Diagnosing illness in your flock helps keep them healthy and you calm.
[Publish date] Sept 6, 2021
It’s important to act quickly at the first signs of illness in your flock. Unfortunately, chickens are experts at hiding any signs of sickness to prevent becoming a target of bullying from the rest of the flock. However, diagnosing abnormal behavior is difficult, especially for new chicken owners. A healthy chicken is active—scratching the ground, pecking the dirt, running, eating, and dust bathing. Understanding chicken behavior and knowing your specific flock’s habits is essential to detecting and treating illness early.
Respiratory ailments are by far the most common concern with backyard poultry. An occasional sneeze in a chicken is no cause for concern. Coops are dusty environments, and windy days can blow up a lot of contaminants. They might have just inhaled an irritant while scratching or dust bathing. However, if a sneeze persists, or is also combined with runny nostrils, foamy, crusty eyes, or lethargy, it could be a sign of something more serious.
If the bird has been sneezing and also presents with other signs of illness, quarantine the bird immediately to prevent the spread of disease. Infectious bronchitis is one of the most common ailments in poultry, and also the most contagious. Newcastle disease, a highly contagious and fatal disease, can also present with respiratory symptoms, but is less common.
If you think your chicken might have something more serious than a sneeze, a visit to the poultry vet can determine the exact cause and treat it with the appropriate antibiotic. If you determine it’s nothing serious and simply an occasional sneeze, your chicken might just have a cold or flu. Make sure the coop is well-ventilated, and keep them warm and isolated until they’re back to normal.
A cough from a chicken sounds like a raspy crow. It could indicate some kind of obstruction in the airway, as it’s not uncommon for a piece of grass or food to become stuck in a chicken’s throat.
Coughing in backyard poultry is often associated with Chronic Respiratory Disease, with symptoms similar to the typical flu. If coughing and sneezing are combined with other flu-like symptoms, it’s a good bet your chicken has some sort of virus.
When I find my chickens coughing (or sneezing), my first line of defense is VetRx Poultry Remedy. This 100-percent natural oil is good for a host of poultry ailments, including coughing, sneezing, roup (Infectious Coryza or a cold), and scaly legs. I keep a bottle on hand and apply with a cotton swab to beaks and nostrils, and sometimes add a few droplets to warm drinking water. (It’s an oil and will float to the top of cold water.) Ingredients include Canadian balsam, camphor, oil of oregano, and oil of rosemary. I admit, I love the smell of camphor.
One of the first signs of any illness in your flock is often lethargy. Unless you’ve spent some time with your chickens, it’s also very hard to differentiate between a chicken that’s lethargic and one who is simply, for instance, lounging in the warm sun or a bit dehydrated during the hot summer months.
If you see signs of lethargy, take note of any other abnormal behavior. Are the combs or wattles losing their bright-red color? Do you notice any discharge from their noses? Are their eyes bright and open, or do they sit with droopy or closed eyes? Are droppings watery?
While it’s next to impossible to know exactly what’s wrong with a lethargic chicken, if you’ve determined that it’s definitely not their normal behavior, watch them closely to see if other signs develop, and treat them accordingly. When you open their coop or walk toward their pen, they should appear active and energetic. Countless times, an individual hen in my flock has been abnormally lethargic, and I’ve panicked, but after a day or two, whatever was ailing them passes, and they’re fine.
Diarrhea is one of the most common ailments in poultry. Normal droppings should be firm and brown, with a dollop of white (chicken urine). A dirty vent area is sometimes a sign of watery droppings, which could be caused by a variety of factors. During hot summer days, poultry will drink more water than normal and eat much less. This often leads to diarrhea. Adding some electrolytes to their water should help them replenish electrolytes they’ve lost.
If it’s not heat stress causing the watery droppings, or the droppings are foamy and yellow-tinged, it could be a sign of something abnormal. It’s impossible to pinpoint exactly what the ailment might be without a check by a vet, but Avian Influenza is one of the most common ailments that cause watery droppings, but they’ll likely have additional symptoms as well. Depending on the severity, a vet might want to treat with antibiotics after a positive diagnosis.
Lack of Appetite
In healthy flocks, chickens will eat immediately when the coop is opened in the morning or when you fill the feeder. They’ll usually come running when you throw them a treat of scratch grains, and will forage throughout the day. Pecking order bullying can cause some low-rung chickens to avoid the feed containers. I have two very docile buff Orpingtons who get bullied away from a newly filled feeder, but I know this because I’ll hang around and watch their dinnertime behaviors. Once, I noticed they were trying to eat but wouldn’t be allowed near the feed; I put out another feeder away from the others so they could eat in peace.
Chickens will eat more in the cold winter months, and much less during the heat of summertime or when they’re molting. This is normal behavior. If you know they’re not being bullied and a chicken is still not eating, it might be an indication of several different illnesses. Most likely though, you’ll see other signs. Avian influenza and Infectious Bronchitis are two of the most common illnesses that’ll keep a chicken from eating and drinking.
Self-isolation is a tricky one to diagnose. I recently had a hen suddenly stop going up on the roost at night. I found her sitting in a dark corner on the floor under the droppings board. This went on for several nights, so I was concerned for her health. She must be hiding something, I thought.
Chickens are experts at hiding signs of illness. When they don’t feel well, their natural instinct is to isolate themselves to avoid being picked on by their flock mates, often hiding their heads in a dark corner. Sick chickens can be brutally bullied, as the flock believes a sick flock member to be a liability.
I watched her closely for several days and saw no other signs of illness. Her comb was bright red, she was eating and drinking, and seemed to have a normal level of energy. For the next several nights after dark, I went in the coop and placed her back on the roost. After a few days, she got back in the habit of going up on the roost, and all was well. Her self-isolation could’ve been from avoiding her pecky bully sister, or maybe the deep-littered floor was cozy and warm. Or maybe she was feeling a little under the weather with no real signs of illness, and got over it. Who knows?
A chicken that isolates itself needs to be closely monitored. If a chicken has isolated itself and isn’t moving, it’s probably sick. But if it’s simply in the nest box for extended periods, it might just be broody. If you find a chicken sitting on the floor or in a nest box at roosting time, it might be avoiding a pecky sister.
Prevention is Key
The most common way disease and illness is spread is by contaminated shoes, wild birds, or rodents. If you recently showed your birds in a poultry exhibit and they soon after show signs of sickness, it’s a strong indication they were exposed to something, so a vet visit might be necessary.
Keep up with biosecurity measures year-round, which include never letting another chicken owner around your flock without proper precautions. Perform a quick daily check and a more thorough weekly check. Watching for signs of distress and catching illness or disease early is essential for successful treatment.
You’re the expert of your own flock. Spend some quality time getting familiar with your flock’s normal daily behavior to spot abnormal behavior—and illness—quickly. Since chickens hide their illness so well, by the time an illness is detected, it’s often too late to treat successfully. The best prevention is, as Grandma used to say, worth a pound of cure.
Freelance writer Elizabeth Mack keeps a small flock of chickens on a 2-plus-acre hobby farm outside of Omaha, Nebraska. Her work has appeared in Capper’s Farmer, Out Here, First for Women, Nebraskaland, and numerous other print and online publications. Her first book, Healing Springs & Other Stories, includes her introduction—and subsequent love affair—with chicken keeping. Visit her website Chickens in the Garden.