Keeping Garden Chickens in North Carolina - 4

This final article from a guide to keeping chickens for the hobby farmer from North Carolina State University Cooperative Extension covers poultry health issues.
calendar icon 30 July 2010
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’An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure’ may sound old-fashioned but it is especially true for poultry. There are very few veterinarians who treat chickens and other poultry. This means that when a disease occurs in your flock, you have few options to treat it and prevent its spread to the rest of your flock. Most poultry diseases can be prevented by providing good management and excellent sanitation in the hen house and yard. Make sure you have dry litter; fresh dry food; clean, fresh water and good ventilation. It can be days to weeks before you realise that your birds' health has been compromised. This incubation period occurs from the time the birds become infected until they exhibit clinical signs. Unless the birds are sneezing or limping, you may not notice more subtle signs. Birds tend to mask signs of illness until they are quite sick.

(Growers of organic poultry should refer to the USDA List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances before using any recommended products. All herbal remedies mentioned are believed to be effective, but there are no data to support their effectiveness in treating poultry diseases.)

Diseases are generally divided into two groups: infectious and non-infectious. The term 'infectious' refers to diseases that can be spread from one bird to another. 'Contagious' is another term for spreading disease from one bird to another. Non-infectious diseases are not transmitted from one bird to another but are a result of environmental conditions such as inadequate nutrition, physical or traumatic injury, chemical poisons or stress. The flock is generally subject to the same environmental conditions, so multiple birds are likely to exhibit the same symptoms of noninfectious conditions. It is important to identify the cause(s) of non-infectious diseases and remove them from the birds’ environment.

Sunny, grassy, areas promote good health

Infectious Diseases

Infectious diseases are caused by organisms generally too small to see without a microscope. These organisms invade the bird’s body and attack healthy cells, resulting in disease. Disease-causing organisms can generally be divided into four groups: bacteria, viruses, parasites, and protozoa. Although these groups vary in size and other characteristics, they all like moisture, shade, and rather cool conditions and can be introduced to your flock in manure or other body secretions from an infected flock or from free-living birds.

Manure tends to be transported by people, borrowed equipment, or during bird shows or auctions. Infected flocks pose a risk only if you visit those flocks and return with the organisms on your boots or clothing. Free-living birds generally pose the greatest risk to flocks near ponds or other water sources, but spilled feed will attract birds of all types, as well as rodents.

Even when taking many precautions, there may come a time when an organism lands on your property and infects your birds, despite the uncrowded conditions and healthy diet. Understanding causes of disease will help you prevent problems in your flock.

Diseases are generally divided into two groups: infectious and non-infectious. The term infectious refers to diseases that can be spread from one bird to another. Contagious is another term for spreading disease from one bird to another. Non-infectious diseases are not transmitted from one bird to another but are a result of environmental conditions such as inadequate nutrition, physical or traumatic injury, chemical poisons, or stress. The flock is generally subject to the same environmental conditions, so multiple birds are likely to exhibit the same symptoms of non-infectious conditions. It is important to identify the cause(s) of non-infectious diseases and remove them from the birds' environment.


Of the four types of organisms that routinely infect birds, parasites are the only ones that you may be able to see with the naked eye. Parasites can live inside the bird or outside on the skin, shanks, and feathers.

Internal parasites: What you might see. Although you cannot see the parasites inside the bird, sometimes parasites are visible in fecal droppings. A visible worm is an adult worm, so your birds have been infected for at least several weeks if you see one. There might be loose stools with or without evidence of blood. Internal parasites require either oral treatment or injection. Visit your farm supply store and ask for help in finding the appropriate product for treating intestinal parasites. Birds should generally be treated at least two times to break the developmental cycle.

Conventional parasite treatments generally kill adult worms but not eggs, which means that a second treatment is needed to kill any leftover eggs that hatch out after the initial treatment. The interval between treatments should be 2 to 3 weeks. Follow label directions and always adhere to withdrawal times for eating eggs or meat from treated birds.

Healthy-looking birds can be infected with parasites

For those growing organic birds, some essential oils from plants have been shown to kill some parasites in a laboratory setting. These studies have not been validated in live poultry. Conventional dewormers are very safe and are a good choice if permissible. To prevent reinfestation, clean the coop and the run thoroughly, allow plenty of sunlight and air movement throughout and, if possible, move birds to a new location for a time.

External parasites: What you might see. Infestations with mites and lice can be irritating to your birds. You might see areas of skin irritation on your birds, and they may try to scratch themselves by rubbing against objects within their reach. You may notice feather loss, red irritated skin, or small scabs on the skin. You may see mites on the shanks, which appear white and powdery. Medicated dust baths using either an insecticide powder or diatomaceous earth should rid the birds of their parasites. These products change over time, and the ones currently approved for use often can be found at the same store where you purchase your feed. Note that some products will require that you discard any eggs produced for a period of time after use.

If a medicated dust does not work, an injectable insecticide might be needed. Again, herbs such as fleabane, pyrethrum, and garlic are believed to be effective against external parasites in dogs, but there are no data to support those claims in poultry. Whatever treatment you consider, it is important that birds be treated. Birds with parasites will, at a minimum, not produce eggs or meat as efficiently and if the infestation is severe, they could die.

Bacteria, viruses and other bugs

If your birds become infected with bacteria, viruses, or protozoa, you cannot see the microorganisms, but you will see the effects of these organisms on your birds. Bacteria are able to grow on their own either inside the bird or outside in the environment. Although bacterial infections can be treated with antibiotics, signs of a bacterial infection are generally the same as signs of infection with viruses. The organisms target a certain organ system (such as lungs, intestine, or heart) and the signs of disease reflect damge to that organ system.

Respiratory disease: What you might see. When the lungs, upper airway, or sinuses are infected with disease-causing organisms, you might notice watery eyes, discharge from the nasal passages, swelling around the eyes, changes in the sounds made by the bird, or open-mouth breathing. Birds with a respiratory infection exhibit the same general signs as you do when you have a cold or bronchitis. Respiratory infections are most commonly viral or bacterial but can also be caused by mycoplasmas and protozoa.

Respiratory diseases tend to spread through a flock if not caught early. Isolating birds with symptoms might slow or stop the spread. When working with groups of healthy and unhealthy birds, always tend the healthy birds first to help prevent disease spread. Treatment with antibiotics is appropriate if your birds have a bacterial disease or secondary bacterial infection brought on by a viral infection. Antibiotics do not affect viruses. Organic producers can administer vitamins and electrolytes to support the immune system and promote adequate hydration. Herbal remedies such as echinacea, ginkgo, and lemon balm have been studied in humans and in the laboratory but not in poultry.

Intestinal disease: What you might see. Conditions affecting the intestinal tract generally result in a change in the amount, consistency, or look of the bird’s normal faecal droppings. A decrease in the frequency or amount of faeces produced is generally related to how much feed is going into the bird. Birds with disease problems will often not eat well or drink as much as reusual so will not defecate as often or as much as normal. During hot weather, it is normal to see loose stools, as birds drink water to cool themselves and the excess water exits the body via the faeces. If disease is present, your birds can become dehydrated from fluid loss in the faeces. Birds can be given electrolytes and vitamins in their drinking water to support hydration.

Because intestinal diseases can be caused by bacteria, viruses or protozoa, it is generally difficult to determine the exact cause of the problem. Supportive care, such as providing electrolytes and vitamins, goes a long way in helping your birds recover. If antibiotics are used, the normal bacteria present in the intestine may be affected. If so, the gut is susceptible to colonization with bacteria that may not be beneficial.

Probiotics (products that contain ’good‘ bacteria) can be purchased and used in these birds, though if you are treating with an antibiotic, the probiotics should be given after the antibiotic is stopped so that it will not destroy the beneficial organisms in the probiotic formula. Treatment of diarrhea often includes some type of astringent such as vinegar or copper sulfate (not on the National Organic list of allowed substances). Pay close attention to the fecal droppings to determine when the birds are recovered.

Coccidia: What you might see. Evidence of blood in the faecal droppings could indicate a viral, bacterial or protozoal infection. Protozoa can be particularly detrimental to your birds. Coccidia (a protozoal organism) is common in poultry and is almost impossible to eradicate from your property once it gains entrance.

Once coccidia are introduced onto your property, your goal should be to reduce the numbers of organisms present in your flock’s environment. Coccidial infection results in blood in the stool and failure to absorb nutrients. To avoid risks related to coccidia, keep your coop clean and dry, and place it in an area that has good daily exposure to sun, or rotate your hens from one area of your yard to another. You also may choose to select feed that contains coccidiostats to prevent severe infections.

If your flock gets a coccidial infection, steam clean as many surfaces as possible and move the birds to an area that has not been infected. A sunny area can recover and be ready for hens again in six months. A shady area may need to be left open for a year or more. Hens that survive an infection and are moved to a clean area may develop some resistance, but they may still suffer or die from infection again if weakened for any other reason.

Disease of the brain: What you might see. You may notice that one or more of your birds is unable to stand, walk normally, or even right themselves. Lack of coordination is often a symptom of disease involving the brain. Brain disease is generally life threatening, and there is very little you can do to remedy the problem. Support the bird(s) by providing a safe environment and access to water and feed. Herbal treatments have been used in mammals, but no data exist for their use in poultry. Birds exhibiting signs of brain disease are not likely to recover, so a bird with these symptoms is a good candidate to take to a diagnostic lab.

Knowing what organ system is affected by a disease agent does not tell you the exact cause of the disease, but it does narrow down the list of possibilities. Tender loving care (TLC) can go a long way with all sick birds. Be sure that sick birds are not being pecked by the healthy birds. You may need to isolate the sick birds, and you should offer them food and fresh water. Always keep sick animals well hydrated.

Without a laboratory diagnosis, whether or not to use antibiotics becomes a judgment call. Antibiotics are effective in combating bacteria only and do not affect viruses, protozoa, and parasites. Use antibiotics only if you are fairly certain that you have a bacterial disease. The only sure way to know this is by sacrificing one bird and submitting it to the diagnostic lab. Even then, the antibiotics may reduce the number of the beneficial bacteria in the birds’ intestines, resulting in diarrhea.

Proper care is essential to help the birds fight the disease, and then they will likely become at least partially immune to that particular organism, much like children used to be allowed to ”catch” chickenpox to develop immunity. This approach means that some birds may not survive. The alternative is to take one of the sick birds to a laboratory for a disease diagnosis. Most states have veterinary diagnostic laboratories. The laboratory system in North Carolina is part of the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (NCDA&CS).

Birds submitted to the diagnostic lab will not be returned to you. Call the lab first for clear instructions on how to submit the bird. The information gained from this laboratory submission will help you deal more effectively with the rest of the flock. Use the NCDA&CS web site for assistance. This site shows the location of every lab in North Carolina, as well as contact phone numbers. The laboratory system also provides blood testing services, at your home, to test for many common diseases. Information about this service also can be found on the NCDA web site.

Environmental effects may also cause birds to exhibit some disease-like symptoms. Open-mouth breathing, as well as watery faeces, can be due to hot weather, when birds drink more water than usual as they attempt to cool down. Use common sense when assessing these situations and think about how you feel when you are sick. Although birds are different from humans, they do share some common reactions to their environment and to disease challenges.

Disease prevention remains your most powerful tool. Although keeping your coop area clean, dry, and sunny is the best way to prevent diseases in the first place, other tools can help you as well, such as vaccination. If you purchase day-old chicks and the breeder offers the service, you should have them vaccinated for Marek's disease and may also have them vaccinated for other diseases such as and Newcastle disease. Good sanitation and a dry environment also help prevent and control internal parasites. External parasites, such as mites or lice, may require treatment.

Non-Infectious Conditions

Non-infectious diseases are are caused by environmental factors, and they are not contagious. It is not always apparent whether the condition is infectious or non-infectious. Because diseases can be related to environmental factors, and birds in a flock share the same environment, you may see more than one bird exhibiting signs at the same time.

Non-infectious diseases can be caused by nutritional deficiencies or excesses, toxins in the environment or feed, traumatic events, or age-related issues. Many of these conditions are preventable and within your realm of control. Others are not.

Feeding a commercially available food milled by a reputable feed mill almost assures that your birds have a well-balanced diet and will not exhibit clinical signs of any nutritional deficiency. If a bag of feed contains a toxin, multiple birds eating the feed will generally show signs at the same time. If this happens, remove all feed from the coop and submit a feed sample to the NCDA feed lab for analysis.

Wet eyes and wet down around eyes and over wings are often seen with respiratory diseases. (Photo by Tim Ayers)

Birds are curious and can find sources of toxic substances that you may not think are a problem. It is best to keep the bird’s area completely clear of anything other than feed, water, and pasture or grass for grazing. Traumatic events include anything that causes bodily harm to birds, including predators. Broken legs or wings can occur in other ways, and causes of these conditions should be investigated and corrected.

Birds are quite resilient and can generally recover from traumatic events that aren’t too severe. Once again, TLC is important. Injured birds should be isolated from the flock to prevent pecking and ensure adequate feed and water. Age-related events such as osteoporosis, tumors, and reproductive problems are common in older birds, especially hens. Much like humans, older birds are susceptible to diseases related to age and should be observed to be sure that the younger birds are not limiting the older birds’ access to food, water, and a pleasant environment.

A common non-infectious problem in egg layers is egg binding, which occurs when a hen is unable to deposit her egg in the nest. There is no one known cause of egg binding, but it tends to occur in birds that produce a large number of eggs, in old hens, or in birds that have been stressed. Birds that are egg bound tend to act broody or start to make a nest. You may be able to feel the egg through the body wall, or there may be a prolapse of the oviduct through the cloaca.

To be certain that there is an egg stuck in the bird, you can ask a local veterinarian to x-ray the bird. Birds that are egg bound should be kept in a warm environment with plenty of water and vitamins. If the hen cannot pass the egg in several hours, a warm enema containing a small amount of mineral oil can be administered, or the bird can be placed into warm water (up to her neck), which has been reported to be successful in exotic birds.

Mortality Disposal

Mortality in small flocks is more likely to occur from predation than disease. Either way, you need a plan to deal with the remains. Depending on the size of your flock and how often your birds die, you may need to have a mortality disposal system in place. Most growers with fewer than 25 birds bury their mortality on the property. Approved methods for disposal include burial, composting, and incineration. It is best to dispose of birds, particularly birds that died from an infectious disease, on your property rather than removing them, which could result in disease spread. If you have questions about mortality disposal, the NCDA&CS is a good source of information as they regulate mortality disposal in North Carolina.

Litter Management

Let hens mother their chicks, as excessive handling by humans can harm them.

Feed should be provided in an area protected from rain, and within the predator-proof coop. (Photo by Tim Ayers)

You will reduce odour risks if you keep bedding dry, and be sure to clean out old manure on days when there is a breeze, preferably blowing away from neighbours’ homes. Never clean out or spread manure when neighbors are using their yard for entertaining or for family recreation. Flies are potentially the most serious nuisance in a home flock, and control requires daily attention. The best way to control flies is to manage the manure so that it is not attractive for fly breeding. Reducing the natural 60 to 80 per cent moisture level of the manure to 30 per cent or less will virtually eliminate fly breeding. Stir the bedding daily so that manure is more evenly spread throughout and moisture can be absorbed.

Pest Management

Rats and mice like chicken feed, will kill young chickens, and will destroy eggs. Keeping all feed in metal containers and using metal or wire shields around all chicken houses and runs will help keep rats out, and keeping all trash and all sheds clean and organised will eliminate breeding areas.

To minimize disease and pest risks, keep the coop area dry, dispose of excess water from dishes and buckets so that that there are no stagnant pools, and make sure the ground allows for good drainage. Keep the coop area neat and clean. A weedy area with old equipment lying about will all but guarantee complaints by neighbors.

Detailed information on pest management can be found in specialised publications.

Troublesome Habits

Egg eating may become a problem in your home flock. Once a hen starts eating eggs, the habit is difficult to stop. The best way to prevent egg eating is to prevent egg breakage in the nest. Make sure there is adequate nesting material and space and that eggs are gathered frequently. Once you have a problem, darken the nest area, remove broody hens, and place glass eggs or torn pieces of white paper on the floor to frustrate the hens who are pecking at eggs or egg pieces. Artificial eggs painted white, of comparable size, may also be used to deter egg eating, as the hen will get no reward from pecking the artificial egg.

The final and possibly most disturbing problem you may encounter is cannibalism. Chickens may exhibit cannibalism in the form of toe picking, feather picking, or body picking, especially if the birds are confined, housed in too small an area, or otherwise under stress. If you see chickens pecking at each other, try to determine the environmental stressor that may be encouraging the behavior, and modify the environment as best you can to remove that stressor. Immediately remove an injured bird, and do not return her to the flock until fully healed. Some chicken owners beak trim the hens (removing a park of the upper and lower beak with a heated tool) to prevent injury from cannibalism. This should not be necessary in a garden flock that has adequate space to thrive.

Cannibalism is rarely a problem in small backyard flocks with only two or three birds, partly because such flocks are often kept in environments with little stress. Social pecking orders are stable in small flocks. Once social structure is established, aggression is very low. Adequate space allows subordinate hens to keep their distance and still get enough food and water.


Information from the US Department of Agriculture

Feed and Animal Management for Poultry. 2003. Nutrient Management Technical Note No. 4. (Accessed March 10, 2010.)

Small Poultry Flocks.” 1988. Farmers Bulletin Number 2262. (includes illustrations and plans for brooding equipment and laying houses for larger home flocks.) (Accessed March 10, 2010.)

Information from universities and colleges

Akers, D., P. Akers and M.A. Latour. 2002. Choosing a Chicken Breed: Eggs, Meat, or Exhibition. AS-518. West LaFayette, IL: Purdue University Cooperative Extension Service.

Arends, J.J. and S.M. Stringham. 1992. Poultry Pest Management. AG-474. Raleigh: North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service.

Agricultural Alternatives Small–Scale Egg Production (Organic and Nonorganic). Pennsylvania State University. (Accessed March 10, 2010.)

Beyer, S. and R.R. Janke. Production of Eggs and Home- Raised, Home-Butchered Broilers and Turkeys. Kansas State University. (Accessed March 10, 2010.)

Carter, T.A. 1988. Small Poultry Flocks. PS&T Guide No. 31- 170927. Raleigh: NC State University.

Cochran, J. 2006. Small-Scale Poultry Flocks Resources. Raleigh: North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service.

Danko, T. 2000. Producing Your Own Eggs. Durham: New Hampshire Cooperative Extension Service.

Ernst, R.A. and F.A. Bradley. 1997. Selecting Chickens for Home Use. Publication 7232. Davis: University of California.

Folsch, D.W., M. Hofner, M. Staack and G. Trei. Comfortable Quarters for Chickens in Research Institutions. Witzenhausen, Germany: University of Kassel.

Jacob, J.P., H.R. Wilson, R.D. Miles, G.D. Butcher and F.B. Mather. Factors Affecting Egg Production in Backyard Chicken Flocks. Publication PS-35. University of Florida, IFAS Extension. (Accessed March 10, 2010.)

Anon. Poultry Disease Diagnosis Based on Symptoms. Mississippi State University. (Accessed March 10, 2010.)

Purser, J. 2006. Home Laying Flock. Fairbanks: Alaska Cooperative Extension Service.

Sander, J.M. and M.P. Lacey. 1999. Management Guide for the Backyard Flock. Leaflet 429. Athens: Georgia Cooperative Extension Service.

The Home Flock. Mississippi State Extension Service. (Accessed March 10, 2010.)

The ICYouSee Handy-Dandy Chicken Chart, An Alphabetical List of More than 60 Chicken Breeds With Comparative Information. Ithaca College. (Accessed March 10, 2010.)

Thornberry, F.D. 1997. The Small Laying Flock. PS5.250. Bryan: Texas Agricultural Extension Service.

Zadina, C. and S.E. Scheideler. 2004. Proper Light Management for Your Home Laying Flock. NF609. Lincoln: University of Nebraska.

Veterinary books and journal articles

Griggs, J.P. and J.P. Jacob. 2005. Alternatives to Antibiotics for Organic Poultry Production. J. Appl. Poult. Res. 14:750-756.

Harrison, G.J., R.W. Woerpel, W.J. Rosskopf and L.G. Karpinski. 1986. Clinical Avian Medicine and Surgery. Maryland Heights, MO: W.B. Saunders Company.

Percival, S.S. 2000. Use of echinacea in medicine. Biochem Pharmacol. 60:155-158. (Accessed March 10, 2010.)

Information from non-government, non-university institutions

Poultry Breed Information. American Livestock Breeds Conservancy Priority List. (Accessed March 10, 2010.)

Schwanz, L. 1987. The Family Poultry Flock. Brookfield, WI: Farmer’s Digest, Inc.

Further Reading

- You can view our previous article from this publication by clicking here.

August 2010
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