PHOTO: VirtKitty/Flickr
January 18, 2016

Most of us spend a great deal of time preparing for the arrival of our first chickens, but few of us give much thought to how we would handle serious injuries, illnesses or end-of-life decisions until faced with them. Finding a trained poultry veterinarian or any vet who will agree to treat a chicken can be extremely difficult, and nothing leaves a chicken keeper feeling more powerless than not knowing how to help a flock member in need. Being prepared to face the toughest part of chicken-keeping when the time comes can make an already difficult time less stressful.

Chickens are adept at masking illness and injury, but by spending time with your birds, you’ll notice subtle cues that indicate something is amiss. Common indications of a sick chicken include:

  • hiding
  • inactivity
  • pale comb or wattles
  • unusual droppings
  • unusual posture
  • lethargy
  • lack of appetite
  • reduced egg production

These are all clues that closer observation is needed.

Preparing For Injuries And Illness

The average chicken keeper can tend to injured and sick chickens, at least until you’re able to get the proper veterinary care. Keep first-aid supplies handy to being able to render emergency medical aid in a crisis and perhaps save the bird’s life.

Assemble A First-Aid Kit

A plastic container with a lid works perfectly to hold first-aid supplies. Your first-aid kit should include:

  • antibiotic ointment (without pain control ingredients that can be harmful to some birds)
  • disposable gloves
  • dog nail clippers (for trimming beaks or toe nails)
  • Epsom salt (for soaking some injuries)
  • eye dropper or syringe (for hand-feeding water, medications and liquid nutrients)
  • LED flashlight
  • non-stick gauze pads
  • powdered baby bird formula (for hand-feeding)
  • scissors
  • self-sticking bandages
  • styptic powder (for bleeding nails/beaks)
  • super-glue gel (to repair broken beaks)
  • tweezers
  • vitamins and electrolytes (for shock, heat stress and dehydration)

Designate A Recovery Space

Identify an area where a sick or injured chicken can be housed temporarily, away from the coop and other flock members. A quiet area inside the house, garage or basement makes a good recovery space. Ideally, it will be predator-proof, lined with soft bedding (such as puppy training pads, pine shavings, fresh bedding or soft towels), and conveniently located for frequent observation.

A collapsible, portable dog kennel/cage works because it allows you to easily observe the chicken, is portable and is easy to clean. Have cage cups for food and poultry nipple drinkers for water on hand to hang inside the cage to ensure dry bedding and clean food and water.

Identify Veterinarians In Your Area

Poultry veterinarians are few and far between. Avian vets are easier to locate, but not all avian vets are trained in, experienced with or comfortable treating chickens. Contact all the veterinarians in your area to inquire whether they treat chickens. If you find one, make an appointment to meet the vet or their staff. That simple introduction can mean the difference between being seen during an emergency and being told the vet only sees “established patients” in an emergency.

State and federal resources are available to assist backyard chicken keepers in a variety of capacities. Those resources include state veterinarians, poultry extension agents and state veterinary diagnostic laboratories. The USDA’s Veterinary Services offers a disease diagnostics consulting service with a veterinarian, free of charge. To speak with a USDA vet in your region, call 866-536-7593.

Administering First Aid To Your Flock

If you notice a sick or injured chicken, isolate it from the flock to discourage pecking and to prevent disease spread.
If you notice a sick or injured chicken, isolate it from the flock to discourage pecking and to prevent disease spread. Photo by Sarah Stierch/Flickr

Isolate The Sick Chicken

Sick and injured chickens require a quiet, safe environment where they can be observed closely. Separate the unwell chicken from the flock to keep it safe from bullying and pecking by other chickens and, in the case of a sick bird, safeguard the rest of the flock from a potentially contagious disease.

A sick or injured chicken might be in shock or confused, so if it’s impossible to apprehend it during daylight hours, try again at dusk. Chickens have poor night vision and are easier to apprehend at night. Wrap the injured chicken loosely but securely in a large towel to help keep it calm and prevent injury during transport.

Control Bleeding

Whenever possible, wear gloves when treating a bleeding or wounded chicken. With a clean towel, gauze or paper towel, apply gentle, firm, even pressure to the injury until bleeding stops. Apply styptic powder to superficial wounds and hold in place until bleeding stops.

Assess And Clean Injuries

Before bleeding is controlled and the area cleaned, wounds can appear much worse than they really are. Examine the chicken from head to toe. Because feathers might conceal wounds, particularly those from a hawk’s talons, bathing the bird can make finding injuries easier.

Thoroughly cleaned the wound with water, hydrogen peroxide or Vetericyn Plus Poultry Care spray. For especially deep or very dirty wounds, I use a syringe filled with freshly mixed Dakin’s solution to flush and irrigate especially deep or very dirty wounds.

Keep the wound clean and dry while the bird recovers. I use Vetericyn wound spray two to three times a day until the bird has healed, but you can substitute a triple antibiotic ointment. Watch for signs of infection, such as swelling and redness in the area.

I don’t recommend using blue or purple antiseptic sprays or liquids on wounds. The theory is that the purple dye conceals wounds from other birds, protecting the injured bird from being cannibalized, which doesn’t usually prove to be true. Because injured chickens should always be isolated, there’s no need to hide wounds. Other more effective, less painful wound-care products work without obscuring the first sign of infection: redness.

If antibiotics appear necessary, contact your state agricultural extension service’s poultry agent for assistance. Grabbing an antibiotic at the feed-supply store can result in the wrong type of antibiotic being used, putting your bird at risk for more problems.

Hydrate The Chicken

The next priority when caring for a sick or injured chicken is keeping them hydrated, even if that means offering water by spoon or dropper frequently. Water is involved in every aspect of a chicken’s metabolism; dehydration makes recovery an uphill battle, if not entirely futile. Adding a vitamin/electrolyte supplement into the drinking water for a day or two can help in recovering from dehydration, shock from an injury and heat stress.

Initially, food is much less critical than water for a sick or injured bird. After being hydrated, if a chicken is not eating independently, you can offer it baby-bird formula by spoon, dropper or syringe or be tube-fed, aka gavaged, a technique outside the scope of this article that requires specific training.

You can control a chicken's pain by offering aspirin in water.
You can control a chicken’s pain by offering aspirin in water. Photo Lauren Tucker/Flickr

Control Pain

Their position near the bottom of the food chain requires that chickens behave stoically when sick or injured so as not to draw unwanted attention. They don’t have facial expressions that would reveal discomfort, but don’t mistake their stoicism for a lack of pain; chickens do feel pain. Assume they are in as much pain as you would be if you sustained a similar injury or illness.

Meloxicam is a frequently prescribed anti-inflammatory for chickens, but a veterinarian must prescribe it along with the dosage by weight and any recommended egg-withdrawal period. As long as there are no internal injuries, the Mississippi State University Extension Service says that an aspirin drinking-water solution can be offered to an injured chicken for a maximum of three days at the ratio of five aspirin tablets (total of 324 mg) to 1 gallon of water.

Address Internal Injuries

If an injured chicken doesn’t respond to treatment or declines in status, you can suspect infection and/or internal injuries. Only a veterinarian can help if a bird needs treatment for internal injuries.

Don’t Alter The Chicken’s Diet

Drastically changing a bird’s diet by offering foods or supplements they don’t ordinarily take can complicate the assessment and identification of the problem and make an unwell chicken feel even worse. If herbal or other dietary supports have not already been a part of a chicken’s regular wellness routine, they shouldn’t be offered during an illness.

Work on building a healthy immune system after the chicken’s health crisis has passed. An exception to this general rule would be a probiotic supplement in the water, which is a safe way to introduce beneficial microflora to an ill chicken without other ingredients that could cause physical distress.

Don’t Medicate Randomly

Without knowing what the underlying issue is, randomly medicating a sick bird can make their condition much worse and complicate the ability to determine the underlying problem. Resist the temptation to offer dewormers, antibiotics, garlic, vinegar, molasses, yogurt or any type of herbs to a sick chicken. Until the problem is identified, any treatment, including natural remedies, may harm the chicken.

The supportive care described in this article is often all that we can do at home for a sick chicken, and many times, that’s enough to get them through a medical crisis and back to their flock. When it isn’t and veterinary care is not an option, the worst-case scenario is always death. Sometimes, the kindest thing we can do for a chicken beyond being saved is to help end their suffering kindly.



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