Help! My Chicken is Sick!

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Disclaimer: I am NOT a veterinarian, just an animal owner & lover sharing my opinions and experiences.  Any advice on caring for animals or diagnosing & treating medical conditions for animals should be evaluated by a trained veterinarian.

Eventually, it will happen to every chicken owner.  You will go out to the chicken coop in the morning and notice someone isn’t coming out of the coop, or maybe they come out, but just stand quietly in the corner while everyone else is pecking around.  Some diagnoses are easy – if your chicken is limping you would look for a leg or foot problem.  Most times the clues that your chicken is sick will be very subtle.  Chickens are the ultimate prey animal.  Everyone loves a good chicken dinner!  Because of this, over the millennium chickens have become excellent at hiding weakness (did you know chickens have been domesticated for at least 5,000 years, and possibly up to 8,000 years?).  As a chicken owner you should spend a little time every day observing their behaviors so you can catch any changes early.  Obviously this list isn’t all inclusive of everything that can go wrong with a chicken, but will cover many of the most common ailments.  So what should you do when you find something amiss?  Grab your chicken first aid kit and we’ll get to the bottom of this (want to check out what is in my first aid kit? click here to read about it)

One of these chickens is not like the others, time to investigate

One of these chickens is not like the others, time to investigate

Abigail obviously not feeling well. I'm glad she has a good friend watching over her, but it's time for me to step in

Abigail is obviously not feeling well. I’m glad she has a good friend watching over her, but it’s time for me to step in

 

Isolate any chicken you suspect is ill

Step one is always to remove the sick chicken from the flock until you figure out what is going on.  You don’t want the rest of the flock being exposed and you want to keep the sick chicken separate to make her easier to treat.  Isolating a chicken means they are kept at least 30-40 feet from the rest of the flock.  Make sure the isolated chicken has a secure coop, safe from predators with access to fresh food, water & grit.  Click here to see the hospital coop I made from recycled materials

Ms. Abigail comfortable in the hospital coop

Time to relax in the hospital coop

Check out her comb & wattles

Dehydration can cause a normally erect comb to flop over, does she have access to plenty of fresh water?  If it is warm out, a pale comb could indicate heat exhaustion.  Try filling a shallow pan with cold water and stand the chicken in it (don’t submerge her, it could be too great a shock).  Give her plenty of fresh, cold water and offer some chilled watermelon as a snack.  A normal, healthy chicken should have a bright red comb.  If the comb is a pale pink it can also be a sign of anemia (or molting, if there are feathers everywhere that is probably the cause of the pale comb).  Anemia can be caused by a parasite infestation like mites, lice, worms.  To check for external parasites like mites and lice, part the feathers in several places and look carefully at the chicken’s skin for tiny creepy crawlies.  Mites look like tiny, almost translucent red fleas and can often be found in their “wing-pits” (under their wings).  Lice look like very tiny grains of rice and they lay their eggs at the feather shafts, both can often be seen near the chicken’s vent.  Other common side effects of external parasites include feather picking or bald spots, dirty looking or dull feathers, lethargy and loss of appetite.  If one chicken has external parasites, it’s a good bet the whole flock has them.  Totally empty and clean the coop, sprinkle food grade Diatomaceous Earth in all the corners before refilling with shavings.  Dust the chickens with DE or treat them with topical medications like  Ivomec Eprinex.  A pale comb could also indicate internal parasites (worms).  Common side effects of worms include very loose, watery droppings (sometimes the worms or worm casings can be seen in the droppings) and an increase in appetite but with weight loss.  Just like with internal parasites, if one chicken has worms, you should worm the entire flock & disinfect their coop.  There are several different kind of worms chickens can get and unfortunately there is not an all inclusive wormer available.  A fecal test by your vet (or an at home pet fecal test kit) can help identify the type of worms your flock has and recommend the appropriate treatment.  Some chicken owners routinely worm their flock 2-3 times per year using different medicines each time as a preventative measure, but many think that is too taxing on their system and only worm when there is an infestation..but that is a conversation for a whole ‘nother day.  Ashy looking black or brown spots on the comb/wattle/any unfeathered skin can indicate fowl pox.  One or two spots is not a cause for concern and is probably a scab from another chicken pecking them.  Fowl pox would be accompanied by lethargy, loss of appetite, weight loss and “wet” sounding breathing.  Similar to chicken pox in humans it is very contagious (to other chickens) and there isn’t much you can do to “cure” it, just treat the symptoms.  Boost their immune systems with vitamins and electrolytes to help their body fight the virus, and if possible keep any infected birds separate.    A purple comb indicates a respiratory problem which leads to the next section….

Her combs look not quite as red as normal, but not pale enough to be very concerned

Her combs look not quite as red as normal, but not pale enough to be very concerned

 

Listen to her breathing

Hold the chicken and put your hands on either side of her to feel her breathing, listen closely.  Is she gasping for air?  Does her breathing sound gurgly?  That could indicate gape worm, a worm that takes up residence in your chicken’s trachea, other symptoms would include coughing and shaking their head.  If you check the throat, you can sometimes see the red worms attached to the trachea.  If gape worm is suspected, it’s best to worm the flock with an appropriate wormer.  Another possibility is there is something stuck in her throat.  Carefully open her beak and look into her throat (if you have a helper this will be much easier).  If your chicken has raspy breathing, sneezing, runny nostrils, and/or foamy eyes she likely has a respiratory disease.  This can also sometimes be accompanied by lethargy or loss of appetite.  Basically a cold for chickens, you should keep her separate until symptoms go away.  Boost her immune system with vitamins & electrolytes.  I also like to use VetRx, you can put it near their nostrils or under their wing, it is kind of like a menthol rub when you are feeling congested.  If symptoms are not easing within a week, antibiotics might be needed.

Abby's breathing does not sound wet or raspy, but does seem a little strained like she is in pain or has an egg stuck

Abby’s breathing does not sound wet or raspy, but does seem a little strained like she is in pain or has an egg stuck

Check her droppings

Sometimes it can be hard in a large flock to tell which chicken is leaving the funky droppings you just found.  If it’s very watery, it can be easy to tell because the offender will usually have dirty bum feathers.  Otherwise, you are left to just standing around watching chickens poop until you see who is leaving behind the offensive ones.  You can diagnosis a lot of illnesses through their poop.  Anytime you take your chicken to the vet for an illness, it’s handy to bring along a fecal sample for testing.  There is a huge range of normal looking poops and plenty of non normal ones.  If you have the stomach for it, The Chicken Chick has the most informative post on chicken droppings I have seen, complete with pictures.  You can check that out here.

I will spare you the photo, but Abigail’s poop is pretty runny.  Coupled with her strained breathing and the hunched over stance, I want to check in her vent for egg binding

I'm sorry, but you want to do what with my vent???

I’m sorry, but you want to do what with my vent???

Check her vent

Egg binding can happen when an egg gets stuck in the oviduct.  It happens most often in young layers, but it can happen at any time in a chicken’s egg laying career.  Abigail is an old girl, she’s 4 and only lays maybe once a week, sometimes not even that often, but better safe than sorry.  An egg bound hen will be lethargic with her tail down, perhaps looking like she is straining and waddling.  She will also have loss of appetite, a pale comb and she will either have loose stools or none at all.  This is a very serious condition and if she does not pass the egg within 2 days she will die.  If you suspect this, handle the hen carefully to avoid having the egg break inside of her which could lead to a fatal infection.  Carefully bring her inside.  I like to do this in the bathtub for easy clean up and because the lighting is usually nice and bright so I can see what I’m doing.  Apply a generous amount of Vaseline to a gloved finger and carefully insert it into her vent.  If the egg is in there it will be close to the vent.  If you can’t feel an egg within the first inch or two it’s not there.  If you do feel an egg, fill the tub with a few inches of warm water.  Seat the chicken in the water for about 15-20 minutes while massaging her abdomen.  You can apply more Vaseline around her vent and near the egg.  Often this will ease the egg out.  If it doesn’t, take her out and wrap her in a warm towel.  Crush a calcium rich Tums tablet and feed it to her then put the hen in a warm, dark place (a dog crate with a blanket over it would be perfect).  The combination of the extra calcium and the warmth & dark hopefully will encourage her to lay.  If not, an emergency visit to the vet is in order so they can extract the egg.

How embarrassing, poor Abigail. But there was no egg stuck, so that is good news. While on her side, I did figure out the problem though! On her both of her feet, she had telltale black scabs.....

How embarrassing, poor Abigail. But there was no egg stuck, so that is good news. While on her side, I did figure out the problem though! On both of her feet, she had telltale black scabs…..

Check her feet

Inspect her feet and legs.  Are there any obvious cuts or injuries?  If so thoroughly clean the wound with Vetericyn and wrap it to keep clean.  Do her lower legs look thickened, scabby & crusty?  This can be a sign of scaly leg mites.  These parasites burrow under the leg scales to snack on tissue. It can be painful and chickens with severe infestations might be limping.  If the infestation is not too severe you can try this natural remedy – soak the chicken’s legs in warm water for about 20 minutes, rubbing the scales to loosen the scabs.  Next, dip her feet & legs in oil (most oils will be fine, vegetable oil is a good choice as it’s fairly cheap).  Let her sit in the oil for maybe 5 minutes to suffocate the mites.  Dry her off and slather Vaseline on her legs.  You should repeat this process a couple times a week until her legs look healthy again.  For severe infestations, your vet can prescribe an anti parasitic medication like Ivermectin.  The other issue you should check for on your chicken’s feet is bumblefoot.  Bumblefoot is an infection on their foot.  It is fairly common, a chicken gets a cut on her foot and then is walking around in dirt and poop, you can see how that could easily lead to infection.  In it’s early stages, it will look like a black or brown scab on the bottom of the foot, sometimes accompanied by redness or swelling.  The chicken might be limping or sitting a lot to stay off her feet.  She may have lost interest in eating because it’s painful to stand.  You want to catch this in it’s early stages, as it advances the infection can get in their bloodstream and lead to death.  The infection forms a pus filled abscess on the foot (the black scab).  The first step in treating this is to remove the abscess.  Assemble Vetericyn spray, Vetrap bandages & gauze pads, antibiotic ointment, and a surgical scalpel.  Soak the chicken’s feet in warm water for about 20 minutes to loosen the tissue.  Use gloves to prevent spreading further infection between the two of you.  Spray the area liberally with Vetericyn, wiggle the black scabbed abscess.  In early stages the abscess will only be lightly attached and you may be able to wiggle/pull it out.  Deeper abscesses will be more firmly attached and will require surgical removal.  If you feel confident with the scalpel, you can cut it out.  If not, it’s best to consult with a vet.  In either event, once the abscess is out, it will bleed.  Slather the area with  an antibiotic ointment and cover with a clean gauze pad and wrap with Vetrap.  Change the bandages daily for about a week or until the area is healed, applying more Vetericyn or antibiotic ointment at each changing.

Below is a photo of the abscess I pulled out of Abigail’s foot.  She had one in each foot, about the same size.  Luckily, I was able to wiggle them both out without surgery, but they were about 1/2 inch deep into her foot.  I’m sure this was painful, causing her lethargy and lack of appetite.  Surprisingly she was not limping at all, this just goes to show you how well chickens can mask pain.  Not eating and drinking enough was leading to runny stools.  She is comfortably recovering in the hospital coop, and getting electrolytes and plenty of mealworm treats 🙂  Now if she would just leave her bandages alone…..

This is an abscess I was able to wiggle free from my hen's foot



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24 comments

    • Linda says:

      I have a Hen that goes backward like and flops around like she has no balance, it looks like she is drunk, what can it be?. please help.

      • Liz says:

        I have a little bantam Cochin that does this sometimes. From what I have read it is likely a neurological effect stemming from a vitamin deficiency. With my cochin, she is very often broody and not taking great care of herself. When she is in her super broody moods I notice the imbalance and backwards walking happening.

  1. Shelly says:

    Thank you for this info. I have a girl who,is limping. She’s eating, but is slow to come down out of the coop in the morning. I think it may be a small cut, but I. Going back out there today to give a more thorough exam. I hope it’s not anything such as an abcess , but I want to be sure.

  2. Kaye says:

    One of my. hens is sick and I am at wits end.
    Limped on Thursday
    Gave her very warm water and epson salt
    She is drinking and lightly eating her greens
    What do I do?
    New at this
    Kaye

    • Liz says:

      Have you checked her feet? Limping could be from bumblefoot (you’ll see a small black scab on the bottom of the foot) or possibly leg mites (the scales on the legs get thicker and you might see the small mites). Bumblefoot is an infection and could definitely lead to a decreased appetite

    • Liz says:

      If she is eating and drinking normally and you see no obvious signs of injury or frostbite on her foot/leg, she probably just sprained it. If you haven’t seen any improvement after week you might want to give the vet a call. In the meantime, keep her quiet so she can rest and make sure she has plenty of fresh water & feed. If you can add some vitamins and electrolytes to her water that would be even better

  3. Liz says:

    Oh no! Poor little thing! I wish I had more advice. How old is she? Do you know if the hatchery you got her from vaccinated for Marek’s disease? The first stages are often wobbly or paralyzed legs

  4. Kaye says:

    Liz
    This is Kaye my hen Hennie has been ill and I just wanted to “Thank You” for all the help!
    Hennie walked out of the Roost today, on her own.
    I do believe the mealworms, Crickets and crushed egg shells did it.
    I am ecstatic that she is ok, BUT now she does seem to eat. Did I spoil her!
    Thank you, again
    Kaye in South Carolina

  5. Vicky says:

    Hi ,
    First of all I want to say that you not only have a nice website but that I’m also very very pleased by the way you treat your animals . Now , I’m a newbie in keeping ( and also loving ) chickens and had already made some huge mistakes which at the end even costed the life of my hens ! In fact it wasn’t really my own fault , the main issue was the use of forums , sadly enough those people are a bunch of lies bind with the idiotic and just ignorant idea that a chicken is not like a cat .. Well , actually i almost quoted someone on that forum by saying that cat thing . The issue I just had was that my very first chicken frightened me and really took controle over me , my small child and even all my 24 hours a day . Just because this hen was a Rhode Island , now I know why she behaved like that but back then I had no idea how to handle her so I asked online for advice , how happy and proud I was to be one of them ! Now happy that I’m NOT LIKE THEM !!! They started to ask me questions , well some of them , most reactions were only to tear me down , quotes like ” OMG that chicken is costing you that much , it has total control and it knows it and u just let it all happen haha arent u a good chickenfarmer rofl gut gut etc etc ” but what went wrong ? nobody asked for any specifics about the animal , her eating , drinking , outlook , nothing at all , later I said on that forum that my child got pecked untill it bleeded and that I was stunned and clueless , obviously i just needed some advice ! If I noticed these words written down by no matter who it is , I would know : this person is just new , chillout everyone and just start asking GOOD questions plus give her good tips come on don’t be so jurky ! ” but no , one person asked me wether my child had hurt the chicken so I said no she was hughing it why ? ” the reactions i got were a total blackout for me ! words like ” wtf a hug to a chicken ? you are just proviquing the problem ! who hugs a chicken , it is JUST a chicken ! stop letting her do that and let those chickens be chickens , end of story and your problems are solved and if they peck give it a push or yell at it ! ” yeah ofcourse a lot of help , but no i didnt take the ‘advice ‘ , it is good for a child to get to know a chicken and open its heart to it right ? same here ! I petted her a bit when i cleaned the coop and she came to c what was going on etc , and yes we spoiled her but if that is what she loves and you love it i don’t c the issue ! now what went wrong ? she turned about 8 months yet never layed ONE egg and started doing the things that indicated indeed an egg got stuck , on that forum someone told me to check under , so I turned that poor animal upside down and I didn’t even know it would kill her , so the moment I turned her back over I felt like ” omg she doesn’t work with me , don’t u like to stand up ?? ” she died !!!! I started even mouth to mouth , I was in shock for information ( because I got shocked indeed and cared about her way too much ) but now I have one hen of my own , unknown age from a seller online who was having too much of them she is white 🙂 and fine 😉 , but now the question… I found a week ago a hen that must have been hit by a car OR , and I fear for this ( my gut tells me ) she could be sevearly mistreated !!!! She has one broken wing , one broken leg , one broken 2 broken feet and obviously she has also an egg stuck , now I already took her in the house from day one , found her totally bound into a white dirty piece of towel or something and clearly dumped as she can’t walk , I did the first things : desinfected her entire body after a nice bath , she was in pain yet she liked it that I rubbed her and took care of her , she showed it , really ! she was sooo thankfull to me , later I made with a straw and some soft materials her leg bit steady by taping this in , not too tight for the bloodcirculation and indeed it helped her ! she did not want to eat first and that day she ate and even used her foot which is also sevearly damaged , not long but yes she did stand on it , now today is a terrible and critical day , I am worried sick ! she does NOT eat nor drink , and has her egg stuck plus she lays flat , tale down , wings flat on the ground , I’m so out of options , the vet already told me to euthanase her but I can’t 🙁 , she is very kind and way too young ( dont know how old she is but if she lays eggs ? that means TOO YOUNG TO DIE !!! ) plse Liz , I almost beg you , i’m sorry to ask you as I know you have other things to do and get questions all day long but PLEASE help me / HER ! please ? Warm regards out of Belgium on a sunny , yet so damn sad springday she cant even enjoy

    • Liz says:

      You obviously love your chickens so much! I agree, they definitely can be just like any other pet and can really work their way into your heart. First, I don’t think tipping your first hen upside down killed her (unless you had her upside for like 20 minutes – just tipping her upside down and then righting her is not going to kill her), my guess is there was something else wrong with her. So please do not blame yourself for that. Your poor little one sounds like she has really been through a lot. Has your vet looked at her? It sounds like her injuries are pretty substantial, more than a standard chicken keeper (like me) without a medical degree could fix. If your vet is recommending euthanasia,unfortunately it might be something you have to consider. This is the hardest part of owning animals and it tears my heart out. Just a couple weeks ago, we had to put our beloved cat to sleep even though she was only 5 years old, but she had an inoperable stomach tumor. She wasn’t eating or drinking and was in pain. The only humane option was to help her pass. If you take her to the vet, they can help you and you can be with her right until the end. If you are determined to save her, the vet can at least properly set her broken limbs, but this kind of trauma is often something a chicken can’t survive. It sounds like you are doing everything you can to make her happy and comfortable and I truly wish I had better advice to make her well again 🙁 I am so sorry

  6. Teri says:

    I have a chicken she is barely eating her breathing is like she congessted and now she got black poop on her butt she not doing good help help 😭😭

    • Liz says:

      I am sorry your little one is not doing well – it’s hard to say from those symptoms it could be a lot of things. The dark poop and lack of appetite could indicate a digestive issue. How does her crop feel? Is there a strange, rotten smell coming from her mouth? Sour crop & impacted crops can be common in spring when chickens are eating long, uncut blades of grass which then get tangled in the crop

  7. Dorothy says:

    My pet rooster has never had a sick day in his life (he is about 8 years old now). Today he is straining to go to the bathroom, but nothing is coming out. Is there something I can give him to help>

    • Liz says:

      Poor guy! I would try soaking him in warm tub with epsom salt and see if that can loosen things up. Mixing some ProBios in his water can help with digestion and plain yogurt is also great for digestive health

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