It can be tough to find a vet that has much experience in caring for sick poultry. Often, it falls on the homesteader or farmer to educate themselves about the most common diseases, preventing them, their symptoms, and the best course of treatment. Although we do everything we can to keep our birds healthy, disease and illness can still happen on the homestead, no matter how diligent you are. That being said, the healthier your chickens are, to begin with, the less likely they are to get sick or have sickness spread throughout the flock.
Keeping Your Chickens Healthy
The chickens on our farm are fed a varied diet that includes a high-quality, non-GMO layer pellet, fresh produce, and herbs from the garden in season, and rotated pasture foraging (we use an electric poultry net enclosure for this). They also get apple cider vinegar in their water, and granulated garlic sprinkled on their pellets daily and yogurt a couple times a week. In the winter time, I like to add in some black oil sunflower seeds along with non-GMO scratch grains and corn. They have free access to grit and oyster shell calcium at all times, but they rarely go for it. Sometimes, they get mealworms as a special treat. Keeping a clean coop and yard is also essential.
Preventing the Spread of Illness in Your Flock
In all the years I’ve had chickens, we have never had an infection spread through our flock. At the first sign of sickness, the bird in question is kept isolated from the rest of the flock and watched over carefully, and the coop is disinfected right away. The sick bird is only returned to the flock after 7 symptom-free days have passed.
Also, if you bring new poultry to your homestead, they should always be isolated for at least 14 days and observed for symptoms of illness before you begin introducing them to your existing flock. Be careful of bringing disease home with you from other farms on your shoes, clothing, and used equipment, as well. Cleanliness is crucial to preventing the spread of disease! Clean and disinfect everything that has been in contact with someone else’s birds before it goes near your flock.
Common Diseases and Symptoms
Learning how to spot the signs of illness is the first step in preventing it from spreading throughout the entire flock.
1. Infectious Coryza
Infectious coryza is sometimes called croup. One of my neighbors lost their entire flock of layers to this disease a few years ago, and it was horrible. They suspect that the disease came home with some hens they purchased from another local farmer. Here are some of the most common symptoms:
- Respiratory symptoms: wheezing, sneezing, coughing, raspy breathing, labored breathing
- Puffy face accompanied by nasal discharge and watery eyes
- Pale wattles and combs, possibly with a bluish tint
- Discontinued eating, drinking, and egg laying
Antibiotics are usually the recommended course of treatment, and they can sometimes be effective, but not always. Keeping your chickens healthy with a proper, varied diet improves chances of recovery. Isolate any bird that is showing symptoms immediately!
2. Fowl Pox
Many chickens recover from this disease, sometimes before the farmer even notices the symptoms. This disease is much like chicken pox in humans. The most apparent symptom is white lesions that look like blisters on the combs and wattles. Generally, the blisters will scab over and heal after a few weeks. However, in very severe cases, the blisters can appear in the mouth and throat. This can lead to breathing issues and difficulty eating and drinking, which can lead to death. There is a vaccine available for this disease, so that is an option. A healthy flock will often come through this one without the need for further treatment, but sometimes antibiotics are recommended. Separating any bird with symptoms is still a good idea for close observation and to help keep the disease contained.
3. Infectious Sinusitis
Infectious sinusitis can spread across all types of homestead poultry. The most common symptoms include:
- Swollen eyes and nose
- Coughing, sneezing, and difficulty breathing
- Nose and eye discharge
Some antibiotics can treat this disease successfully but keeping your flock as healthy as possible will increase the chances of recovery and lessen the spread of the disease.
4. Avian Influenza
Avian influenza has been in the news a lot in recent years, and for good reason. This disease can be carried and transmitted by any species of birds, including wild birds. It is spread in the feces and mucous of the infected animal. This disease is a virus, so antibiotics are no help in this case. Culling of the entire flock is usually required by law. Here are some of the most common symptoms:
- Sudden and unexplained death
- Purplish tint to the wattles, comb, and legs
- Lethargy and loss of desire to eat or drink
- Coughing, sneezing, and discharge from the nose and eyes
- Runny stool
- Staggering and the inability to stand
- Misshapen eggs or laying stops completely
Again, there is no known successful treatment for Avian Influenza. Prevention through cleanliness and a healthy diet will help your flock avoid infection.
5. Infectious Bronchitis
This is one of the more common diseases in backyard chickens, and we’ve had a few chickens come down with it over the years. The symptoms can range anywhere from quite mild to very severe and even fatal. Often, exposure comes from wildlife. These are the most common symptoms:
- Loss of appetite and desire to drink
- Nasal and eye discharge
- Respiratory distress
- Misshapen eggs or laying stops completely
- Scours (diarrhea)
There is a vaccine that can lessen the severity of this disease and improve chances of recovery, but it doesn’t prevent the infection itself. Antibiotics are usually recommended.
Caring for a Sick Chicken
First and foremost, isolate any chicken that shows signs of illness. Not only does this help to prevent the sickness from spreading, but it also protects the sick chicken from being bullied and picked on by the other chickens. It also allows you to observe the sick chicken closely and control its environment.
Hydration is crucial, so give water with a dropper if your chicken refuses to drink on its own. Consider offering an electrolyte and vitamin supplement for added support. If your chicken refuses to eat, you can crush their regular pellets and add warm water so that you can feed it with a dropper until your chicken starts eating on its own again.
Don’t introduce any new foods at this time. Keep your chicken warm and away from any drafts. Probiotics can also be helpful. Consult with a qualified vet or experienced chicken keeper to see if antibiotics are required, and if so which one. The Chicken Health Handbook, by Gail Damerow, is an excellent resource for any chicken owner, especially if there’s no qualified vet in your area. Once your chicken has been symptom-free for seven days, introduce her back to the flock slowly, just like you would a complete stranger.
Prevention is the best policy when it comes to illness on the farm. Practice good biosecurity and proper care from day one to prevent infectious disease in your flock.