Common Health Problems

Health problems with chickens

Common Chicken Health Problems

Chickens are fairly simple creatures and any health or behavioural concerns tend to fall into quite a small range. I have collected together the most common issues that you may encounter with some advice about how I would deal with the problems. Please remember that whilst I have years of practical experience looking after chickens, I am not a vet. If you have any major health concerns about your chickens, it is advisable to consult your local veterinary service.

Health problems with chickens - moulting


After continuously pumping out eggs for 15 months or so, the body naturally drains and needs recharging so they go into a moult. At this point chickens look as though they are going through a bad hair day with feathers falling out and looking lethargic. Depending on the time of year this moult can last up to eight weeks. The moult can happen at any time of the year, depending on when they were hatched. Losing your winter coat in January can come as quite a shock; when this happens the girls need a little TLC to help them pull through; encourage them to eat and add some Poultry Tonic into the water to help replenish the vitamins that have drained away during this process.

Whilst moulting, the calcium levels drain from the body, therefore egg production ceases or drops drastically, nature takes its own course and once the whole process has finished she will come back into lay again. It is vital that protein levels are kept high during a moult as the feather regrowth relies entirely on protein content. It is for this reason that this is one time that you can spoil your girls with a handful of mealworms each day, or change their diet to chick crumbs (not to be fed to laying birds, though).

Indications of a moult are the comb and wattles losing their reddish colour and turning very light pink, the feathers around the neck slowly dropping out, and you will notice her tugging away at the feathers, trying encourage the new feathers to come through. The long primary feathers on the wings are normally the first to fall out; she will become grumpy and possibly go off her food. Please bear in mind with all of this going on her entire body is very sore and tender so she really will not appreciate being picked up and cuddled!

Moulting is a natural process but it is worth remembering that it can also be brought on by stress or dehydration and, in some extreme cases, sudden weather changes.

Health problems with chickens - red mite

Red Mite

I have more messages regarding red mite problems than anything else regarding chicken welfare and it is one of those situations where prevention is better than cure. Those people who purchase plastic coops do not seem to have so many problems, as the little creatures do not breed so fast. Red mites seem to come in from everywhere; they can lie dormant for years then suddenly reappear. Firstly it's best to know if there is a problem in the coop, so check the girls on a regular basis by gently moving their feathers to see if you can see any grey (they remain grey until they have drawn blood from your girls) creepy crawlies scurrying through the down. If you see one or two you have a problem. Another way of detecting a problem is to wait until it is dark (red mites move more during the hours of darkness) and put your hand inside the nest box; hold it there for 30 seconds and you will soon know how it feels to be invaded by them, as they will crawl up your arm!
Laying double-sided sticky paper on the top of the house is also another indicator; I use sticky fly paper to do this job. If your chickens refuse to go to bed at night by just waiting at the door and refusing to go inside then there is a high possibility that there is a problem inside the house. Chickens that are lethargic and hunched should also be checked; eventually these little mites will suck so much out of the girls that they will die.

Prevention is without any doubt better and easier than cure. A few good housekeeping tasks will keep these little urchins away.

  • Clean out the hen house on a regular basis, keeping a beady eye out for any tell-tale signs of a red mite presence.
  • Keep any soiled bedding well away from the house otherwise they will soon be creeping back home again.
  • Check your chickens on a regular basis; this also keeps them friendly.
  • Scatter Diatom (dust) around the inside of the house weekly. This is an organic product (yes, some organic products really do work); as the mites crawl to attack their prey the dust cuts them, which eventually causes them to disintegrate.
  • Wash out the chicken house on a regular basis using a solution of Poultry Shield; this is the only product on the market that I know will melt the red mite eggs as well as killing off any live mites. All cracks and crevices should be sprayed as this is where they will be hiding. Make sure that you follow the suggested dilution rates otherwise you will find it will not be as effective.
  • Keep a regular watch on any bedding. Buying this in sealed bags reduces the risk of the little creatures breeding amongst it.

Dealing with an infestation is a heartbreaking task. You feel that you are not getting anywhere fast; you get to the stage that you read the forums and they tell you that the only cure is to burn the house down. Of course that is true but rather drastic. Perseverance is the main requirement. If you can give thought to the lifecycle of the mite, it is breeding on a daily basis and we are talking of literally thousands being hatched daily. No matter how clever you are you are not going to destroy these in one swoop. Allow yourself 14 days minimum but do not be surprised if it takes twice that long to eradicate these dreadful creatures.

Clean out the coop every other day for 10 days, spraying Poultry Shield into the roof space and any cracks on the sides and floor. Wash out the food and water bowls with Poultry Shield at the same time, paying particular attention to the nest box area. Ideally any spoilt bedding should be burnt or, if that is not possible, store it in plastic bags and take it to a council dump.

Spray the chickens at the same time. I have found that Poultry Shield is ideal for this, however it does not carry a veterinary licence so you do so at your own risk. Another good product is Lincoln Powder, or simply give the girls a good dusting with Diatom. Please watch their eyes and vents when using these products and do not forget to follow the Health and Safety guidelines for the user.

You will notice a reduction of activity in a few days then after 10 days there will be only a few stray ones. Do not stop the treatment at this point, simply go to once or twice a week then all of a sudden you will see your girls perk up and very few mites will be seen. Mites can appear at any time of the year but most activity will take place during hot and damp seasons.

Health problems with chickens

Egg Eating

This is one of those habits that infuriate the poultry keeper, and is a habit that is hard to break. I, for one, have tried so many ways of solving the problem. Once I even filled up a blown egg with my favourite brand of whiskey; to my sheer horror I found all the chickens liked the taste of it as they ran merrily around the paddock! Again, there are so many remedies to prevent the girls from eating their own eggs but I could not guarantee which ones will be the most effective. Filling up a blown egg with a very strong mustard mix probably gives the most amusing results, or a product called Stop Peck (I have found this one useful in stopping my granddaughter biting her nails and puppies chewing the furniture, however these are not official tips) sprayed on the outside of the egg. China eggs sometimes work; even plastic ones! But the most reliable method is to keep the nest box as dark as possible using a dark cloth across the front with a slit to allow access; this prevents the girls from seeing the eggs, in return not being tempted to peck at them.

Keeping Chickens for Egg Laying

Egg Abnormalities

Eggs naturally come in all shapes and sizes and a variety of colours as well; as long as the egg is not too large or soft your girls will pop them out quite happily. It's when they start becoming too large or misshaped that problems occur. An early indication of this will be soft-shelled eggs, and ones which have calcium deposits on them. For years now the use of grit has been promoted to increase the bird’s ability to break down the feed as it goes through her digestive system. Unfortunately the hybrid girls have a smaller crop capacity and find that when they consume large amounts of grit it lodges in the gullet and sometimes can cause compacted crop. We have found the use of Shell Aid in the girls’ water periodically helps to maintain strong and healthy egg shells.

Health problems with chickens - prolapse


Prolapse in chickens is not a very pretty sight and it's not very pleasant for the young lady either. This can be caused by too large an egg trying to be passed, and is most common before she goes into a moult, or as she gets older, and the muscles get weaker, soft shelled eggs are extremely difficult for them to pass and therefore the oviduct is stretched. Normally the oviduct retracts, however where it is strained with the forcing of the large or soft-shelled egg, the whole oviduct remains on the outside of the poor chicken, which is soon noticeable even to the novice keeper.

Prevention is simply making sure that your girls have a well-balanced diet with adequate calcium levels, and they have plenty of exercise and access to sunshine. This will help to keep the girls healthy enough to prevent it happening, however as long as your girls are laying there will be a small chance that they are going to have a prolapse, and without me sounding too much of a callous farmer, I would say that it's less than a 50% chance that you will get the prolapse to stay back in. Some vets will stitch it back but once the chicken commences laying again it will more than likely pop out once again.

Treatment can be carried out by a novice as long as you are prepared to get your hands dirty!

Prepare yourself with plastic gloves, some Witch Hazel and some warm soapy water; you will need to remove your patient from the flock and have an area to put her into after you have treated her, otherwise the rest of the flock will peck at her. Wash the entire area with the soapy water, taking care not to damage the delicate tissue, making sure that the entire oviduct is clear of any droppings and damaged egg. Once you are satisfied that it is clean enough, gently dry the protruding parts and dab Witch Hazel all over, then with two fingers gently push the prolapse back in and hold there for 30 seconds or so. She will naturally try to resist so be prepared to see it pop out again within minutes. Repeat the process if this happens or seek veterinary assistance. If it stays in at this point keep her isolated from the rest of the flock, monitoring her on a regular basis. Do not put her back with the others until she has healed up completely. Please do not be tempted to strap her up to prevent the prolapse as this can cause the girls a great deal of discomfort.

Health problems with chickens - eye problems

Chicken Eye Problems

Eye problems are quite common with chickens, which is not surprising when you consider where their heads are half of their lives, facing downwards with dust and all sorts flying in all directions. Despite the eyelids moving upwards she is bound to catch a few flying objects in the eye. When this happens there is a chance of scratches within the eye housing; a warm teabag applied on this twice a day normally helps to relieve this, or if the problem persists then an eye balm (make sure it's a veterinary one) will sort out the problem. If the eye is weeping and there is a discharge from the nostril we are looking at a different problem. This could be the start of a cold or even pneumonia. If you find more than one chicken with these symptoms, then you will require some assistance; if you look through the website forums, please be careful not to get too carried away with what you read, otherwise a common cold could turn into Avian Flu. It’s always best to seek the advice of people who deal with poultry on a regular basis, preferably the person that you purchased them from.

Health problems with chickens - Respiratory diseases

Respiratory Problems

Respiratory diseases identified in early stages will not be a problem, it is when they are not treated that they become fatal. Just a quick look at the girls’ nostrils each morning will soon tell you if your girls are unwell. Sometimes a grass seed can cause them to have a sneezing fit; this can go on for several days. A damp piece of cotton wool wiped across the nostril on each side will normally dislodge any foreign bodies hiding there. If she is lethargic and has a bubbly type mucus forming at the nostrils and her eyes are swollen with bubbles forming, there is something more sinister going on, most likely mycoplasma. If you hold her close to your ear and listen to her breathing, and it sounds rattly (like someone who smokes 30 cigarettes a day) she needs to be treated. Antibiotics do not kill viruses, however they will sort out bacterial infections, which are normally brought on as a secondary infection. The choice is yours: you could take her to a vet to seek advice or increase her vitamin levels by introducing Poultry Tonic into their water (it is best to treat all the girls at this stage). There could be various problems at this stage; please do not worry yourself by looking up all the different viruses with long names; in the domestic flock it’s best to seek your veterinary surgeon’s advice; this is when you need the list of vaccines that you requested when you purchased them.

Health problems with chickens - scaley legs

Scaly Legs

Scaly legs is where small mites burrow into the girls’ legs, forcing the scales to rise which in turn - as they dry out - become crusty. It is very irritable for the girls, as you can imagine. The old-fashioned way of treating this is to stand the girls in a jar of surgical spirit at least once a week, but this will take months to get rid of them. I find a product called Scaly Leg sprayed on their legs on a regular basis seems just as efficient, and not so brutal.

Health problems with chickens - cramp


Cramp is not uncommon in chickens. It is more common in damp conditions and the birds will struggle to walk, if you soak their leg in very warm water two or three times a day, stretching the leg as much as possible, you will normally sort the problem out within a few days.

Health problems with chickens - worms


Worms are present in most poultry, however they are not always a problem and they can live together in perfect harmony. Well that is until your chicken gets stressed, then that is when the worms can take over. There are many types of worms working inside the girl’s digestive system, some can even take over inside the respiratory system. The common sign of an affected bird is white droppings sticking to the down feathers around the vent. I personally would not sell a bird unless it had been wormed with Flubenvet as I know the risk of sending a chicken to a new home, maybe mixing with other chickens, can cause major problems. On the other hand, if I only had two or three chickens producing eggs for us to eat, then personally I would be reluctant to use an “active wormer”. Of course if the chickens were showing symptoms of a worm infestation then they would be dosed immediately. My choice of action would be to add Diatom into the girls’ feed on a regular basis; this will certainly help to keep the worm levels down - it definitely will not eliminate them but I would be happier eating the eggs. Using a clove of garlic in the water not only helps to build up a strong immune system, it also reduces the worm population in the chicken. That's one that I learnt from my mother many years ago, and it's still just as effective and you will not get garlic tasting eggs for breakfast!

Health problems with chickens - Egg peritonitis

Egg Peritonitis

Egg peritonitis is a problem found in chickens where they lay unformed eggs and the yolk drops off into the digestive tract. Sometimes this can be absorbed, however if this problem persists then you will find your girl walking like a penguin and have a expanded undercarriage. Again, this is a time when you need to consider her welfare and take her to a vet or decide it would it be kinder to put her down.

Health problems with chickens - compacted crop

Compacted Crop

Compacted crop can cause a great deal of discomfort to your girls. It normally affects the greedy ones amongst them as they dive into the feed as if they have never been fed before. The crop only allows a certain amount of food through at a time, allowing time for the enzymes to work. Usually, as they sleep the food gradually filters through, so if she still has full crop in the morning that is the first indication of a problem brewing. For them it’s a form of indigestion. Olive oil is still the best form of treatment for this problem. If you feel that your chicken is suffering with a compacted crop simply offer her some olive oil from a small jar and this will help dislodge the blockage. If she doesn't take this on her own, then syringe some down her throat, very slowly through the side of the beak, three or four times a day. An alternative remedy, if you are not squeamish and the patient is still eating, is to offer her some white maggots (must be white). These are available from a fishing shop or online. These little creatures will take 4 days or so to eat their way through the debris in the crop. If the blockage is not cleared in a few days this will then lead to a sour crop, which emits an awful smell when you open the chicken’s beak. This demands urgent and drastic action, tipping the girl downwards and keeping her beak well away from you, then massaging the crop until fluid comes out. Please only do this for a maximum of 20 seconds as the poor girl cannot breathe efficiently whist doing this. This will need to be done at least four times a day before any results are seen, and bear in mind that you are only trying to remove the fluid from her and not the solids otherwise choking can prove fatal. If this fails then it’s a trip to your veterinary surgeon who will be able to lance the crop, which, despite being very expensive, is not always successful.

The best ways of preventing compacted crop from happening in the first place is not to use hay in the nest boxes as they tend to try to eat this (barley straw is fine), reduce access to grass areas in the spring as they gouge themselves on this, keep the feeders off the ground so they have to stretch their necks when eating their food, and make sure that there is adequate water near to their feeder as this aids digestion.

Health problems with chickens - Feather pecking

Feather Pecking

Feather pecking is quite common when introducing new girls mainly because they are territorial creatures and there will always be a pecking order in the poultry world. They sometimes will fight to the death and if that's not bad enough they will continue to eat the poor victim when they have killed it. This is not a pretty sight at all especially for children to see. Sometimes your older girls will set on each other for no apparent reason, after living in harmony for years. This can be brought on by several different reasons: boredom, dietary changes or simply a fall out within the flock. Very often a moult is mistaken for a pecking problem, so it's important that a close examination of the feathers is carried out before telling your girls off. You will notice broken feathers under the larger remaining ones; these are normally surrounded by peck marks around the skin. If the problem is obvious, and you witness it happening, it is most likely the bird with the largest comb who is the bully. The quickest and most effective way of dealing with it is to find a powerful hosepipe and hide behind the coop and when the offending bird picks on its prey, give it a quick, short blast behind the head. The trick is not to let it know it's you behind the hosepipe; she needs to believe that the victim has a friend up in the sky! Please do not allow children to take this role on otherwise you will have drowned chickens. I admit it does sound cruel but certainly not as cruel as being pecked to death. If the birds are losing feathers and flesh is showing it's best to shake some talcum powder or mite powder over them to give them all a neutral smell. A product called Stop Peck can be a deterrent for the most persistent offender. If blood is drawn an ultra violet antiseptic spray should be put on the wound as it will help the healing process and cover up any signs of blood. As a rule of thumb, if the victim is being pecked at the top of the head or if she is bleeding then she should be removed or better still if you know who the bully is put that one into confinement.

You might read that putting vinegar in their water will stop pecking if it's a dietary problem, but it would make much more sense to put in a vitamin balancer like Poultry Tonic, which is processed to supply the chicken with all the vitamins required.

Health problems with chickens

What do I do whem my Chicken is Ill

Like any pet there will be a day when your girls become ill and you need some advice. The first answer is to pick up the phone or email the person who supplied your girls to you. Not all poultry sellers offer a back-up service and some only offer a limited warranty on the birds, but it is always worth trying in the first instance. At Longdown Activity Farm we pride ourselves for giving unlimited advice to people who have purchased their girls from us, and we happy to discuss problems with other poultry keepers. We are not vets but have years of practical experience in looking after chickens. If the illness is severe we will recommend a veterinary practice close to you who may be able to assist.

Health problems with chickens

Chickens Don't Live Forever . . .

Unfortunately chickens will not go on forever and will eventually die, or harder still will need to be put down at the end of their lives (most hybrids will live 4-5 years). As most domestic keepers become very attached to their girls it is very difficult when a decision has to be made to put her down. Now some people will not have a problem with putting their pet to sleep but remember, at least it will no longer be suffering. It would be worth a phone call to your supplier or veterinary surgeon or, if you know someone who keeps ferrets they may be happy to help. As the law stands it is illegal for your chicken to be buried on your premises as poultry do not come under the pet exemption category, therefore it is suggested that you take your chicken’s body to a veterinary surgeon or somewhere else registered to dispose of animal carcases. If you decide to bury your girl in the garden please bury it in a deep hole (1.2m) and cover it with lime or a strong disinfectant to avoid foxes and badgers digging it up.

It's always worth contacting your local Trading Standards office as it's their responsibility to govern the disposal of livestock. < Back to Home page