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“HELP! I have a sick chicken, and I don’t know what to do!”
Believe me, I have been there. Many times. Even though I have had chickens for most of my life, I definitely have not seen it all, and am always surprised by something new.
With the increase in chicken ownership, I have also seen an increase in these desperate cries for help. So I combined my paramedic self and my love for chickens to create this post to help you diagnose a sick chicken.
This post is intended specifically for a sick or ill bird. I won’t be covering traumatic injuries or minor ailments here.
Obligatory disclaimer: I am not a veterinarian. Information in this post was cumulated from veterinary manuals listed in the “sources” section below. Please contact your veterinarian before administering medications to your birds.
Table of Contents
The first time you have a sick chicken, chances are you’ll be upset. It may be difficult, but take a moment to pause and collect yourself. No one wants their Henrietta to be ill, and it can be stressful. Try to remain calm as you go through the process of diagnosing the problem.
What To Do First
The very first thing you absolutely must do when discovering one of your chickens is sick is to isolate it from the flock. While not all illnesses are contagious, it is best to separate the bird from the flock.
I keep an extra dog kennel that I can set up in the garage. If you don’t have one, a large box or a bathtub are viable options.
Keep the bird warm and quiet. A cold garage or loud living room can add stress to an already compromised chicken.
Also give the bird water with electrolytes and probiotics and either scrambled egg or tofu. Regardless of the illness these will both help support the healing process.
DO NOT give any medications until you have read through this post.
I see so many people immediately give their sick chicken Corid and VetRx without knowing what is wrong with their bird. It’s better to wait to give them anything until you have a better idea of what is wrong.
Gather Basic Information
Next, gather some basic information that will be used to help dignose what is wrong with your bird. It may be helpful to grab a pen and a piece of paper to keep notes.
- Is the bird a new member of the flock or an existing member?
- Have you added any new birds in the last 3 months?
- If so, were they quarantined?
- Have you visited anyone else’s flock?
- How old is the bird?
- What breed is it?
- Are other birds experiencing similar symptoms?
- Have you moved the birds to a new location?
- Have you changed their food?
- Have they been given any recent medication or supplements?
- Is anything else new or different within the last 3 months?
Start by observing the bird in its isolation pen. Grab your pen and paper and just watch the bird for a few minutes. You don’t need to poke or prod just yet.
As you go through this list, note what you see and what you don’t. For example, “chicken is alert and not drowsy”. Knowing what isn’t a concern is as helpful as knowing what is.
Also, focus on collecting as much information as you can now. Don’t get tunnel vision. You may have originally noticed that your bird sneezed and that is why you are concerned. But give it a full thorough check to look for any other symptoms and rule out other problems. You can also use ALL of this information as you work to figure out what is wrong.
Take note of the following:
- Is the bird alert to its surroundings, or seem drowsy and unengaged?
- Is the bird standing, unable to stand, or too weak?
- Are the feathers flat or ruffled?
- Is the waddle and comb normal colored (pink or red), or is it pale?
- Is the chicken breathing normally, struggling to breathe, gasping, or make a rattling noise when breathing?
- Is the chicken sneezing or coughing?
- What does the poop look like? Is it normal, diarrhea, pink or red, foamy, or green?
- Is the bird twitching, shaking or convulsing?
- Does anything look unusual or different?
Hands On Exam
Once you have finished your observation, it is time for a hands on exam. Ask a family member or friend for help if you need.
Start from the chickens head and work all the way to the feet. Check the skin under the feathers, under the wings, and inside the mouth. Look for any injuries, mites or lice, or anything unusual.
If you are not sure what to look for, my Backyard Poultry Health Guide eBook has a full head to toe exam checklist.
BACKYARD POULTRY HEALTH GUIDE: DIAGNOSIS & TREATMENT EBOOK
Be sure to pick up our eBook Backyard Poultry Health Guide: Diagnosis & Treatment eBook for more great information on raising chickens!
I categorize illnesses as either respiratory, parasites, environmental, internal, or other.
Respiratory illnesses are common in sick chickens, and can be fungal, bacterial, or viral. I will cover treatments in a later section.
While your chicken may be having labored breathing, there are things other than a respiratory illness that could cause it. Using the chart below will offer some other possibilities.
Common respiratory illnesses include:
- Infectious Laryngotracheitis
- Mycoplasma Gallisepticum
- Infectious Coryza
- Infectious Bronchitis Virus
- Avian Influenza
- Mycoplasma synoviae
- Newcastle Disease
Parasites can be either ENDOparasites (lives inside the chicken, like worms) or ECTOparasites (lives on the outside of the chicken, like feather lice).
Common parasites that can lead to a sick chicken include:
- Sticktight Flea
- Chicken Flea
- Cecal worm
If a chicken gets too hot or too cold, it can cause things like heat stress or hypothermia.
Internal illnesses are things like heart problems, neurological issues and cancer. Also in this category is things that impact the gut and reproductive tract.
- E. Coli
- Fatty Liver Hemorrhagic Syndrome
- Fowl Cholera
- Marek’s disease
Other is the catchall for everything else- poisoning, vitamin deficiencies, genetic abnormalities, that kind of thing.
This sick chicken catchall includes:
- Vitamin deficiency
Now that you have a full list of symptoms from your observation and hands on exam, use your findings with the chart below to try and decide what is wrong with your sick chicken.
Check all the symptoms that you wrote down and see if you find any repeat matches in the “Possible Causes” column.
Please understand that there are many possible illnesses that can impact chickens, however, in this chart I tried to narrow it down to only the most common illnesses and symptoms. Use this as guidance as you look for answers.
Adjusting Crop- normal
Something Physically Stuck?
|Breathing- Nasal Discharge||Infectious Coryza|
Infectious Bronchitis Virus
|Breathing- Panting||Heat Stress|
|Breathing- Rattle (Wet) Breathing||Cryptosporidium|
|Breathing- Sneezing||Mycoplasma Gallisepticum|
Could Be Normal
|Breathing- Bloody Mucous||Infectious Laryngotracheitis|
|Breathing- Cough||Mycoplasma Gallisepticum|
Fatty Liver Hemorrhagic Syndrome
|Crop- Hanging||Pendulous Crop|
|Crop- Swollen||Thrush (Sour Crop)|
Fatty Liver Hemorrhagic Syndrome
|Decreased Egg Production||Heat Stress|
Infectious Bronchitis Virus
|Difficulty Walking||Fowl Cholera|
|Eye- Pupils (irregular)||Marek’s|
|Eye- Swollen||Infectious Coryza|
|Head Shaking||Newcastle Disease|
|Mouth- Discharge||Fowl Cholera|
|Mouth- Lesions||Fowlpox (wet)|
|Mouth- White Growth||Thrush|
|Mouth- Yellow Growth||Trichomonosis|
Vitamin E Deficiency
|Poop- Diarrhea||Heat Stress|
Shed Intestinal Lining
Ate Red Food (ie Tomato)
|Stargazing/Wry Neck||Fowl Cholera|
|Swelling- Face/Waddles||Infectious Coryza|
|Swelling- Hocks||Mycoplasma Synoviae|
Vitamin E Deficiency
|Unable To Stand||Marek’s|
Weakness From Illness
Vitamin E Deficiency
|Vent- Poop On Feathers||Vent Gleet|
If you have determined that your sick chicken has a respiratory illness, consider using this Zoologix.com service to get a specific diagnosis or contact your veterinarian.
Respiratory illnesses can be either fungal, viral or bacterial. Fungal and bacterial illnesses can be treated with medications, but viral cannot. Because all of the respiratory illnesses are very difficult to tell apart without an official diagnosis, it can be challenging to pick the correct medication.
NOTE: MEDICATIONS LISTED HERE ARE OFF LABEL FOR USE IN POULTRY. PLEASE READ MORE ABOUT THEM AND USE AT YOUR DISCRETION.
Baytril treats a larger range of respiratory illnesses (but does not treat all of them), so this is where most people start. Baytril is off label for use in poultry.
If you do not have Baytril available, it does not treat the illness, or you chose not to use it, the next medication to try would be Tylan. Tylan is a common treatment for respiratory illness and often available at the local farm store.
Lastly, the final choice would be LA-200, however, it can cause injection site necrosis.
VetRx is to chickens what Vick’s is to humans. While you can use it to help your sick chicken feel better, it will not treat respiratory illness.
For information on treating additional illnesses, please consider my Backyard Poultry Health Guide eBook which covers treatment options in detail.
For a definitive diagnosis, you will need to consult a veterinarian. There are many folks, myself included, that does not have a vet that will treat chickens, which makes treating chickens a little more difficult.
An alternative would be to use a service such as this one offered by Zoologix.com, where you can send in a swab to be tested.
If your sick chicken dies and you did not receive a diagnosis from your veterinarian, I would highly recommend sending the body off for a necropsy. If additional chickens should fall ill, you can use the information from the necropsy to treat other chickens. Find your local necropsy lab here.
If you would like additional information about your sick chicken, please consider the links below.
Unfortunately I am not able to personally respond to emails regarding sick chickens, so please do not send any questions by email.
I would like to offer an alternative. My Hens & Hives Facebook group is a good place to share your pictures and questions and I will do my best to answer them. Join Hens & Hives here.
- Backyard Chickens– a great forum filled with incredible amounts of information!
- Merck Veterinary Manual
- Ailments of Chickens– Colorado State University Extension
- Differential Diagnosis of Respiratory Diseases in Poultry
- The Poultry Site Disease Guide
- Common Poultry Diseases– University of Florida, IFAS Extension
- Farm Health Online– Poultry Diseases
- Poultry Hub– Diseases
- Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine