If you suspect illness, please read the ENTIRE ‘Health’ section on my site–I go into much more detail.  If you think your chicken needs a vet, CALL ONE!  Info on this site is NOT meant to take the place of proper veterinary care, and I assume no responsibility for your use of the information on this site.

One of the best things you can do for your birds is simply know your flock.  Make it a point every day--even if it is just for a few minutes--to observe your birds. This also means spending some time out in the yard interacting with them, picking them up and handling or petting them and watching how they act.  This will tell you more about YOUR birds than any book.  Only by knowing what is normal for your  birds can you quickly spot a bird that is acting abnormally or is ill.  Chickens are prey animals and instinctively tend to not show symptoms of an illness until it is too late--I've heard many times how "She was fine and then she just dropped dead!"  By the time you notice your bird is sick, it is VERY sick.  Act quickly and be aggressive in your treatment, waiting a day or so to see how they do can be fatal!

Another advantage to picking up your birds is so that you know how their bodies feel, and it also gets the birds used to you handling them.  You should check their general health by feeling their keel (breastbone).  If it feels sharp to your hand, the bird is most likely underweight which usually means an illness or parasite problem.  Check their legs for injuries or scaly mites--more on scaly mites later.  Check their vent, the feathers should be clean and not caked with fecal matter.  Their eyes should be clear and bright and the bird should be alert. Watery discharge from eyes or nares (nostrils) could signal a respiratory illness, as can sneezing and/or wheezing. If you suspect a respiratory illness, place your ear near the bird's breast and back and listen for rales--wet, crackling or rattling breathing sounds which can mean fluid buildup inside.   Combs and wattles should be plump and well-colored, a hen's comb often signals that she is in lay by becoming red and plump.  A pale, shrunken comb may mean that the bird is dehydrated or anemic--anemia can be caused by external mites sucking the birds' blood or internal parasites such as worms. If you suspect a sick bird, compare it to a bird that you know is well to confirm your suspicions.

Another thing you should do with a sick bird--and this is important--is to pry open it's beak and look inside it's mouth.  Sometimes when a bird is not eating and losing weight, people can waste time leaping for antibiotics or other meds when the problem is a mouth injury, fungus, etc.  Chickens normally have a pointed tongue and very deep ridges in the roof of their mouths, that's normal architecture so don't be alarmed when you see it.

Another way to track general health is to check the quality and quantity of their poop.  Yes, I know that's a wonderful way to spend your time, but poop is a great indicator of health.  Normally a chicken poop is fairly dry, and will have two components–a white, chalky part that is the urine and a darker brown-green segment that is fecal matter.  The odd poop here or there with a weird smell, consistency or color isn't usually cause for worry.  If you see an abnormality consistently though, call the vet.  Strange poop that continues is usually one of the first signs of certain illnesses. About every seventh poop (which translates to several times per day) is a 'cecal' poop--that is, one that originates in the ceca area. These tend to look different than normal poops--usually liquidy brown with a bad smell.

A good article on 'Poopology', aimed at finches but very informative, as is the entire site:

URL: URL: http://www.finchniche.com/features_poopology.php

Just so you know, by the time you read a bird health book or two, you will be horrified at how many illnesses and parasites there are for poultry to suffer from, some of them quite gross/agonizing/contagious.  It can give you a rip-roaring case of the Willies, and you will suspect that your birds are suffering from most if not all of them.  Everybody goes through this at first.  Most of the time you can safely rule out everything except a handful of the most common illnesses or problems.

Diagnosing Problems,

Being Prepared

And Supportive Care

Homemade Electrolyte Solution

Chicken Common Sense & Diagnosing Problems

Velvet Sparrow

The Chicken Mantra–learn it, love, it, live it:  

‘If it is possible for a chicken to hurt themselves on something, somehow they will find a way.’

Here is a recipe for an electrolyte solution you can make at home, equivalent to Pedialyte. Be SURE to keep it refrigerated and to make a fresh batch every 12 hours.

Mix together until all dry ingredients are dissolved:

1/2 Qt. Water

1 tsp. Sugar

1/4 tsp Salt

1/4 tsp. Baking Soda

Offer the electrolyte solution free choice in place of the bird’s regular drinking water, handfeeding via an eyedropper at first if necessary.  This solution is a fantastic booster for sick, injured or stressed birds, it’s also great for offering to baby chicks their first few days–especially mail-order chicks that have been stressed by their shipping ordeal.  I have seen this stuff literally be the difference between live and dead birds.

The Chicken Emergency Kit

And believe me, if you are going to keep chickens, you are going to NEED one of these.  Yes, you will.  Probably at 2AM on a Sunday, on a long holiday weekend when nothing is open or when all your local feed stores are OUT of the medication you need NOW.  And when treating chickens for illness, speed is of the essence.

I keep the following on hand at all times as a Chicken Emergency Kit:  The number of your avian vet is THE most important thing you can have on hand–DON’T wait until your favorite bird is sick and THEN call around trying to find a vet that will see a chicken (with most dog & cat vets the answer is ‘No’!)–have an avian vet all picked out and ready to go, plus the name and number of one or two as backups in case your vet is closed.  Chicken health handbooks and printouts of important chicken health or medication instructions or webpages–you don’t want to be stuck sometime with all your info on the Internet and no way to access it. From the feed/pet store, a bottle of Kwik-Stop, a powdered coagulant for bleeding injuries (corn starch works, too), a bottle of Corid (liquid Amprolium) for bouts of Coccidiosis, a bottle of Sulmet (sulfa-based liquid medication) for protozoa-caused illnesses, a tube of Equimax (a broad spectrum paste wormer) to treat internal parasites such as worms, a bottle of Adams Plus Flea & Tick spray (the ‘Plus’ continues working to kill hatching nasties) for external parasites like mites and scaly leg mites, a can of baby bird handfeeding formula (keeps for months in the freezer), and a package of Ornacyn (OTC tetracycline-based bird antibiotic).

For first aid emergencies, from the grocery store or pharmacy, handfeeding syringes (also called irrigation syringes, ask the pharmacist for one, no prescription needed), a tube of Neosporin triple antibiotic ointment for wounds , a packet of 4 x 4 gauze pads to clean & dress wounds and a roll of paper tape to bind them.

When needed at the time when you need to hand feed a bird, also a jar each of stage 1 (the pureed type for the youngest babies, no chunks) chicken, peas, and carrots baby food, and a bottle of unflavored Pedialyte (an electrolyte solution for human infants, find it at the grocery store) or use the recipe on this page and mix your own.  With this stuff on hand I feel ready for those midnight emergencies, because such things in life NEVER happen on Monday afternoon when the vet is in, my Internet connection is working and my computer is functioning!

This is just a starter kit, you may find based on your own experiences what else you need to keep on hand.  Chickens are experts at finding things to hurt themselves on/with, usually 1 hour before you are slated to leave on a two week vacation.

Handfeeding Sick Or Injured Chickens

If a bird is sick enough to require handfeeding, you usually want to go with a more ‘loose pudding’ consistency food mixture so your chicken doesn’t choke on food bits–the pureed food goes down easier.

For sick birds I mix:

Electrolyte solution (or electrolyte/medicated water if they are on it)

Some powdered baby bird handfeeding formula or Gerber Mixed Cereal for babies

Stage 1 (pureed, no chunks) human baby food–equal amounts of meat, a green and an orange vegetable

For a bird suffering from bacterial illness/a bird on antibiotics:

Same as above, but add–

Unflavored yogurt, ONLY the kind with active cultures

For a hen suffering from egg binding or a bird with sour crop or a crop impaction:

Same as above, but add–

Unflavored yogurt, ONLY the kind with active cultures

A bit of olive oil

Yogurt is a great source of calcium which egg bound hens need, and the active cultures help replace the good bacteria in the gut.  For egg bound hens, the olive oil also adds a bit of ‘slip’ that will eventually make it’s way to their vent–chickens only have one opening back there for everything, including eggs, so it will get there eventually!  For birds with sour crop or a crop impaction, the olive oil can help loosen the impaction and help them to pass it.

If you have a sick bird and need to hand feed it, here's what I do:  first I keep the bird warm and quiet, placed on a heating pad if need be.  Place your palm firmly on the heating pad for at least 45 seconds,  The heating pad should warm to your hand but NOT hot--don't burn your bird.  Both the food and the bird should be warm for the best results.  If you can get hand-feeding powder manufactured for all baby birds at your local pet store, great.  Keep it in the frig in case you need it.  If not, at the grocery store you can get Gerber mixed cereal for babies (a flaky powder to mix with milk or water), a jar EACH of stage 1 strained chicken, carrots and peas (or any meat, green vegetable and orange vegetable).  

Also get a bottle of unflavored Pedialyte (a liquid that has electrolytes in it) or use the recipe for homemade electrolyte solution, and a small tub of unflavored yogurt with live cultures.  Check the expiration dates on both the Pedialyte and yogurt to be sure they are still good, expired stuff is useless.  Mix this to a loose paste consistency and warm it a bit--not too hot, it should just feel warm to your hand, around 100 degrees.  If you use a microwave make SURE to stir the mixture!  If your bird is not eating or drinking you need to provide both food and moisture, that's where the baby food and Pedialyte come in.  Some people debate the wisdom of giving dairy products such as yogurt to birds--some say that birds cannot digest dairy.  On the other hand, yogurt with active cultures helps replace the 'good' natural flora in the gut that a round of antibiotics has killed off--antibiotics don't discriminate and kill 'good' bacteria AND 'bad' bacteria, which can cause diarrhea and dangerous dehydration in birds.  In my experience small amounts of yogurt have been more beneficial then harmful--use your best judgement and everything in moderation!  A great alternative to yogurt is BeneBac, a gel containing active cultures made for birds and sold in pet stores.  Again, check the expiration date, though.

If a bird stops eating on it’s own, start handfeeding right away–don’t wait, the clock is ticking and you are fighting weakness and weight loss.  Sometimes there is a day or three between the time the medications can start working and the time the bird starts to eat again, and you need to be ready to keep your bird going until the meds can start to help and they feel well enough to resume eating on their own.  Chickens are big birds and need lots of food.  

Expect a struggle when handfeeding–chickens don’t really appreciate having their heads grabbed, beaks forced open and food squirted in.  Just be calm, quick and decisive and get it over and done with to avoid overstressing your bird.  Large chickens may require that one person hold the bird while the other grabs it’s head and feeds it.  If your bird DOESN’T struggle or resist, it’s already dicey and you need to be Johnny-on-the-spot with it’s supportive care.  To feed a sick bird, first get it warm–if a chicken is sick enough to have stopped eating, it has likely gotten very  weak and lost weight.  Keeping it warm protects it and helps it retain body heat, and I have found that warm birds just plain do better.  Keeping sick birds in a quiet, warm, draft-free place to help them conserve their body heat helps them immensely.  Don’t make a sick chicken deal with noisy kids, barking dogs, etc.

To handfeed a sick bird, first wrap the bird in a towel.  This helps keep the bird calm and restrains it's wings so they don’t waste energy flapping or struggling when you feed them.  I just drape the towel across the bird’s back and tuck it in around it's breast, then hold the bird in my lap and under my arm like a football.  To feed the mixture you don't need to worry about getting the food down the bird's throat, just place the food in it's mouth on the back of it’s tongue and let it swallow.  This is safer than worrying about trying to remember which hole in the birds' throat goes to it's lungs and which goes to the crop!  Just so you know, though: Birds have TWO holes in their mouths--the one under the tongue is for breathing and the one at the very back of the throat is for food & water. If you force food or water down the wrong hole, the bird can aspirate it into it's lungs, which in turn can cause pneumonia and death.  To get the food into the birds' mouth, you can use a handfeeding syringe from the pet store, your vet or pharmacy (it's just a disposable plastic syringe with a long plastic tip instead of a needle, also called an 'irrigation syringe', no prescription needed), an eyedropper with a large opening, a baby ear bulb syringe, a wooden matchstick or Qtip with the cotton removed, your finger dipped in food, etc.  Just make sure the opening in the syringe is large enough for the food to pass through it without clogging it.  I usually grab & hold the bird’s head with my left hand, prying open their beak and sticking a bit of one finger in there to prop it open, then with the feeding syringe in my right hand place food in their beak.  Then let them go and allow them to swallow.  Only place a small amount of food at a time in your bird’s mouth, don’t rush.  When feeding is done, follow it up with some water or electrolyte solution to help clear the inside of the beak of food that may dry, cake and cause sores.  You may have to handfeed the bird every hour/couple of hours during the daylight hours.  At night allow it to sleep naturally while still keeping it warm and quiet.

If a sick bird is still eating on it's own, in addition to chicken feed you can help it along by offering scrambled eggs, cooked hamburger, diced grapes and tomatoes, live mealworms, raw corn, etc., along with the Pedialyte to drink.  Spoil it for now, give it plenty of goodies.  The idea is to get the bird to eat, keep it hydrated and fueled, and for it to keep eating.  Keep it going until the meds you are giving it have time to work.  If the bird was worth investing your time, affection and money in in the first place to own it, it's worth investing a little time in to give it a shot at recovery.  Chickens are remarkably tough, but are still birds after all, so are also fragile.


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