Health Checks

It’s not difficult to tell when a hen is sick. She’ll be hunched up and miserable-looking. It’s unlikely she’ll be interested in eating anything, even her favourite treats.

Unfortunately, by the time she gets to this stage she’ll be very sick indeed. Chickens hide illness well, as weakness invites attacks from the others.

If you spend time with your chickens it becomes easier to recognise the small changes that can indicate a problem brewing. Quick action at this point can prevent or minimise losses.

Daily Checks

Give your chickens a quick once over when you open the hen house in the morning. They should be keen to come out and take their turns at the feeder. As you watch them queuing for breakfast, run through the following checklist:

  • Any obvious physical problems: injuries, trailing wings, limping?

Chickens are attracted to blood, so always remove any bird that is bleeding.

  • Attitude: should be bright and alert – are there any signs of bullying or feather-pecking?
  • Eating and drinking: is any hen not interested in food, or drinking more than normal?
  • Feathers: glossy and unbroken (unless in moult).
  • Combs: firm and red (youngsters and moulting birds naturally have paler combs). A purple comb suggests heart or circulatory problems.
  • Respiratory problems: any watery eyes, snuffles, or rasping breath?
  • Crop (the pouch at the base of the neck where food is stored): should be empty before the bird eats. A bulging crop could indicate a blockage.
  • Droppings: a normal dropping is firm, dark brown and white. One in ten is sloppier and foamy.

This may seem a lot to think about first thing in the morning, but it soon becomes habit and only takes a few moments. Take your early cuppa down to the hen house with you!

How to tell if a hen is sick or broody

A hen is sitting in the nest-box looking dazed. She doesn’t want to come out for breakfast, certainly isn’t alert, her feathers are all puffed up and her comb is pale. She’s not scoring well on the checklist, but before you phone the vet make sure she’s not just broody.

When approached, a broody hen often squeals or ‘growls’ angrily. Her breast will feel hot, and she may have pulled out some feathers.

Pick her up. She will usually be too preoccupied to peck, but wear gloves if necessary! Place her gently on the ground. After a few seconds, she should come back to life and race to the feeder. She’ll carry on as normal for a while, before hurrying back to the nest-box. You almost certainly have a broody hen!

If you pick up a sick hen, she’ll either stay where you put her or shuffle off to hide somewhere else.

Closer Inspections

For a full picture you need to get close up and personal with your chickens. Try to do this weekly – it needn’t take long, but could save you heartache as well as vet’s fees.

First catch your chicken. Never chase chickens – a large landing net is the best way to capture unwilling birds. Otherwise wait until they’re roosting.

Now give each hen the following once-over:

Weight

Like baggy clothes, feathers disguise a multitude of sins. If you pick up your hens regularly, you’ll get to know whether they are lighter or heavier than usual.

Feel the breastbone: sharpness indicates weight loss. This could be due to worms, illness or maybe bullying.

A breastbone hidden under fat suggests your girl needs to lay off the treats! Fat chickens aren’t healthy and don’t lay eggs.

Injuries or swellings

Look for any minor cuts or lumps.

Eyes, ears, nose and vent

All should be clean with no discharge. Check for clear breathing with no rattling noises.

The crop

A full firm crop in a bird that hasn’t eaten recently could be impacted (blocked).   This prevents food from passing into the digestive system, so it’s serious and needs help from a vet. Bad-smelling breath is a sign of sour crop, a fungal infection which also needs the vet’s attention.

Under the feathers

Part the feathers to check for lice and mites. Key areas are around the vent, under the wings and on top of the head (including ear canals). White clumps stuck to feather shafts are lice eggs, while a greasy black mass is northern fowl mite. Treat both flock and housing.

(Red mite live in the hen house, rarely on the birds themselves.)

Legs and feet

Raised scales are a sign of scaly leg mite, while a swelling under the foot could be ‘bumblefoot,’ caused by an infected injury. Both conditions require prompt treatment.

If lumps of mud have set like concrete around the feet, don’t try to pull them off – soak them with warm, soapy water.

Trim overgrown nails.

Now give your feathered friend a small tit-bit as a reward, even if she hasn’t been particularly co-operative – with any luck she’ll be more obliging next time!

6 Responses to Health Checks

  1. Ruth says:

    So I am wondering why my 7 chickes have almost stopped laying eggs. They are not old and they were laying and its May. Could it be mites or lice? How do I treat for lice and mites? What else could it be? The chickens go to their home at night and we close them. we did just have a couple of days of good rain…so wonder again… what do you recommend??

    • Keeping Chickens says:

      Difficult to say really, they can stop for a load of different reasons. You can check the coop for red mites, check you are not over-feeding your chickens (see my page on feeding chickens) there is also a post on poultrykeeper.com called ‘Why have my chickens stopped laying’ which may help.

  2. Andy says:

    I’m new to keeping chickens and have inherited 8 after moving into a house where the previous owner just deserted them. Everything has been going fine until just recently where 2 chickens have lost feathers round their back ends. The exposed skin looks red and uncomfortable. I have checked for Red Mite in the hen house and been cleaning them out regularly. Plus also following all the stuff around feeding etc. Now one of the hens with the feathers missing is looking rather under the weather and has other feathers elsewhere missing too. Any advice on what the problem is will be much appreciated.

    • Keeping Chickens says:

      The ‘red skin’ or ‘red bottoms’ is normal – don’t worry about that unless the skin is broken. Their skin is naturally very red there and you can see this when parting the feathers of healthy birds.

      At this time of year, they are likely to be moulting – this is normal and new feathers will grow back. For the missing feathers around the bottoms, it would be useful to watch to see how they are losing them. There can be a number of reasons. For example – they are feather picking / over preening themselves, or doing it to one another, or just one culprit.

      Sometimes they will pick and eat their own feathers (which are high in protein) because they are under fed, or pick up a bad habit / vice if they are in a small run but sometimes it can be over-preening because of lice or Northern Fowl Mite. Very ocassionally it can be depluming mite which are hard to detect.

      I would examine their bottoms for lice eggs – these are white and well disguised. They are stuck to the base of the feather shafts around the vent and look almost like rounded sugar cubes.

      There are some pictures and more information here:

      https://poultrykeeper.com/external-problems/lice-on-chickens-and-poultry/

      https://poultrykeeper.com/external-problems/northern-fowl-mite/

  3. Sarah says:

    Hi, I have two hens – a Mendlesham Ranger and a Fenning Black. Both have been fine until a couple of weeks back the Mendlesham Ranger lost some of her feathers at the tops of her legs and under her chest. No sign of bites or mites and feathers – possibly self plucking. Look like they are slowly regrowing now. This morning she has been slow to come down from the roost, not really eating or drinking much. More interested in perching with her eyes closing. Cone is still red and tail up. The Fenning Black appears fine. I’ve been recommended to use some Chicken Shield which I shall do – but not sure if this is a case of lice/ mites – any other suggestions most welcome with thanks.

    • Keeping Chickens says:

      I’m not sure – but I would check her around the vent for clumps of lice eggs (they are attached at the base of the feather shaft and white in colour) and look for lice crawling quickly on her skin.
      They will pick at feathers for a few different reasons – lack of protein (check your feeding), irritation from lice / mites, but if it’s one hen then I would also try to watch what is happening because the other may be doing the pecking.

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