What Should You Do When A Chicken Gets Sick?

It's not uncommon for a chicken to become sick, and illness isn't a major catastrophe—though keepers do need to take a few precautions when a case arises.

by Ana Hotaling
PHOTO: Arisa Chattasa/Unsplash

In a perfect world, our chickens would go through life happily and healthfully. Sure, they might get a pecking-order peck every once in a while or a cut from a sharp rock. But aside from these minor types of injuries, our birds should enjoy long, content lives dustbathing, sunning, scratching and snoozing.

Unfortunately, as we are all too aware these days, illness exists in the world. And our flocks are sadly not impervious to microbes.

Mild varieties of rhinovirus—yes, a chicken can catch a cold—are the most common malady affecting sick birds. But there are many fungal, parasitic and viral diseases that target the avian population. For these reasons, it is highly recommended that poultry keepers practice backyard biosecurity—doing everything possible to protect your flock from disease.

According to Dr. R.M. Fulton, DVM, PhD, a Diplomate of the American College of Poultry Veterinarians, this includes:

  • limiting outside exposure and restricting access to your flocks
  • keeping your coop and run clean
  • vaccinating your birds (when possible) against such viral diseases such as Marek’s, Coccidiosis, Newcastle, Infectious Laryngotracheitis (ILT) and Infectious Bursal Disease (IBD).

However, Dr. Fulton notes that vaccines do not prevent infection. They prevent most clinical signs and death.

“Viruses will typically infect vaccinated birds,” Dr. Fulton explains. “The virus will multiply and be shed, but at a lower titer than non-vaccinated birds.” In other words, vaccines will help protect your chicken flock but will not necessarily keep them from becoming sick.

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Read more: Chicken colds are usually no big deal, but keep an eye out for these 5 dangerous poultry conditions.

Common Clinical Signs of Illness

Fortunately, most of the illnesses that affect chickens have similar symptoms. So it is relatively simple to tell that a chicken is sick.

Unfortunately, because these symptoms are common to multiple illnesses, it’s difficult to determine exactly what is affecting our chickens. If you find yourself concerned that a chicken might be sick, common clinical signs to look for include:

  • Lethargy
  • Drop in egg production
  • Diarrhea (possibly bloody or green)
  • Drooping wings
  • Tremors in the head and neck
  • Loss of appetite
  • Coughing/sneezing/gasping/nasal discharge
  • Paralysis/lack of movement

Preventing the Spread

Since chickens roost in close quarters, the possibility exists that, if one bird is sick, the rest of the flock may also carry the infection. Still, it is vital to control the contagion of whatever disease afflicts your chicken.

If you have a chicken that exhibits any of the symptoms listed above, take immediate steps to isolate the sick bird well away (at least 100 yards) away from the rest of your flock and away from any other animals you may have.

Your “hospital” does not have to be elaborate. You can use a pet crate, a Rubbermaid tote or a sturdy cardboard box. Ensure your bird’s comfort—after all, she’s not feeling well—by providing plenty of clean bedding, water and food (even if you haven’t noticed her eating or drinking), and a safe heat source to keep her warm.

When you do your morning and evening chicken chores, save her for your last stop so that you do not carry any microbes back to your other chickens. Make sure to put your work clothes in your dirties hamper. Disinfect your shoes, too, since bacteria and viruses can travel on clothing and footwear.

Be sure to wash your hands thoroughly, especially if you’ve handled the ailing bird.

Read more: Can chickens get coronavirus?! Well … yes and no. Read more about avian infection.

Medical Aid

Should your chicken not show any sign of improvement after 24 to 48 hours, you may wish to contact an avian or poultry veterinarian. If you live in a rural area, chances are that your local veterinary hospital has on-staff doctors that treat livestock and can assist you. If not, contact your local veterinarian.

They should be able to refer you to an avian or poultry veterinarian in your area.

Other options include contacting your local agricultural extension office or your state’s veterinary diagnostic laboratory. (Do an Internet search for your state’s name plus “veterinary diagnostic laboratory”.)

You can also contact the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) Veterinary Services Office, which operates a toll-free hotline staffed by veterinarians. There is no charge for this service. After all, it is in the USDA’s best interest to conduct a disease investigation to ensure that no serious poultry disease exists in your area.

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