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.
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.
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:
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.
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!