Chicken Health For Dummies book cover

Chicken Health For Dummies

By: Julie Gauthier and Robert T. Ludlow Published: 01-29-2013

Everything you need to care for and keep happy, healthy chickens

With directives on diagnosing and treating sick or ailing chickens, as well as general information on how to keep chickens in peak condition, Chicken Health For Dummies is your go-to guide on how to best care for and keep chickens.

Inside, you'll get everything you need to know about chicken health and wellness: an encyclopedia full of common and not-so-common diseases, injuries, symptoms, and cures that chicken owners may encounter. Chicken Health For Dummies provides chicken owners with one handy, all-encompassing resource.

  • Helps you identify potential hazards and signs of ill health in your chicken
  • Shows you how to properly examine chickens to identify and isolate potential health issues before they spread to the rest of the flock
  • An encyclopedia full of common and uncommon diseases, injuries, symptoms, and cures for chickens

Chicken Health For Dummies joins Raising Chickens For Dummies and Building Chickens Coops For Dummies to round out the For Dummies reference library as a must-have resource for both rural and urban chicken owners.

Articles From Chicken Health For Dummies

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35 results
Chicken Health For Dummies Cheat Sheet

Cheat Sheet / Updated 04-27-2022

As a chicken flock keeper, you’re concerned about the well-being, safety, and health of your flock. Although you can’t control everything, such as predators, pests, diseases, and injuries, you can take a proactive role to ensure your chickens thrive in your backyard. The following can help you raise healthy chickens so they can provide you with eggs and happiness for years to come.

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How to Recognize Fungal Infections in Chickens: Molds and Yeasts

Article / Updated 12-10-2021

Sometimes your flock may come down with ailments caused by fungal infections. Fungi aren’t plants or animals; they’re a unique, primitive category of life all their own. Mushrooms, molds, and yeast are fungi. Molds and yeasts can infect and sicken backyard chickens under the right circumstances. Brooder pneumonia (aspergillosis) Aspergillus mold organisms grow in every chicken’s environment, flourishing in damp bedding and rotten coop wood. Healthy adult chickens aren’t particularly bothered by a little mold, but when the environment is teeming with mold spores, young chicks or stressed, rundown adult birds can be overwhelmed. Aspergillus causes different forms of aspergillosis. The most common form of aspergillus mold infection is brooder pneumonia, a lung and air-sac disease of chicks. Less-common forms of aspergillosis affect eyes, skin, brain, or bones. Chicks affected by brooder pneumonia gasp, lose their appetite, and look sleepy. The disease doesn’t spread from chick to chick, but the mold can infect many chicks in a group at once, and up to half may die from the infection. Unfortunately no effective drug treatment or vaccination is available for brooder pneumonia. Good nursing care and eliminating mold from the environment helps chicks survive. You can prevent outbreaks of brooder pneumonia with these suggestions: Start your chicks off right with a clean and disinfected brooder box or area. Check for rotten wood or moldy spots on the floor and walls of the building where you brood your chicks. Remove rotting wood or treat any moldy spots with a fungicidal disinfectant before moving chicks in. Use clean feed, hay, or straw. Make sure none of them have any mold, which can lead to brooder pneumonia. Clean chick feeders and waterers daily. You can sanitize drinking water with household bleach. Remove wet bedding promptly and replace it with fresh, dry stuff. Candidiasis (thrush) Candidiasis, also known as thrush, is caused by the yeast Candida albicans, and it affects the mouth, crop, gizzard, or vent of many types of birds, including chickens. Whitish, thickened patches form inside the crop or on the skin of the vent area of a chicken suffering from candidiasis. In a few cases, sores may develop in the gizzard’s lining. The outward signs of candidiasis aren’t very obvious: Affected birds are thin, listless, and disheveled — they just don’t feel very good. The yeast organism takes advantage of young, old, and sick birds, and isn’t usually a problem for healthy adult chickens. Candidiasis and unsanitary, overcrowded conditions go together. Because the signs of candidiasis aren’t apparent on the outside of the bird, a diagnostic laboratory usually diagnoses the disease during postmortem examination. Dirty feeders or waterers are excellent places for the yeast to grow. Long-term antibiotic use also encourages yeast infections. Candidiasis isn’t contagious between birds, but several birds living in the same filthy environment or exposed to antibiotics in feed or water can be affected at one time. You can prevent candidiasis by having clean feeders, waterers, and coops, and by using antibiotics only when absolutely necessary. Candidiasis is treatable. If it’s diagnosed in your flock, try these treatment steps: Separate affected chickens from the rest of the flock so that they can’t be picked on by flock mates. If you’ve been treating the chickens with antibiotics, stop it. Use a copper sulfate/vinegar solution in the drinking water. You can find copper sulfate crystals at farm stores. Offer a probiotic (available at feed stores) or yogurt. Clean feeders and waterers daily. Ringworm (favus) You’ve probably heard of (or had) ringworm, a fungal infection of the skin that people and pets can catch from each other. Chickens can also get ringworm and share the fungus with their flock keepers. (Here’s a tip for word game players: Favus is the name for ringworm when it affects poultry.) Ringworm usually appears as white scaly or crusty patches on the comb and the skin of the head and neck. The chicken may lose its feathers, typically starting at the base of the comb and progressing down the back of the neck. Other than the skin problem, affected chickens are usually healthy. The infection is contagious and spreads from bird to bird, and rarely, bird to human. Any practicing veterinarian can do a skin scraping and fungal culture on a chicken to diagnose ringworm, the same way the fungal infection is diagnosed in other animals. If you have a chicken with favus, isolate it from the rest of the flock to prevent spreading the infection. People should wear gloves and wash their hands after handling the affected birds. Rubbing the affected areas daily with athlete’s foot ointment, or swabbing the spots with 2 percent iodine solution every other day should do the trick after about two weeks of treatment. Both medicines are available at any pharmacy. Ringworm fungus hates sunshine, so getting birds out of a dark shed and into the sunlight often cures favus without medicine.

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How to Spot Problems of Newly Hatched Chicks

Article / Updated 12-10-2021

The starting point in a chick’s life is pipping, the moment that a chick breaks through the shell and begins its entrance into the world. A healthy hatchling innately knows exactly what to do, and you shouldn’t interfere with the program. The moment for you to step in is immediately after hatching, when you have a role in preventing four common problems of the newly hatched, which are chick malformations, spraddle legs, belly button infections, and pasty vents. Reasons for chick malformations After waiting with excitement for your chicks to hatch, your heart sinks when you see a malformed chick emerge. What could have gone wrong? You may not have been able to prevent it. Even under ideal conditions, approximately one out of 250 chicks hatched will have a deformity. You may not be able to help an abnormal chick after it’s hatched, but you can correct incubator settings and possibly flock nutrition to avoid some deformities next time you set eggs to hatch. Common Chick Malformations and Causes Malformation Possible Causes Beak abnormalities, such as crossed beak, parrot beak, or short upper beak Genetic trait Poor hen nutrition Exposure to pesticide Hatching eggs exposed to near freezing temperatures Small or missing eye(s) High temperature during incubation Exposed brain High temperature during early incubation Intestines outside of abdomen High temperature during mid-incubation Hatching eggs exposed to near freezing temperatures Crooked (wry) neck Genetic trait Poor hen nutrition Crooked toes Poor hen nutrition Genetic trait Chick malformations with nutritional causes were much more common back when complete commercial diets weren’t available and flock keepers had to prepare their own homemade chicken feed. Breeder hens fed a complete commercial layer diet rarely produce chicks with malformations related to nutritional deficiencies, such as lack of B vitamins or zinc. Finding many malformations in batches of hatchlings calls for an investigation into the vitamin and mineral content of the parent flock’s diet. Most malformed chicks have a poor chance of becoming healthy, productive members of a backyard flock. Many, but not all chick malformations can be inherited traits, so malformed chicks who survive should not be used for breeding because they can pass on the trait to future generations. For these reasons, euthanizing a malformed chick is justifiable, if done humanely. Straightening spraddled legs Although most chick malformations aren’t correctable, one very common abnormality of newly hatched chicks called spraddle leg responds very well to treatment. You can create the problem of spraddle leg by allowing chicks to hatch on surfaces that are too smooth — newspaper or cardboard are the common culprits. A chick can’t get traction to stand and walk on a slick floor, and as a result, the legs splay outward. Other than the odd pose, the chick looks alert and acts normally; however, the chick won’t get better and be able to walk without your help. Here’s how you do it: Place the chick on a surface with more texture so that the chick can get a grip with its feet. Straw, shavings, and wire mesh are good choices. Bring the legs back together in a normal position using a bandage between the legs. A three-quarter inch adhesive bandage is perfect for the job. Cut the bandage lengthwise down the middle. Place the pad of the bandage between the legs, and then wrap the sticky ends of the bandage around each leg just above the foot. Cloth bandage tape, masking tape, or a piece of yarn work as well. Leave the bandage on for two days. Usually, you can leave the bandaged chick in the brooder with the hatch mates during this time. The other chicks will encourage the bandaged chick to move around and get stronger. After two days, remove the bandage and see if the chick can walk normally. If not, reapply a bandage for two more days. A chick that isn’t walking normally at four days of age is unlikely to improve, so unfortunately, you should euthanize that chick to prevent the suffering that lies ahead. Credit: Illustration by Barbara Frake Belly-button problems and causes If your incubator is set in the Goldilocks zone — not too warm, not too hot, humidity and ventilation just right — your chicks will either hatch with properly healed navels, or the navels will finish closing up in the first hour or so after hatching, as the chick dries off and fluffs up. Poorly healed navels are a sign that conditions in the incubator weren’t ideal. Chick Belly-Button Problems and Causes Problem Possible Causes Poorly closed navels High humidity during incubation Low temperature during the last few days of incubation Navels with a string of dried tissue attached Low temperature during incubation Bloody navels or navels that look like black buttons High temperature during incubation Blood on eggshells or hatcher trays High temperature during incubation An unhealed navel leaves the door open for bacteria from the environment to invade and infect a chick. If you hatched a batch of chicks that had many unhealed navels, be obsessive about cleanliness in the brooder in order to prevent infections. Unpasting a pasty vent Just like grown-up birds, chicks with diarrhea have messy vents. Watery droppings accumulate around the vent, and the caked-up poop may even plug the opening. You may even see the back end of the chick bulge with the pressure of the backed-up poop. Pasty vent is rare in chicks raised by momma hen, but it’s a common condition in artificially incubated and brooded chicks. With some TLC from you, most chicks with pasty vent can survive. A pasty vent isn’t a stand-alone disease; it’s a sign, telling you something is wrong in the brooder where you keep your baby chicks. Chilling or overheating is the most common cause of pasty vent, but viral or bacterial infections or poor diet can trigger it, too. After adjusting the temperature in the brooder area to 90–95 degrees Fahrenheit (32–35 degrees Celsius), here are the steps for dealing with a chick with a pasty vent: Soak the pasted-up behind in warm, clean water for a minute or two to soften the gunk. Do this in a warm, nondrafty place to avoid chilling the chick. Use clean water as warm as you would bathe in. Don’t soak the whole chick — just the butt. Gently peel away the caked droppings. It’s okay if a few down feathers come with the lump. If the dried poop is still very hard to remove, soak again. Apply a little vegetable oil or mineral oil to the vent area. Don’t use diaper rash cream containing zinc or other remedies you wouldn’t want the other chicks to eat, because they will pick at it! Promptly put the chick back in the brooder to warm up. Keep an eye on the chick because you may need to separate the chick from the others if they pick at the vent area. Keep chlorinated water in the chick waterer. Doing so may limit spread of an infection in the group of chicks through the water.

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Starting with the Chicken and Then the Egg: Growth and Development

Article / Updated 06-23-2021

So what is the answer to the age-old question: Which came first, the chicken or the egg? Well, here, you start with the chicken and end up with an egg. Along the way, you discover the reproductive ins and outs of chickens. When chickens reach sexual maturity Young female chickens (pullets) of modern breeds, such as commercial strains of Leghorns, start laying eggs at around 18 to 21 weeks of age and are 8 months old when they reach peak egg production. Old-fashioned, or heritage, breeds of chickens are late bloomers; they start laying eggs around 6 months of age. After a pullet reaches maturity, three things come together to determine when exactly she will lay her first egg: The number of hours of light she sees in a day Her weight Her body fat percentage For a hen to lay eggs, a rooster’s presence isn’t necessary (you go, girl). For a hen to lay fertile, hatchable eggs, however, a rooster and his healthy reproductive system are vital necessities. Starting at about 4 to 5 months of age, young roosters (cockerels) reach sexual maturity, producing sperm and acting like roosters. They can remain fertile for several years, although the quantity and quality of sperm that roosters produce decreases as they age. During molt, and during the period of decreasing daylight hours in fall and winter, a hen usually takes a break and stops laying eggs. Her reproductive tract shrinks back to the size it was when she was a pullet. The rooster, too, takes a break in the short days of winter, and his fertility decreases for the season, to return in the spring. Reproduction from a hen’s perspective A female chick is hatched with a pair of ovaries and oviducts (left and right) and all the eggs she’ll ever lay. After hatching, though, only her left ovary and oviduct develops. If something goes wrong with the left ovary and oviduct during her life, she doesn’t have a good backup plan. When a hen is making eggs, or in lay, her ovary looks like a bunch of bright yellow grapes of various sizes. The egg-making process starts when one of the larger grapes is released from the ovary (ovulation) about 30 minutes after the previous egg is laid, usually in the morning, and almost never after 3 p.m. That's when she has to go to spin class (just kidding!). Credit: Illustration by Kathryn Born The big yellow grape released from the ovary will be the yolk of a new egg. The first part of the oviduct, the infundibulum, looks and acts like a catcher’s mitt to catch the released yolk. If a rooster’s sperm fertilizes the egg, it happens in the infundibulum. From there, the developing egg travels through the rest of the 2-foot-long oviduct. In order, the sections of the oviduct are the magnum, isthmus, shell gland, and vagina, which ends at the cloaca from which the egg is laid. The table shows the timeline and the event occurring at each stop in the route through the hen’s oviduct. The total assembly line takes about 25 to 26 hours. The Egg Assembly Line Station Time at Station What Part Is Added Infundibulum 15 minutes Yolk, sperm (if it's a fertilized model) Magnum 3 hours Egg white Isthmus 75 minutes Shell membranes Shell gland 20 hours Shell (obviously), eggshell pigment (optional) Vagina Not long (a few seconds) Bloom, also called the cuticle (a waxy protective coating) The rooster’s role in reproduction A rooster keeps all of his reproductive equipment inside. His pair of bean-shaped testicles is tucked up inside the abdomen, along the backbone, just above the kidneys. Male birds differ from their mammal counterparts in another important way — a rooster’s sperm stays fresh at normal (hot!) chicken body temperature, while male mammals must keep their sperm slightly cooler than body temperature in external testicles. From each of the rooster’s testicles, a tube called the ductus deferens carries sperm to the cloaca. The rooster doesn’t seem to miss having a functional copulatory organ, and mating is accomplished simply by placing his cloaca next to the hen’s cloaca, and depositing sperm there. Credit: Illustration by Kathryn Born What happens after chickens mate After mating, the hen stores the sperm in the tiny sperm host glands, located between the vagina and the shell gland of the oviduct. The sperm can live in the sperm host glands for about two weeks after mating. When an egg is laid, some sperm are squeezed out of the glands and they migrate up the oviduct to fertilize the next egg in the pipeline. This is a good backup plan, because if something happens to the man of the flock, the hens can still lay fertile eggs for a while after he’s gone. Hens will lay fertile eggs as soon as the second day after a sexually active and fertile rooster is introduced to the flock. It may take him a few days to make the rounds and mate with all the hens, so give him a week before expecting to see a high level of fertility in the eggs. Don't worry, he's almost certainly up to the challenge.

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Poultry External Parasites: Lice and Mites

Article / Updated 06-21-2021

Chicken parasites are a given in most backyard coops. External parasites — lice, mites, fowl ticks, and chiggers — are the creepy-crawlies found on the outside of the chicken, so common that earlier poultry tenders didn’t even bother treating chickens for them. That said, these pests can cause anemia, damaged feathers, weight problems, poor laying, or — in young birds — death. Signs of external parasites include: Seeing them crawling on the chickens or in the coop Being bitten by them yourself Noticing chickens with broken, chewed-looking feathers and reddened skin patches Seeing chickens doing a lot of scratching and picking at themselves A drop in egg production Anemia with pale combs and wattles A fluffed-up or sick appearance Help your confined chickens keep parasites away by giving them a large, deep box of sand to wallow in. Dust smothers and dislodges the parasite and cleans the body of oils, dust, and debris that some parasites feed on. Free-range chickens make their own wallows. Also, don’t let wild birds nest or roost in chicken shelters. Many people today are still willing to let nature call the shots, and they don’t worry about treating their chickens for parasites. If your chickens are acting healthy and producing as you want them to, you may decide not to treat them for parasites. For those with small flocks that are handled frequently and that are confined at least part of the time, parasites may be unacceptable. Most external parasites that affect birds don’t live on humans, but a few will take a bite out of you if they get on you. You don’t want parasites on you, and you may want your chickens to be as comfortable and healthy as possible. You also may want optimum production. These are good reasons to choose to treat your birds for parasites. Credit: Illustration by Barbara Frake Poultry lice Poultry lice are wingless, straw-colored insects that feed on dry skin scales, scabs, and feathers. A poultry louse spends its entire life on its bird host; if it falls off the bird, it won’t survive long in the environment — maybe a few days. Lice know what they like, and poultry lice like chickens, not people or pets. If a poultry louse climbs on you, it won’t stay long. Louse infestations are a drag, especially for young chickens, making them jumpy and slow to grow. Fertility and egg production declines for infested adults. The plumage of lousy birds looks patchy and moth-eaten. Female lice lay their eggs (nits) in clumps on feather shafts. Inspect birds at least twice a month, spreading the feathers in the vent, breast, and thigh areas, looking for nit clumps or pale, scurrying insects. Fall and winter are when most louse infestations are common. Credit: Photograph courtesy of Dr. Tahseen Abdul-Aziz Mites Mites are tiny relatives of ticks and spiders. A long list of mites infest chickens. Northern fowl mite The northern fowl mite is a serious pest of poultry, and this mite has also been found scurrying on wild birds, rats, and people. These mites are blood-suckers, and in heavy infestations, they can cause blood loss, stunted growth, decreased egg production, weakness, and even death. They eat anytime, day or night. The mites congregate in the vent area; feathers there may be blackened by mites and mite excrement. If you pick up and handle a bird with northern fowl mites, the mites climbing your arms and hands may creep you out. Credit: Photograph courtesy of Dr. Tahseen Abdul-Aziz Four main sources can introduce the northern fowl mite to your flock: Chickens Transport coops People Wild birds To patrol for a northern fowl mite infestation in your flock, pick up and examine the vent areas of several birds every two weeks. Roost mite The roost mite, also known as the red mite or chicken mite, is also a blood-sucker that feeds on poultry and wild birds. The roost mite has a different modus operandi, however; it feeds on chickens only at night and hides in the coop, on roosts, or under piles of droppings during the day. To spot a roost mite infestation, you need to examine birds at night, looking for dark moving specks, or inspect the coop. Roost mites congregate in cracks and crevices inside chicken houses, seen as tiny red or blackish dots clustered together. Another tip-off: Hens may refuse to lay in infested nests. Roost mites are spread the same way as northern fowl mites: poultry, people, equipment, and wild birds (pigeons, especially). They’re difficult to eradicate from poultry premises, even after the chickens are gone, because roost mites can live for months without eating. Scaly leg mite Scaly leg mites spend their entire lives in the skin of their bird hosts, burrowing tunnels under the scales of the legs and sometimes into the skin of the combs and wattles. Crusty scabs and lumps appear on the scales of the legs of older birds. Long-term infestations result in deformed toes and limping. Scaly leg mites are transmitted bird to bird and by contact with an infested bird’s environment. Credit: Photograph courtesy of Dr. Tahseen Abdul-Aziz Scaly leg mites are too small to be seen without a microscope. If you suspect a scaly leg mite infestation, you can scrape crusts from an affected bird’s leg, put the scrapings in a container, and have a veterinarian or diagnostic laboratory examine the sample. Prevent and treat poultry lice and mites infestations Lice and mites are born slobs; they like a damp and dirty coop, so general cleanliness can make your coop less hospitable to these unwelcome guests. Here are some additional measures to protect your flock: Quarantine all new birds for 30 days before letting them meet your flock. Inspect new birds for external parasites at least twice during the quarantine period and treat them if necessary. Thoroughly clean transport coops after use. You can dislodge hitchhiking pests with a thorough cleaning. Discourage wild birds from hanging out with your flock. To do so, use bird netting, screened coop windows, or scare tactics. To control lice or mites, treat both the birds and the birds’ environment. Because roost mites spend so much time off the chicken and living in the coop, treating only the birds will fail to eliminate the problem. If you diagnose poultry lice, northern fowl mite, or roost mites, treat all the birds in the flock at the same time. Isolate any chickens with scaly leg mite from the rest of the flock while they’re being treated. Be patient, and don’t expect to get the situation under control with one shot; repeated treatments are necessary. Lice and mites can develop resistance to pesticides, so vary your method and alternate treatments. External Parasite Treatments for Chickens Pesticide Effective against Uses Forms Camphor Scaly leg mite Chicken’s legs and feet Ointment Diatomaceous earth (DE) Lice, northern fowl mite, roost mite Chicken, coop, dust bath Powder Garlic juice Northern fowl mite Chicken Spray Ivermectin Lice, northern fowl mite, roost mite, scaly leg mite Chicken By mouth or injection, prescribed by a veterinarian Neem oil Lice, northern fowl mite, roost mite Chicken, coop Spray Petroleum jelly/sulfur mix Scaly leg mite Chicken’s legs and feet Ointment Pyrethrin and permethrin Lice, northern fowl mite, roost mite Chicken, coop Powder, spray, dip Sulfur Lice, northern fowl mite, roost mite Chicken, coop, dust bath Powder, spray An easy way to dust birds with a powder-form pesticide (such as permethrin, DE, or sulfur) is to place the powder and the chicken in a garbage bag (leaving the chicken’s head out of the bag!). Hold the bag closed around the chicken’s neck, and shake the bag to distribute the powder all over the chicken’s body. Or, even easier, let the chickens dust themselves. Build a dust bath box (24 x 24 x 8 inches is a nice size) and fill it with a mix of playground sand and either diatomaceous earth (50:50 sand: DE) or sulfur powder (75:25 sand: sulfur). Sulfur powder, available at garden stores, has especially good residual action against mites and lice. Fowl ticks and chickens Ticks cause anemia, weight loss, decreased egg production, and general weakness in chickens. In the South, where this type of tick is most common, it can cause serious illness and even death in chickens. If you suspect ticks, go out and get a chicken several hours after dark and examine the skin closely in a good light. When filled with blood after their nightly meal, they’re large enough to see easily. Ticks are difficult to control. You don’t treat the chicken; you treat its surroundings. This means spraying housing and treating pasture areas and trimming or removing weeds and debris around poultry housing. Ask a vet for recommendations on tick control products. Chickens and chiggers Chiggers are nasty little bugs that don’t mind feeding on humans as well as chickens. Chickens get chiggers when they roam grassy areas or come into contact with hay or straw that’s infested with them. Chiggers cause great distress to chickens. They may appear ill and have no interest in eating or drinking. Their feathers appear fluffed up, and they scratch their skin a lot. Young birds sometimes die from heavy infestations. The control of chiggers is the same as with ticks: You treat the environment. In addition, any hay or straw stored close to chickens may need to be moved or destroyed. Don’t try to eliminate parasites by spraying your housing with old-time remedies like kerosene or fuel oil. These products are environmental pollutants that cause more harm than good, and using them this way is illegal. They also can have toxic effects on your birds because they can be absorbed into your bird’s skin.

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Health Problems Unique to Chickens Raised for Meat

Article / Updated 06-21-2021

Some health problems are unique to broilers, the strains of chickens that have been specifically designed by people for meat production. Backyard flock keepers can purchase day-old broiler chicks and raise them, usually up to 6 to 12 weeks of age, to supply home-grown meat for a family or small farm business. Using intense selective breeding, poultry companies have created modern meat-type chicken strains that are vastly different from heritage breeds of poultry, such as their Plymouth Rock and Cornish breed ancestors. Modern broilers grow three times faster than old-fashioned breeds of chickens, and they need to eat only half of the feed to reach the same weight. Explosive growth and super feed efficiency come at a price, however. Broilers grow too fast for their own good. Bones, joints, and internal organs barely (or can’t) keep up with the rapid growth. The result could be a variety of problems, including the following. Ascites: A broiler’s heart may fail trying to pump blood to a rapidly growing body. The failing heart enlarges, and straw-colored fluid fills up the abdomen and lungs; this fluid build-up is called ascites. Birds with ascites may pant, even in cool weather, and their combs may have a bluish tinge. To lower the incidence of ascites, make sure your housing for broilers is well-ventilated. Dust and high ammonia levels increase cases of ascites in broiler flocks. Leg problems: Broilers can grow at a faster rate than their immature skeletal systems can support, leading to painful twisting or bowing of the legs or spine. Birds that are unwilling to get around because of leg pain or are unable to move well due to leg and back deformities may die of starvation, thirst, or trampling by flock mates. Sudden death syndrome: Healthy-looking broilers can flip over and die suddenly, expiring on their backs with a brief flurry of wing-flapping. You may think you’ve witnessed a fatal chicken heart attack. This event, known as sudden death syndrome, or flip-over disease, is most commonly seen in broiler chickens between 2 and 4 weeks of age. Scientists don’t understand the exact cause. With a functional backyard lifespan of just a few months, broilers make terrible pet chickens. Broiler growers should be prepared to perform humane euthanasia for broken-down broilers. Slowing that breakneck pace of growth, just a little, especially during the first three weeks of the growing period, can reduce the chances of ascites, leg problems, or sudden death syndrome in a batch of broilers. Feed restriction is the main method that you can use to slow growth. Here are two simple options for a broiler feed-restriction program: Option 1: Feed meals twice a day, rather than offering feed free-choice. Give the birds enough food so that they consume it all within three hours. No snacking between meals. Option 2: When the broilers are a week old, remove all feed from the pen every evening and put it back in the morning, 12 hours later. Do this every day until the birds are ready to be processed. Other feed restriction methods, such as reduced-lighting programs and skip-a-day feeding, are more complicated and less practical in backyard settings. Whatever feed restriction program you use, make sure fresh water is always available. One last suggestion: Finely ground mash feed slows the greedy birds down a little, so it’s a better choice than pelleted feed for broilers.

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The Respiratory System of a Chicken

Article / Updated 06-21-2021

The main job of the respiratory system of birds is to absorb oxygen and rid the body of carbon dioxide. In addition, the respiratory system also gets rid of excess heat, detoxifies some of the waste products of the body, and makes noise — most noticeably, crowing noise, much to the annoyance of our neighbors. Like humans, birds have a windpipe and two lungs, but from there, birds are distinctly unlike mammals. Air flows into a bird’s lungs during the intake of breath, it continues through the lungs into nine air sacs, and then it goes back out through the lungs again. Birds get two doses of oxygen for the price of one breath! The air sacs are arranged around the inside of the chest and abdominal cavity, and they connect with some of the bones of the skeleton. Credit: Illustration by Kathryn Born Humans breathe with the help of the diaphragm muscle, which divides the chest and abdominal cavities. Birds don’t have a working diaphragm; instead, a bird moves its rib cage and keel (breastbone) to draw air into the lungs and force it back out. Holding a chick or other small bird firmly around the body stops them from breathing, and it may quickly kill them. This is just one of several reasons why small children should be supervised when holding chicks. The voice box in chickens is called the syrinx, located down in the chest cavity where the windpipe splits to enter each lung. Both male and female chickens have a syrinx, so hens can crow, too, if they feel like it. The syrinx isn’t an optional piece of anatomy though. A rooster can’t live with his syrinx removed. The layout of a chicken’s heart isn’t so different from the layout of a human heart. It has four chambers and pumps blood through two loops: one loop through the lungs, and the other loop through the rest of the body. A bird’s heart is relatively large for its body size, compared to mammal hearts.

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How to Give Your Chickens a Physical Examination

Article / Updated 06-18-2021

After you recognize that you have a sick chicken, you need to do a physical examination to collect more clues about the problem. A chicken physical exam rarely includes taking the temperature or pulse. You just need to look closely at all areas of your chicken's body and behavior. Catch and hold the sick chicken The first step in examining your sick chicken is catching it and then holding it so you can start the examination. Because heat stress is often deadly for sick chickens, you want to hold off on catching and holding a sick chicken until a cooler part of the day, if possible. If it’s an emergency and you must examine a sick chicken during the hottest part of the day, do it quickly and do it in a cool spot, such as in the shade or in an air-conditioned room. Here are three options for catching your patient: Easy method: Wait until dark to catch and examine a suspected sick chicken. Chickens have poor nighttime vision and don’t move around much in the dark. In dim light, you can simply lift the bird off a perch with little fuss and carry the bird into a well-lit place for the exam. Tame chicken method: You may not have the luxury of waiting until dark to catch a chicken, but that’s okay, because picking up an alert chicken who is in a decent mood isn’t a huge challenge. Chickens who are used to being around people are usually very easy to catch and hold. Shoo them gently into the corner of the coop or pen, and catch your suspect bird by reaching both of your hands over her back and holding the wings down to restrain her. Then, move one of your hands down the front of the bird and under the abdomen and pick her up. You can carry her that way: one hand on her back and the other under her belly with your fingers between the legs. If you tuck her head loosely under your arm, she’ll feel safer and be calmer. Wild chicken method: You may be in for a backyard rodeo if the chicken you’re trying to catch isn’t used to people or has a bad temper. You can catch ill-mannered roosters or wild hens with a net or a poultry hook, which is a pole about 4 feet long with a handle on one end and a hook on the other. You can purchase nets and poultry hooks from poultry supply companies. Although a healthy chicken can be carried upside down by the legs without physical harm, a bird is scared by being handled that way. Don’t carry a sick chicken by the legs. It’s too stressful, and the bird can regurgitate food from the crop and inhale it, which can be fatal. Examine the chicken's head When you examine the head area, the less you restrain the bird, the better. You don’t need to grab the chicken tightly or hold the chicken’s head still to get a good look. Let the chicken stand or sit on a flat, level surface, like a table or workbench, where you don’t need to bend over. Look for these clues of chicken health problems: Swelling of the comb, eyelids, face, or wattles Scabs anywhere on the head An eye that is cloudy, goopy, or squinting. You also want to look for an irregularly shaped pupil. The pupil should be round and black. Crusty or runny nostrils A beak that looks twisted to the side or has cracks. The upper and lower beaks should meet at the tips. Evaluate the respiratory system and overall body condition During your examination of the bird’s head, the chicken hopefully settled down a little from being caught and carried. Now that the chicken is standing or sitting relaxed on the table, with only light restraint from you, take a look at how the bird is breathing. You can hardly notice normal breathing. A chicken with respiratory problems breathes with an open mouth, and the tail may bob up and down with each breath. If the problem is in the upper part of the respiratory system, such as in the nostrils or windpipe, breathing may become easier as the bird relaxes. If the problem is in the lower part of the respiratory system, such as in the lungs or air sacs, open-mouth breathing and tail bobbing will continue even after the bird relaxes. Next, feel the keel (breastbone) to get an overall picture of body condition, to determine whether the chicken is thin or fat. Place your palm over the chest and keel of the bird. The keel sticks out from the bird’s chest and is surrounded on each side by the breast muscles. You can score the body condition of your bird by the way the keel and breast muscles feel. Chicken Body Condition Scoring System Score Characteristics 0 The edge of the keel is rough, sharp, and prominent. Very little breast muscle can be felt, and the breast on either side of the keel feels hollow or concave. This bird is very thin. 1 The keel is prominent, but doesn't feel sharp. There is some breast muscle, and the breast on either side of the keel feels flat. This bird is thin. 2 The keel is less prominent, and the edge is smoother. The breast muscle is well developed. The breast on either side of the keel is rounded or convex. This bird is in good condition. 3 The keel feels smooth and not very prominent. Feeling the edge of the keel may be difficult through the plump, rounded breast muscles. This is a fat bird. Look at skin and feathers To continue your examination, lift up the feathers to look at the chicken’s skin. Check for external parasites. Do you see any scurrying specks or walking dandruff? Look at the shafts of the feathers. White clumps on the feather shafts may be lice eggs. Go over the whole bird, stroking the feathers backward, to find areas of feather loss or skin that is reddened, lumpy, scabby, torn, or bruised. The color of a bruise can tell you the age of the injury. A bruise that just happened is red, and changes from purple, to green, to yellow, as it heals over three to five days. Look at the wings, legs, and feet The chicken should still be standing or sitting on the table. You can hold her lightly, restraining her only enough to prevent her from jumping off the table. Look at the bird’s posture. Does she put weight on both legs evenly? Are both wings tucked up on her back, or does one of the wings droop? A bird that is reluctant or unable to put weight on a leg or tuck up a wing may be in pain or have nerve damage. Lay the chicken down on her side to examine more closely one wing, both legs, and both feet. Turn her over to the other side to examine the other wing. The chicken will usually lie quietly if you drape a light cloth, such as a dish towel, over her head. Extend each wing to look for swelling, cuts, or bruising. The chicken shouldn’t mind having her wings extended; if she struggles when you extend a wing, the reaction may be a sign of pain. Check the skin of the legs and feet. The scales should be smooth and straight. Upturned or rough leg scales can be a sign of mite infestation. Pay close attention to the bottoms of the feet; look for scratches, scabs, sores, or swellings. Check the abdomen and vent With the bird lying on her side, you can pick up the tail feathers to examine the vent area. Check for reddened, swollen, or torn skin and missing feathers. Look for blood coming from the vent or tissue protruding from it. Gently feel the bird’s abdomen. The chicken shouldn’t mind you doing so, unless she is in pain. A hen who is laying eggs has a wide, moist vent and a soft, doughy, enlarged abdomen. A firm abdomen and a small, puckered, dry vent are signs that a hen isn’t currently laying eggs. A bird with diarrhea often has soiled feathers in the vent area. Loose, pasty white or yellow droppings may be stuck to reddened or swollen skin around the vent.

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Necropsying a Chicken: The Internal Organs

Step by Step / Updated 06-17-2021

You may want to review chicken anatomy before you make your first cut. As you perform the steps, jot down notes about anything that puzzles you during the necropsy. Describe the color, size, texture, and location of the things you saw in simple terms so that you can look up your findings later or describe them to your chicken health advisor. The following steps help you with the internal examination.

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Egg-Laying Troubles: Egg-Binding and Vent Prolapse

Article / Updated 06-17-2021

A hen having trouble laying eggs is egg-bound. When part of a hen’s oviduct (which should stay inside the abdomen) sticks out through the vent to the outside, the hen is suffering from a vent prolapse, oviduct prolapse, or more graphically, a blowout. Identify vent prolapse and egg-binding A hen who spends a lot of time in the nest box is broody, not egg-bound. Broodiness is the compelling feeling a hen gets to sit and incubate eggs. An egg-bound hen, on the other hand, strains to pass an egg repeatedly throughout the day (in or out of the nest box), wagging or bobbing her tail with the effort. You rarely discover which came first — whether difficulty laying an egg resulted in a vent prolapse or the other way around. Either way, the common causes of egg-binding and vent prolapses are: Obesity Poor diet A tendency to lay very big or misshaped eggs (especially rubbery ones) Oviduct infections Egg peritonitis (a nasty, often fatal infection inside the abdomen) Provide treatment and care You have the best chance of successfully treating vent prolapse and egg-binding when you place the care of the bird in the hands of an experienced avian or exotic pet veterinarian, because he or she frequently treats these two problems in pet birds and reptiles. If egg-binding or vent prolapses are caught early, avian and exotic pet vets can medically treat these conditions, or if necessary, do surgery. Hysterectomy is the best option for a beloved pet hen who has repeated episodes of egg-binding. (Understand, though, that it also ends her egg-laying career.) If experienced professional help isn’t an option, flock keepers may be able to help an egg-bound or prolapsed hen by following these steps: Isolate the affected bird in a quiet hospital pen by herself and provide TLC. Maintain the temperature in the hospital pen at a consistent, comfortable 80–85 degrees Fahrenheit (27–29 degrees Celsius). Feed a complete commercial layer diet — no junk food or scratch. Offer oyster shell, available at feed stores, or crushed egg shells (available at home) as a calcium supplement. Provide a low, comfortable perch, and keep the bedding in the hospital pen super-clean. Frequently changing the bedding with clean towels may be the best option because most types of litter sticks to the hen’s backside. Soak the chicken’s lower half in warm water. Make the bath water as warm as you would bathe in. Carefully cleanse a dirty vent in the water. Gently restrain the hen in the bath as long as she doesn’t mind it or until the water cools. Ten to twenty minutes of soaking is a good goal. If she freaks out, put her back in the hospital pen and leave her alone for a while. Gently apply a water-based lubricant on the vent and protruding tissues. Use a plain, nonscented, nonmedicated lubricant, available at any drugstore. You can make a brief, one-time attempt to gently push protruding tissues back in with clean fingers. More often than not, the darn thing will pop out again. After that attempt, succeed or fail, leave a prolapse alone. The more you handle her or rub the inflamed tissues with various ointments, the more swollen the area will become. Leave her alone. Let her relax without other animals or people pestering her. Shrinkage of a prolapse or passage of a stuck egg within 24 hours is a good sign. No progress in 24 hours is grim news. Keep the hen isolated for several days until she seems perkier and the vent area looks normal. Give the oviduct a break for a while by slowing egg production. You can do this by keeping the hen in the dark for 16 hours a day.

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