Making an accurate diagnosis for a hen that looks sick, but doesn’t have respiratory symptoms, is nigh on impossible. Chickens exhibit the same symptoms for a myriad of diseases. Walking like a penguin, standing hunched with wings down, a dark comb, off-feed, a hitch in the gait, droopiness, and straining when laying, can be due to a long list of diseases including but not limited to: cancer, tumors, peritonitis, internal laying, egg bound, and ascites. Sadly, most of those issues cannot be cured. Some will die soon after you see the symptoms, but others can live for a very long time looking poorly. My Barred Rock hen, Eleanor, has lived for three years now in a slow and crotchety way.
When I see a hen looking “off,” the first thing that I try is what I call The Spa Treatment. If the hen has some sort of a blockage in either the intestinal or reproductive tract, the Spa Treatment can get things moving. Sometimes your hen is sick because her mineral balance is off. A laying hen eats only a little more than she ejects in the form of an egg. The egg is mostly protein and minerals. This process is depleting, and as the hen ages it gets increasingly harder to replenish her system. It can go out of whack. Often, when this is the issue, your hen’s comb will change color and she’ll hunch up and barely move. (See Agnes’ story here.) Again, the Spa Treatment can help. It also is effective when a hen has ingested toxic plants, and even when there’s an impaction in the reproductive tract.
As always, when you suspect that your hen isn’t well, it’s best to isolate her for a day. This enables you to see what she’s eating and if she’s producing manure, and if so, what it’s like. You’ll also see if she’s laying. These are all clues to whether there is a blockage (nothing coming out) or an infection (nasty looking manure) or an egg laying issue. (Soft egg? No egg but a nasty discharge? Egg bound? In all of these cases, I’ve had success using the Spa Treatment. Sometimes, after treatment, the hen will go on to be healthy for a few more weeks, sometimes for years – it all depends on whether there is an underlying issue that can be fixed, or if there is a terminal ailment. For example, Agnes recovered nicely after her spa treatment for about ten days, but then went back into decline, and I’m sure that there’s something very amiss inside of her, like tumors. But Buffy, who received the Spa Treatment because she ingested too much vetch, which is toxic in large doses, recovered fully. In all cases, the Spa Treatment can’t hurt, and I’ve never known a hen who didn’t enjoy it.
What I call The Spa Treatment is simply a nice long soak in an epsom salt bath, a dose of olive oil and TLC. Epsom salt is a combination of magnesium and sulfate. You can find it in the pharmacy, as it’s used by people as a laxative and as a foot soak. For such a simple and inexpensive product, it has many curative functions. The magnesium improves circulatory health, flushes toxins, improves muscle and nerve function, maintains the proper level of calcium in the blood and increases oxygen use. The sulfates help form brain tissues and joint proteins, creates mucin proteins that line the digestive tract, detoxifies contaminants, and improves absorption of nutrients. Obviously, it’s a general and potent cure-all. Fortunately, it is absorbed readily through the skin, which makes treatment with it easy.
The first step in the Spa Treatment is to give your hen an epsom salt soak. Fill a tub with water that is warm but not too hot, the temperature that you would want to bathe in. Add a quarter cup of epsom salt to the water. Set your hen into the tub. Few hens struggle to get out. She should settle right in. You might have to gently encourage her to sit down. The water should come up to her chest, but no higher. Let her soak until the water cools. If she is particularly poopy or dirty, you can use soap and wash her, then refill the tub with water and epsom salts and soak again. (To see how to bathe a hen, watch my YouTube video.) Gently lift her out of the bath and pat dry with a towel, then use a blow dryer on low. The hens like that, too!
Next in the Spa Treatment is to feed or dose with olive oil. Especially for a hen who has been feeling weak, enabling her to clean out her intestinal tract helps to set her right. Hopefully, your hen is strong enough to eat. Two teaspoons of olive oil helps to move whatever is in her system along. The easiest way to give this to her is to put it on her favorite treat and let her eat it (try it in cooked oatmeal) Or, you can use a plastic syringe (like the ones used to give children oral medication) and squirt it in her mouth (being very careful to do this in little bits so she swallows the oil and it doesn’t go into her lungs.)
Lastly, she needs TLC. If the hen likes being in the quiet safety of a dog crate, away from bullying hens, give her some time on her own. If she prefers to be with the flock, put her back with her friends. If she needs to be fed separately for awhile to make sure that she has time to eat and drink, do that. Hopefully, all of this care will alleviate the symptoms. You should notice an improvement by the next day. If it does help, you can repeat the treatment one more time. If it doesn’t help, at least it hasn’t hurt, and you’ll have narrowed down what might be causing the symptoms. The Spa Treatment has fixed several of my birds, and helped many others. If you have success with the Spa Treatment, do let me know! The more case histories I hear about, the better advice I can give.