Why I Don’t Use Avian Vets

Last Friday I had a long conversation with a friend of a friend about her experience with a deadly infectious poultry disease. As horrible as that was (I’ll talk about it in another post) what struck me was how the veterinary care that she sought out made her year with chickens expensive and unnecessarily guilt-ridden, and didn’t, in the long run, help at all.

Backyard chicken keepers rarely come from a farming background. If they have any experience with animals it is as indulgent pet owners. They believe that solutions to health issues will be handed to them by a veterinarian. They have been told that a price shouldn’t be put on their pets. Veterinary schools teach sophisticated medicine, and the knowledge and resources available to vets equals that of people doctors. Veterinarians are taught to do everything that it is possible to do, but, not necessarily what is right for the animal or the owner. (I know this first-hand as years ago I was told, at a world-renowned animal hospital, that my guinea pig’s broken leg could be fixed with orthopedic surgery. That “we do it all the time.” My family was guilted into $1,000 surgery, and the little guy suffered and died anyway.)

Farmers understand that all lives intrinsically have value, but they accept that it is not right to bankrupt a farm for an animal of small monetary value. Farmers understand that just because you can do something, doesn’t mean that you should. People new to chicken keeping don’t have that perspective, or even if they do, don’t have the experience to know how to apply it. Backyard chicken keepers, when faced with a sick chicken, still want to turn to a vet. They quickly find out that the average suburban veterinary practice won’t even look at a hen. So, they search for and find an avian vet. Yes, avian vets take care of birds, but generally, their specialty is for parrots and other exotics. Not chickens. (Avian vets who specialize in poultry took college courses that prepared them for working for the commercial poultry industry, not small-scale flocks.) Unfortunately, I’ve yet to find an avian vet who admitted that he or she knew nothing about chickens. I have had a vet feel my hen’s comb, say it was “warm” and then look up respiratory diseases in her college textbook. That visit cost me $65. The friend of a friend had six very ill hens. Her vet didn’t take chickens, so she called a veterinary college that is in her area. She was told that she could bring in all of the sick chickens. Each would cost $165 to look at. I am aghast that the vet school would even give this hen keeper the option of spending almost $1,000 to look at all of her birds, when examining one would supply the same diagnosis. She did decide, on her own, to bring only one, purely due to financial considerations. She felt guilty not to have brought them all. The vet did not do any blood work, and the diagnosis was one that could have been determined with a quick on-line search.

If you do need medical care for your flock, I recommend that Instead of finding an avian vet, look for a large animal practice, preferably with a vet on staff who keeps a flock of chickens on her own farm. Every few years I run fecal samples to make sure that my chickens don’t carry a load of parasites. The avian vet, two towns over, insists that first I need to bring the “patient” in for an exam. Obviously, she doesn’t understand about flock management. Instead, I take the samples to a large animal practice (they take care of Pip and Caper) and, for $25, their lab tech looks at the manure under her microscope that afternoon.

When you are faced with a sick chicken that you love, you want to ease her distress and hopefully save her life. If she has symptoms of respiratory disease, it is caused by either a virus or bacteria. Lab tests are very expensive, and by the time you hear the results your entire flock could be infected and dying. Although there are charts online for figuring out what infectious agent is affecting your hens, I’ve found them unreliable. (Out of curiosity I’ve used those expensive lab tests and discovered how off those charts are.) So, I recommend starting with a course of antibiotics right away, which can be bought on-line or at your local feed store. If they don’t work, you probably have a virus. When it comes to these respiratory diseases, a vet’s diagnosis is of no help. Either antibiotics will work, or they won’t. (More about what I do for respiratory disease is in this FAQ.) The only exception that I’ve had is when mycoplasma caused crusty, infected eyes, and I needed prescription eye ointment for my hens.

If you have an individual chicken that looks sick (often described as hunched and walking like a penguin) you will want to know the cause. Everyone’s first guess is “my hen is egg bound,” but that is rarely the case. The hen could have any number of diseases, including ascites, heart disease, tumors, cancer, and internal laying. Despite the underlying cause, the external symptoms will be similar. Even a vet can only guess at what might be wrong. Only after death, and upon doing a necropsy, will you know what really killed the chicken. Many of the diseases that cause a hen to look sick are incurable. Sometimes the chicken dies soon after looking ill. But, in other cases, the hen can live on for months or years. If she is lucky, though, the hen does not have a lethal disease and can be cured by doing my simple Spa Treatment. In no case would veterinary care help.

I expect that at this point, that there will be a number of readers who have had very good experiences with avian vets and are eager for the end of this post so they can leave comments about how essential their vets are to their flock management. I know those vets are out there, and I’d love to hear your stories. But, realize that they are the exception, as are the chicken keepers who are able to afford them. In almost all cases, your flock will be well-cared for if you rely on your own commonsense and compassion.


  1. Hi Terry,
    Thank you once again for your helpful insight. I always enjoy reading your articles and learning from your experiences. This information is greatly appreciated.
    Thank you ~ A small flock owner ~

  2. Okay, I will readily admit, I’ve taken some of my hens to an avian vet. And I completely agree with you that these avian specialists are more trained to treat exotic birds and not chickens.

    But that said, I’ve been horribly frustrated my first two years with chickens in trying to find INFORMATION!!! The books I’ve read all seem to be written by people who have larger flocks and simply paired down the info as to what it would be like to have just a few hens and it doesn’t work that way. A flock of 12 with a rooster is a totally different flock than 3 hens in a back yard.

    And there is lots of incorrect information on the web. I’ve spend months treating my hens feet for scaly leg mites to no avail. I finally took one too the vet and was told beyond a shadow of a doubt that my hen does not, nor did she ever have scaly leg mites.

    An office visit to my vet is $40. And they are very considerate of what tests and xrays cost and run over treatment options and possible outcomes with me in detail and let me decide. And have been a WEALTH of information for me. Yes, I’ve sprung for an xray once. It was expensive and I don’t regret it. It was full of information about my hen and I found it fascinating. It allowed the vet to properly diagnose her and treat her and that was a year and a half ago and she’s just as spry today as she ever was. They even burned a copy of it to a CD for me.

    And I will also admit that both my husband and I grew up in the city. We do not have the power to kill. When I had a hen who was clearly not right and could not be saved, I took her to the vet to be humanly put down. I believe that cost me $16.

    One thing I think people with larger flocks forget is how attached we can become to just three hens. Losing one is like losing a member of the family. And it’s not like we can just go out and replace that hen. Adding to the flock requires a period of separation to watch for disease and us city dwellers just don’t have the space. And adding a single hen or even two to an existing flock can bring out the pecking and bullying. So I do feel some sense of urgency to protect my few hens so that I don’t have to deal with adding to my flock.

    I fully understand that not everyone has the means to pay for a vet. And I do not harbor any ill feelings towards people who “process” their chickens after two years to make room for the younger generation. I think we each have to look at our own situations and decide what works for us. And it’s a good idea to do this BEFORE you have a situation on your hands so that you are prepared for what might need to be done.

    • Amy, your point that it is harder to lose one hen out of three, than one out of a large flock is very true. Also, you’re right that it is much harder to add a hen to a small flock. And, oh, the misinformation out there about small flock care! And then, even the books with solid advice don’t make a distinction between hobby farmers and urban backyard chicken keepers. What works for 25 pullets does not necessarily work with 3 older hens. I try to address many of those issues here.

  3. Thank you SO much for this post! As a first time chicken keeper, we had a problem with a hen right out of the gate. She was laying her first egg, and suffered a prolapse. The other hens pecked at her, and when I got home she was a bloody mess and still had the egg stuck. Luckily, I educated myself prior to us getting chicks and knew what to do. She managed to lay the egg (and yolk) that had been stuck. My husband and I cleaned her up, put some preparation H on her and pushed the prolapse back in as best we could. We then separated her from the rest of the flock in our basement in a dog crate. It looked really bad, but I told my husband I had to TRY and save her. if in a day or two she wasn’t looking better back there or looked sick, we would humanely put her down. After twice daily cleanings with warm soapy water and an antiseptic spray for animals, as well as limited feed mixed with yogurt – a week later the part of the prolapse that was sticking out fell off and she was back to normal, fluffing up her rear end and roaming with the other ladies. Now I can’t even pick her out from her sisters. Around here, we don’t have a vet that can help with chickens, so it’s up to me to diagnose and care for my birds. They are my pets and I do care for them, but I wouldn’t suffer a financial burden attempting to take them to an avian vet that can’t do any more than I can. Thank you again!

  4. I had to read that post twice to get my head all the way around it, and I’m sure I’ll be reading it again.
    Over the years I have made valiant efforts to save some members of my small flock. In one case, my effort paid off. In another case, I’m not so sure I did the right thing by nursing the hen back to life – a life of lesser quality.
    I have sought the help of a livestock vet and of an avian vet, and have found that the farm vet had a much better understanding of the animal and the owner. The avian vet seemed to have little knowledge of chickens, but she professed to know all about my bird.
    And in the end, common senses is what has served me best.
    Thank you, Terry, for seeing and defining these challenges of the backyard chicken-keeper..

    • Lauren, sometimes a very thoughtful and loving person like yourself has the hardest times making decisions. You deserve much credit for how you care for your flock! (Which everyone will be able to read about and enjoy soon! –watch for Lauren’s book this spring, everyone!)

  5. We decided at the get-go that our chickens were to be “livestock” not pets and that we would not use a vet. We only had 5 though so this was easier said than done as we loved them. I have used your site as my on-line veterinary resource apart from the one time you couldn’t help me (because it turned out what I was observing was symptoms of worms and I realised you don’t get them in your flock). Our resolve wavered just once when we had two girls injured by a neighbour’s dog and we were unsure whether to euthanise or whether they could be sorted. The neighbour was picking up the bill. We went to the vet and she said they both were too badly injured to be saved so she euthanised them for us and charged about $30 (equivalent). Bless her, she took herself off for a fortnight to do a specialist course on hens because she felt she was so clueless. So, a great vet, but the cost issues remain.

  6. This is great advice, and so ture!
    On another note my cat has skin allergies to food. Did my vet tell me this? Nope! I paid bill after bill for shots that did very little. Never did they tell me to look in to his food. Just told me to bring him in again and agian to be checked. I read online and figured it out myself. I could have saved $100’s of dollars.

  7. Great article. I havent found a local vet that would even know how to treat a chicken however I just found out about one that comes to our local feed store 1st thursday of every month that will. But none of my chickens are sick right now. Ive had chickens 3 years and we have had to put a few down when they were ill. Ive also used internet and farm store employees to recommend antibiotics, etc that made the chickens well too. I am not willing to spend lots of money on vet bills for a chicken. They live a short life span and if they are too sickly then the kindest thing is to put them down before they suffer too badly. One note, I have had some strange conditions come upon individual birds and I prefer an all-encompassing treatment that will help many ailments at once. Like you said, first course is antibiotics for most things.

  8. Another great read! Love for animals comes in all shapes and forms. Love for an animal is different from person to person. What one person would do for their flock is different from the next so it’s refreshing to see all points. My husband and I were born and raised on farms. Yes, we have each had a favorite animal that we learned the hard way that they are “farm animals” and to not get attached-too much:) I think it’s important to note that loving these animals also means having loving kindness for when it’s time to humanely put them down. Common sense and respect at such times goes a long way even when it breaks the heart. That being said, making that decision for me seems to get harder with age!

  9. Excellent article as usual Terry. I’m facing the possibility of euthanizing one of my girls because she consistently is laying shell-less eggs – I did make the mistake of naming all these girls – makes it a little harder…..

    • Sorry to hear that. If the soft eggs can’t be corrected through diet, then you do have a problem, as it can lead to egg eating in the flock, and peritonitis in the hen.

  10. This comment has nothing to do with the subject of today’s blog. I notice that, just like during Hurricane Sandy, Candy is monopolizing the girls’ dusting box again. I can see today, however, that the hens really seem annoyed about it. If looks could kill, Candy would be stew meat tonight.

  11. I am laughing to myself too watching Candy in the girl`s bath. The Hens are hovering around her, probably swearing under their breath? I mean after-all, what does a girl like better on a snowy day then her bath-tub? Maybe Candy needs her own tub in her hutch or you might open up a spa and offer several tubs so there is no wait.

  12. Ah, the long fruitless search for a chicken vet! I still haven’t found anyone to do a poop exam, either. I’d like to check for worms. I stopped taking my parrots to an avian vet, although the one here is most excellent. He is very expensive, I believe, due to the relatively new pet insurance industry. I used to afford him 20 years ago, but when he suggested I get pet insurance, I saw the writing on the wall, as when insurance is in the picture the charges go to the maximum allowed. Reading others’ experiences as much as I do, I realize that even though my hens are young and healthy, I could lose one unexpectedly with no apparent cause. I am somewhat prepared for that. A very helpful post, Terry, thanks so much!

  13. Hi Terry,

    This is a bit off-topic, but I’m an avid follower – my mornings start with hen cam and coffee, right after I spring my six Wyandottes from their pen – and I just heard that you’re coming to Lincroft, NJ next month for the NOFA-NJ winter conference. Yay! Thank you!
    Can’t wait to attend your talk. Between you, Eliot Coleman and Michael Phillips this weekend will be fabulous!
    (Registration is at http://www.nofanj.org/home, for anyone who’s interested!)

    Marty Rosen

    p.s. Francie, my silver-laced Wyandotte, had her first spa treatment this morning and sends her thanks, too. She was even calm through the lengthy blow-drying.

  14. Fabulous article and great comments! I always learn so much and have my own thoughts confirmed! This topic is a lengthy one in the “Backyards Chickens” class I teach, mainly because we are so trained to take our pets to the vet…

  15. Hi Terry, I really enjoyed reading this article. Here in UK I am very fortunate in having a brilliant vet (I have used her for years for my cats). I have been keeping ex battery hens for just about a year now and my vet just happens to be a poultry keeper and judge at the local poultry shows. I have had the sad job of asking her to euthanase two of my hens (can’t do it myself) and the fees were very reasonable. Its a fact that ex batts have many problems and it breaks my heart to see them gradually fail. they are just totally worn out but I have the consolation that for the past year they have enjoyed the relative freedom in my back garden and have been loved and petted and thoroughly spoiled for the last months of their lives. I have three left and they have just gone through a molt and are looking the picture of health now. I also know that I can call on my vet for sound advice for which I am very grateful, she will not allow any animal to suffer for the sake of extracting cash from me.

  16. I am sure this was not an attempt to bash vets, although some of the comments feel like that.

    • “Bashing” is not a term that I would use. That implies anger without thought or sympathies for other viewpoints. What I raised were valid concerns about the advice and treatment provided by many (not all) avian veterinarians. I think that the comments reflect a frustration with care received. I don’t think that any were conveyed with a meanness of spirit.

  17. The problem here in the UK is getting hold of antibiotics without prescription … so no vet, no drugs. Good article, thanks Terry x

  18. Fantastic info terry.much as I love all my pets I will not do heroic deeds if quality of life is affected.as with all of the medical field, sometimes common sense and old time logic makes more sense than scientific practices.Probally why I have that 12 year old very healthy st. bernard I told you about. Natural diet, no chemical par&ite products and minimal vaccines is what is keeping him going. Candy is just too cute!
    For you hencammers that have not met terry in person, she is wonderful, got to meet her this weekend.Steve didn’t get much of a chance to talk, lol, but I could tell he was very nice and down to earth also.

  19. We went to a vet last March to have a girl pass as gently as we could offer. The vet admitted she didn’t know anything about chickens, but was willing to help her along to the next life. It cost $40 which we gladly paid rather than watch our hen starve or dehydrate to death…
    Now we are facing this decision with our 10-year old beloved cat. We hope we make the right decision on timing, with him. (very sad right now)

  20. I just love your posts. They have been a tremendous help to this first time chicken owner.

    I have been fortunate to find a decent alternative to an avian vet. Our rural small animal vet has owned chickens herself and most of the vet technicians there own chickens too.

    One of my 10-week old pullets, Dottie, was very sick this last summer and I’m pretty sure our vet saved her life. This pullet had stopped eating, could hardly stand up, and I could tell that her crop was mostly full of liquid that wasn’t being digested. Although Dottie was treated with simple antibiotics (like you recommend in your post), dosing her orally probably wouldn’t have worked because her crop wasn’t emptying. The vet gave her an initial injection of antibiotics, with a follow up of antibiotic pills. After a day, Dottie started eating again and within a week she was fit as a fiddle. She is still thriving and laying LOTS of eggs (almost every day, even with the short days here in Rhode Island!).

    When I took Dottie in, the vet confirmed everything you stated in your article. She, herself, knew a little bit about chickens only because she had done some research in the past to treat her own hens. She told me that most avian vets don’t know much about chickens, and the vet school students that study poultry are trained for commercial operations, not for treating individual animals. Although she didn’t have a specific diagnosis for Dottie, the outcome was still good! It was not a cheap treatment at $120, but something I’m willing to pay for with a younger animal. If I would have known about the “spa treatment” at the time, I probably would have tried that first.

  21. I once asked a friend of mine why he became a veterinarian to dogs and cats. He told me he wanted to be an avian vet but then figured out that birds were WAY more complicated to diagnose! And this is one smart man! Enough said! Great post Terry..I try and figure it out on my own and hope for the best. YAY for the SPA TREATMENT!

    • I believe that about it being hard to diagnose birds. Even parrots that talk don’t exactly communicate what a doctor needs to know. And birds have so many ailments.

  22. Terri, I can admit that I am one of those people. I rely on a vet to help me with all my animals. I read your blog on a daily basis and feel fortunate enough to have a good resource that I can read when it comes to my hens. When I first discovered that the veterinary hospital that I take my two dogs and cat to had an avian vet working there I kept his number on fridge.

    Early this year my rooster’s waddle had gotten swollen. I immediately went online to search for possible solutions to help him out. The stories I read were too much for me so I called that avian vet. He only works on Tuesday’s and Thursday’s, it was a Friday. I would’ve had to wait for five days! That vet hospital didn’t know if anywhere else I could call so I called the feed store. They recommended two other vet places I could take him to. With my luck, I called the first option, that vet was on vacation but the second option was just a normal dog/cat veterinary…I had an appointment within 15 minutes. The vet was great with my rooster, was honest about not knowing exactly what could’ve caused the swelling, and gave him some antibiotics. All this cost me $45 and in a week the swelling had gone down.

    A couple of week’s ago one of my hen’s hounded me for the hot dog I was eating and flew onto my shoulder. I carefully put my hot dog down then picked her up to put her on the ground and noticed a scab on the bottom of her foot. I remembered your post about Tina’s bumble foot and looked to see what I could do to fix. It was not swollen enough I think to perform the surgery, and honestly, I don’t think I could have done it myself. I took her to the avian vet, and of course, they had an opening two days later. I had never met this vet but I felt horrible because I told him that I thought it was bumble foot, he asked my about their housing, and told me that I needed to fix my hens area. My husband and I just upgraded their coop and run. And we let them roam in our good size back yard for four hours daily. Her antibiotics and the visit cost me $165. Although the antibiotics did help, I just felt horrible for days. My husband told me not worry and that our hens live well. I wish I would’ve just taken my hen to the vet that helped with my rooster.

    I now keep my rooster’s vet’s number on my fridge because I hope that when I take in, any of my animals, to see the vet that I can be educated so I know what to do the next time and not to be given a horrible gaze from a person judging me. Chicken keeping is new to me but I also want to make sure all my hens are healthy. Only these two issues in the three years of keeping my first flock, not bad right?

    Thank you for sharing this post.

  23. On the plus side, courses are now being offered to veterinarians as continuing education about the diseases, treatment, management and practical side of dealing with backyard chicken flocks. So perhaps in a few years we vets will have more knowledge of how to care for backyard chickens. I admit to knowing only a little about the care and treatment of my own hens and ducks, but I learn more from them every day.

  24. I knew when I read your invitation for people to comment on their postitive avian vet experiences that you wouldnt exactly be over run with them. I often try to explain the expensive and pointless futility of taking a hen to the vet to my customers when they buy hens from me. I often wonder if they think that I am mean and heartless.

    I cant believe the lack of interest in hen behavior and welfare amongst some people and wonder if it is to do with their commercial origins and value and prior to that their hobyist origins. The farm vets certainly dont seem interested in them but as more people keep them as pets then perhaps the small animal pracice vets may want to indulge them.
    Perhaps this is a case of chicken and egg however ( I know, I know…bad joke) if most people treat their birds at home or dispatch those which are ill. Then the vets never get the chance to learn about their illness, symptoms and responce to treatment. And the less the vets know then the more likely we are to treat them at home.

    My suggestion is that vets give their consultation for free and medication at cost in exchange for learning more about poultry health.

  25. Thanks for the post, Terry! My husband and I are new hen-keepers and we love your blog. We wanted to fecal-test our hens for worms like you do, rather than dosing them with drugs unnecessarily, and couldn’t even find a veterinarian willing to check their waste. Fortunately, it turns out North Carolina has a state-run veterinary diagnostic laboratory system for poultry and livestock where we could have it tested. Having the test done there was really inexpensive ($5, I believe). The diagnostic labs are targeted to large-scale commercial operations, so it’s not a service that most backyard hen-keepers would know is available. I don’t know if every state provides the service, but it might be worthwhile for your readers to look into, especially it they live in an ag-heavy state!