When should I take my pet chicken to the vet?

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As keepers of pet chickens, we've all been there. You notice one of your birds exhibiting some unusual behaviors or symptoms, and you're faced with a dilemma:

What do you do? What is causing the symptoms and how can you help? Is what you're seeing normal chicken behavior, a minor issue that may resolve itself, or serious problem that warrants a professional help?

Let's be honest: You don't want to pay a big vet bill only to find out it's nothing serious, but you also don't want to assume it's nothing serious and have it turn out to be something deadly for your flock. In most cases, only a qualified veterinarian can help you know the difference.

So, when should you take your pet chicken to the vet?

The simple answer is, take your birds to a qualified veterinarian any time you have concerns about your flock.

But in reality, it's not always that simple. Whether you take a bird to the vet will depend on your individual flock management strategy as it relates to the purpose of your flock, your budget, your level of experience and expertise in keeping chickens, and how serious the symptoms you're seeing are in your estimation.

Securing a visit with a farm veterinarian or avian veterinarian used to be tougher, but thanks to the interwebs, you can can get help for most any problem with our friends at VetTriage. They are trained, licensed veterinarians who are on standby 24/7/365 and willing to provide tele-health services for your poultry (or any other bird) for a very reasonable fee.

The best-case vet scenario

Let's assume for a moment that your situation is ideal for chicken-keeping and caring for ailing flock members:
  • You have the financial resources to take your birds to the vet whenever needed.
  • Your vet is available to provide support over the phone, and you always call before you self-treat your birds. If you're about to try something that won't work or could be dangerous for your flock, your vet can at least tell you what NOT to do.
  • You don't hesitate to take individual birds to the vet as needed. When you see injuries, lethargy, drooping wings, diarrhea, or other symptoms, you get them an appointment with a vet immediately. You know that hesitation can cause disease to spread rapidly through your flock and your vet can help keep that from happening. 
  • You are constantly learning new things about caring for chickens, and your vet is a vital part of that education process.
  • When a bird dies of an unknown cause, you have a necropsy done so that you can determine the cause of the death in order to practice good biosecurity to protect your remaining flock.
If most or all of those scenario components applies to you, you and your flock are very lucky to be receiving such quality care!

But for most of us, one or more of those factors in the "perfect" world is missing. This is the real world, after all!

What to do if your vet situation is not ideal:

If your situation is not quite ideal (and whose is?), you'll have to do the best you can for your flock, given your unique set of circumstances.
    • If you do not have the financial resources to take sick chickens to the vet, then you must help your birds avoid getting sick in the first place. Top on your list of priorities should be making sure bedding remains odor-free, providing an area for dust bathing, and providing them access to clean water and a quality feed at all times. (And if "chicken math" has taken over and your flock size has grown out-of-hand, you may want to consider selling on donating some members of your flock to reduce costs so that you can give better care to fewer birds.)
    • If you're not sure whether there is a qualified vet nearby, you can consult the Association of Avian Veterinarians website to find the avian veterinarians nearest you, or try veterinary telehealth.

      Bear in mind that some avian veterinarians will be more comfortable with exotic bird species and may not be as familiar with chickens. Make sure you ask if they treat chickens when you call. If they are not qualified to treat chickens, ask them for the names of any vets in the area that are able to treat poultry.
    • If you do not wish to make an appointment with a veterinarian, do your best to get accurate, quality chicken health information online or from other chicken keepers. Please remember, however, that you may not be able to diagnose your birds correctly using information on the internet. Even at My Pet Chicken, we are not vets, so while we work hard to make sure the information we provide is accurate, up-to-date, and helpful, it is not intended to replace the professional opinion of a qualified veterinarian.
    • If you aren't continually learning new things about chicken-keeping, start learning! Get curious. There are so many resources online or in books! Our Chicken Help section is a great place to start.

If your situation is not ideal, commit yourself to providing the best care you can give your flock while recognizing that you are living in the real world.

When you MUST seek veterinary help:

      If your flock has experienced unexplained losses, you owe it to yourself, the remaining members of your flock, and your community to find out if the losses were due to a highly infectious poultry disease like Avian Influenza (AI) or Exotic Newcastle Disease (END). In these cases, you will want to have a qualified veterinarian perform a necropsy to determine the cause of death. Some highly infectious diseases must be reported to state authorities to help prevent their spread to other flocks. Make sure you comply with any local, state, or federal laws that apply to you. Contact your local state agriculture department to see if they offer necropsy services. Oftentimes, they can perform a necropsy for a very reasonable fee.

If you're not sure what to do:

      Call a 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.