11 Tips for Keeping Healthy, Stress-Free Chickens

By Kimberly Willis, Robert T. Ludlow

In addition to basic needs like food and rest, chickens need as little stress as possible to be able to perform well. You’re probably aware of how stress affects people and how it impacts their health. Stress can affect chickens’ health, too.

Stress in chickens may lead to fighting and injury, improper nutrition, and a lowered immune response to disease. Layers may quit laying, and meat birds may die of sudden heart attacks from stress.

Here are the ten most important ways you can keep your chickens happy and healthy and, if you’re raising them for eggs or meat, ensure a plentiful supply.

Choose the right breed for your needs

Not all breeds of chicken perform equally well in your environment. First, decide what you want chickens for — laying eggs, providing meat, showing, or just enjoying. Then carefully study the breed characteristics and choose a breed that seems to fit your needs. If you do this, you’re less likely to give up on raising chickens, and your chickens will be healthier and happier, too.

Be aware that people who like a certain breed are a little partial to it, but their experience with the breed may not translate into a good experience for you. Ask questions and visit chicken forums to get a feel for what breed is right for you.

Set up suitable housing

Having the right housing is not only better for the chickens — it’s also better for you, so be sure to plan your chicken housing and get it set up before you buy the birds. Plan the size of the housing, how you’ll access it to care for the birds and collect eggs, how it will fit into your yard, and how you’ll light it.

Chicken housing needs to protect your birds from both the elements and predators. It should keep them dry and out of drafts. Housing usually consists of indoor and outdoor space. Make sure each large‐size chicken has at least 3 square feet of indoor space and 3 to 5 square feet of outdoor space for optimum health.

The more space you can provide, the happier your chickens will be. And the more functional the housing is for you, the happier you’ll be with chicken keeping.

Supplement lighting when needed

A chicken’s life cycle revolves around the amount of daylight or artificial light it receives. Chickens are prompted to lay eggs and mate when the days are long, and they molt when the days start getting shorter. Molting is the process by which a chicken replaces all its feathers, and it’s energy intensive. When chickens molt, they usually stop laying.

To keep chickens laying and prompt young pullets to start laying, supplement the natural light so that they get 14 to 16 hours of bright light per day. Don’t reduce the amount of light hens and pullets are getting unless you want them to stop laying and molt.

You don’t have to worry about meat birds molting, because they should be in the freezer long before then.

Control pests

Pests are creatures like wild birds, rats, mice, and flies that hang around poultry housing. Not only are they offensive to neighbors (and a huge pain for you), but they can also be dangerous to your chickens. Rats; mice; and wild birds like starlings and sparrows, wild geese, and ducks can carry many diseases to your chickens. They also eat a lot of feed, which can become a huge money drain if you aren’t paying attention.

Protect against predators

Besides pests, predators are a big concern for chicken‐keepers — after all, people aren’t the only ones who enjoy chicken for dinner. Predator protection works best if you can anticipate problems and protect the chickens with sturdy pens or restricted areas to roam.

  • Use roofs, wire, or netting on outside runs to avoid predation from hawks and owls.

  • Clear away overgrown areas and brush piles around chicken housing.

  • Place locks on coop doors if two‐legged predators are a problem.

  • Leave a night light on in the coop at night. Chickens have a better chance to defend themselves if they can see, and they’re less likely to panic.

  • Make sure fencing is strong and sufficiently tall. Chicken wire isn’t very sturdy, and even a medium‐size dog can rip it apart. (Dogs are one of the top chicken predators, by the way.)

Control parasites

Parasites not only make birds uncomfortable, but they also can carry disease and lower a chicken’s immune system response to disease. Birds carrying a heavy load of internal or external parasites produce fewer eggs, grow more slowly, and eat more feed. Keeping your birds well fed and free of both stress and disease helps their bodies repel parasites and makes them better able to tolerate any they may still contract.

Some parasites, like worms, are hard to eliminate entirely because eggs persist in the environment. If your birds aren’t producing eggs well or they look thin and unhealthy, it may be time to check for worms.

Lice live on the birds, but ticks and mites may spend most of their time in some part of the housing; to control them, you need to treat the housing as well as the chickens. Treating for parasites may mean giving chickens medications or spraying either them or the housing with pesticides.

Vaccinate

Preventing problems is always better than trying to fix them. When you purchase baby chicks, you’re often offered the opportunity to have them vaccinated for a small additional fee. Saying yes is a wise idea.

Vaccines can be given at various life stages of chickens. Many vaccines suggest an optimum age, but if the chicken doesn’t get the vaccine then, it can sometimes be administered later. This situation depends on the disease you’re trying to prevent. Vaccines can be given by mouth, in the eyes, in the nose, or by injection, depending on the disease they’re meant to prevent. Some vaccines prevent disease in one dose; others require several doses.

Feed a well-balanced diet

Well‐fed chickens lay more eggs, grow faster, produce better meat, and have better immune systems to fight off disease. Chickens are like kids, though — you have to supervise their diets. Even if they have a large area of land to forage on, they need at least part of their diet to come from commercial feed so they get all the nutrients they need

Not only will they eat almost anything, whether it’s nutritious or not, but a chunk of land just doesn’t provide the nutrition that chickens need. Unlike domestic chickens, wild chickens that get all their nutrition from Mother Nature have plenty of space to roam and hunt to meet their needs.

Provide enough clean water

Having clean water available at all times is one of the best ways to keep your chickens healthy and productive. Chickens need water available to lay well, grow quickly, and perform all of life’s functions. Making sure water is available, even in winter, is essential to their health.

Chickens can be a bit fussy about water. They don’t like water that’s too warm or flavored strongly. If they don’t drink freely, they don’t eat as much, and that starts affecting their production and health. Make sure chickens always have clean, fresh water.

Beware disease-transmitting dangers

Many chicken diseases are carried on clothing, shoes, and hands. When you visit other people’s chickens or go to a show, be sure to change your shoes and clothes and wash your hands before tending to your flock. Also think twice about inviting visitors who have chickens of their own to visit your flock. Also be sure to disinfect all borrowed equipment, such as carriers, before and after use.

Use quarantines whenever necessary

One of the easiest but least practiced strategies a home flock owner has for maintaining healthy chickens is to quarantine all new birds and all chickens that come back home from a show or sale. Keep the returning or arriving chickens well away from the rest of the flock for 2 weeks. If you have sick chickens, move them away from the rest of the flock and quarantine them to try to prevent disease spread. Injured birds also need to be quarantined so the others don’t pick on them.