The internet is full of online chicken groups, many of them concerned with health issues and emergencies. I understand that not everyone has access to, or can afford, to take their birds to a Vet. And even those that do often have to contend with a well-meaning, but untrained small animal Vet trying to apply mammalian strategies to an avian species. Sadly, often those professionals are less experienced than seasoned chicken keepers.
I’ve learned a few things from having birds as well as from following many online threads of folks looking for advice and assistance.
Prevention is important, but even with the best of care chickens get sick. If you’re serious about being a good steward do some general reading and learn about basic chicken anatomy, physiology, and common pathogens and parasites. Chances are you’ll need that information at some point.
Observation and Information Gathering
- Spend time with your birds and do regular health checks.
- When one is looking off note the symptoms with timelines and details.
- By the time you notice a bird looking sick they’ve probably been sick for longer. As prey animals they hide their vulnerabilities.
- Remove them from the flock where they might be subject to aggression. Additional stress can exacerbate their condition so keep them calm and quiet.
- Imagine you’re feeling under the weather; what would make you feel better? A cozy bed, a tempting meal and some TLC from your loved ones? That goes for chickens, too. Set up a sick bay where you can offer supportive care.
Understand that interventions often require you to weigh risks vs potential benefits. Advice can often be divided into two categories: ‘can’t hurt and might help’ or ‘won’t help and might hurt’. Will you be able to recognize the difference?
- If you don’t have access to a knowledgeable vet help might come in the form of another chicken keeper or internet group.
- It’s frustrating to read online threads in which the poster seeking help merely says ‘my chicken is sick’ which is not very useful. Make a thorough list of symptoms and take good, clear photos if possible. A picture (or video) is sometimes worth a thousand words.
- If you post in an open forum you are liable to get a variety of responses that range from reliable advice to something pointing you in the wrong direction. How will you assess which advice is the best to follow?
- Do a thorough physical exam and treat for any wounds or shock.
- When a bird’s health is compromised throwing everything but the kitchen sink at it ‘just in case’ often causes more harm than good.
- It’s important that your patient stay hydrated. Provide water or electrolytes via bowl, spoon or eyedropper. Don’t force them unless absolutely necessary and make sure they don’t aspirate. For proper technique to administer oral meds or fluids read this.
- Yes, coccidiosis, egg binding, and Marek’s Disease are common, but I guarantee that many birds ‘diagnosed’ with these conditions in online groups don’t actually have them.
- Treating a bird for external or internal parasites can be hard on their body and exacerbate what’s going on. Before doing so, confirm that dealing with an infestation at this moment will improve their health outcomes or not.
- Don’t use antibiotics without an accurate diagnosis. They are designed to be used to treat bacterial and not viral infections. Antibiotics are a broad class of drugs and each medication should be used for a specific intervention (i.e. respiratory infections; wounds; broad spectrum). They are not always interchangeable and neither are the ways they are administered (i.e. injection, diluted in drinking water, oral suspension).
- Some folks think that because chickens are stoical in the face of injury or illness that they don’t feel pain. Of course they do, but have adapted to hide it. Provide appropriate pain meds when required.
- Be prepared to humanely euthanize a bird that is deteriorating without hope of recovery; is not making progress within 48 hours; or is in significant pain and distress.
As caring chicken stewards we have a hard time doing nothing. It’s a terrible and helpless feeling, but making educated and knowledgeable decisions can can make the difference between life and death.