Your chickens' health: what to look out for

A happy, healthy chicken will appear bright and alert. They will be eating and drinking as normal and be enthusiastic about treats. Their wattles and combs will be bright red in colour, and the comb should be upright. Give your chickens a health check at least once a month.

A poorly chicken will appear slumped or hunched over and may have their eyes shut. Their combs and wattles can look much paler in colour and be flopped to one side. If you’re unsure about your chickens’ health, consult your vet.

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Your chickens’ life expectancy

Ex-commercial hens will generally live between 2 and 6 years. Other breeds can live 8-10 years, and can occasionally survive into their teens.

Clip your chickens’ wings

This will prevent them from escaping, which could put them in danger and at risk from predators. Clip both wings as your chickens can still attempt to fly with only one wing clipped, which could get them into tricky situations. When wing clipping, the aim is to cut the main flight feathers. Always leave your chickens with two feathers for preening. The diagram opposite shows how to wing clip with clean, sharp scissors.

Look out for sour crop

This is when feed in your chicken’s food pipe or crop hasn’t digested properly and starts to ferment. This makes their crop much larger. It’s a serious condition and can be fatal if left untreated.

If your chicken has sour crop, try tipping them forwards – this often makes them sick which helps clear the blockage. Also try giving them probiotic yoghurt (they tend to love strawberry) and gently massaging them to help move the stodgy build-up from the crop. Your chicken will often be off their food, so you’ll need to monitor their eating and make sure they’re still consuming food.

Treat them for lice

Prevent lice by treating your chicken routinely with power. Apply the powder under each wing and between the shoulders on the back. Lice are often visible and can be seen by parting the feathers on your chicken’s back to show the skin.

If your chickens have a bad case of lice, you will see them crawling all over in their hundreds, and their feathers will be dirty and unkempt. Mild cases are still visible and need to be treated in the same way. You should wear gloves when handling chickens with lice.

What to do about scaly leg

Scaly leg is when mites infest your chickens’ legs, burying beneath the scales so they lift and appear uneven. Smother your chickens’ legs in Vaseline to suffocate the mites. In extreme cases, their legs will need cleaning with surgical spirit for a few days until the old scales fall off and new ones can grow through.

Scaly leg is contagious and can be passed from bird to bird, so it’s best to treat all birds kept in the same area. Scaly leg spray can be applied during your routine health checks to prevent the condition.

Worm your chickens

Worm your chickens once every three months. This will prevent worms as well as treat them, if needed. Flubenvet is a powder-based wormer that can be mixed with your chickens’ normal pellets and corn mix – feed them this consecutively for seven days. You can still eat your chickens’ eggs when they’re on Flubenvet.

What to do if they’re egg bound

A chicken is egg bound when one of their eggs gets stuck during laying. Their rear will become enlarged, and there may be discharge. This can be fatal if not treated, and you should contact your vet immediately if you suspect it. Becoming egg bound is more common in elderly birds.

Your chicken will need treating with pain relief and antibiotics. Be aware that some antibiotics mean you won’t be able to eat the eggs from that hen again.

Respiratory issues

Chickens can sometimes suffer with respiratory issues, where they will sound raspier when breathing and sometimes get a build-up of bubbles around their eyes and nostrils. This will need veterinary attention, they are likely to prescribe antibiotics.

Keep your chickens’ night time accommodation clean and free from ammonia or mess, and make sure they’re kept warm. A fresh air flow will help keep your coop dry and help prevent respiratory issues from developing.

If your hens get broody

Broody hens sit on their eggs to try to hatch them. It’s common, but it can be very dangerous to their health. You will need to remove the eggs as broody hens will sit on them for days at a time and not leave for food or water.

You should also reduce the amount of nest boxes available and encourage your chicken to be out of the coop and active, or you will find they become weak very quickly. ‘Keep well’ pellets can be added to their feed to help maintain your chickens’ general health.

Preventing red mites

Red mites are a very common blood sucking bug, which will appear at night to feed off your hens’ blood. They’re the size of a pin prick. Low numbers will cause irritation, but large numbers can lead to anaemia in your chickens. Add Diatomaeceous Earth, available from pet shops, to their nest boxes and dust baths to help prevent an infestation.