The best advice that I can give anyone is this: know your animals. You should be so acquainted with their quirks and vocalizations, their greetings and their eating habits, that as soon as something is off, you know it.
You will know if your chicken is sick if:
She is hunkered down with her wing feathers dragging. (Do not confuse this with broodiness, when she is in her nesting box, fluffed up and angry!)
She isn’t eating or drinking.
She is coughing, wheezing, and/or has mucus or bubbles in her eyes.
She is covered with lice.
She is limping, or moves as if she is uncomfortable.
There is a runny, or bloody discharge in her vent.
She has diarrhea. Or, there is no manure at all.
The other hens are pecking her, when it is usually a peaceable flock.
As soon as you notice any of these signs, pick up your chicken and examine her. Look for parasites, look for a wound, listen for signs of a respiratory ailment.
Isolate her (I use a dog crate) so that you can keep an eye on the poo, the behavior and the food consumption, which are all necessary to observe for a diagnosis.
It’s rare that when a chicken is ill that you know the exact cause. Although respiratory ailments have obvious symptoms, rather like the flu in humans, to know the exact strain requires a blood test. Chickens also die of cancer and liver disease, being egg bound, and old age. They get bugs like coccidia, and internal worms and external parasites. Usually, you won’t know what got them. Sometimes, they’ll die before you notice any symptoms. You could call a state vet to have blood tests and a necropsy done. However, usually the state isn’t interested unless the chicken is deemed a serious risk to agriculture.
I rarely rely on a veterinarian. There’s an avian vet in my area, but she doesn’t know much about chickens. Few avian vets do. Often, the tests they run are very expensive – around here, the office visit is at least $50 and X-rays run over $100. Then after all of the expense, the treatment remains what I would have done without the vet’s input. That said, if you are lucky enough to have a vet in your area that is knowledgeable about chickens and isn’t exorbitantly expensive, use him/her.
If the bird appears to have a serious respiratory ailment, I give antibiotics. (See the FAQ on respiratory illness.) If it is a bacterial respiratory infection, with the course of antibiotics, you’ll see an improvement in 24 hours. You can purchase poultry antibiotics at your local feed store or online. Usually, antibiotics are given in the drinking water, (follow the directions carefully – it can be as little as an 1/8 teaspoon of medicine per cup of water!) but if your hen isn’t drinking, I dose with one of those plastic syringes designed to give toddlers medicine. A couple of tablespoons of the antibiotic-laced water, a few times a day, seems to work. Even if the hen improves, continue to give for the full week to ten days, as per directed on the label. During this time, discard the eggs (if she’s laying.) You could put her back in with the flock as soon as she looks well, but you’ll have to make sure that she’s getting her medicine.
If the antibiotics don’t work quickly, and/or if there’s no respiratory symptoms, there are other things to do. Many ailments are cured by what I call the “spa cure.” I’ll give her a warm water soak in epsom salts, then dose her with olive oil and epsom salts (more about that in the next paragraph), keep her comfortable in a quiet area and keep an eye on her symptoms.
I dose with olive oil using a syringe that comes with infant’s cough medicine (or you can buy a similar tool at the pharmacy.)
Secure the hen under one arm, and with the other hand, open her beak and squirt the oil down, only a little bit at a time, taking care not to squirt it down the wind pipe and into the lungs. Don’t wear nice clothes. Have paper towels handy. If the hen is ailing because of a blockage, the olive oil will help. The olive oil helps to get things moving. This works for impacted crops, ingestion of toxic plants, and bound eggs (it doesn’t actually reach the eggs in the reproductive tract, but it helps move the manure, which alleviates blockage).
I’m also a big believer in dosing with epsom salts. Dilute 1 teaspoon in a cup of warm water, and dose like you do with the olive oil. The salts act to detoxify the gut and get things moving in the digestive tract. I’ve saved hens with epsom salts. (See the FAQ on epsom salts.)
Many poultry books suggest culling at the first sign of illness. If chickens are your livelihood, this makes sense. Disease spreads rapidly, especially in large, confined flocks. A chicken’s lifespan is short in a commercial operation. It’s best to be safe and cut your losses. But, I keep a small flock of hens. I know each one individually. I’m attached to all of them. I’ve been able to save a number ill chickens that the books said to cull. In fact, I’m so good at saving hens, that now I have old chickens that aren’t laying, but that’s my, personal choice!
Not all ailments will be cured with antibiotics, baths and doses of epsom salts and olive oil. Chickens succumb to very serious diseases, like cancer. They appear to get sick suddenly and die quickly. It’s a part of a life with chickens that you will have losses. Also, chickens have the capacity to keep on going, despite being severely diseased. It’s hard to tell when one is suffering. My belief is that letting them live out their days when they are obviously not going to improve is not a kindness. I’ve written about this here. It’s something you’ll face when you have hens. But, hopefully, with good flock management and the “spa cure” you’ll also be able to save some of your sick hens.
Check the blog archives for more on sick chickens and specific problems, such as mycoplasm, prolapse and impacted crop.