CHICKEN HEALTH & BEHAVIOUR ADVICE
Our guides to common chicken health and behaviour issues.
CHICKEN HEALTH & BEHAVIOR
ASSESSING YOUR CHICKENS HEALTH
As chickens are prey animals they generally mask any illness until they are seriously ill. Any hens that stand around with their feathers fluffed up and head drawn in to their body should be checked immediately.
All of our chicken health and advice downloads can be found in one place on the Downloads Page.
12. Scaly leg mite.
1. My chickens were laying well but have stopped.
Ensure your chickens diet is at least 90% made up of layers pellets or layers mash. The most common thing we hear when helping customers establish why their chickens are not laying is "they don't like layers pellets so we give them other food to make sure they are eating enough". Rest assured, when they are hungry they will eat their layers pellets!
Layers pellets/mash have their name for a reason - they give chickens the essential nutrients to lay eggs! Modern hybrids are a different bird to the pure breeds/farm chickens of old, and need a well balanced prepared ration. Think of them like modern racehorses - you wouldn't expect a racehorse to win races if only fed on grass - a modern hybrid will not lay productively or be healthy if only fed on corn or scraps. If you feed any other food to your birds try cutting it out totally and only offering layers pellets or mash - feeding a poor, unbalanced diet is ultimately not the best for you chickens and is not the kindest thing for them.
If your chickens are free ranging check they are not laying in a 'secret place'. If magpies spot the eggs they will take them meaning it can be hard to establish if they are laying elsewhere.
To check if your hens are in lay feel the two sharp bones either side of the hens vent. If you can fit the width of 2 fingers or more between these bones it indicates your chicken is laying.
The next thing is to check that your chickens don't have any lice or mites on them and check the housing for red mite. Are they eating, drinking and behaving normally? Is their comb still red and healthy? Are they showing any signs of illness? Download our chicken 'Health Assessment Sheet' from the link above to eliminate all possibilities.
If your chickens are not suffering from any of the above they are probably just having a break from laying. I cannot stress enough that they are not machines. If you want an egg nearly every day you will have to put your chicken in a light and temperature controlled environment, and ensure she is not exposed to any stress or disease (battery hen springs to mind) - I like to think of them as interesting pets first, and the eggs are a lovely bonus.
2. Do I have to clip my chickens wing?
No, but if you would like us to we can clip the hens wing for you, we will also show you how to clip them.
It is entirely up to you if you clip their wing or not. If you have one of the flightier breeds and don't want them jumping over into your neighbour's, it may be worth doing. If you have a roof on your run there is no need. Chickens cannot actually fly but they will use their wings to help them jump up onto objects - clipping their wing will not stop them jumping but it will knock them off balance and help contain them. On the other hand, by clipping their wings they have less chance of escaping a predator.
They will not need clipping until the feathers re-grow - usually at the first moult when they are 12/14 months old.
Yes. If you never worm your chickens they are likely to be unhealthy, will lay less eggs and eat much more food just to maintain their weight. I would always recommend worming them a few weeks after you get them home and then worming them quarterly with Flubenvet.
We stock tubs of Flubenvet powder ready to mix with your own feed, or alternatively have Marriages layers pellets premixed with Flubenvet. Simply replace their usual feed with the medicated feed for 7 days. The eggs can still be eaten whilst you are worming your hens. I would also recommend treating the ground the chickens are on whilst you are worming. If you use a treatment such as Stalosan F on the ground whilst the birds are being wormed, it will prevent the birds re-ingesting the worm eggs they expel and will help break the cycle.
Many people use commonly available herbal worm treatments but Flubenvet (or the water soluble version 'solebunol') is the only clinically proven, effective treatment for worms. Please read the small print on what many chicken keepers think are wormers and you will find they are simply tonics.
If in doubt about whether to worm your chickens or not please have a look at the article below or google some images of poultry worms.
5. What do I do with my chickens when they are older & stop laying?
What you do with your chickens is up to you, some people replace them after 2 or 3 years when their best laying days are over, but I keep my chickens to live out their days. I feel they have given me eggs for many years and are not a lot of trouble to keep. I do understand if space is an issue this isn't always possible, so it is a point worth considering before buying chickens - are you prepared to keep them as pets when they stop laying or can you deal with having them dispatched?
If you decide that you cannot keep them please do not try to dispatch them unless you are experienced, it is inhumane to dispatch a bird without training.
I have put a link to a local lady who is trained and registered with DEFRA to humanely dispatch poultry on our Links page. Alternatively please take your chicken to the vets to be put to sleep. If you are not prepared to do this then please don't buy chickens, as this is part of any responsible animal ownership.
If you are planning to keep your chickens in a static run I strongly recommend putting a base down in it. If you don't, then during the wet weather you will have a muddy, unhygienic area. The other problem caused by a bare run is boredom which can lead to all sorts of problems such as feather pecking.
There are lots of bases you can use, but I use our chicken run mud management system which comprises of a weed proof matting, covered with our turf protector, topped with a thick layer of wood chips, which we usually have available for sale in 75 litre sacks. Full details can be found on our 'Chicken Run Mud Management' web page.
Bark chips are not suitable for chickens as the whole point of bark chips is as a mulch to retain moisture - exactly what you want to avoid. Aspergillus thrives on bark - this is the fungus which, if it gets into poultry lungs and airs acs and slowly kills them. It's dangerous as the spores can hide inside the airsacs where antibiotics have little effect. Wood chips are too hard for the aspergillus fungus to colonize and so are ideal for the run.
I regularly cover the woodchips with a layer of powdered disinfectant such as Stalosan F which reduces any odours and kills worm eggs.
7. Can I introduce new chickens to my flock?
Generally yes, but care needs to be taken. In an ideal situation you would have an extra chicken house and run and would set this up in close proximity to your existing hens. Your new hens would then live in this pen for a few weeks slowly getting used to their new neighbours before actually being in direct contact.
In reality not many people have this set up available so there a few ways to try introducing newcomers. When you get your new chickens put them into the hen house with the older hens at night when they are roosting, in the morning let them out and observe them carefully. If you are very lucky there will be a small amount of mild confrontation before they settle together.
If you are able to, then let your existing chickens out into the garden and keep the newcomers in the chicken run. That way they can see each other but not fight. In the evening let the older chickens back into the chicken run and let them roost together. Hopefully after a few days things will settle down and they will be able to be left together during the day.
The critical thing when mixing new hens is space. If they are in a confined chicken run there is nowhere for the new birds to run and hide, if they have plenty of room or ideally are free in the garden, they can then keep our of each others way minimising any problems.
It is important to be on hand when new chickens are introduced. Also put food and water in different areas of the run and house so that the new chickens are able to eat and drink without being intimidated.
See point 6 above. Throw a small handful of corn or treats into the wood chips (only in dry weather to ensure the food doesn't get damp) and they will then spend hours scratching through it looking for their food. Amusement and exercise at the same time!
I also hang up cabbages, lettuces and bird peanut feeders stuffed with treats such as corn on the cob - they will then take hours pecking at it to retrieve their treats. Another popular chicken treat is to hang up bunches of nettles, they spend hours stripping them bare - cheap and effective.
Chickens will moult annually (change their feathers), usually in the Autumn or as they days become shorter. They can also have mini moults where they will just shed a few feathers, usually from around the neck. All hens will stop laying whilst they are moulting. If you notice lots of feathers in the coop (and a hen thinning on top!), this is quite normal. It is a good idea to give Cod Liver Oil at this time at the rate of roughly 1 tablespoon per bucket of feed. Cod Liver Oil is a fantastic tonic and will also promote faster re-feathering. There are also specific tonics designed to help chickens through the moult.
Barred Plymouth Rock half way through a full moult.
If you have a cockerel it could be cockerel damage (as shown in the picture below). If this is the case, you may need more hens to spread the load or fit the hens with a poultry 'saddles' to protect their backs.
If the hen is not moulting, the problem could be feather pecking. It can be caused by a lack of protein in the diet, but I feel the most common cause is boredom. In 15 years of having my hens completely free ranging I have not had a single chicken feather pecking, but when I have to put them into large pens for breeding, I will get the occasional chicken start to feather peck which does back up the boredom theory.
If your hens feathers are generally 'thinning' but you can see feather buds appearing through the skin it is moulting. If the area is bald and smooth with no sign of new feather growth then is is more likely feather pecking. Moulting hens will regrow feathers straight away.
Try to establish who is doing the pecking - this is usually easy as it is the chicken with the perfect set of feathers. Some hens pull out the feathers at the base (as in photo below) and other chickens seem to somehow just remove the tips of all the feathers (as in the photo above). The most common place for them to pull another hens feathers out is the below the vent or the 'saddle area' around the tail. In this case fitting a poultry saddle can stop them as well as protecting the damaged area.
Some chickens only pull out the feathers when they are perching at night, so it is very hard to catch them at it, but it does explain why your chickens will be 'plucked' in certain areas - it's where the offender can reach at night.
Above: Feather pecked chickens with bald areas around the vent and underside of the hen.
It is a problem that needs addressing as soon as you spot it, if not it can become ingrained behaviour and a very annoying habit. As a first course of action you can try anti-feather peck sprays/Stockholm tar and Gentian violet/purple spray. Secondly, I would remove and isolate the offending chicken for a few weeks which may break the habit. When she goes back in, the other chickens will have re-grouped and may not put up with her pulling their feather's.
If this doesn't work you can try a 'beak bit' or a Bumpa Bit- it is a plastic device that clips into the nostrils and prevent the hen closing her beak and gripping the feathers. You may find you can remove it after a month or two but be aware that the hens cannot eat mash with a beak bit in, they will have to have pellets.
If the pecking is in the common place which is the 'saddle' area then try putting a poultry saddle on your chicken. We have these in stock and they will protect feather pecked areas.
I have seen very good results by using a combination of using a poultry saddle and spraying any exposed skin or damaged area with purple spray such as Septi Clense or Gentian Violet.
If all else fails the only option may be to re-home her, ideally to a free range home. Don't necessarily feel you are passing the problem on to someone else - If you know someone with a group of older or more dominant chickens and a free range set up the problem may stop.
10. I think I have Red Mite in the hen house?
Red Mite on the underside of the perch - The first sign is the grey dust/ash like deposits, look closer & you can see the mites in the cracks.
Red mite after being sprayed with 'Poultry Shield'.
Red Mite is the most common chicken problem (probably why there are so many products on the market to treat it). It tends to strike in warmer weather when it multiplies rapidly. I check around the perches every few days as if you can catch it earlier it is far easier to treat. It is still possible to get red mite in plastic housing, but I know from personal experience it is very rare and if you do find some it is easy to see it and eradicate it. Obviously some of the suggested treatments below relate to wooden housing.
Red Mite Symptoms
Check the underside and ends of perches regularly at night, Red Mite can hide anywhere in the shed but tends to be most concentrated where the chickens are easily accessible at night. Look in any screw heads or tiny cracks of crevices. If you find small cream or grey mites crawling on you when you have been in the shed (barely visible to the human eye) these are immature red mite that have not fed on blood - mature red mite are larger and dark red when they have fed.
Another tell-tale sign is a dusty grey ash like substance near areas where the mites hide.
If your chickens are reluctant to go into roost in the house at night check carefully for red mite, this is usually the first sign and by this time you may have quite a problem. If you notice anything crawling on you when you have been in the house or feel itchy after being in there. If you have a severe infestation the chickens combs may become paler as they become more anemic as the mites take more blood.
Also check for any little red smears and spots on the perches and eggs - these are squashed blood filled mites!
To confirm that you have it, go into the house when it is dark and the chickens are roosting - carefully check all over the house with a strong torch for mites. Run a white tissue along the perches and nestboxes, any red streaks or red spots indicate mites.
Red Mite Treatment
If you catch it at an early stage, remove and burn all the bedding. Soak the house with Poultry Shield/Smite or similar which will kill any living red mites it touches. These products usually have no residual effect so when the shed is dry, dust Louse Powder or Diatomaceous Earth all over the house covering every surface, paying particular attention to the perches and corners. This will then kill any mites that have been missed by the spray. You will need to repeat this every few days for a few weeks. In smaller houses and plastic houses I have excellent results with Ardap spray which I now have available in the shop.
The traditional and 100% effective cure of painting the house inside and out with creosote is no longer feasible as creosote is not generally available. Customers have had very good results by soaking the house in the creosote alternative (often sold as Creocote) available from DIY stores. The chickens would have to be kept our of the house after treatment for a number of weeks until the fumes have gone.
There is no magic cure for red mite - it is necessary to look out for it all the time and treat it repeatedly (one treatment will have little effect). If you delay in treating it, it will multiple rapidly and the only cure will be burning the shed and replacing it.
This is an excellent article I have found on other methods of treating red mite: The Poultry Keeper
11. What other sorts of lice can my birds get?
Wild birds, mice and rats bring in lice and mites meaning they are impossible to avoid. If a single wild bird feather drops in, or a wild bird feeds or nests in their area - lice, coughs, colds & infections can arrive as well. Please check the skin around the birds vent feathers and under the wings every time you pick the birds up (or every few weeks). Lice hatch within hours and spread incredibly fast so are best caught early.
Watch out for Red Mite in the warm weather, Northern Fowl Mite in the cooler weather, and body lice all year around. Red Mite and Northern Fowl Mite can kill if you have a bad infestation.
Above - Northern Fowl Mite
Above - Lice Eggs at the base of the feathers
Above - Body Lice on the base of the feathers
Body lice and Northern Fowl Mites live on the chickens and there are various ways to treat them. Dust the chicken all over with a Louse Powder that contains permethrin making sure you brush it right down to the skin, especially around the vent - it is essential to repeat this after 5-7 days to kill the eggs that have hatched otherwise you will never stop the cycle.
If your chickens are not allowed to free range, ensure they have access to dust baths (a dry, covered patch in the run or large container or low bucket filled with fine sand or soil) into which you can sprinkle Diatomaceous Earth or Louse Powder so they can coat themselves when they bath which will help prevent lice.
If your hen has raised scales on her legs this will be down to Scaly leg mite, a mite that burrows under the scales on the chickens leg and causes intense irritation. A severe case can cripple your chickens and deform the legs.
There are many scaly leg treatments as well as the traditional remedy of holding the leg in surgical spirit for 30 seconds (to kill the lice) followed by smearing vaseline up and under all the scales to suffocate and remaining lice. Although the mites will have gone and the irritation ended, the scales will not return to normal until the hen grows new scales.
13. I think my hen is broody - what should I do?
Typically a broody hen will not want to move off the nestbox, she will make a distinctive sound (see the video clip), fluff up her feathers if you put your hand near her and may even peck you.
If you don't want to hatch chicks it is advisable to stop the broodiness. She will not be laying eggs whilst broody and will get very run down.
The best way is to place her in a 'broody crate' - this needs to somewhere cool, light and uncomfortable so that she can't make a nest. I use metal dog crates with no bedding (just a layer of newspaper), but it is possible to construct something similar with wire (if you do an internet search for 'broody crate' there are many great ideas).
Put the crate in a safe, dry, draught free place that has plenty of daylight. Her instinct is to hatch some eggs in a nice dark, quiet place so you need to create the opposite conditions to put her off.
Pop her in for 24 hours and see how she is behaving, if she is still clucking and showing broody behaviour leave her for another 24 hours and check again. Some hens will stop the behaviour after 24 hours, others will take 3 or 4 days.
It is essential that she has free access to food and water in the cage. Expect her to be very upset at being confined - she will probably pace up and down looking agitated, but you have to be cruel to be kind and leave her in until she stops. I feel it is better to have 2 or 3 days of discomfort than risk her health by letting her sit for no purpose. Some determined hens will sit for up to 6 weeks if allowed to, and then take a further month to recover their strength.
14. Could my chicken be egg bound?
Egg binding, although rare, is worth considering if you have a chicken that is unwell. It is caused by many different factors such as genetics, obesity (internal fat, your hen may look outwardly fine, limit the corn!) old age and just plain bad luck. The egg becomes stuck in the oviduct due to cramp and the tightened muscles prevent it being passed.
A chicken who is egg bound will quickly look unwell, she will generally look healthy but within 48 hours can have died so prompt action is necessary. The symptoms to look out for are your hen going in and out of the nestbox looking agitated, becoming quiet and lethargic, the tail moving up and down or actually trying to strain.
Gently pick up your hen and check her vent to see if there is any sign of discharge or pieces of eggshell. If you can see yolk or eggshell the egg may have broken inside her, in this case antibiotics can be given.
If there is no sign of the egg it could be stuck higher up inside the hen. Try very gently bathing your hen in warm water for a while to ease the cramp.
A hen who is truly egg bound and untreated will die within a couple of days so prompt action is vital.
15. What plants are poisonous to chickens?
Alfalfa (Medicago sativa L.)
Please be aware that all information given on this website is a guide only, and the methods we have found worked best for us personally. If you have any concerns or queries please always seek advice from your vet.