From the time they emerge from their eggs and throughout their adult lives, chickens can develop a variety of common problems. But don’t let the fear of any of these conditions deter you from the fulfilling pursuit of raising chickens for meat and eggs. Most often, when conditions in the brooder, coop and foraging ground are kept reasonably clean, the chickens will enjoy a life of very few problems, predation being the main concern. However, it’s nice to be prepared in the rare instance that your birds do in fact face a health condition that you, the steward, need to treat.
Curled toes in baby chicks appear as a clubbed foot. If both feet have curled toes, it is most likely from a vitamin deficiency passed on from the mother hen. On the other hand, curled toes that occur only on one foot usually develop from an injury during the hatching process or while in the brooder.
• Add poultry vitamins and electrolytes to their water supply. Follow the packaging directions.
• Gently straighten the curled toes and splint them by placing their foot into the padded portion of a Band-Aid and securing the sticky portion of the Band-Aid to the top of the foot.
Chicks with splayed legs have difficulty standing, and their leg juts out to the side. Common causes of splayed leg include issues during incubation, trauma, nutritional deficiencies, and slippery bedding in the hatching tray or brooder.
• Add poultry vitamins and electrolytes to the drinking water.
• Change the brooder bedding to paper towels covered with pine shavings for the first couple of weeks.
• Try splinting the legs together with rubber bands, fabric tape, and so forth.
Baby chicks can develop a condition called “pasty butt” or “pasting up,” which occurs when droppings remain attached to their vents. The droppings dry and cake onto the vent’s opening, preventing the chick from passing any other droppings. Pasty butt can be life threatening and can occur while chicks are in transit from the hatchery as well as during their first few weeks of life. Some breeds are more prone to pasty butts than others. If chicks continue to have pasty butt, consider changing to a higher quality chick feed.
• The dried-on dropping will need to be removed. Moisten a paper towel with warm water and gently wet and loosen the droppings. Do not pull. Gently clean the vent area of all droppings. Dry the chick and apply a bit of triple antibiotic ointment to the vent. Be sure to check on this chick and the others to ensure the issue resolves.
Managing the crop
A chicken’s crop is located in the middle of the breast. A full, normal crop feels round and about the size of a golf ball. It is soft and non-tender. It should not be hard. If the crop is empty, it will feel “deflated” and you might even feel a bit of grit inside. Crops can become sour, impacted or pendulous. If your chicken has crop issues, it will appear ill. It will stop eating, isolate itself, and appear lethargic.
Editor’s note: In 35 years of raising chickens, I’ve never experienced any crop issues with my birds, so don’t be surprised if your flock’s crops are fine.
Causes and symptoms
Impacted Crop: Crops can become impacted from eating long blades of grass, hay or straw, tough meat, foreign objects, or from infection. The crop will feel firm, tender to touch, and enlarged — some might even become as large as a tennis ball.
To test if the crop is impacted, put your chicken to roost at night without access to food. First thing in the morning before feeding, feel the chicken’s crop. It should be empty. If it still feels about the same, help move things along. Usually when a crop is enlarged, the first thing to do is to withhold water for the first 12 hours, and food for the first 24. You need that crop emptied for any treatment to work, and adding volume to the clog isn’t going to help.
• Feed the chicken only soft bread soaked in olive oil and fresh water.
• Avoid table scraps, hay, long grass, seeds and the like until the problem is better.
• If treatment is unsuccessful in a couple of days, contact a veterinarian to help empty the crop mechanically, or you could cull birds that get chronic crop problems because of eating odd forage.
Sour Crop: The chicken’s breath smells fermented and yeasty, and the crop may be enlarged. Sour crop can be caused by fungal infection resulting from impacted crop, recent use of antibiotics, delayed crop emptying, or worms.
• Withhold food and water, and see if the crop empties.
• Next, try acidifying the digestive tract by adding 1 tablespoon of apple cider
vinegar per gallon to the drinking water.
• Add probiotics to the chicken’s drinking water to help the healthy bacterial flora return to normal.
• If the above treatments don’t work, seek veterinary assistance for evaluation and possible antifungal medication.
Pendulous Crop: Pendulous crop, which can be chronic, is caused by a lack of muscle strength, possibly from a previously impacted crop or from heavy food. The crop will dangle toward the ground.
Let the crop rest for a period of 24 hours and only give the chicken water. Then reintroduce chicken feed with plenty of grit and water.
Chickens occasionally develop the habit of eating eggs, and it can be difficult to fix. Causes are not clearly known, but it may stem from boredom, curiosity or nutritional deficiencies. Some folks have limited success reversing this behavior by offering layer feed with at least 16-percent protein along with a reliable calcium source, such as crushed oyster shell (be careful using oyster shell if anyone in your family has a shellfish allergy) or limestone. Collect eggs frequently, and never toss broken or cracked eggs into the run for the chickens to eat.
• Clean up broken eggs and egg-soiled bedding immediately.
• Prevent boredom, and provide adequate space for the flock.
• Keep nesting boxes dark, and the bedding a few inches deep.
• Use special nesting boxes that make eggs inaccessible to hens after eggs are laid.
• Set a trap for your egg-eating chickens: Empty an egg and fill it with mustard.
• Try giving your flock a bit of milk.
• Remove the egg eater from the flock.
Most hens have the ability to go broody. However, some breeds are more likely than others. During broody periods, hens will typically stop laying eggs, and sit on the nest, only leaving one to two times per 24-hour period to eat, drink, and eliminate waste. The average broody cycle lasts three weeks. Some folks use broody hens as nature’s incubators, while others find the reduced egg production to be unacceptable.
• Let broodiness run its course, which is approximately three weeks.
• Be sure the hen has food and water in close proximity.
• Try harvesting eggs more frequently to curtail this behavior.
Keeping a flock of backyard chickens is an incredibly rewarding experience. Unfortunately, problems may arise at some point in your chicken-keeping days. The keys to a healthy flock are proper nutrition, good hygiene — including a clean coop and foraging ground — and regular observation. Prevention is always the best place to start to avoid and minimize these problems in the first place. With proper care and attention, you’ll likely steward your flock from baby to adult with little to no problems. So what’s the holdup? A healthy backyard flock is right up your alley.
Read more: Learn how to improve your chickens’ health.
Common poultry pests include lice, mites, ticks and fleas; prevention is best.
• Keep coop and run clean — avoid overcrowding the birds.
• Regular coop cleaning can break a pest’s life cycle after an infestation.
• Provide chickens with an area — or a pan or tray of fine stone dust, such as limestone for bathing mixed with diatomaceous earth — for dust bathing.
• Remove the pests that you can see, such as ticks.
• Treat the areas outside the coop for ticks and flies.
Adapting to the seasons
If you live in an area with seasons, then it is recommended to make a few seasonal adjustments to optimize your chickens’ health. It is important to remember that birds are not mammals like you or me, so they will not adapt to the temperatures and conditions to which they are exposed the same as we do. Be sure to select chicken breeds that are appropriate for your climate — i.e., cold-hardy versus heat-hardy. One wonderful resource at your disposal is neighbors who are already raising birds.
On warmer days:
• Know the signs of heat stress and how to avoid it.
• Keep fresh, cool water available.
• Add a fan to the coop.
• Provide shade.
• Treat your flock to a treat of cool fruits and vegetables.
On colder days:
• Prevent waterers from freezing.
• Add an additional layer of bedding to the coop.
• Weatherproof the coop; prevent drafts, though some ventilation is necessary.
• Stack bales of hay around the coop for extra insulation.
• Be sure to keep the bedding in the coop dry to avoid excess humidity.
• Research and consider using the deep-litter method.
• Rub a bit of Vaseline on combs and wattles to prevent frost bite.
• Always keep chicken feed available.
Melissa Caughey, who lives in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, teaches classes in gardening and introductory chicken-keeping.