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.
This morning, when I went into the big barn to let the girls out for the morning, I noticed that Alma was still on the roost and not on the floor with the eager hens. I did my chores. I checked back. Alma had not rushed outside to get the corn. She looked hesitant to hop up and out the little chicken door. I looked at her eyes. Clear. Her breathing. Fine. But she walked with a hitch. I picked her up and turned her over. No sign of external parasites (lice are a first indication of illness.) No swelling or heat on her abdomen. A bit of runny manure on her vent. I put her back down. Nothing dramatically wrong. I went inside the house for breakfast.
I checked on her about a hour later. Alma is not a friendly chicken. She is almost impossible to catch. When I walked up to her she stood but didn’t run away. I picked her up. That was enough to know that although she doesn’t look deathly ill, that something is seriously wrong.
When in doubt, isolate and give antibiotics. If there’s some sort of infection (which chickens are quite prone to getting) you’ll see an improvement in 24 hours. So, Alma is in a dog crate with food and medicated water. She’s not happy about it, but I’m keeping her there.
If she doesn’t improve I’ll try other things. Alma will get the best care that I can give her. I’ll bathe her, I’ll dose her, I’ll keep her comfortable. I might even save her. What I won’t do is go to the vet. First, I’m doubtful there’s anything that a vet could do that I can’t. To be honest, if whatever she has needs a vet’s care, it’s not worth the money. X-rays would run over $100. Alma is older and not a great layer. She is a bully to the young hens. If I were a real farmer, she’d be gone already. I am a good custodian of all of my chickens, but I don’t love every one of them. There is an economic reality to animal keeping. I wouldn’t have animals if I couldn’t afford to feed, house and care for them. But, there are limits. I’ve been to vet hospitals that didn’t seem to have any (was once talked into a $1,000 operation for a guinea pig!) This is the hard part of having animals. At some point you have to make these decisions. With farm animals, some decisions are economic. But, underneath, there’s always the emotions.