Check your chick­ens

8 page health spe­cial

Your Chickens - - Front Page -

Whether you’re just about to buy some hens for the first time or are adding to your ex­ist­ing flock, it’s im­por­tant that you in­spect your po­ten­tial pur­chases for good health. By vis­it­ing your cho­sen breeder in per­son, you’ll get to see the con­di­tions they’ve been reared in and the health of the flock they come from rather than some­one else se­lect­ing your chick­ens for you and hav­ing them de­liv­ered to your door.

Once you have your chick­ens, it’s es­sen­tial to carry out reg­u­lar phys­i­cal ex­am­i­na­tions to en­sure their con­tin­u­ing good health and longevity. As prey an­i­mals, chick­ens are highly skilled at hid­ing pain, dis­com­fort and weak­ness so by the time you no­tice that some­thing is wrong it is of­ten too late. By spend­ing time amongst your flock, you’ll be able to pick up the sub­tle clues they of­fer when they’re un­der the weather.

A healthy bird is alert and ac­tive, eat­ing and drink­ing through­out the day with pe­ri­ods of dust­bathing, sun­bathing / rest­ing in the af­ter­noon. By re­ally ob­serv­ing your flock, you’ll know what is ‘nor­mal’ and any changes in be­hav­iour should be in­ves­ti­gated fur­ther.

Com­mon in­di­ca­tions of a sick chicken in­clude: a hunched stance, lethargy,

in­ac­tiv­ity, hid­ing, loss of ap­petite, pale comb or wat­tles, un­usual drop­pings or a de­crease in egg pro­duc­tion. If you see any of th­ese sig­nals or changes from ‘nor­mal’ be­hav­iour, closer observation is needed. Fol­low our comb to toe check­list of what to look out for when ei­ther buy­ing birds or as part of your rou­tine ex­am­i­na­tion.


The comb and wat­tles should be red and cor­rect for the breed — if a breed’s comb is up­right, it shouldn’t be flopped over or shriv­elled if it’s sup­posed to be plump look­ing.

The comb and wat­tles should not be pale, pur­ple, ashen or

have scabs or le­sions which could in­di­cate avian pox, frost­bite or peck­ing in­juries from other chick­ens. Large combed birds are more sus­cep­ti­ble to frost­bite in win­ter than smaller combed breeds.

A pale comb is ‘nor­mal’ in the fol­low­ing cir­cum­stances: a hen who is broody; a hen who is moult­ing; a hen who is not in lay or a pul­let who has not yet come into lay.


The eyes should be clear, bright, round and moist. They should not be dry, sunken, swollen, cloudy or wa­tery and there should not be any bub­bles or dis­charge from the eye.

Chick­ens do have a third eye­lid, the nic­ti­tat­ing mem­brane which mois­t­ens, cleans and pro­tects the eye. Dust­bathing of­fers prime time view­ing of the nic­ti­tat­ing mem­brane, but you may al­ready have seen it when you’ve been look­ing through your pho­to­graphs as it ruins an oth­er­wise good pic­ture!


A chicken’s nos­trils are called nares. They should be clean, with­out any dis­charge or crusti­ness.


A nor­mal beak is smooth, with­out any cracks and closed most of the time. An open beak can in­di­cate stress or over­heat­ing as chick­ens have no sweat glands and pant to reg­u­late their body tem­per­a­ture dur­ing hot weather.

The up­per mandible (top half of the beak) is slightly longer than the lower and should be aligned di­rectly above it.

Free-rang­ing chick­ens will main­tain the length and shape of their beaks by peck­ing at the ground and wip­ing their beak on hard or abra­sive sur­faces such as rocks. If your flock are con­fined to a run, pro­vide a hard ob­ject for beak trim­ming.

The beak con­tin­ues to grow through­out the bird’s life, just like your fin­ger­nails and may re­quire main­te­nance. If the beak is over­grown or chipped,

you can file it down, but as the beak is sen­si­tive, don’t be too over en­thu­si­as­tic.


There shouldn’t be any foam­ing or dis­charge from the mouth. Noisy, squeaky or laboured breath­ing is ab­nor­mal. The in­side of the mouth should be free from lumps, le­sions and dis­coloura­tion. A ran­cid milk smell com­ing from the mouth could in­di­cate sour crop.

The roof of the mouth has a slit called the choanal slit which con­nects, via some pas­sages to the nares. The slit should be clear and un­ob­structed.


A chicken’s feath­ers should be glossy and lay flat against the body un­less you have friz­zle or sim­i­lar breeds. Un­less your flock are ap­proach­ing a moult, feath­ers shouldn’t be bro­ken, ruffled or tat­tered any of which could in­di­cate be­havioural prob­lems within the flock such as an overzeal­ous rooster, stress, par­a­sites or a nu­tri­ent de­fi­ciency.

It’s im­por­tant to un­der­stand what moult­ing looks like, when it is likely to hap­pen and to know what the new, emerg­ing pin feath­ers look like.


In­juries to the skin can be well hid­den by feath­ers. Part­ing the feath­ers all over the chicken’s body al­lows you to check for mites, lice, lumps and in­juries from a rooster’s spurs / nails dur­ing mat­ing.


The breast should be firm and free from blis­ters. The keel bone runs down the mid­dle of the chicken be­tween the breast mus­cles and should be straight.

A curved keel bone could in­di­cate a cal­cium and phos­phate im­bal­ance or a vi­ta­min D de­fi­ciency. A bony or pro­trud­ing keel could in­di­cate weight loss whilst one padded with fat or dif­fi­cult to feel may sug­gest that the bird is obese.


The crop is where the bird stores food wait­ing to be di­gested. Af­ter eat­ing, the crop should feel swollen and slightly firm and will shrink as food is di­gested. It should be empty when you let your flock out in the morn­ing and full at bed­time.

A chicken’s crop should not re­main hard or fluid-filled.


The bones on the wing should be free from cuts, swelling or in­juries. Check be­neath the wing for lice and mites.


The ab­domen should be firm, but not hard, swollen or squishy.


The preen gland should not be blocked and the skin sur­round­ing the gland should be free from par­a­sites.


A pink, wide moist vent in­di­cates a hen in lay. A pale, dry vent sug­gests a non-lay­ing hen.

The vent should not pro­trude or be bloody. The vent is a favourite place for other birds to peck, so any slight sign of in­jury or blood may lead to can­ni­bal­ism if not caught quickly.


The scales on the legs and feet should be smooth and lie flat. You’ll no­tice that the scales are slightly rougher in older birds. Raised, flaky or crusty-look­ing scales sug­gest scaly leg mites. Feather-legged birds are prone to par­a­sites so be ex­tra vig­i­lant when check­ing their legs.

Check the bot­tom of the feet for any im­pacted dirt in the foot crevices. A black spot on the foot pad which can­not be re­moved by rub­bing or wash­ing could sug­gest a po­ten­tially fa­tal staph in­fec­tion, bum­ble­foot. It

usu­ally starts with a small cut or splin­ter to the foot. Bac­te­ria en­ter the wound and the bum­ble grows slowly over time which can cause a sys­temic in­fec­tion in the bird. A vet­eri­nar­ian should be con­sulted re­gard­ing the treat­ment op­tions.

If your birds are banded, check that the band isn’t too tight or caus­ing any prob­lems.

Nails should be a rea­son­able length — any that are over­grown should be trimmed or filed.

Spurs should not be too long so that the bird has dif­fi­culty walk­ing or sharp so as to cause in­jury to a hen when mat­ing. The spur has an in­ner layer, the quick which sup­plies blood flow and an outer layer which is hard like a fin­ger­nail. Spurs grow through­out the rooster’s life and will need trim­ming. When trim­ming / fil­ing spurs, it’s im­por­tant not to cut into the quick — by look­ing care­fully, you can see where the quick ends in the spur.


An adult bird should main­tain a con­stant weight. Weight loss may in­di­cate ill­ness, worms, coc­cid­io­sis or bul­ly­ing. Weight gain sug­gests over-feed­ing or too many treats.


One of the first signs of ill­ness is un­usual drop­pings. Learn to recog­nise ‘nor­mal’ drop­pings.

A drop­pings board be­neath the roost pro­vides a daily op­por­tu­nity to ob­serve ab­nor­mal­i­ties that might oth­er­wise be lost in the bed­ding ma­te­rial.


A check-up shouldn’t take more than a few min­utes per bird, un­less you un­cover prob­lems or your hens don’t co-op­er­ate. If some of your flock are skit­tish or don’t like to be picked up, roost­ing time is a per­fect op­por­tu­nity to per­form an in­spec­tion.

Car­ry­ing out a thor­ough and reg­u­lar head-to-toe check-up of each hen can help nip any prob­lems in the bud be­fore they be­come a real is­sue. You’ll also be en­sur­ing the health, hap­pi­ness and life­span of your flock.

It’s im­por­tant to un­der­stand what moult­ing looks like

A pink, wide moist vent in­di­cates a hen in lay

The preen gland should not be blocked

This hen is pant­ing to keep cool.

The bones on the wing should be free from cuts, swelling or in­juries

A healthy rooster show­ing breast mus­cles

The roof of the mouth has a slit called the choanal slit

Bro­ken wing feath­ers caused by an overzeal­ous rooster

Clear nares

A nor­mal beak is smooth, with­out any cracks

This rooster lost his right eye to avian pox but is oth­er­wise healthy

A rooster mat­ing in­jury to the skin was well hid­den by the feath­ers

Poul­try lice

TOP: The nic­ti­tat­ing mem­brane step-by-step ABOVE LEFT: Bub­bles from the eye are caused by the virus avian pox ABOVE RIGHT: Black scabs around the eye, comb and wat­tles in­di­cate avian pox

Black scabs on wat­tles and comb – this is avian pox

A peck­ing in­jury on a rooster comb

LEFT: The scales on the legs and feet should be smooth and lie flat. TOP RIGHT: Swelling and a black scab could in­di­cate bum­ble­foot ABOVE RIGHT: Learn to recog­nise ‘nor­mal’ drop­pings. BELOW: Raised scales sug­gest scaly leg mites

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