Performing a Chicken Health Check

Chickens have a mysterious way of getting sick very suddenly! One of the reasons for that could be because they are trying to pretend that they are healthy so that the others don’t pick on them. That makes it very hard on us chicken keepers though. One way to keep track of your flock’s health is by performing a routine chicken health check on each bird. I do a health check on my entire flock every month to be sure that I don’t miss any hidden signs of illness.

First I pick up the bird that I want to examine and hold it in one hand. I put my index finger between it’s legs and my thumb grips one thigh and the rest of my fingers grip the other thigh.

Head: I then examine the head area. Look for these key things to indicate a healthy bird:

  • bright red comb and wattles
  • no torn flesh and no blood
  • a well shaped beak
  • no fowl (pun un-intended) smell coming from the face
  • no mucus coming from the nostrils
  • bright, alert eyes
  • no parasites or parasite eggs in the head feathers

Feathers: Next I examine the plumage of the bird. A healthy bird will have no torn or broken feathers and no blood from plucked feathers. Shiny, glossy feathers are also a sign of good health, although good laying hens may have a duller look to their feathers. This is because the good layers put their energy into producing eggs, not glossy, new feathers. If you have a cockerel roaming with your hens you may see broken feathers or bare skin on the back of the hen. This is from the cockerel treading on the hen when he mates with her. You may also notice feathers missing on the head from when the cockerel grabs the hen’s feathers to balance himself on her back.

   A chicken saddle is handy for protecting the back of a hen who gets a little too much attention from a cockerel. The chicken saddle covers the back of a hen and is strapped around the wings to keep it in place. I make my own chicken saddles using fleece and elastic, but there are many designs on-line that you can buy. Make sure you make/get the right size saddle for the size hen you are putting it on. If it is too big it will slip off and if it is too tight it will cause chaffing and possibly broken feathers.

Vent: Next I flip the bird upside down, pressing it against my body while still keeping my hold on it’s legs. I part the feathers where the vent is to examine for these things:

  • vent is moist and wide, means that the hen is laying (only for hens, not for cockerels)
  • no parasites or parasite eggs (lice and mites)
  • feathers don’t have poop or diarrhea stuck to them
  • no blood

If the vent is dry and shaped more like a circle then the hen is not laying. A favorite spot for parasites is right around the vent and above the vent. Look for a build up of parasite eggs at the base of the feathers surrounding the vent. The eggs will look like tiny, white balls all caked together. I look for blood because blood could be a sign of a serious disease, a pro-lapsed vent, or parasites. Poop stuck to the feathers could be another sign of serious illness. Diarrhea and poop caked feathers can indicate a worm infestation as well.

Legs: I also examine the legs and feet of the bird. The legs should have even scales covering the whole leg and no raised, torn, or bloody spots. Lumpy scales on the leg along with visible debris under the scales are signs of scaly leg mites.

Examine the spurs on roosters (and some hens) and make sure they are not hindering the movement of the bird. Make sure the spur is not curving around and puncturing the leg on older roosters with longer spurs.

Feet: Examine the feet of a bird for these signs:

  • smooth scales on toes
  • no broken or bent toes
  • bumblefoot on foot pad
  • torn nails or long nails (the chicken’s nails in the above photo are too long and could use a trimming)

Bumblefoot is a staph infection of the foot pad and depending on it’s severity, could cause the bird to limp. In extreme cases the staph infection moves from the foot into the rest of the body and becomes fatal. Bumblefoot looks like a black dot on the bird’s foot pad. In it’s early stages the black dot will be small, no bigger than a flax seed. If left un-treated, the staph infection will make the black spot grow to a size larger than a pea.

Breast/Abdomen: I then move to the breast bone of the chicken. Check the straightness of the bone and see if there are any blisters on the skin. Also feel for meat around the breast bone. If you can not feel or find the breast bone, then the bird is more than likely fat, which means if it is a hen then it won’t be laying. You should be able to feel the breast bone on good layers and there should be some meat on either side of the bone. A bird is too thin if you can feel the bone and there is no meat on either side of it, also the thighs of the bird may feel thin and not plump.

Also feel the abdomen for any very hard lumps or bulges. Lumps or bulges could indicate that a hen is egg bound, a build up of fluid or fat, or internal laying. Be careful not to mistake an about-to-be-laid egg for something serious. You should be able to tell the difference though by the position, shape, and hardness that you feel.

Crop: Last of all I feel the crop of the chicken. I make sure it feels squishy and full. In the morning the crop will feel small (if you can find it) and in the evening it should feel full (and maybe even look full!). If the crop does not feel full in the evening then the bird is more than likely not eating and may feel very thin. A full, hard crop could indicate crop-impaction or sour crop.

Although chickens try their best to disguise their illness, at some point the illness will begin to show through. A really sick chicken may show one or more of these signs:

  • pale comb, wattles, and face; comb and wattles may be very thin
  • hunched, ruffled look; drooping tail
  • dull eyes, lack of interest in it’s surroundings
  • diarrhea
  • not eating or drinking
  • difficulty walking
  • gasping, sneezing, sinus discharge

Always quarantine a sick or potentially sick bird. This will protect it from getting picked on by the others and protect the others from potentially getting the same illness.

I use leg bands to help me identify birds that need to be treated for a mild disease (like bumblefoot) or need to be treated for parasites. These can be very helpful if you have several birds of the same coloring that need to be treated.

 Conducting a health check of your flock frequently can help you catch any illness before it becomes dangerous. Make a schedule for yourself and stick to it, also practice good bio-security and you should have a happy, healthy flock!

by Alexa

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