vinegar and dish detergent followed by a good dusting of food-grade Diatomaceous Earth is in order if you see anything creeping around under the wings. Remove any ticks you find with tweezers and apply some Neosporin.
Adding fresh garlic to your hens’ diet or garlic powder to their feed is thought to help make their blood less palatable to parasites. You can also spray the areas where you see the mites with a 10% garlic juice/water mixture.
Also check for raw skin or missing feathers, since an over-zealous rooster will often do damage as will pecking order issues, and the areas under the wings are generally hidden from view. Any raw areas should be sprayed with Blu-Kote to prevent further pecking or covered with a hen saddle.
The vent should look pink and moist. A dry, pale vent indicates a non-laying hen. Any accumulated balls of poop should be removed with some warm water – or trimmed in extreme cases. Adding probiotic powder to the feed can help alleviate future accumulations of feces.
Bloody stool and ruffled feathers can signal Coccidia, a serious parasitic disease of the intestine, which can be treated with amprolium/antibiotics or a holistic remedy called Kocci Free.
Internal parasites (worms) can often be seen in the stool. Natural worming treatments can be used twice yearly as preventatives and remedies.
Again, a quick check for external parasites is important in the vent area. If you do see any parasites on any of your chickens, it is also imperative to do a thorough coop cleaning and dust the coop floor, roosts and nesting boxes with food-grade DE before adding new bedding.
Legs should be smooth and brightly colored (except on the black- and slate-colored leg breeds). Flaking or raised scales can mean scaly leg mites. Slathering the legs with Vaseline will smother scaly leg mites and kill them.
Pale legs and feet usually indicates a good layer since all the xanthophyll that is in the corn, alfalfa and other foods they eat is being deposited in the egg yolk instead of stored in their beaks, legs and feet. Adding corn, marigold or alfalfa to their diet can help.
Obviously any limping should be further explored, but if not caused by a cut or other visible injury to the foot, is most likely due to a hard landing off a roost and will go away in a few days. Puffy or warm foot pads can mean a splinter in the bottom of the foot that will need to be removed with tweezers.
A black spot on the underside of the foot pad indicates a potentially fatal staph infection called Bumblefoot that needs to be treated immediately.
Feathers should be glossy and unbroken. Broken or chewed feathers can signal a protein deficiency within the flock and added protein should be fed until you see the problem reverse. Good sources are scrambled eggs, meal worms and cooked meat scraps. Broken feathers can also be a sign that rodents are getting into your coop and chewing on your birds while they sleep. The coop should be examined and any spaces larger than 1″ should be covered up.
Broken, dull or missing feathers can also mean your hen is molting. Added protein is also beneficial in this case.
If you have a hen who is hunched over, inactive, weak, listless, coughing, sneezing or just looks terribly unhappy, it could be one of several serious infectious diseases and immediate treatment by a qualified vet should be sought. Go with your gut. You will know when something is seriously wrong.
And remember that a fully stocked First Aid Kit is invaluable in keeping your flock taken care of and should contain everything you might possibly need to treat your chickens, since much of what you will need is only available online. Planning in advance is the key.
Here is an easy recipe for a DIY Antibacterial Ointment to apply to a wound or cut in a pinch. Fine to use on humans or chickens.
1-1/2 ounces beeswax
1 cup olive or coconut oil
1/4 teaspoon liquid vitamin E (helps repair damaged skin)
10 drops lavender essential oil (relaxant, pain reliever, antibacterial, anti-fungal)
10 drops lemon essential oil (antibacterial, antiviral)
Grate beeswax and melt with olive or coconut oil over low heat in a double boiler.
Remove from heat and stir in the Vitamin E an essential oils. Pour into a small glass jar and cool. Store in a cool, dark place.
By taking a few minutes to examine each chicken comb to toe every few weeks, you ensure that they stay in tip-top shape. Of course, as Ben Franklin said ‘an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure’ and keeping your chickens healthy with strong immune systems is well worth your time and effort.
“Remedies for Health Problems of the Organic Laying Flock”, compiled by Karma E. Glos