The day you brought home those day-old chicks seems like only yesterday. So tiny and cute, they quickly worked their way into your heart. Since that time, you watched them grow up and lay their first eggs. After those first eggs came along, eight years passed and your hens made another change: They entered the world of senior citizenship.
As a hen ages, she has an increased risk of developing certain reproductive disorders such as ovarian cancer, egg yolk peritonitis and other deadly reproductive disorders. However, reproductive disorders aren’t the only health conditions aging hens face. Arthritis, loss of vision and hearing, and a more challenging annual molt are all common conditions for elder chickens.
This article will discuss six of the often overlooked health concerns in aging hens and how you can help your hens live their best lives in their golden years. Note that this article isn’t intended to diagnose, treat or cure any health issues in aged hens. If you notice any changes in behavior in your older hens, take them to a licensed veterinarian that specializes in poultry.
An orthopedic condition causing joint inflammation, arthritis can affect older chickens, causing pain, joint damage and loss of joint function. Signs that your hen may be suffering from arthritis include:
- decreased movement
- swollen joints
Arthritic chickens should be checked regularly to ensure that they’re staying free from external parasites. Insecticides may be used to treat infestations, but not all insecticides are legal for use on birds in all states. Some may only be used in the coop or surrounding environment. The University of California, Riverside, department of veterinary entomology hosts a searchable database for registered insecticides by state that may be helpful in identifying products you can use.
Another alternative is providing a food-grade diatomaceous earth dust bath. The most effective way to use DE is to mix about 6 cups with approximately 25 pounds of washed play sand in a plastic container, such as a swimming pool or cement-mixing bin.
Simply dusting the birds or the environment is not enough. The birds must dust bathe in it and get the DE into their feathers.
If any of your aging hens suffers from arthritis in the legs, gently rub her legs, feet and toes in between your thumb and fingers. Gently massaging her sore legs and feet may provide some relief for her aching joints and allow her to move around less stiffly. Massage your hen each morning before allowing her out into the run.
Bear in mind that arthritic legs are prone to give out and could cause a hen to trip or fall. Never allow an elderly chicken to perch if she is having mobility issues. Removing perches and any tripping obstacles—excluding waterers and feeders—from the coop and run will help to lessen the chances of older hens falling.
Never allow your arthritic hens to free-range unless directly supervised. (This means that you’re right there with them, not going out on occasion to check on them or looking out your window.) In general, elderly chickens—especially those suffering from arthritis—can’t move as quickly as younger hens and could more easily become a victim of a predator attack.
On cold winter nights, chickens tuck their heads under their wings to sleep to protect combs and wattles from frostbite. Arthritis in the neck may prevent aging hens from being able to tuck their heads under a warm wing, leaving combs and wattles exposed to cold conditions and developing a greater risk of frostbite.
The best way to prevent frostbite is to rub combs and wattles with some coconut or olive oil when temperatures dip below 30 degrees F. On exceptionally cold nights, consider moving elderly chickens into the garage or basement. When housing chickens in a garage, never leave your car running when they’re in there and that all doors, windows and drains are properly shut or covered to avoid predators from entering.
Signs of Frostbite
The main sign of frostbite is ale color spots on combs and wattles that will turn black as the skin and infected tissues die.
If you suspect your chicken has frostbite, take them to a licensed veterinarian for treatment, as frostbite can often cause a secondary infection of gangrene.
As hens age, the chances of them developing cataracts increase, leading to poor vision and often blindness. If your chicken is exhibiting one or more of the following symptoms, they may be suffering from poor eyesight or blindness.
- bumping into objects
- pecking the air
- seeming confused in their normal environment
- reduced activity
- enlarged or irregular shaped pupils
- cloudiness or discolorations in the eyes or pupils
Blind chickens’ needs vary a little from chickens with healthy eyesight. Here is a list of things to keep in mind when dealing with blind chickens.
- Always talk to your blind chicken before you pet it or pick it up, to avoid scaring it.
- Never allow a blind chicken to free-range, even if you directly supervise them.
- While all chickens should have access to a completely covered and predator-proof coop and run, it’s even more crucial for blind chickens.
- Never change the layout of your coop and run. Always keep waterers, feeders and nesting boxes at the same location.
- If your blind hen is still laying, provide it with a ground nesting box it can easily access.
- Monitor flock hierarchy to ensure a blind chicken isn’t being bullied.
- Monitor your hen’s weight to make sure she gets enough to eat. Also, watch her frequently to make sure she can find her way to the waterer to drink.
As chickens age, their hearing can deteriorate. Deaf chickens usually live normal lives. But owners should keep a few precautions in mind.
- Always approach a deaf chicken face on to avoid scaring it, as sudden movement can frighten a hearing-impaired bird.
- Never allow deaf chickens to free-range, even when directly supervised.
- Clinical signs of deafness include being scared by sudden movement and not responding to sounds that would normally cause a chicken to react.
A chicken’s annual molt is traumatic for each hen in the flock. But for aging hens, it’s an extremely difficult time. If you have ever picked up your hen when she is molting, you have probably noticed that she has lost quite a bit of her normal body weight. This is a natural part of molting, as a hen’s food intake usually decreases during a molt. All the food she does eat is converted into making new feathers.
Younger chickens’ higher hormone levels help them to bounce back quickly from the molt and regain weight loss. However, for older birds recovering from a molt isn’t as easy as it was in their younger years. Older hens also seem to feel sicker during a molt and will sometimes even refuse to eat.
If your hen stops eating, take her to a veterinarian to make sure her molt is the only health concern. Clinical signs include excessive feather loss.
With a little extra TLC, an elderly hen will usually recover from a molt and regain her normal body weight. The best way to help your hen recover is to feed her high-protein treats and herbs in moderation during and for several weeks after her molt is completed. High protein treats and herbs include broccoli, peas, wheat berries, old-fashioned oats, black soldier fly larvae, fennel, parsley and marjoram.
Avoid feeding bread, corn, pasta and mealworms.
After your hen has completed her molt and regained her normal body weight, slowly reduce her treat intake until her diet is back in sync with the rest of the flock. Adding probiotics daily to your chickens’ water can also help all your chickens recover more quickly from their molt.
Chickens are flock creatures who thrive on being with other chickens. From day one, your chicks have formed a bond that will build as they mature. Over the course of their lives, most chickens raised together will become inseparable.
Loneliness often occurs after your aging hen loses her best friend, especially if she is the lone remainder of her original flock. Some older chickens will bond quickly with their younger flock mates, never seeming to miss a beat over the change in their lives. Unfortunately, other chickens do not.
Trying to help your hen form a bond with the younger members of the flock is the best way to help her get past her loneliness. Oftentimes, you won’t need to help her find a new friend, as younger hens in the flock will realize she is alone and start hanging out with her.
Spending extra time with your hen and providing her with extra treats or fun mental stimulations can also help your hen overcome her loneliness. Signs of loneliness include:
- refusing to participate in normal activities
- refusing to eat or drink
- not wanting to leave her best friend’s favorite sunny spot, etc.
- hiding in a nesting box or other dark place
Most of these symptoms can be signs of illness, too. If your hen is showing any of these symptoms, take her to a licensed veterinarian to make sure she isn’t sick.
Although aging hens are more prone to health issues than younger hens, with some extra vigilance from you, they can still live full and enriched lives.
No one wants to think about it, but the time will come when we have to say goodbye to our aging hens. If one passes away peacefully in her sleep, you’re left with the peace of mind that it was her time. However, if your chicken is suffering from pain, cancer or heart problems, the kind thing to do is to end her suffering with humane euthanasia performed by a licensed veterinarian.
Making the decision to end your hen’s or rooster’s life is never an easy decision to make. But sometimes, it’s the best thing for your feathered friend. Before making this important decision, ask yourself the following questions.
- Is my chicken having more good days or bad days?
- Is there a reasonable chance my chicken’s health could severely decline, leading to suffering?
- Is my chicken drinking and eating?
- Is there a reasonable chance my chicken is going to recover?
- Be honest with yourself when answering these questions. You don’t want to make the mistake of allowing your chicken to suffer. Ask your veterinarian’s opinion—he or she will help you make the right choice for you and your chicken.
Roosters age just like hens and are prone to the same nonegg-
related health issues that are common in backyard hens. Being more prone to squabbles than hens, elderly roosters have a greater risk of being bullied or even killed by younger roosters trying to take over the flock.
To prevent the older males from being injured, avoid housing them with younger, more aggressive, roosters.
This article originally appeared in the January/February 2023 issue of Chickens magazine.