At some point most chicken keepers will be faced with a situation that requires providing medical support to one of their birds: an injury, illness, frostbite, burns, or end-of-life palliative care. What that might look like depends on your set-up, the weather, your comfort level in bringing a bird into your house and what kind of care is called for.
I have occasionally brought a hen inside for a kitchen sink bath to treat for bumblefoot. I’ve also converted my countertop into a makeshift exam table when dealing with a prolapsed vent and an egg bound hen. I’ve currently got two main coops, two smaller coops (the latter which are rarely used) and space for an infirmary in a separate part of my walk-in coop. Weather permitting, I’m easily able to deal with some issues by separating a bird in their own private space outside.
Until recently I had only once before had a bird convalesce in the house. Several years ago – when I had only one coop – I bought a bantam couple, their two daughters and two other pullets all from the same place. One of the slightly older pullets created a substantial pecking injury to one of the six week old’s head. I treated the wound and set her up in a dog crate, with her sister, in the bathroom. At the time I had cats and dogs and it was the one warm, quiet room where they could be undisturbed. If you’ve ever kept chickens in a confined space, even just transporting them in a car, you’re familiar with a certain smell that chickens emit. I’m not talking about poop, but a particular odour that is both distinctive and powerful. After a few days of having to shower in the shared temporary chicken hospital I was glad my patient had healed enough to go back outside again.
Recently I brought Ginger into the house when we experienced a cold snap and I was concerned about her having to contend with freezing rain, snow and sleeping by herself in the nest box. Several weeks ago she stopped roosting on the bars at night, which is never a good sign. I’d been watching her in the yard – she was still active, eating and drinking, but clearly not enough as she had lost weight. Bringing her inside was also an opportunity to monitor exactly her food and water intake (less than I thought) and what her poop looks like (sloppy with lots of urates).
She was in a holding pattern without a diagnosis, neither having made an improvement or interestingly, a decline. I returned her to the flock for a few days while I dealt with my second house-bound patient: my rooster, Simon.
An infirmary can be used to treat a bird that you know what their issue is: pecking or mating injury; wounds caused by a predator, coccidiosis or crop issues. If you’re not sure exactly what’s wrong with your bird, separating it from the flock is an opportunity to conduct a total health check to see if you can compile a list of symptoms, enabling you to narrow down a diagnosis.
Regardless of the health issue you’re dealing with here are some pointers:
- Establish a relationship with a veterinarian experienced with chickens.
- If you don’t have a clear diagnosis, don’t throw every potential treatment at a vulnerable bird making their condition worse.
- Have a well-stocked first aid kit.
- A chicken infirmary should be a clean, quiet and warm place where the bird will be undisturbed by kids, pets, noise and stress. It might be a spot in your laundry room, basement or garage.
- Refrain from over-handling your bird.
- Ensure access to fresh water. Hydration is more critical than food in the first one or two days. You may have to offer water on a spoon or dip your bird’s beak into it in order to get them to drink.
- Offer electrolytes and vitamins via their water to ensure sufficient hydration and a boost to their immune system. (Don’t give vitamins while treating with Corid)
- Provide foods that are appropriate for their issue.
- Don’t change their diet too much as the goal is to get them to eat. Give foods that are easy to grasp and digest at the outset. I’ve found mixing canned cat food or Grower crumbles into some yoghurt is popular.
- Underweight birds should be fed higher protein and high carbohydrate diets. Those with crop issues or coccidiosis should be given soft foods like a mash (slightly moistened crumbles).
- Replace uneaten food and water frequently.
- If your bird is ill and weight loss is an issue you can weigh her every couple of days to gauge whether she’s making any improvements in that area or not.
- If you need to treat for pain give Metacam (Meloxicam). ½ tablet of baby aspirin (81 mg) will work, but don’t administer if there is bleeding/wounds as it acts as a blood thinner and interferes with clotting.
- If you are giving oral medications read this post on how to do it safely without risk of aspiration.
- Force feeding may be required. Scrambled eggs made into a small torpedo shape and then popped into the back of their mouth might be enough to get them eating. I have never done tube feeding. If that’s your best option then study online videos and have all the right equipment (i.e. mini aquarium tubing and large syringes).
- Do not give antibiotics unless you have a proper diagnosis and know that the medication is appropriate for the issue.
- If your bird is well enough to return to the flock integrate it slowly and under supervision, as though it was a new member being added to the flock.
- Recognize that in many instances your bird might not recover, despite your efforts, and perhaps the most you can offer is comfort and safety.
- Sadly, if there is no improvement, or a decline, have a plan in place for humane euthanasia.
- Invest in a necropsy if your bird has died from an undiagnosed illness that might be transmitted to the rest of your flock.
Featured art image: Rebecca Murch