North America has experienced an onslaught of extreme weather these past few months. From torrential rain causing severe floods to record highs causing shellfish to be cooked alive on Pacific-coast seashores, Mother Nature has hammered at us almost nonstop. Most of us humans have the option to retreat to the comfort of an air-conditioned, dehumidified home. But our chickens aren’t as lucky when it comes to heat.
Sunny’s Bad Day
Case in point: my friend Kara contacted me last week, asking for help. One of her neighbors, a friend who had started his backyard flock earlier this year, has a hen, Sunny, who was acting sick. Of course I bombarded her with questions to pass along:
- Was Sunny isolated from the rest of her flock?
- Did anyone else exhibit symptoms?
- Was she eating/drinking/pooping/laying normally?
- Was there discharge from her nostrils?
- What did her throat look like?
- What behaviors was Sunny exhibiting?
From the answers: yes, isolated; no other chicken was ill; no discharge; throat clear; not laying; just sitting alone, ruffled, droopy, not really eating/pooping/laying, and actively gasping.
After a quick check at the forecast in Kara’s part of the country, I concluded that poor Sunny was suffering from heat stress. That’s the chicken equivalent of heat exhaustion.
Mind you, I’m not a veterinarian. But I have raised chickens for a long time and have seen for myself what happens during the often sweltering Michigan summers.
Heat stress occurs when extreme heat and humidity make it almost impossible for chickens to regulate their core body temperature. If left untreated, it can result in death. If your chickens exhibit symptoms of heat stress, consider taking the following four steps.
Isolate the Symptomatic
Many chicken illnesses manifest the same symptoms:
- fluffed-out feathers
For the sake of the rest of your flock as well as for your ailing bird, isolate your sick chick. Use a kennel, a hard-sided animal carrier, a chicken tractor, even a large cardboard box inside a cool area of a barn or garage and give her plenty of clean shaving to nestle down in.
To encourage rest and to buffer her from disruptive sights and sounds, drape her temporary quarters with a large towel or sheet. In the evening, when it’s cooler, offer her a small bowl of layer crumbles or a warm mash, which will be easier to eat than pellets.
If you have an old stuffed animal — not a scary one! — put that in to keep her company.
Provide your bird with cool, fresh water mixed with poultry-specific electrolytes. These are available at your local farm-supply store or through online sites such as Amazon. Follow the instructions carefully to offer the correct dosage for the amount of water.
Electrolytes replenish essential minerals such as potassium, sodium, phosphorus and magnesium, which chickens lose when suffering from heat stress. Continue offering her electrolytes for several days.
To be safe, offer the rest of your flock cool, fresh electrolytes on—or right before—days of extreme heat and humidity to help protect them from heat stress.
Being out of the heat will make a big difference in your ailing chicken’s condition. Should she not show any signs of improvement after 24 hours, check the air temperature and humidity inside the building temporarily providing her shelter.
You may need to open windows to create air flow and add fans to get the air circulating. Evaluate the air flow in your chicken coop, too. You may need to add more ventilation to help dissipate the heat and humidity inside the henhouse.
Add Additional Shade
Take a long, hard look at your chickens’ run … and at your yard, should you free range. Are there any shady spots in which your birds can seek relief from the sun? An easy way to add shade to a run is by planting shrubs or trees within or outside the enclosure.
A weighted table—one that won’t blow over on a windy day—is another alternative.
Several of our chickens escape the heat by snoozing under the table in their run, which doubles as a shelter for their feed. Shade can also be created by securely attaching a small tarp or wooden panel to the run’s fencing.
Just make sure you are not interrupting the flow of air when you install these.
Kara reported back a few days later that my “prescription” worked and that Sunny is back to her old self and back with her flock, which was great news! We’re not even halfway through summer, however, so I hope Kara’s friend —and all of us chicken owners — will be prepared for more weather extremes to come.