7 Questions Chicken Keepers Should Ask Their Vets

Taking a sick chicken to the vet for the first time can be intimidating. Ask these questions so you’re sure to get the information you need to keep your flock healthy.

by Dan Famini, DVM
PHOTO: iStock/ThinkStock

Chickens can be fantastic companions to hobby farmers and backyard-chicken keepers, but they remain unusual patients in the veterinary office. Chickens’ food-producing ability and flock lifestyle create medical considerations unlike those seen in dogs or cats, and because of that,a new chicken keeper’s first vet visit can be intimidating. By preparing yourself ahead of time, though, you can come out of the visit with the information you need to keep your chickens healthy. Ask the following seven questions when a chicken is sick to cover concerns that could be missed by a veterinarian more accustomed to treating furry patients.

1. Can you recommend or prescribe treatment for my entire flock?

Some small animal veterinarians may be unaccustomed to this question, but as chicken hobbyists, we maintain flocks, not single birds. Any communicable condition is a concern for all exposed birds. It’s routine in food-animal medicine to treat on a herd-health basis.

2. What is the legal withdrawal time for this treatment?

This is an important question if you eat your chickens’ eggs or meat, but especially if you sell them. Every drug is broken down and excreted in the eggs or stored in the meat of a chicken differently. Someone who consumes your eggs might have a sensitivity to the treatment, such as reactions to penicillins. You and your veterinarian could be legally liable if any drug is detected, especially if it causes an adverse reaction, so make sure you get a date for the next safe and legal egg or meat consumption before you leave the office.

3. Is this drug approved for use in laying hens?

This is another important question if you are consuming your chickens’ eggs. The Food Animal and Residue Avoidance Databank is a USDA-supported program that provides the most up-to-date guidance regarding safe withdrawal intervals of medications in food-producing animals. This service is free to veterinarians, and it only takes a few minutes to search the medication being used for your chickens. Veterinary research is ever-changing, so you want to make sure your vet obtains the research specific to your situation.

If the drug is not approved for laying hens, politely request that they forward you the email from FARAD regarding your specific case.

4. How can I monitor symptoms in my other birds?

Often a little bit of insight can greatly enhance your vigilance in guarding against a specific disease, especially in chickens, which have a tendency to outwardly mask their illness. By knowing the most relevant, specific ways to check the rest of your flock, you can be more proactive in treatment or quarantine. Not every condition is predictable, and some symptoms require specialized training or equipment to detect, but by knowing what abnormalities you should be looking for, you’re better equipped to get your flock help when they need it.

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5. How can I prevent the disease from spreading or returning to my flock?

For any infectious or parasitic condition, the disease-causing organisms came from somewhere. The focus during an office call is on assessing and treating the sick bird; unless you ask about disinfection and prevention, it can be left out of the conversation. It would not be unusual for your new concerns to focus on seemingly unrelated factors, such as improving rodent control, power-washing the coop or moving the feeders outside.

6. How should I isolate the sick chicken to protect the rest of my flock?

A sick bird should be separated from the rest of the flock. Sometimes the purpose is as simple as preventing an injured bird from being pecked on. In other instances, careful segregation of all cleaning tools, feeding bowls, and even your shoes could be necessary, as they could spread the contagion. Ensure your doctor informs you of the appropriate level of precautions.

7. Can a state or university laboratory run these tests?

Food-animal-specific assays, such as chicken viral testing or testing for the levels of lead and other toxins, are often performed by state or university laboratories at a greatly discounted price compared to general veterinary lab companies. In fact, in some cases, the lab companies used by most dog and cat veterinarians just send samples to the state labs, but charge your vet and you more for doing so. Keep in mind, this is usually only a valid concern once specific causes are suspected. The initial screening tests, such as blood chemistry profiles, complete blood tests and X-rays are not typically available from these labs.


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