Once you have decided your chicken is sick you need to know how to help her back to good health. Be aware that most chicken illnesses are difficult to identify until after the chicken has died and a post mortem undertaken. So there is a limited amount of help available. There are 2 approaches you can take. Nurse her yourself and see if she recovers or nurse her and get the help of a domestic pet vet. Up to now we have chosen to look after our sick chickens ourselves. This approach is not for everyone so I have investigated the Vet option for you too.
When your chicken is sick the rest of the flock will know well before you do. In a small flock the girls tend to leave a sick chicken to her own devices. It is not uncommon for her to be pecked though so removing her to a safe place is kinder than leaving her to fend for herself. This is true whether you seek a vet for help or not. However keeping her away from the flock will also cause her distress and if away for any length of time it will result in pecking when she goes back. So don’t keep her on her own for more than 3 days if possible and try to keep her company when she is in with you to alleviate some of her separation anxiety.
A point to note; if your chicken has an infectious disease she will already have passed it on to the others by the time you are aware of it. As soon as you notice more than one sick chicken showing the same symptoms and requiring assistance I suggest you go straight to seeking help from a vet. Your vet will be able to assess one chicken and then provide treatment for the entire flock.
Creating a chicken hospital
Once you have identified that one of the flock needs help you need to action. We have found that 24 hours indoors, with a little extra fuss and attention, will help you to identify whether she is going to recover or die. We always bring ours into the warmth of the house and bed them down in a box in a quiet dark corner. This is primarily so that we can keep an eye on her and make sure she is having plenty to drink, without having to go outside every hour. What you don’t really want is a mess everywhere. So identify somewhere you can allocate her, where your chicken will not come to any additional harm, and if she makes a mess it will not be a problem. The kitchen is fine if you are able to keep her away from your food preparation areas, a utility room is better.
As mentioned above the sick bed for your chicken is most likely to be a cardboard box. The size of the box will depend upon how much energy your chicken has. We keep a big cardboard box handy for emergency chicken hospitals. The box needs to be big enough for your chicken not to jump out of and small enough for her to feel safe. Once used we burn the old box and replace it with a new one, so we are ready at all times for an emergency. This then lives in the garage flat packed. When needed we make the box up, line the base with a bin liner and put in a layer of straw, we leave the top open and cover it with a large towel at night . The towel helps to keep the chicken in the box and keep it dark for her, instant hospital.
Nursing a sick chicken back to health
Once indoors you will need to make sure your chicken has plenty of liquid. If really weak you may need to help her to drink. If she will eat, it is good to get her eating something. Mushy easy to swallow food is best, something like porridge or bread soaked in water for example. Whilst looking after her, it is best to massage her crop as sometimes a blockage here is causing the problem.
After 24 hours you should start to see some improvement. It is best to try and get your chicken back into her normal environment as quickly as you can so don’t extend her stay indoors any longer than necessary. A return within a day or two should not prove a problem to her especially if she is feeling better. However monitor closely for the first 24 hours and intervene again if she shows signs of deterioration or distress.
What to do if you see no improvement
If you see no improvement after 36 hours it is highly likely that your chicken is coming to the end of her life. You need to decide whether to;
- keep her indoors a little longer and wait it out,
- return her to the flock anyway and monitor her closely,
- take further action and try the Vet,
- intervene to bring forward the end of her life.
Keeping her indoors for an extended time
If keeping her indoors longer re-assess the situation every 12 hours. The longer you keep her in with you the worse her treatment will be if, or when, you decide to put her back with the others. If you choose to keep her in until she dies and not intervene, the end may take some days. All you can do is keep her comfortable and warm, trying to encourage her to eat and drink.
Having had a sick chicken inside for 2 weeks, we decided to bring in company for her overnight and return the healthy bird to the main flock every morning. This helped to reduce her stress and maintain her place within the flock. It was also beneficial when she finally returned to the hen house. You will not want to do this if the sick chicken is infectious.
Returning her to the flock
There only one thing to consider before you return a recovering chicken to her flock. Is she likely to suffer as a result. The call is yours and it will depend on how well she appears when you are ready to send her back. If you decide to put her back, and you think she is not fully recovered, you will need to keep a close eye on her for any signs of distress, a further deterioration in her health and/or signs of pecking. If you see any of these behaviours it is kinder to separate her again than leave her to suffer.
We have been in a situation when we chose to send a recovering chicken back to the flock. She was showing signs of improvement and appeared to be well for a day, she then died in the night on her perch. We like to think that our chicken had been with her family at the end and had spent her last hours in a familiar place. Fortunately the end had been quick in this instance. It is not always so.
The flock behaviour changes when one of them dies. They do not appear to be distressed but they are quiet and do not go near the dead bird. In addition to this their mourning period does not last as long.
Using a Vet
Most of the vets that care for domestic pets will be able to help with most of your usual chicken ailments and provide you with guidance for dealing with issues affecting a small flock. A small flock is less than 50 birds and is sometimes called a back garden or domestic flock. If you have more than 50 chickens you will need to find a specialist vet that deals with the issues a large flock experiences. In a small flock illness can be identified quickly and confined easily, in a larger flock illness will spread quickly and can have catastrophic results.
As mentioned above there is really very little a vet can do, unless your chicken has a broken leg or has been mauled by a dog and survived the incident. Most illnesses afflicting your chicken are viral and, as with humans, they just need to get over it. On occasion antibiotics can be administered to help aid recovery however a vet will only have a limited stock of the medicines most regularly used to dispense to you. The most common treatments are available in the pet supply stores so it will only be antibiotics you can get from the vet.
Due to the nature and speed of chicken illnesses it can be a challenge to identify the exact problem until after death anyway. So do not be surprised if there is little the vet can do to help. The cost of treatment is comparable to the cost of treating a cat or rabbit. This includes the initial appointment for diagnosis, basic treatments and prescription charges. It is also similar, in cost, for the vet to put down a chicken and dispose of the remains.
Choosing whether to intervene and bring forward the end of her life
If you choose to keep chickens there will come a time when they die. If you have a sick chicken and she does not recover within 36 hours it is highly likely that she will die. The decision over whether to intervene and bring this end forward will lie solely in your hands. Helping to end the life of any living being is not an easy thing to. But it is also not right to leave an animal to die in pain and distress either.
For more information about managing the end of your chickens life please read the section on coping with the death of a chicken.
If you have any questions please get in touch as we are happy to help.