Chicken Health For Dummies
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Knowing what a healthy chicken looks like may stop you from mistaking illness or deformity for the normal appearance of a chicken. The following quick pointers can help you determine whether a chicken is healthy and normal:

  • Activity level. Differences exist between breeds, but a healthy chicken is rarely still during the daylight hours. Some breeds are more nervous and flighty; others are calm but busy. In very warm weather, all chickens become less active.

  • Eyes. Chicken eyes should be clear and shiny, with no discharge or swelling around them. When a chicken is alert and active, its eyelids shouldn’t be showing.

  • Feathers. In general, a chicken shouldn’t be missing large patches of feathers. One exception to this is hens kept with a cockerel. These hens often have bare patches on the back and behind the head that are normal and caused by mating. However, you should never see open sores or swelling where the skin is bare.

    If you take on ex-battery hens, they’re normally quite bare when you first re-home them. Commercial egg farms get rid of the hens when they do because their laying slows right down, perhaps stopping altogether for a while, because they’re in the middle of their first moult, and are never quite so prolific afterwards. With some TLC they soon feather up again.

    A healthy bird has its feathers smoothed down when it’s active, though some breed differences do exist. For example, a Frizzle with its twisted feathers never looks smooth. A bird with its feathers fluffed out that isn’t sleeping or taking a dustbath is probably ill.

  • Feet and toes. A chicken’s three front toes should point straight ahead, and the feet shouldn’t turn outwards. The hock joints (like knee joints that bend backwards) shouldn’t touch, and the toes shouldn’t point in towards each other. Chicken feet shouldn’t be webbed (webbing is skin connecting the toes), although occasionally webbed feet show up as a genetic defect, and you shouldn’t see any swellings on the legs or toes. Check the bottom of the foot also for swelling and raw, open areas.

  • Mental state. Chickens should appear alert and avoid strangers if in a lighted area. Unless they’ve been tamed, inactive birds that allow easy handling are probably ill. Chickens in the dark, however, are very passive, which is normal.

  • Mouth. Chickens breathe with their mouths closed, except in very hot conditions. If cooling the bird doesn’t result in it breathing with its mouth closed, it’s ill.

  • Nose. Both nostrils should be clear and open, with no discharge.

  • Vent. The feathers under the tail of the chicken around the vent or cloaca, the common opening for faeces, mating and passing eggs, shouldn’t be matted with faeces, or the area have any surrounding sores or wounds.

  • Wings. Chickens of most breeds carry their wings close to the body, but a few breeds have wings that point downwards. (Study the breed characteristics to see what’s normal for your breed.) The wings shouldn’t droop down or look twisted. Sometimes droopy wings signify illness in the bird.

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