Updated on July 7th, 2021.
My hen was acting strange. Instead of foraging with her sisters, she came and sat next to me while I was in the garden. The others in my little 3-hen flock started to be aggressive toward her. Three days later, I found her dead in the coop. She was sick and I missed all the signs. Does this story sound familiar? To know when your chickens ain’t doing right (ADR is an actual veterinary medical term), you need to know when they are doing good. Each chicken is an individual with a certain appetite, energy level, and a particular place in the pecking order. The key is to get to know each of your chickens, so when one behaves different than usual, you know that something isn’t right. Spend some time each day with your chickens. Observe their behavior, their posture, and their interaction with each other. Does one look depressed? Is there any change in the egg production? Look at their combs and droppings, they are often good indicators of what’s going on internally. Click on the image below for a very good infographic describing in detail the signs of a sick chicken:
Once you notice something is amiss, you need to act fast. Chickens hide their symptoms pretty well and you may only have a couple of days to do something. First, separate her from the rest of the flock. Put her in a safe place with food and water. It could be a small coop or a dog crate in the garage. If you don’t know what she has or how to treat her, go to the vet. Don’t wait!
If you perform regular health checks on your flock, you can catch things earlier, and prevent minor problems from becoming major ones. The first thing is to catch your chicken! If you can’t call her to you or lure her with treats, try to gently herd her in a corner and pick her up. Never chase your chicken. If that is too hard, just wait until she is roosting. When you pick your chicken up, feel her body. It should plump and firm. Weight her (we use a baby scale) so you know if she is lighter or heavier than usual. Now check her out from head to tail.
Here is a checklist to help you perform a complete health check:
Comb: It should be firm and bright red (it may paler if the hen is not laying). Check for any dryness, swelling, change of color, cuts, and dried blood.
Eyes: They should be open, clear, round, and bright. Check for any discharge, swelling, and oval shape.
Ears: They should be clean little holes covered by a clump of tiny feathers. Check for any discharge and foul smell.
Nostrils: They should be clean and open. Check for any discharge, crusts, sneezing, and difficulty in breathing. The area between the eyes and the nostrils should not be swollen.
Beak: It is usually closed. Check for breathing difficulty, any abnormal or gurgle sounds. Gently open her beak and smell her breath for any foul odors.
Crop: It should be full, and feel mushy when squeezed gently. Check for any bloating and compaction.
Abdomen: It should feel soft. Check for bloating, swelling, and fluids.
Feathers: They should be glossy, unbroken, and flat on her body (they may be curly depending on the breed). Check for broken or missing feathers, and parasites crawling on the skin.
Legs and feet: They should be strong, straight, and smooth. Check for cuts, swelling, crusts, lifted scales, anything embedded (dirt, pebbles...) between her toes. Feel the temperature of her feet for possible infection.
Vent: The vent area should be clean, the feathers should be soft and fluffy, and the vent should be like two clean white lips. Check for any irritation, wounds, prolapsed oviduct, and parasites. If the vent area is dirty, clean it to avoid flies and maggots. Cut feathers and remove any dried poop.
Now give your chicken a tasty treat as a reward, even if she hasn’t been fully cooperative - she may be more willing next time :) It’s always a good idea to record the health of your flock, so write down your observations along with the chicken’s name, weight and the date. Add as many details as you wish like “begin molting”, “pebble removed from left foot”, etc. Note any treatment you give to your chickens in this health chart, so you have all information in one place.
Last but not least, run a fecal test on your chicken or even better on the whole flock so you know if there is anything bothering them inside.