Q: Are there symptoms I should watch for that mean my birds are seriously ill? If they do get seriously ill, whom should I call?
A: Yes, as a pet owner, you are responsible for keeping your chickens safe and healthy, so it's important that you watch to make sure they don't get sick, the same way it's important to care properly for your dog, cat or fish. However, there are a few special things to keep in mind when you are trying to determine if your bird is ill.
First, your chickens will try to hide symptoms of illness. Since they are prey animals, they want to hide weakness so they won't be picked off by predators. Other members of the flock can sometimes try to drive away sick birds, too, to try to protect themselves, so a sick bird will not necessarily be broadcasting its illness, mostly because they will often stay inside the coop or in another hidden spot where you will not observe the changes in behavior that may clue you in. That said, most backyard chicken owners are pretty tuned in to their pets' personalities, and can tell when a bird may need attention.
For instance, general symptoms of illness for chickens include things like lethargy, inactivity, standing or sitting with feathers ruffled, droopy wings, difficulty breathing, a pale comb and changes in droppings. Do keep an eye out for such indicators, but keep in mind, too, that seeing a single symptom does not guarantee your birds are ill! Birds may have watery poo when it's very hot outside, because they are drinking extra water to help keep themselves cool. Or they may seem lethargic and sit around with their feathers ruffled when they are broody and wanting to hatch eggs. Comb and wattle color can change based on mood and level of activity. Lethargy can be related to simply being sleepy of an afternoon after a nice treat; a pale comb can result from molting and a break in laying. Droopy wings and panting, may simply be the "I'm hot!" stance, when your bird holds her wings out from her body and breathes with an open beak to help cool down. Use common sense when making the determination if your bird might be ill.
While some symptoms can be indicative of normal, healthy responses like broodiness or molting as described above, when you notice several of these symptoms together, your suspicions should be raised. When you think your bird needs a further evaluation, you will want to examine your bird more closely, and look for these things:
Once you have made your examination, you will want to review what you have learned about her condition. Some things are relatively easy to take care of at home, like mites lice or worms, and even most wounds. Read below in the related questions to see how to deal with some of these common issues. But you should be concerned about serious illness if you observed these signs:
- Check for wounds first; they can sometimes be easy to miss under all those feathers.
- Look carefully for infestations of lice or mites--they especially like to congregate under the wings and around the vent.
- Be certain that her leg scutes (scales) are smooth and clean (dirty, raised scutes can mean she is suffering from scaly leg mites)
- Does she feel heavy or is she losing weight?~(:>3)=
- Evaluate the fullness of her crop. Is it full--is she eating? Or is it too full and unable to empty?
- Palpate to see if she has any hard mass in her abdomen that might indicate she is egg bound (unable to pass an egg)
- View her vent to see if it is in good condition
- Determine if she breathing easily, or if her tail or body is rocking up and down with the effort
- Make sure her eyes and nares (nostrils) clear
- Last, examine her poo--do you see any worms? Is it normal in color and consistency?
- Coughing, wheezing, sneezing, or nasal discharge
- Swelling around the eyes, neck or head, or bubbles of goo in the eyes or nares
- Lethargy and lack of appetite paired with watery, green diarrhea
- Long lasting purple discoloration of the wattles, combs and legs
- Drooping wings paired with tremors, circling, twisting of head and neck or lack of movement
These are symptoms that will be obvious on examination, and they can also indicate a serious illness, including Avian Influenza (AI) or Exotic Newcastle Disease (END). If your birds are sick with these symptoms or if you are experiencing an unusual number of deaths in your flock that you can't explain, call your local veterinarian, your state's veterinarian, your state's animal/poultry diagnostic laboratory, your local cooperative extension office, or the USDA Veterinary Services offices (toll-free at 1-866-536-7593) for more information and advice.
You can also watch these YouTube videos to see additional tips and advice:
Watch "Healthy Flocks Rock"
Watch "Keep It Clean"