Flock first aid
When your chickens are in need of a pick-me-up or have suspicious symptoms it is useful to have a basic first-aid kit to hand to nip things in the bud. Julianne Robertson explains what it should contain
As any seasoned owner knows, chickens are usually healthy, happy and resilient to keep. cosy coop, clean bedding, plenty of space to scratch around and dust bathe, plus good quality feed is usually enough to ensure that your hens are content whatever the season.
However, it’s also fair to say that the more hens you own and the longer you keep them, the more likely you are to come across a few common problems which mean that your hens need a helping hand to stay fit and healthy.
Since becoming a hobby hen-keeper four years ago, I’ve found that I’ve amassed a small collection of go-to items which are useful whenever I spot a poorly hen in need of a pick-meup, or a suspicious symptom which has to be nipped in the bud.
But how can you tell when one of your birds is poorly, and what should be your first response?
Richard Jones from Avian Veterinary Services in Northwich, Cheshire, believes that one of the most important things for any new backyard chicken owner to do is to form a relationship with a nearby vet who is happy to see chickens before a problem arises.
“As in most situations relating to animal health and welfare, prevention is always preferable to cure,” says Richard. “In no other area of veterinary medicine is this more relevant, given the amazing ability of birds to hide even quite severe illness and injury from predators and even flock mates who will pick up on the slightest weakness and use it to their advantage.
“Your vet will become familiar with your flock and will be able to offer advice on disease prevention, and also whether a problem can be managed at home or a veterinary examination is needed. Most diseases look the same, with the standard poorly chicken, taildown, hunched stance.”
Richard also advocates getting to know how to handle and check your flock. His practice offers coaching in how to perform a basic hands-on examination and he encourages owners to have a weekly chicken weigh day to monitor any changes in bodyweight or condition, which can be useful in identifying the early warning signs of potential problems.
SEPARATE A SICK HEN
This advice is echoed by Caroline Robinson, veterinary investigation officer for Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC), as well as a chicken-keeper. Caroline says that the first thing to do is separate a sick hen from the others so you can prevent bullying by flock mates and avoid spreading anything contagious. This also provides an opportunity to examine the bird for obvious problems.
“If more than one chicken is ill at the same time, you should definitely be more concerned,” says Caroline. “You need to get a solo sick chicken to move around a little and see if she starts to breathe heavily, if she’s suffering from lameness, or a wound. Put your hands on the bird and try to examine her for any obvious abnormalities. It’s the first thing
a vet will ask you when you phone for an appointment.”
A healthy hen will have bright eyes, a perky red comb when in lay and she will carry her tail upright and her head down as she scratches about in the run. A poorly hen might be more withdrawn, hunched or sitting a lot more than normal. A pale comb, drop in egg production, runny poo, or any kind of discharge around the beak and eyes can be signs of an underlying problem. Then it’s time to take a closer look and consider consulting a vet.
There are a number of common ailments which can affect a chicken that are fairly easily treated with the help of items you may already have in your cupboards or which can be bought and stored for emergencies.
Worms, lice, bumblefoot and scaly leg are all issues that may not always need the immediate attentions of a vet, unless they’re symptoms of a more serious underlying issue. If you’re confident that you know what you’re dealing with, or you’re having difficulty getting to a vet, it’s worth having a few items to hand so that you can begin to give your hen some help before calling in the professionals.
Take a look around your house. Dig about in the utility room, kitchen cupboards and back of the shed. If you turn up some olive oil, Vaseline, Epsom salts or gentian violet, then you have the beginnings of a solid first-aid kit. Add to that some cornflour to stop bleeding, iodine as an antiseptic and some latex gloves, and it becomes even better.
Caroline always has something on standby in case of injury from other chickens.
“Anti-peck spray and purple spray to cover any small spots of blood are quite useful to get your hen from the isolation pen back in with the rest of the flock,” she says.
“There are also various pick-me-ups, including tonics and vitamin blends, as well as beneficial bacteria for use when your chickens are stressed, for example after a moult or a
course of antibiotics. Just be careful about use-by dates. I don’t keep these in the cupboard in case they go out of date; I buy them fresh when they’re needed.”
Caroline also recommends keeping some commercial products on hand to deal with the dreaded red mite.
“These can impact on your chickens’ health, given the right conditions. If I discovered red mite at the weekend, for example, I’d want to take immediate action rather than waiting until the shops reopen. I keep some disinfectant which is active against red mite for a deep clean of the coop and diatomaceous earth to put into dust baths and bedding. A bad infestation may need additional treatment which can be prescribed by a vet.”
Armed with a decent mix of household items and some commercial products you will be prepared for some of the more common conditions that might affect your flock.
‘Put your hands on the bird and try to examine her for any obvious abnormalities. It’s the first thing a vet will ask’
Make sure that you’re familiar with your birds and their behaviour so that you can spot signs of distress early on ABOVE:
BELOW: Dust bathing is beneficial natural behaviour — it helps to clean a bird’s feathers and removes parasites
Healthy hens usually have their head down, tail up and they take an interest in their surroundings BELOW:
Giving a sick hen a ‘spa’ with warm water and Epsom salts can help to calm her and alleviate discomfort RIGHT: