The little flock of hybrid hens that I keep in my back garden are hardy enough to cope with whatever conditions the British weather throws at them. With their personal duvets fluffed up they will sleep cuddled together for warmth on the cold, winter nights. In the warmth of summer they will spread out on their perches and raise their wings slightly to allow air to flow and cool their bodies. However, as with any pets (or people of course), hens can and do get sick.
Hens are stoic creatures and will often hide their illnesses well. As part of the daily routine required to take care of them I will watch each bird as she goes about her business to make sure that all seems well. Hens are active and inquisitive creatures so should be bright and alert. They should have sleek feathers, upright heads and tails, clear eyes and smooth legs. Any change in their demeanour signals a potential problem that requires further investigation.
Minor issues that are easily dealt with can become major problems if left untreated so it is important to take action as soon as anything untoward is spotted. We accept a duty of care when we choose to keep living creatures and their well being, safety and comfort are in our hands. My aim is for my birds to thrive in a pleasant and stress free environment. Hens do not like change so I will try to treat any illnesses that they develop myself in their familiar surroundings. Sometimes a bird will need to be isolated from the flock but I try to minimise this as reintroductions can result in injuries. An established flock is liable to attack an unfamiliar bird.
I am going to go through a number of illnesses and issues that I have had to deal with in this post. If you are of a squeamish disposition then please read no further.
Just like humans, hens can catch a cold. I have no idea if that is the correct term for it, but symptoms present in much the same way. The hen will sniffle and sneeze, become more lethargic than usual and show less interest in scratching with the flock. She may look hunched with her head and tail down or rest in the coop during the day. Her eyes may not look as clear as they should. When I spot this sort of behaviour I will add a couple of spoonfuls of poultry spice to their feed and a squirt of apple cider vinegar to their water. These are like vitamin supplements for hens and offer a general pick me up. The entire flock will benefit and therefore be able to fight off any infection that could be passed around. The hen should look better within a few days.
A hen can suffer from a number of internal issues which can be spotted by keeping an eye on their poo. A keeper soon becomes familiar with what is normal and can take steps to treat problems quickly when anything unusual appears in the droppings. As I allow my flock to free range but have kept their runs in the same part of the garden for years (each run can sit on one of two areas available) I need to be vigilant about the risk of intestinal worms. I have had to deal with this once.
The best course of treatment is to mix a powder called flubenvet in with the feed and ensure that the birds eat nothing else for seven to ten days. After this period of time I move the runs to their alternative position, dig over the ground and sprinkle it with a disinfectant called Stalosan F. Even if I do not notice any problems I will move the runs and clean the ground several times a year as a precaution. If left untreated worms will kill a hen.
The worms that I have spotted in the birds poo have been small but noticeable. Other types of worms can afflict hens but can be harder to spot. If my birds look ill, show no other signs of a particular illness and do not recover in a few days then I will consider worming as a precautionary measure. I would not do this more than twice a year.
3) Scaly Leg Mite
A number of my birds have developed scaly leg mite which presents itself as raised scales on the legs when the scales should be close and smooth. The problem is caused by a mite which burrows into the leg, under the scales, causing discomfort and pain. If left untreated this can lame the bird and could thus, ultimately, result in death.
There are many proprietary products available to treat this condition but I use nappy rash cream and petroleum jelly. Applied weekly for around four weeks this quickly soothes the discomfort and kills the mites. The legs are unlikely to look fully recovered until the scales are replaced, normally when the bird moults, but the suffering hen’s gait should improve quickly. Mites can move from bird to bird so the whole flock needs to be carefully checked and all affected birds treated.
4) Blocked Crop
If a hen eats too much long grass or other solid matter then she can suffer a blocked crop. This presents itself as a swollen chest that, in the worst cases, can swing from side to side. A suffering hen will appear to struggle to swallow and may open and close their beak a lot as if gasping for air. If the blocked crop becomes infected then a smelly, greenish brown liquid may come out of their mouth when she leans forward to drink. As all food and water needs to pass through the crop this blockage can be a serious issue and measures need to be taken to try to clear it.
Hens are lactose intolerant so it is not usually a good idea to feed them dairy products. However, live yoghurt can help with digestive issues and this is what I have fed a hen to try to clear a crop. Prior to feeding I have gently massaged the blockage and tilted the hen forward to pour out the accumulated liquid (this is yukky!). The yoghurt is then fed and nature left to take it’s course. I have lost one hen to this problem and successfully treated another. The surviving hen has laid me no further eggs.
5) Calcium Deficiency
Producing eggs and regrowing feathers requires a lot of calcium and I have had two birds who have suffered from severe deficiencies. This has caused them to lose the use of their legs and I have found them collapsed on their sides in the run. Treatment was to isolate them to ensure no bullying and to provide food with added limestone flour and cod liver oil. The food and water offered had to be placed on the ground within reach as the bird could not move. Poo was cleaned away regularly and after about twelve hours the bird could be placed on their feet and hold their body weight. They were then returned to the flock and the general feed treated with limestone flour and cod liver oil for a couple of days. Both birds made full recoveries.
Laying all those delicious eggs puts a lot of strain on the hens insides and I have had several birds suffer prolapses. I always try to treat this but have only had one survivor. A prolapse results in blood, which is irresistible to hens, so the suffering bird must be isolated quickly. An attempt can be made to gently push the ejected mass back into the bird (wear disposable gloves to guard against infection). However, if too much damage has been caused or if it all comes out again then the kindest treatment is to dispatch the bird. This should only be done by someone who is confident and capable with the procedure as no bird should be made to suffer.
7) Avoiding Infestations
The plastic chicken coops that I use are not as prone to harbour red mite as wooden houses, but both these little pests and the white lice that can live on a bird must still be watched out for. As well as causing discomfort a major infestation can kill. If I spot anything on a bird or in the coop that I believe may be a risk (e.g. black or white powder like material that is not shed skin) then I will clean out and disinfect the coops. I will then sprinkle a proprietary powder in the nesting material, under my birds wings and around their necks and vents. I have done this as a precaution a couple of times and have, so far, avoided infestations.
8) The Unknown Killer
Sometimes, however vigilant we have been, a bird just dies. It is rare for there to have been no sign of illness, but a hen that has been looking under the weather will generally recover more often than succumb. This week one of my elderly hens started to look a little less alert than is normal. Being an old lady in my flock she was less active than the youngsters already but she had been noticeably stiffer in her movements and less interested in her friends in recent days. Yesterday she went into the nest box (she has not been laying eggs for some time) and tucked her head under her wing. She did not appear to be in pain and had other no visible problems. She showed no interest in food which is never a good sign in a hen. When I closed the coop last night she was in the same position. This morning she was dead.
Losing a pet is always sad. I comfort myself with knowing that my hens live a good life with plenty of food, shelter and space. Their presence in our garden enriches our lives with a great deal more than just eggs. Dealing with their deaths is a necessary part of hen keeping but it is still hard. Today is a sad day as we remember the little chicken that we named Cracker. I wonder if the rest of the flock are aware that she has gone.