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Healthy Chickens, Healthy Flocks

09 March 2016

Christine Heinrichs is a freelance agricultural journalist based the US. She's the author of How to Raise Chickens and How to Raise Poultry, and a regular contributor to a variety of poultry publications.

Chickens are domestic livestock, so they depend on their keepers for their well-being. Their needs are simple but unless they get the care they need, they are at risk, writes Christine Heinrichs.

Chickens Are Healthy

The best defence against disease is for the flock to be clean and well nourished. If they do get sick, they usually recover. Just as in humans, a long list of varied diseases and disorders plagues chickens, but most of the time, illness is caused by a few familiar bugs.

Flock First Aid Kit

Have a first aid kit that includes:

  • Adhesive tape
  • Antiseptic scrub
  • Disposable latex gloves
  • Insecticide powder (for killing biting and chewing insects on poultry)
  • First-aid guide
  • Flashlight with extra batteries
  • Gauze dressing pads
  • Isopropyl (rubbing) alcohol
  • Petroleum jelly
  • Pocketknife
  • Roll gauze
  • Safety scissors (for cutting dressings)
  • Scissors
  • Self-stick elastic bandage, such as Vetrap
  • Sterile saline solution (for rinsing wounds and removing debris from eyes)
  • Syringe (without the needle, for flushing wounds)
  • Tweezers
  • Wound ointment/spray

Backyard chicken keepers manage the occasional sick chicken on their own with supportive care. If a sick chicken does not respond within a few days or if other chickens start getting sick, get professional veterinary help.

Clean, fresh water and food stop disease before it can spread. Dirty water breeds pathogens. Chickens are smart enough to avoid dirty drinking water, but then they can become dehydrated. They will stop eating if they do not have water to drink. It’s a downward spiral that makes them vulnerable to any germs lurking around the coop.

Fresh air and sunshine are the best disinfectants. Give them plenty of space. Crowded conditions breed problems. They should have plenty of room to roam. Crowding causes stress, which reduces their ability to resist disease or recover if they do catch something.

Crowding increases the speed and reach of disease spread. Birds that have more space are less likely to catch diseases from each other.

A backyard flock should allow at least one and a half to two square feet per chicken inside the hen house and eight to ten square feet of yard outside. Bigger is better. Chickens need space to stretch their wings and interact socially with each other.

Control rodents in the housing and yards. They can carry diseases and parasites.

The poultry yard needs to drain excess water, so that it won’t become a breeding ground for mosquitoes and other disease vectors.

When using any chemical treatment, whether it be antibiotic or other medicine or an insecticide, read and follow all package directions.

Healthy Diet

Chickens are omnivores, meaning they eat all kinds of food, both plant and meat. They are resilient and able to thrive on a wide range of diets. They do better on a diet that meets their nutritional needs than one that falls short. They lay more eggs and are more resistant to illness if they are getting a good ration.

Eating is an important part of chickens’ day. Fresh greens and other interesting food such as hanging corn cobs or seaweed in their enclosure give them something to do. Bored hens can start bad habits, such as picking at each other’s feathers or eating their own eggs.

Chicken scratch is a supplement, not a full diet. Scratch feed contains cracked grains like corn, wheat and sorghum. Scratch is the traditional supplement to barnyard chickens that ranged to forage for greens and insects and received plenty of kitchen scraps. It does not give chickens a complete diet.
Food closest to the source is always preferable. Whole grains are better than cracked grains.

Manufactured feed is inevitably older than feed you make yourself. Chickens benefit from all kinds of grains: alfalfa seed, sunflower seed, wheat and wheat germ, sesame seeds, oats, rice, rye, barley, millet, flax seed, amaranth and others.

Whole grains and seeds contain oils that are necessary for good feather condition and carry important vitamins for good health. Commercial feeds have oils added to replace those lost in processing.

A Safe Coop

Predators are the single worst nightmare for backyard chickens. Chickens need the strongest, most secure housing to foil marauders. Each location has its own local predators. It’s the chicken keeper’s responsibility to have strategies that keep the chickens safe.

The backyard looks serene and safe. It isn’t.

Raccoons and opossums are everywhere. Dogs allowed to run loose can become destructive and domestic cats can take chicks. Coyotes, foxes, weasels, minks, skunks and rats are four-legged culprits, and they may well live in suburbia. You may not know they are there, but they will find your chickens. Snakes can take eggs and chicks. Owls, hawks and occasionally vultures attack from above. Mountain lions and bears are rare, but possible predators.

All these critters will be persistent in trying to get into the chicken coop. Protection starts with a secure perimeter. The chicken yard and coop should be securely fenced.

Electric fencing can be part of the solution. The coop needs to be secure on all sides. Many predators are diligent diggers, so prevent them from getting in that way by burying fencing or having a concrete floor. Line the exterior with metal flashing around wooden structures.

Succession Planning

As in deciding to keep any live animal such as a dog or cat, consider the future as well as the present. Taking responsibility for chickens means committing to them for their natural lives.

Plan ahead to avoid unpleasant situations as chickens mature, grow old, and stop laying eggs. Think through the issues before making that impulse decision because the chicks are so cute.

Any chicken keeper can be disabled or find himself in circumstances that make keeping birds impossible. Every poultry keeper needs to have a succession plan. Make a plan before events create a crisis. Chickens need someone who will take over their care if their current owner can’t.

Emergency Management

Being responsible for chickens means making plans for the unexpected. An emergency plan talked through with others who are involved before disaster strikes makes coping more efficient and safer.

Natural disasters such as hurricanes, earthquakes, floods and wildfires usually give some warning.
Chemical spills or escaped toxic gases give no warning.

Don’t wait until the last minute to evacuate. Plan evacuation routes in advance. Partner with neighbours or other chicken keepers to help each other in an emergency.

In the event of a disaster, chickens will need to be contained and transported to a safe location. Have animal carriers or boxes that can accommodate them. Post the owner’s name, address and contact information on the carriers, along with the veterinarian’s name and contact information and another reliable person. Pack chicken feed for the duration.

Money set aside before a disaster makes recovery easier. Keep some cash on hand and the rest in a bank.


The three main principles of biosecurity are Isolation, Traffic Control and Sanitation.

Backyard chickens are among the most biologically isolated critters in our world, in the sense of contacting micro-organisms that may make them sick. Simple biosecurity precautions such as washing your hands before and after handling birds, limiting visitors or providing them with disposable shoe covers go a long way to reducing the risk of introducing disease.

Communicable diseases can be stopped at the front gate by biosecurity practices. Diseases can be spread by dirt, feathers and other items that carry infection with them, as well as by live birds.
Avian Influenza is the most notorious, but birds can share other diseases.

Keep a pair of garden shoes at the back door. Using only those shoes to visit the chickens stops most contamination right there. Inexpensive disposable boot covers can allow neighbours to be welcome visitors without compromising flock security.

A jacket that is only used for gardening and the chickens is a second line of defence. I wear old clothes when I clean the chicken coop and then toss them in the washer.

Acquire birds only from sources that can verify that they are disease-free. Then quarantine new birds for two weeks in separate quarters, to assure that they are healthy.

Be aware of which diseases have been a problem for other poultry owners in your area and take appropriate precautions.

Keeping records of biosecurity measures helps respond in the event of a disease outbreak.

The USDA and the California Department of Food and Agriculture offer free chicken calendars with biosecurity information.

You can order the USDA calendar here and the CDFA calendar here.

Further Reading

This article originally appeared in the February 2016 'Health and Disease' themed issue of ThePoultrySite Digital. To read more articles from this issue, click here.

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