Sickness in the flock

My chickens are sick. When you’re keeping animals, sooner or later one will get sick or injured. So far, three of my six chickens are exhibiting symptoms of a respiratory infection.

When I noticed the first hen shake her head and cough about a week ago, I dismissed it as her simply clearing her throat of the greens she had just gorged on. But my smallest hen, Jane, wasn’t shaking her head and coughing to clear her throat; that was the first real sign that something was very wrong.

About this time I also noticed Jane was trying to sleep in a nest box at night. The chickens always hop up to their roosting bars at night. When I found Jane in the nest box, I nudged her along and she eventually joined her flock mates. Again, this should have been a clue to me.

Last Sunday afternoon B and ran a bunch of errands getting groceries and so forth and returned home around dusk. Before we unloaded the car, I stepped over to the coop to shut the chickens up for the night. When I opened the door to the hen-house, I heard raspy, bubbly breathing from one of the hens sitting on a roosting bar. Uh, oh.

But it wasn’t Jane that was breathing so roughly, it was one of the New Hampshire Red hens. (These three look so much alike I am severely challenged in telling who is who, so I really haven’t named them.) I knew I had to separate the hen from the flock immediately and isolate her. Respiratory diseases are highly contagious in birds and can have some serious consequences.

I have two different places to keep chickens that need to be separated from the flock: one is in an Eglu coop/run in the backyard; the second is in my basement. I have a medium-sized dog crate that can hold two hens and provide them enough room to stretch and move around. Since it is winter and sick hens need to be given extra warmth, I had to bring the raspy hen into the basement.

It actually took me two attempts to get the right hen. (As I said, the New Hampshire Reds look nearly identical!) Between the time that I left the coop to set up the basement isolation area and the time I returned the hens had moved around a bit on the roosting bars and I couldn’t figure out who was who. (It was also dark which didn’t help.) I grabbed what I thought was the correct hen, took her to the basement and popped her in the crate. Then I left her alone for a bit.

I checked that hen about three times in an hour, listening closely to her breathing. I realized I had the wrong hen, so I went back out to the coop to find the right one. When I opened the hen-house this time, I realized I was hearing two raspy, congested breathers: a New Hampshire Red, and little Jane. *sigh*

A couple of trips in and out of the house resulted in two hens crankily squatting in the dog crate. They had food, water, and I covered the crate with a sheet and blanket  to keep out drafts and block out any stray light. I checked them a couple more times before I went to bed, and had a moment of true panic when I spotted a splat of red on the bars of the crate, and another on the floor in front of it. “Oh no! The New Hampshire hen is coughing blood!,” I thought.

As I was drifting off to sleep I realized that I had given the hens some leftover beets that day, and it was very likely the red spots were not blood, but a bit of beet remains still in her crop that she had coughed up. All night long I heard this hen cough loudly every hour or two.

I was glad to see that she was still upright and OK the next morning, as was Jane. And the red stains were still there, exactly the same intensity as they had been Sunday night, so they definitely weren’t blood. (Which, of course, would have dried to a rusty red over night and not stayed vibrantly red as movies and crime shows suggest.) I was able to secure a morning appointment at the avian veterinarian and transported the hens there in the fancy carrier I usually use for them: a large cardboard box lined with newspaper.

The vet was most worried about the New Hampshire Red hen; her breathing was worse than Jane’s, and she was retaining fluid in her abdomen, too. He said that he wanted to keep her in hospital for a day and give her two nebulizer treatments, and possibly a shot of Lasix. He thought it possible the fluid retention pointed to some cardiac complications brought on by the respiratory infection. Little Jane was in better shape and could be sent home with some oral antibiotics after she got a few shots.

Right about here is where you, dear reader, may be asking, “Why are you taking chickens to a vet?!” Or perhaps you don’t ask that question exactly but wonder why I am treating chickens instead of just putting them down.  Those are fair questions.

I had this internal debate with myself as soon as I realized I had a sick hen or two. I came up with three possible approaches.

  1. Let the disease run it’s course through the flock unabated; the weakest ones would die, yet some are bound to survive.
  2. Immediately kill any bird that is clearly ill.
  3. Provide the same level of treatment and care that I would to a pet dog or cat that has a treatable illness.

I decided to choose option three because I thought it was the most humane. Actually, I think either option two or three would be humane, but I can’t say that I’m competent in killing quickly and cleanly. Frankly, while I’ve watched a few YouTube videos on home slaughter, I don’t trust that I could do it myself successfully on my first try. (And even thought I use the word slaughter here, I would definitely *not* use a sick bird for food in any way.)

My main concern now is to get the sick birds well and continue to monitor the rest of the flock closely. I left the New Hampshire Red (hastily named “Bertha” for the sake of easier communication with the vet’s office) in hospital for the day, and that has stretched into two more. However, that’s my limit. Tomorrow I go to the vet’s office to bring her home or have her euthanized if it’s determined she likely won’t get better.

Jane came home with me on Monday and is showing steady improvement. She’s eating, drinking, and her breathing is much less labored. Today she was even grooming herself, which is a very good sign. Unfortunately I had to pull yet another hen with bubbly breathing from the flock and isolate her in the crate with Jane. If I do bring Bertha home tomorrow I’ll need to move to my back up plan for arranging the basement isolation ward, since the crate is too small for three hens.

There’s valuable learning in this episode for me and others in the Chicago chicken-keeping community, so I’ve been sharing my experiences on our message board. I asked the vet how my hens could have gotten this infection. I have a “closed flock” and haven’t added any new birds since last spring when Little Roo was rescued from the woods. I asked him if it was possible that the infection came from a wild bird or if the chickens could have been carrying the disease silently.

Either of those scenarios are possibilities, and there are many more since these infections may also be carried on clothing, shoes, and equipment. I visit the coop often wearing the same shoes that I’ve worn walking around on errands, and the chickens are often allowed to roam the entire yard, getting in contact with all sorts of urban wildlife.

Stress is also a factor in an outbreak like this. It’s winter and the cold weather is stressful on the birds. Also, they’re molting so their bodies are under stress from that, too. I don’t know exactly what disease they have, but I’ll ask the vet more tomorrow when I bring in the next sick bird and consult on what to do with Bertha. These two diseases are possibilities, but there are more:

Avian Infectious Bronchitis

Mycoplasmosis gallisepticum

Both are fairly scary as they are permanent; if a flock can be confirmed to have either of these diseases, they are considered carriers for life. It’s not tragic for me as I tend to keep flocks that are “all in and all out,” meaning I don’t add to the flock piecemeal and get rid of the old birds before I start with new birds all at once. But for someone who is breeding chickens, either of these diseases is devastating as they must cull (kill) *all* of their birds, disinfect the coops and equipment, and wait a few weeks before getting new birds.

This is a sobering lesson to any chicken keepers. Be prepared to deal with a situation like this on all levels: have an area of your home or property that can used for isolating sick birds, and have the savings to pay the vet bills if you decide to use a vet. Some people choose to treat their birds on their own, but I’d prefer to leave that to an expert.

I guess the one bright side to this is that I’ve learned how to pill a chicken and found it much easier than making a dog or cat take their meds.

4 thoughts on “Sickness in the flock

  1. Thank you for the wonderful post. I am dreading the first sick chicken, so far, so good but I have ono had them since June. I didn’t question your vet motive at all. I would have done exactly the same 🙂


    • It’s actually pretty rare for chickens to get sick like this if you’ve gotten your chickens from a reputable source. Looks like you have some cute little ones in your flock.


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