Chickens, like all birds, hide their illness from casual observation. This is a preservation technique designed to hide their weakened condition from predators. Unfortunately their illness is also hidden from us and we don’t realise how thin our birds have become until they are handled, or they are about to fall of the perch.
To help you learn to recognise the signs of illness, you need to have an understanding of how health birds act. Observe your chickens every day when they are calm. They should be bright, active and alert. Different breeds have different shades of colour in their combs, so get an idea of what colour is healthy for each particular bird. Pale combs can be an indicator that the bird is a bit off, however healthy birds can have paler combs especially when moulting. The chickens breathing should be quiet and they should struggle a little when handled. Their legs and nostrils should be clean and eyes bright. You cannot really judge anything from their droppings as this varies from bird to bird.
Signs of illness can include, drooping wings and tail, discharge from the nostrils and eyes. Birds with diarrhoea will have faecal stains around their vent. Sick birds may lose their appetite, but continue to drink. Respiratory problems can include raspy breathing, tail bob while breathing or a cough.
Egg Bound Hens
Egg bound hens will usually need to be euthanized. Affected hens usually become depressed, stop eating and die. The most common cause is perches being set too high. Perches should be set below 60cm.
Birds which develop the habit of pecking at other birds, or breaking open and eating eggs will usually need to be culled to prevent the habit from spreading to other chickens in the flock.
Lice are small parasites which infest birds around the vent and neck. Lice eggs ball up together to about the size of a marble and are attached to the base of the feather. The birds will often stop laying so treat with poultry dust.
Stick Fast Fleas
These are a problem usually in summer and autumn. Chooks can be infested with hundreds of parasites usually around the eyes, combs and wattles. The fleas look like shiny black dots. The larvae need deep sand to develop and a concrete floor can often help. Commercial chicken farms have found this to be the answer. Treat birds with poultry dust and use an insecticide such as coopex or maldison on floors, perches and surrounds. Dogs, cats and humans can become infected. Products such as Frontline will usually fix the problem on your pets.
Mites and Ticks
These can cause a decrease in egg production, lethargy and even death in young or old birds. They can also spread other diseases. The most common mites in WA are the scaly leg mite and red mite. Scaly leg mite can be treated with horticultural oil or Vaseline being rubbed onto the affected legs to smother the insects, or poultry dust. The scaly leg mites occur in older birds, usually when pen hygiene is poor. There is a scaly irregular thickening of the legs, beginning at the toes. In severe infestations the comb, wattles and neck may be affected. Affected birds should be isolated and treated, or culled. Ticks leave the bird during the day and hide in crevices etc. You may have to take a torch and look under the wings of the bird during the night if you suspect an infestation. Ticks look like small grey – black dots.
This is a severe disease of young birds. Parasites invade and multiply in the intestinal lining, which results in bleeding in the intestines and the presence of blood in the droppings. Young birds display a hunched posture and can die very quickly, older birds are more resistant. It is most common in humid environments, or in damp, rainy weather. Overcrowding and damp litter can help the spread of the infection. Feed a medicated chick starter feed to give young birds the best chance.
Worms are very common in poultry, however unless the birds are stressed or already in poor condition they are usually not a problem. Pig and Poultry wormers are available and they can either be syringed into the beak of individual birds, or placed into a solitary water source. For this to be effective it is best to leave the chickens for a few hours without water and then dose the birds water container with the required amount, ensuring this is the only water available.
There are 7 different viral diseases that affect domestic poultry. They can be vaccinated against either as day-old chicks or later in life. Vaccination against Newcastle disease is compulsory ion commercial flocks, it is optional for smaller flocks.
Antibiotics can be used to treat diseases such as Fowl Cholera, however, on some properties total culling is the only answer. Birds appear depressed and lose their appetite a few days before death. Stress is a predisposition to fowl cholera. Mycoplasmosis is another bacteria that causes mild respiratory disease. It very rarely causes death unless complicated with other conditions.
Steps to follow in keeping poultry
- Are the birds from a reliable source and vaccinated
- Is the food and water supply good
- Do they have shelter
- Is the hygiene in the pen good and not overcrowded
- Do you know what your healthy flock should look like
- Catch and examine your birds. This can be done at night when you lock them up away from predators and they are quieter. Use this time to search for ticks, mites etc.
- Worm regularly and try to eliminate stressful conditions such as too many roosters, overcrowding etc. Also having a net over chook house can help keep wild birds out and help control the diseases these birds bring in.