Fat Hens

As we all know, there’s an obesity epidemic, and it’s not just affecting people. Our pets are suffering, too. It’s not simply a matter of aesthetics – it’s a matter of health. We’ve all seen the waddling beagle who can no longer run and play, and the fat cat on youTube that people laugh at, but is bound for a short life. We indulge and we feed to excess, thinking that it’s a loving act. It’s not.

A few months ago I heard from a woman (let’s call her “Bess”) who found a lone, white hen wandering the neighborhood. Bess and her husband love animals, and have cats and dogs, and so brought the hen home and it became a doted on pet. A couple of months ago she emailed me because the hen had some sort of respiratory ailment. She put it on a course of antibiotics (a default when a hen is wheezing) but after 10 days the chicken was no better. Some time later, Bess took her hen to a vet who prescribed another round of antibiotics. Again, no improvement. So, back to the vet they went for a stool sample and check-up.

Bess emailed me to say that her chicken was weighed at the vet’s office, that she came in at 14.6 pounds, and asked if the hen was overweight.

The average hen weighs 6 pounds, 8 would be quite large. 14.6? !!! No wonder the poor hen can’t breathe. Her lungs are surrounded by fat.

Why didn’t the vet notice? Several trips to the vet’s office, and the hen’s weight was never mentioned. It shows you how little vets know about chickens.

Bess was loving and feeding her hen to death. She’d heard that corn will keep a hen warm in the winter, and gave it free choice. Since the hen had no competition from a flock for food, she was eating constantly. This is what the hen looks like.

I think she’s a Leghorn, which is a slender, active breed. I could be wrong. It’s hard to tell. I’m thinking perhaps I’ll call it a new breed, the “Sumo Wrestler Rock.”

My old poultry books warn against letting hens get overweight because, not only was in not economical to overfeed, but excess fat interfered with laying. I don’t think that they ever imagined a hen getting this big.

I’ve recommended that Bess feed chopped greens in the morning, and a handful of laying hen pellets in the afternoon. No scratch corn! I think there will be a marked improvement soon.

Having seen this, perhaps my readers will take a clear-eyed view of their own flocks. We all love to see plump hens with fluffy bottoms. But, for the hens’ health, they shouldn’t be waddling like ducks or have difficulty breathing. It’s true for people and for chickens -we should all eat more vegetables and go easy on the candy.


  1. So sad – but hopefully a diet will take effect quickly. Gladys is getting a bit wheezy, but isn’t fat, just a little well-fleshed!

    Hard to restrict one hen’s diet in a flock, and I suspect it’s largely age; she is five.

    Might be worth stressing here too that a solitary hen is a stressed hen – even if she seems happy, she needs flock mates and will be suffering from stress as any flock animal will. People are the same! Having a pal will also help her compete and encourage her to scratch and run about. As well as the comfort of having another animal that ‘speaks her language’.

    • I agree that hens are better off in a flock. In this case, though, I’m not sure. She’s an older hen who is obviously not in shape to deal with much. I’d worry that she’d be bullied. If I did add another hen to the mix, I think I’d want another white hen, mature and gentle.

  2. My hens have free choice but they also free range on 5 acres all day. It’s amazing how far they travel in the course of a day, from one end of the property to the other. I am in awe of their strong little chicken legs. Now that the weather’s warming, I should cut back the scratch because it has corn. Of course they prefer it so much more than the lay crumble. What makes a good substitute for the corn? A friend of mine gives hers some rolled oats in the scratch. I don’t have to feed salad because our grass is new and green right now (California) and they really enjoy it. As always, Terry, you have great words of wisdom.

    • They really don’t need the scratch – especially free-ranging hens like yours. Of course they like it more than boring pellets – it’s hen candy! Oats are good, but, again, not necessary. High-quality laying hen feeds are complete mixes. What they do need are greens, and they’re getting that on your pasture. Lucky them. I’ve got muck and mush and snow and a bit of wilted, done-in grass.

  3. Terry,what is your thoughts on feeding hay to chickens? they love to go through it and scratch. It’s green but not the kind of green you’re talking about!

    • Some people worry about hay and that it will cause blocked crops. I think that hens that have a varied diet don’t eat the tough stalks to excess (although there’s always the exception!) Hay keeps the hens busy and out of the muck during mud season, but it’s not a good substitute for greens. OTOH, a very high quality, leafy alfalfa is good – if you’re feeding that to your larger animals and the hens get it, great. I wouldn’t buy it just for chickens, though.

  4. Terri,
    You mentioned that antibiotics are a default when hens are wheezing…. What would you recommend for a wheezing hen? I just happen to have a bantam who is hunched up and slightly wheezy.
    I’m afraid I’ve been killing my birds with kindness. I’ll cut back on the scratch!

    • I have a FAQ about what to do when your chicken looks ill here. Hunched up is never good.
      Always isolate a sick chicken – especially when you suspect a respiratory ailment. Observe your hen before you do any medication. Many respiratory ailments are due to viruses, so the antibiotics are used to ward off secondary infections.

  5. If you can find it wheat straw is good in the winter. The hens won’t eat it but scratch for the few grains of wheat left on the stalks. In the spring and summer I feed a small amount black oil sunflower to my hens in the evening as a treat and activity to keep them busy. My run always has a layer of straw, leaves or grass clippings depending on the season. The grain falls into the litter and the hens scratch for it. I spread it from one end of the run to the other. Keeps their nails trimmed as well.

    Terry I’m leaning more towards cornish cross. Legs spread out from under the breast, big feet and more telling than anything are the flight feathers that don’t lay flat to the body, that seems to be a classic trait for cornish crosses.

    I’ve raised cornish in the past for fryers and have raised a few of the hens to about 5 or 6 months for roasters. The roosters usually won’t live that long, they die of heart attacks.

    It’s been about 5 years since I’ve raised my own fryers but with the price around $9 for a whole fryer I might start again.

  6. A Cornish cross is a possibility – though I’d be surprised if a Cornish could live as long as this hen! We’ll know more when she slims down.

  7. A few years ago I got some chicks and 4 were layers- NH Reds and 1 white one that I had no idea the breed. Well come to find out the white one was a meat bird and was like an eating machine it was scary to see her obsessed with eating like she had no control over it….I had to restrict her pellet food and try to get her to eat greens and walk around the yard more. She still got pretty heavy or I guess meaty is the right word. Eventually she had a heart attack and I think she was only about 1 year old. I was so upset for her. I just wanted her for a pet and was sorry she didn’t last long.

    Was she the product of all the crossbreeding to get the meatiest bird as fast as possible?

  8. Well Maryanne and Ken, I don’t know why I didn’t think about her being a Cornish. Her eating until being blown up like a Macy’s Parade balloon would fit that breed, wouldn’t it? The chicken’s owner has never had a chicken before, and is going to be very sad to think that the hen is of a short-lived variety. She should take solace in the knowledge that most meat birds don’t make it to 10 weeks of age.

  9. Terry, LOL at the Macy’s joke, I needed it, long day today.
    A co worker just approached me a few minutes ago and start asking me about my chicks I’m getting on Monday and she was very interested in different chickens and had lots of questions.
    She ask me about cornish game hens that you buy in the store. Well I kind of ruined one of her “special” meals when I told her they were “regular” chickens that were processed at about 3-4 weeks of age and probably not even a hen but a rooster since they get bigger than there hen counterparts. She was hopping made they charged at least twice the price of a fryer, she thought they were some special hen.
    When I raised cornish I was never so glad for processing day to come around, they are just well nasty little things but no fault of their own. It’s really one reason I stopped raising them for my own use.
    There are breed now under different names, one is called Freedom Rangers. There are a slower growing meat bird that does well on pasture and are more attractive. One day I’m going to try them.
    Maryanne, you are so right about the eating machines. When I raised them would just sit in front of the feeder and eat only moving to get a drink and right back at eating. They were just breed to do it.

  10. I totally get what you are saying about animals being obese. It is not kindness. My mother has a terrible problem with her animals being way, way too heavy and it is well… cruel. Of course she won’t listen. She has a cat that is over 25 lbs that she swears is just “big boned”. He IS a larger than average cat but he is also quite fat! I was MOST aggravated about a dog I gave her that was fit and healthy (she killed a couple baby goats, I didn’t think she deserved a death sentence for it but she sure wasn’t cut out to stay on a farm)My mom keeps all of her animals for life so I was sure she would have a good home, but in just a few years she got that dog so fat she had trouble even walking, it was very sad…and aggravating! She sees her animals like children and “spoils” them with treats and people food. She doesn’t intend to be cruel but she won’t listen to the fault in her ways either.

  11. This bird must be a cross, she must have gotten her eating drive from her Cornish parent, but from what the owner says, she is very sweet – so, maybe some White Rock?
    Jennifer – agreed and sorry you can’t open your mom’s eyes to what she’s really doing. “Spoiling” isn’t love and it’s not good for anyone, animals or humans.

  12. Looking at the size of the legs and feet, I’m agreeing with the Cornish or Cornish cross guess. They’ve got very thick legs, and this hen had those thick legs in comparison to the body size. My hens, even the banty types I’ve had in the past had legs that were much more svelte. The only time I saw legs like that was on the Cornish hens.

    I’m not sure what the cross would be though.