Having Patients: How To Help A Sick Chicken

Every chicken keeper encounters an ailing bird or birds eventually. Follow these helpful and healthful recommendations to treat a sick chicken.

by Ana Hotaling
PHOTO: Shutterstock

Molly looked a little out of sorts all afternoon. While her friends romped around the backyard and enjoyed a snack of apple slices and sunflower seeds, Molly stood a little off to the side by herself, not eating or interacting with the others. Her energy level continued dropping throughout the afternoon, and by evening, she was listless. The sneezing started the next day. This was one sick chicken.

Seeking help, the owners of Molly, a Golden Laced Wyandotte, quickly discovered that most veterinary clinics consider chickens “exotics” and won’t treat them. Their concern about how to best care for Molly swiftly tripled as the rest of their backyard flock became symptomatic, sneezing every five seconds or so.

Having a sick chicken is a dilemma that every poultry keeper experiences at least once when raising a flock. Birds come down with colds, diarrhea, cruddy yellow-green discharge or other disorders from basic lethargy to an on-death’s-door gasping cough. With avian-medicine specialists rare, chicken owners are often left to rely on trial-and-error treatment approaches for their ailing birds. Reduce your own trials and tribulations—and provide relief to your under-the-weather feathered friend—by following these care recommendations.

Sickie Separation

If you suspect that something is not quite right with one of your birds, take the time to observe the chicken in question. If it exhibits any of the following symptoms, immediately separate it from the rest of your flock.

  • discharge of any color from the eyes and/
    or nostrils
  • watery or green diarrhea
  • coughing
  • gasping
  • sneezing
  • swelling around the eyes, neck, head or vent
  • poor appetite
  • a drop in egg production
  • loose, drooping feathers
  • atypical behavior (keeps to itself, hides, shows disinterest in its surroundings, displays a general malaise)

Separating the symptomatic bird will help keep the rest of your flock from also becoming ill. Separation will also prevent your other birds from bullying and attacking the sick chicken, as flock pecking orders can restructure as a result of a weakened member.

Enforced Isolation

Place your patient in a specially prepared quarantine pen where you can continue observing and caring for it. This pen shouldn’t be anywhere near your main flock. While most illnesses are passed through direct contact with the sick chicken or with its droppings, some illnesses, including Mycoplasma gallisepticum (a chronic respiratory disease in poultry), are airborne and can be spread via the sick bird’s coughs and sneezes. Maintain a minimum distance of 30 feet between the main flock and the quarantine pen to minimize contagion. If your flock free-ranges, take measures to ensure that your poultry can’t access your quarantine area.

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Time is also a crucial consideration. Separating an ailing hen for a few days, then returning her to the flock when nothing more noticeably serious develops could spell disaster for all of your chickens.

As inconvenient as quarantine might be, it’s literally vital to enforce a separation period of at least 30 days, with six weeks being preferable. This length of time allows for the sick chicken to be observed, diagnosed, treated, retested for illness and pronounced healthy and able to return to the flock. If other flock members start exhibiting the same symptoms, they will need to join your original patient in quarantine, and the countdown clock should be reset to 30 days each time a new invalid is added to the isolation pen.

sick chicken quarantine

Quarantine Pen

A quarantine pen doesn’t need to be elaborate or fancy. When one is needed, it’s usually an immediate necessity, with little time to plan for perches, nest boxes or other details. A dog kennel or plastic tote serves well; make sure that there is enough room for the sick bird to move around, as it will be living there for several weeks.

The pen should be open to ventilation so your sick chicken has fresh—not stuffy—air. Use the same type of litter or bedding and the same kind of waterer and feeder that you use in your coop. If your pen is indoors, provide artificial lighting if possible and heat to match the current conditions. The more familiar the quarantine pen feels, the less stressed your patient will feel.

Some chicken owners go so far as to position a radio nearby, tuned to a talk radio station to provide their sick bird with “company” so that it doesn’t feel lonely. Be sure to provide fresh water daily and fresh bedding frequently.

If your patient is a layer, collect eggs on a regular basis but dispose of the eggs until your hen is healthy and any medication is fully out of her system.

Unwelcome Visitors: Parasites

Once your bird is isolated, carefully inspect it in a well-lit area, checking under the wings, around the vent, along the eyes and on the legs for signs of lice and mites; for the nocturnal red mite (Dermanyssus gallinae), check after dark, looking for gray, bright-red and dark-red specks. A parasitic infestation can be easily treated with insecticide sprays and powders, such as -permethrin or diatomaceous earth. Contact your county extension office to confirm which treatment is best suited for your situation.

Your extension office can also recommend an appropriate treatment for worms, another common poultry parasite. The droppings of an infested bird often are riddled with worms that the naked eye can see, but in the case of gapeworm infestation, a bright light shined down the chicken’s throat will reveal this parasite, which resides in the bird’s trachea and causes the afflicted chicken to gape and gasp for breath.

If parasites are what plague your patient, contemplate treating all of your birds, not just the sick chicken you’ve quarantined. Parasitic infestations spread like wildfire throughout a flock, and it’s quite possible that your other birds are infested. Your coop should be thoroughly cleaned and an insecticide powder applied to all surfaces. Remember to treat your flock first, then treat the quarantined bird. Continue quarantine for at least two more weeks in order to rule out any other type of disease that might be affecting your chicken.

Sickness Or Something Else?

While droopy feathers and lack of interaction with flockmates can be signs of illness in a chicken, they are also indicative of something else: a bullied bird. If your patient begins to perk up after being quarantined for two to four days, you might very well be dealing with your chicken’s mental health rather than its physical wellbeing. Watch for these signals that your bird is a victim of bullying, not bacteria.

  • alert and interested in its surroundings
  • eating with a good appetite
  • normal droppings
  • feathers held tightly together, with an upright carriage

Resolving a bullied-bird situation can be more difficult than dealing with sick animals, as putting your persecuted poultry back with its pack means returning it to its tormentors. The most effective alternative—and often the only one—is to rehome the bird to a new flock where it can make friends instead of foes.

Pinpointing The Problem

If, after careful observation and examination, you still can’t determine what is wrong with your bird—and if the bird shows no sign of improvement or visibly worsens—contact your state’s animal diagnostic laboratory. Animal diagnostic labs are usually located on the campus of a state’s land-grant university; your county extension office should have the phone number handy.

Oftentimes, you’ll need to provide the lab with a stool sample from the ailing animal so that tests can be run for evidence of worms or bacteria; occasionally, the lab will want to examine the ailing bird firsthand. The animal scientists can then counsel you on the proper course of action to take with your bird and, if necessary, with your flock.

Biosecure Care

While a bird is in quarantine, you must take special precautions to ensure there is no further spread of disease and to make certain that you aren’t the unwitting carrier of the illness at hand.

  • Always take care of your healthy flock first, and then attend to your isolated chicken.
  • Do not wear the same clothes and shoes you wore while tending to your sick bird back out to your healthy flock.
  • Thoroughly disinfect your shoes or boots with a solution of 3⁄4 cup bleach to 1 gallon of water, using a scrub brush to fully clean the footwear. This should be done after each interaction with your quarantined bird.
  • Fully sanitize your hands after handling your sick bird.
  • Designate a specific waterer and feeder for use in the quarantine pen and provide your patient with the same food and water as the rest of your flock to avoid causing your bird undue stress.
  • Clean the waterer and feeder frequently and fully disinfect them with the bleach solution once quarantine is over, but never use this equipment in your main run.

Once isolation is over, you’ll need to thoroughly clean and disinfect the quarantine pen. Don’t use the pen for any other purpose, such as a brooder or temporary home for new flock additions.
With some dedicated care-giving, appropriate treatment and a great deal of patience, your feathered patient should eventually rejoin its flock and happily continue pursuing a life of dust baths, scratching and play. When quarantine sadly ends with the death of the sick chicken, your state animal scientists can best guide you regarding what procedures to follow to ensure your flock’s health.

Molly’s owners have since built a special quarantine pen inside their pole barn, well away from their chicken run. They also built a separate new-bird isolation area, where Molly will spend a minimum of 30 days before joining her new flockmates with a clean bill of health.

This story originally appeared in the July/August 2017 issue of Chickens.

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