If you keep your chickens in good conditions and feed them well, then they should reward you by staying healthy. Sometimes they do get sick – and it is very difficult to diagnose what is wrong with poultry. Few vets specialise in them and if you find one that does, you are lucky. Keeping them warm and hoping they recover is about all you can do.
However, there are a few additional things that you can do on a regular basis to promote good health.
The first of these is to ensure that your poultry housing is dry and well ventilated. In my opinion, many small hen houses are not ventilated well enough and need extra holes drilling around the top of them. Chickens do not like to be in a draft; but lack of ventilation encourages bronchial complaints.
It is an inescapable fact that if your birds are outside and in contact with wild birds, then they will get parasites and diseases from them. But if they have a strong immune system and are well fed and housed, they should, mostly, be able to fight disease off themselves.
You can add various things to your chickens’ food and water to promote health and wellbeing – cider vinegar, poultry spice and similar. Many people do swear by them.
- Cider vinegar is a general pick-me up that you can put in the water. It is supposed to be good for the immune system and help prevent worms / balance the digestive system. It also has the added benefit of helping to keep the water fresh.
- Garlic can be given in powdered form, or you can add a couple of crushed cloves to the drinker. Again, this is supposed to help with general health.
- Poultry Spice and similar things can be added to the feed – they are a general vitamin and mineral tonic. Many people use them in the breeding season or if their chickens have been poorly.
I am not a vet or an expert in poultry ailments and this is really just a starting point. There are many books out there that specialise in the health and diseases of poultry and I would recommend reading one of them – Victoria Robert’s ‘Diseases of Freerange Poultry’ is particularly good. Also, find a poultry-friendly vet before you actually need one, ‘just in case’.
- Worms. Worm regularly – even if you don’t think your birds have worms. You can buy various proprietary worming pellets that are added to the food for a run of a few days every so often. If you don’t have a worm problem, you don’t need to worm them every month – but every three months or so is a good preventative. Flubenvet is a powder that many people use – for five days at a time mixed in to the food. You can also buy layers pellets with it ready-mixed in. Some people also use one millilitre of ‘Ecover’ washing up liquid per gallon of water. The surfactant in it breaks down the worm casings inside the birds and deals with the worms without harming the birds at all.
- Red mite. Red mite are tiny blood-sucking parasites that live in chicken houses and come out at night to feed on your birds.If your chickens are reluctant to go to bed at night and seem to be a bit off colour, it might be that you have them. They can live for a long time without chickens to feed off, so a second hand house might have them; or you might buy in birds with a small mite population that gets worse. You can check the birds’ feathers to see if they have a mite or louse problem and you may see them around the bottom of their trousers, just at the top of their legs. You can get various generic ‘mite and louse’ powders or sprays and if you have an outbreak of mites you will need to dust or spray each chicken and disinfect all the nooks and crannies of the house where they hide. I tend to include a couple of table-spoonfuls of mite and louse powder with their clean bedding every month or so, as a preventative – this works well for me, as the birds like to dust-bath in their house. Creosote or a blow-torch are other very satisfying ways to get rid of mites. If you are going to use both, remember to do the blow-torching first to avoid setting the house on fire! Pay particular attention to under the roofing felt if you use it – it harbours the mites.Other things many people do include putting a drop of ‘frontline’ cat/dog flea treatment under each wing every few months. This is NOT a medicine that is prescribed for chickens and it is also an organophosphate, which means that in large quantities it can cause cancer. Chickens don’t live long enough for that to be a problem. But I, personally, wouldn’t be happy to be eating meat or eggs from birds that had had it applied to them regularly. It is useful thing to know about if you are desperate, though.The ‘red mite’ season seems to be the wet and warm periods of the year. Cleaning the house thoroughly, splooshing Jeyes Fluid about in all the cracks and crevices of the house and sticking vaseline around the ends of your perches – so the mites get stuck in it when they come out to feed on the birds at night – is my preferred method of control at the moment.
- Scaly Leg is caused by a parasitic mite that burrows under the leg-scales and makes the leg look crusty. It is infectious and needs dealing with as if untreated it can result in permanent lameness. There are various methods of treating – one successful way is to immerse the legs in surgical spirit once a week for a few weeks and scrub gently with an old toothbrush. The mites will be killed and when the bird moults brand new, clean leg-scales should grow in again. If one bird is showing symptoms, you will need to treat all of them and disinfect your housing. Again, if in any doubt, seek advice from your vet. It probably goes without saying that Scaly Leg doesn’t happen spontaneously – it needs to be imported in somehow and is something to keep an eye out for when you are buying birds.Other methods include smothering the legs with vaseline to suffocate the mites, various proprietary sprays and the VERY old fashioned method of painting on creosote, which I have read about in old books but never heard of anyone I know of still using. ‘Frontline’ spray is used by people sometimes in cases which seem to be difficult to get rid of, with the same reservations set out earlier in the ‘red mite’ section.Some birds seem to be prone to scaley leg – the feathered-leg breeds in particular, because the feathers harbour the mites; but individual birds in a flock sometimes seem to have it all the time whilst their flock-mates are clean.
- Egg binding is when an egg forms inside the hen and she can’t pass it. Symptoms are being generally ‘off colour’, being hunched up and miserable and, of course, no eggs. If you examine her, you should be able to feel whether the oviduct is soft and empty or hard and full of egg. You may be able to massage the egg free, or you might have to break it inside her to get it out. If the latter, you must make sure that you get all the bits of egg out, otherwise she may get an infection. If in any doubt, seek advice from your vet.
- Mycoplasma is a very infectious disease of poultry that is spread by them sneezing, often in to their water. It is pretty common in all flocks as a sort of ‘background’ disease that comes out when the birds are stressed, overcrowded, a bit run down (from something like red mite, worms or scaley leg) or in poorly ventilated housing. As you can see from the photo to the right, the sinuses and face can get very swollen. The eyes sometimes get ‘gummed up’ or have clear, soapy bubbles in the corners and they can have a runny nose. They also exhibit a classic ‘rattle’ in their breathing and can ‘gape’ for breath, stretching the head and neck in the air and opening their mouth. There is also supposed to be a classic unpleasant smell about suffers.There are various different variants of the disease, so they might not exhibit all the symptoms. Treatment is usually antibiotics – Tylan or Baytril are the most common and need to be got on prescription and either syringed down sufferers or put in their water. Respite Poultry Tonic, Herban and Collodial Silver are also treatments that can be used.
I would also recommend having a long, hard look at whether, if it came down to it, you could despatch a poorly chicken. If you keep stock, you have a responsibility to them; and that includes being prepared to end their lives if there is nothing more that can be done for them. If you know that you wouldn’t be able to do it yourself, then find someone who could, who is willing to help you. You will more than likely never need to – but it’s not the kind of thing you want to be having to have first-thoughts about if you have a sick bird that you know is suffering and needs dealing with.
- Birds that free-range will inevitably come in to contact with parasites and diseases from the wild bird population
- Worm regularly, even if you think they don’t have worms
- Keep an eye out for ‘red mite’ and ‘Scaley Leg’ – splash Jeyes Fluid about every so often when you clean the house and consider mixing a bit of mite and louse powder with their bedding occasionally
- Tonics, Poultry Spice etc. can also be used to promote health
- Find a vet who is good with chickens BEFORE you need one
- Consider how you would deal with a bird that needed to be despatched BEFORE you need to do it
- Lack of adequate ventilation can cause bronchial problems and mycoplasma- often small poultry houses are very poorly ventilated. Consider drilling more holes at the top of the house
- A good book on poultry ailments is Victoria Robert’s ‘Diseases of Freerange Poultry’