Healthy chickens are active, alert, frequently eating/drinking, will take periods of dust bathing, sunbathing, and resting. It is considered abnormal, if a chicken looks lethargic, has a hunched stance, hides from the others, loss of appetite, pale comb or waddles, unusual droppings, decrease in egg production, lays abnormal eggs, or not active as normal. Immediately separate any member not appearing to behave normal from the rest of the flock for closer observation. Once separated offer a cup of warm water with 1 tablespoon molasses mixed in.
Health Check 1: Water Consumption.
Will the chicken drink on its’ own?
If so, continue with health check 2.
If not, gently dip the lower beak into the water to encourage taking a couple sips being careful not to drown upper nostrils. If successful in encouraging taking a ship, continue to Health Check 2. If not, the chicken may be too far gone to rescue. You can try to provide molasses water through a syringe being extremely careful to drip in beak and not drown. Continue encouraging taking a sip every hour. If successful, continue to Health Check 2. If not successful in drinking after 12 hours, consider humanly culling to end suffering.
Health Check 2: Do you notice a burst of energy even if short term?
If so, continue with Health Check 3: Digestive System Check.
If not, there is a significant risk of loss. Continue offering molasses water and ensure taking a sip every hour. Continue onto Health Check 3: Digestive System Check.
Health Check 3: Digestive System Check.
Take a moment to fully understand the chicken digestive system. Chickens do not have teeth. Thus, they consume their feed whole and require a free choice offering of grit/oyster shells to help digest their food. Food first flows into their crop which is a food pocket that resides on their right upper chest. A proper functioning crop will be empty first thing in the morning and fuller at night. When you feel/massage the crop it should feel pliable and feel like a rubber balloon in which you can feel each individual food item inside. If they crop is hard or abnormally enlarged, impacted crop or sour crop are high suspects for the declining health of your chicken. The gizzard is a powerful mussel that the crop empties into. The gizzard uses the grit/oyster shells/pebbles to crush the food and make it digestible. If droppings are less frequent it is another sign of impacted or sour crop. The breath of the chicken will stink if it has sour crop.
If the crop is functioning normally, feed an egg (hardboiled mashed or scrambled eggs) mix with 1 teaspoon Oregano (immune system booster), 1 teaspoon Cinnamon (circulation booster), and 1 teaspoon Cayenne pepper (natural de-wormer). Continue an egg only diet until full recovery. If not lethargic, provide plain water. If lethargic, continue providing fresh molasses water daily.
If the crop is suspect, remove all food and only provide access to water. Every hour, dip the beak to accept water and massage the crop for 5 minutes to help loosen it. Once the crop empties completely, offer a scrambled egg only with water. After 3 days of a scrambled egg diet, offer a can of tuna fish with grit/oyster shells. If a full recovery is made, return to normal feeding habits. Normal feeding habits should be of a balanced diet with less than 10% of the diet containing treats. If feeding a high amount of veggies protein will be lacking and may need a can of tuna fish to increase selenium and protein intake to counter. If feeding a high amount of mealworms or protein treats, it can cause fatty liver disease.
Is there any droppings dried on their vent? Pasty butt is common in young chicks and their bottoms should be inspected daily and cleaned as needed. It is important to never pull the dried poop off them. Instead use warm soapy water to loosen and remove. If pulled to hard, it will result in a vent prolapse.
If there are still residual concerns, continue with Health Check 4 Dropping Inspection.
Health Check 4: Dropping Inspection.
Is the frequency of droppings normal? If not and crop is okay and is a hen at laying age, treat for egg bound. Provide a boost of calcium with plain yogurt and egg diet. If you can feel an egg help the chicken deliver the egg. If egg bound for more than 4 hours after giving calcium boost, take a needle and carefully poke the egg shell to remove the insides of the bound egg without cracking the shell. If the egg breaks inside, she can die from infection. By removing some of the egg yolk and white with a needed the egg should be easier to deliver. Most common cause for becoming egg bound is a lack of calcium. Ensure free choice oyster shells never run out and feed an egg and yogurt diet only until egg laying resumes to normal.
If dropping frequency is normal, are the droppings themselves normal? Refer to Chicken Poop Chart.
Treat for any problem discovered.
If droppings are normal, continue to Health Check 5.
Health Check 5: Respiratory Inspection.
Does the chicken sneeze, have a wet or clogged nostril, irritated, or bubbles in their eye? A simple foreign object in their nostril or eye can cause an infection and quickly become more serious if not addressed immediately. If nostrils are not completely clear, use essential clove oil on a q-tip and wipe their nostrils and clean them out. If a cleaning was needed, continue to apply clove oil on nostrils for a week. If eye is irritated, use colonial silver as an eye wash. Look to see if there are worms in the eye which can occur if they ate a worm infected bug such as a beetle or cockroach. The worms would look like white short lines. They fill the esophagus and cause a the chicken to have a gapping reaction. If so, treat for gap worms. If no worms are found, it could be a foreign object at started the eye irritation. Chickens will use their wings and feet to scratch an eye irritation. Both methods cause more damage than the original irritation. In fact, they can scratch out their entire eye, cause blindness, or die from foot to eye bacterial infection. The main goal is to relieve their eye from the irritation to avoid further self-scratching. Wash the eye out 3x a day with colonial silver followed by application of Ophlalmic Gel for pets. If failure to respond positively to organic treatment methods after 3 days, you will need to determine if you want to incorporate robust commercial antibiotics . The decision is not one to be taken lightly. The The antibotics are designed for pet birds and not for food producers. Thus, there is not information on withdrawl periods and you would be using it off label. If the goal of the bird is pet only and not egg consumption, it can be robust enough to save a life. You may be faced with the need to humanely cull to protect the rest of the organic flock.
If no respiratory concerns, continue with Health Check 6.
Health Check 6: Parasite Check.
Lice and mites can cause anemia in chickens. If your chicken’s comb is pale rather than the normal bright red, it is possible that parasites are causing the chickens to be iron deficient. To check for parasites, separate the feathers to expose the skin and look for tiny bugs. Check for scaly leg mites by inspecting your chicken’s legs. The scales should be tight and not lifting up. If either is found, treat their coop, runs, nesting boxes, and every member for mites/lice. Feed an egg and can of tuna for the next week until comb color and health is fully recovered. If no parasites, continue to health check 7.
Health Check 7: Muscle Function.
If there the bird is unable to stand or unable to hold their neck up properly, adds a boost of selenium in their diet by offering a can of tuna. If sever selenium deficiency provide squirt a capsule of Vitamin E with selenium into their mouth 3x a day until improvement is seen.
If they are favoring a leg or are not walking right, complete a full inspection. Feel each leg from the thigh, high up under the feathers, down to the hock joint, then down the scaly part to the toes and the sole of the foot. Gently flex the leg out (if you can without causing pain). Compare the legs, including their temperature.
Is the amount of movement same for both?
Is there any ‘crunching” noise of bone ends in a joint when you move a leg?
Is there any swelling?
Is part of one leg hotter?
Are the soles of the feet soft and clean without any scabs or lumps?
Are there mud balls adhering to their claws or sole?
Are the toe nails overgrown?
The above should help you determine if the bird has a physical injury to a tendon or a joint, or if there is an infection in their skin (bumble foot most common).
Health Check 8: Egg Shape and Production.
If it is a hen at laying age their egg shapes and laying frequency can be a huge help in troubleshooting their health. Check out abnormal egg chart.
Once fully recovered from an injury or known cause, wait a minimum of 2 weeks before placing back with the remaining members of the flock. If an illness was a suspect cause, wait 4 weeks. Then, at 4 weeks introduce one member of the flock to the recovered chicken. If after 2 weeks both show signs of full health, place back with other flock members.
Can’t figure it out?
If you can’t identify what is happening, as long as the crop is not impacted, feed eggs and water until recovered. Eggs are the easiest for them to digest and offer the densest nutrients in small bites. It helps them focus their energy on recovery instead of finding food and digesting it. If health decline occurs, determine if it is best to humanely cull to avoid further suffering.
Raising chickens is not for the light hearted. While chickens are hardy in their own right, they attract many predators. As prey animals, chickens are highly skilled at hiding pain, discomfort and weakness. By the time something wrong is noticed, it is often too late. By spending time with your flock(s) you will be able to pick up on subtle clues that a member is not behaving as normal. Unfortunately, experiencing an occasional death from of a flock member is part of raising chickens.