Treating Common Chicken Ailments

Learn how to identify and treat common chicken ailments in your backyard flock. Before heading to the vet you can try some home remedies for sick chickens.

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by AdobeStock/Nick Beer

Learn how to identify and treat common chicken ailments in your backyard flock. Before heading to the vet you can try some home remedies for sick chickens.

Caring for laying hens can be a challenge. The number of health problems that can befall your flock is mind-boggling, and a handful of particularly common issues can keep small-time poultry raisers up at night.

Fortunately, the most common problems are also the most treatable – with the right knowledge and skills. From egg binding to crop impaction, these problems will eventually come up if you keep hens for eggs. Here’s what you need to know to solve them.

Crop Impaction

If one of your hens suddenly seems listless, feeble, and apathetic, start by checking her crop, the part of the digestive tract that sits under a hen’s breast. If it looks distended or you can feel a hard mass, your chicken probably has an impacted crop.

A healthy hen’s crop fills when she eats, and then gradually empties as she digests her meal. However, when a hen consumes something that’s hard to digest, such as grass or stringy greens, her crop can stay full. If the hen can’t pass the blockage, she’ll look sickly, lose interest in eating, and eventually die.

red chickens eating

Crop impaction is common in spring, when grass is fresh and abundant. It also affects hungry, young, or bored chickens who eat their bedding or moldy feed.

The most common symptoms of crop impaction include:

  • Weakness and apathy.
  • Self-isolating behavior.
  • Disinterest in eating or drinking.
  • Vomiting.
  • Distended crop.

If you’re not sure whether your hen has crop impaction, you can perform a simple test by removing her feed overnight. If your hen’s crop is still hard and full in the morning, then she’s probably suffering from an impacted crop.

Fortunately, this problem is easy to treat. Simply massage the crop gently but firmly from top to bottom until the bird vomits and the crop is completely empty. This can take from five minutes to an hour or more. If the blockage is particularly severe, you can speed up the process by first feeding the hen a few drops of olive oil or canola oil. However, if the problem persists, consider taking your hen to a vet for further intervention.

dark brown chickens in a yard

Broodiness

If you have laying hens, it’s only a matter of time before one of them goes broody and attempts to hatch a clutch of eggs. You’ll know your hen is broody if she spends all day in her nest, only leaving to eat and drink. She’ll also pull out her chest feathers to line the nest.

The symptoms of a broody hen include:

  • Refusal to leave the nest box.
  • Rarely eating or drinking.
  • Unusual territorial behavior.
  • Pulling out her own chest feathers.
  • Weight loss.

Broodiness is a natural behavior for hens. However, if you don’t want your hen to raise chicks, you’ll want to “break up” the hen as quickly as possible. Quickly breaking up broody hens will keep your flock more productive. Broody hens won’t lay their own eggs, and the longer a hen stays broody, the longer she’ll take to start laying again.

Brooding is also hard on a hen. A broody hen left on her own will typically stay with her clutch for 21 days. That’s 21 days of not eating or drinking enough, leaving her skinny, weak, and vulnerable to other health problems.

Two little girl feeding chickens

To break up a broody hen, collect her eggs as often as possible. Some hens will give up if there’s no clutch for them to incubate. Next, remove the hen from her nest several times a day. She’ll run right back, but frequent disturbances are often enough to get a hen to stop brooding.

If neither of these tactics works, place the hen in a “broody pen,” a small separate enclosure with food and water but without a place to nest. Usually, she’ll give up brooding after a few days. However, the longer the hen was broody, the longer she’ll take to return to normal.

Once hens stop brooding, they generally recover quickly. Still, a hen that’s been broody for weeks may be dehydrated and malnourished. If your hen has lost weight, you can help her gain it back by providing high-calorie foods. If you feed your hens layer pellets, you can help your broody hen rehydrate by feeding her a thin paste of pellets mixed with water.

Certain breeds are more prone to broodiness than others. Cochins, Buff Orpingtons, and Silkies are all known to go broody often. If you don’t want to deal with the hassle of breaking up a broody hen once in a while, avoid keeping birds that are particularly prone to it.

Egg Binding

Egg binding occurs when an egg gets stuck in a hen’s reproductive tract during laying. It’s a serious issue; if an egg-bound hen is left untreated, she’ll die, usually within 48 hours.
Egg binding is most common in first-time layers, prolific layers, and hens with protein or calcium deficiencies. Though the condition is comparatively rare in healthy, mature hens, there’s always the chance that a stuck egg will prove fatal.

Symptoms of egg binding include:

  • Panting and straining.
  • An abnormally swollen vent.
  • Waddling or sitting uncomfortably (the hen may be unable to stand because of the stuck egg pressing against the nerves of her legs).
  • Tail pumping.
  • A comb and wattles that are pale in color or a drooping comb.
  • Lack of interest in eating or drinking.
  • Loose and watery stool or an inability to defecate.

If you suspect a hen is egg-bound, carefully and gently feel her abdomen. You can usually feel the egg inside.

To try and treat egg binding, prepare a warm bath with Epsom salts, and gently submerge the bird until the water level reaches her back. The heat of the water will help relax your hen’s muscles and let the egg pass. Keep your hen in warm water for about 20 minutes, and then towel her off until her feathers are dry.

Once the hen is dry, gently apply petroleum jelly or vegetable oil to the vent area, and place the hen in a warm, dark enclosure, such as a pet carrier or a large cardboard box with breathing holes. Your hen will need a safe and supportive environment, separate from other birds, where she can lay.

Keep your hen warm and calm. If she doesn’t lay the egg after a couple of hours, give her another bath. Sometimes, a hen will need more than one round of warm soaking to pass a stuck egg.

Because this issue can be so dangerous to hens, you may also want to consider seeing a vet to help with this problem if your chicken doesn’t respond to at-home treatment.

orange chicken in a nesting box

Egg Eating

Egg eating is the bane of small-time chicken owners. This unfortunate habit may start if hens discover how delicious eggs are and start breaking the shells of recently laid eggs to get at the tasty stuff inside. Not only will egg eating mean you won’t get any eggs yourself, but the behavior will also spread quickly and will be hard to eradicate in a flock once it starts.

If you have an egg-eating problem, you’ll find:

  • A sudden and inexplicable drop in egg production.
  • Broken eggs or eggshells in the nest box.
  • Thin-shelled eggs.
  • Hens with protein deficiencies.

If you see one or more of these signs, start by making sure your coop is secure. It’s possible that a predator, such as a rat or a snake, has found the eggs. If your coop is secure and you’re still finding broken eggshells and sticky messes in the nest boxes, you probably have one or more egg eaters on your hands.

Some people believe that the only way to stop egg eating is to cull the perpetrator. However, because the behavior spreads so rapidly, it’s rarely a matter of stopping a single culprit. If one hen is eating eggs, odds are the rest of the flock is too. Fortunately, there are other solutions.

First, make sure your hens have enough calcium in their diet. Poor nutrition can start or exacerbate egg eating. Hens that aren’t getting enough calcium will lay thin-shelled eggs, which will likely break in the nest. Supplement their food with ground oyster shells as an additional calcium source.

Second, collect eggs as frequently as possible, and immediately clean up any broken eggs you find. Leaving broken eggs in the nest is asking for trouble.

Third, check the light. If the area where your hens lay is brightly lit, make it darker. Hens prefer to lay in darkness, and low light will make it harder for the perpetrators to find eggs to eat. If egg eaters can’t find any eggs to eat, they’ll eventually lose the habit.

Feather Picking

Feather picking usually starts in one of three ways: A hen may pull out another’s feathers and eat them; a flock may start pecking an injured chicken; or an aggressive rooster may pull out a hen’s feathers when mating.

When chickens are stressed, bored, or protein-deficient, they’re especially likely to develop a feather-picking habit. If left untreated, picking can escalate into cannibalism. An injured chicken can even be pecked to death. Feather picking is simple to identify by observing your flock. Hens with damaged or missing feathers, especially on their backs or tails, are likely victims of feather picking.

The best way to avoid feather picking is to make sure it never starts. Once feather picking has taken hold, it’ll be much harder to stop. Overcrowding and boredom are common stressors that can lead to feather picking, so make sure your hens have enough space. Because feather picking is so common, chicken owners can find a variety of anti-picking products, including Hot Pick and Blu-Kote. Apply these products to the damaged plumage and bald areas to deter the bullies.

Unfortunately, once feather picking is a habit, these products probably won’t stop the behavior. If you have the space, separate your bullies and victims until the victims’ feathers grow back. If you don’t have space for separate flocks, a cloth chicken apron, or “saddle,” which fits snugly over a hen’s back, will protect her from bullies and amorous roosters. You can purchase a chicken apron online or at some feed stores, or sew one yourself.

hens pecking feathers off each other

Winter Coop Ventilation

Coop ventilation is critical for your chickens’ health. It can be tempting to shut them up tight in winter to keep them warm, but you may be setting your birds up for health problems. Chicken droppings are high in moisture and ammonia, which can lead to respiratory problems and even death. If you can smell ammonia strongly when you walk in, better ventilation is in order.

Adding vents at the highest point in your coop can let fumes escape without allowing direct drafts to reach your chickens and go a long way toward keeping them happy and healthy!

Keeping hens comes with many challenges. Whether you’re dealing with illnesses, injuries, or behavioral issues, the key to maintaining a healthy flock is diagnosing problems correctly and treating them quickly. If you keep an eye on your hens’ behavior and catch symptoms early, you’ll enjoy fresh eggs for years.


Julia Mason is an environmental educator and freelance writer with more than 10 years of experience raising chickens. She lives in Seattle.

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