Backyard Chicken Health Issues: Symptoms Treatment & Prevention

Chicken Health Issues: Symptoms Treatment & PreventionThere is nothing better than the genuine companionship and robust production of eggs when it comes to raising backyard chickens. With proper housing, free-range access, and diligent upkeep for well-being and cleanliness, many of the backyard chicken health issues may be avoided or kept to a minimum.

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Caused by E.coli, Colibacillosis occurs as an acute fatal septicemia. When it progresses, the bacteremia that results from inhaling or ingesting fecal contamination essentially causes blood poisoning. At the least, it can extend to the pericardium, joints and organs.Symptoms include:

  • Coughing
  • Sneezing
  • Reduced appetite
  • Dejection – or defecation
  • Stunted growth
  • Omphalitis – or infection of the navel

Treatment includes antibiotics such as:

1. Intestinal

  • Amoxicillin
  • Neomycin
  • Tetracyclines

2. Hatchery Borne

  • Gentamycin
  • Ceftiofur


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Common Bacterial Disease

Of the four main types of disease affecting poultry, bacterial disease or infectious diseases are those caused by a pathogen or host, which attack the body through multiplying or growing. They are often contagious and often contracted either directly or indirectly from other infected birds.These may include:

  • Avian Influenza
  • Avian Tuberculosis
  • Infectious Bronchitis – less common in backyard hens
  • Infectious Coryza
  • Avian Encephalomyelitis
  • Egg Drop Syndrome (EDS)
  • Infectious Bursal Disease (Gumboro)
  • Mycoplasmosis
  • Necrotic Enteritis
  • Salmonellosis
  • Newcastle Disease

Symptoms vary, though many of the following are commonly displayed:

  • Swollen heads, combs and wattles
  • Discharge from the eyes and nose
  • Eyes swollen shut
  • Poor egg production
  • Sneezing
  • Loss of appetite
  • Dyspnea
  • Huddling
  • Diarrhea
  • Slow growth
  • Leg problems

These diseases may be transmitted through contaminated surfaces and drinking water or mold. In some cases, vaccines are available. In other cases, it is best to slaughter the affected animals to control the spread. In some instances, birds remain carriers for life. Other cases are successfully treated with amoxycillin, potentiated sulphonamides, erythromycin, streptomycin, tetracyclines or fluoroquinolones. In all cases, you should consult with the veterinarian to be sure of the symptoms, treatment and prevention.

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Common Cold

Chickens, as a rule, do not get simple colds. The signs seem cold-like in their symptoms, including:

  • Sneezing
  • Rattling sounds
  • Head swelling
  • Conjunctivitis
  • Nasal discharge

According to the Poultry Hub, most avian respiratory diseases are viral in nature, as opposed to bacterial. Trying to diagnose the bird’s illness without proper lab work may only produce obscure findings. Antibiotics may be helpful, but you still need to narrow down the nature of the illness to know which ones to use.

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Common Respiratory Disease

In addition to E. coli, other predisposing factors contribute to respiratory disease including poor ventilation, dust, ammonia or other gases. However, some of the same symptoms of coughing, sneezing and the discharge from the eyes and nostrils are produced by the presence of parasitic organisms such as Syngamus trachea, also called gapeworm.A number of these conditions include:

  • Coccidiosis
  • Cryptosporidiosis
  • Parasiticors
  • Histomoniasis
  • Toxoplasmosis – more common in backyard poultry than commercial producers
  • Trichomoniasis

Consult with your veterinarian to diagnose the potential respiratory disease in order to determine the correct course of treatment.

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Your best time to examine droppings is in the morning beneath the perches. It is easy enough to identify which bird has a problem when you see the matted feathers around a dirty vent or the stained eggs. Intestinal parasites are responsible for causing more trouble in young birds than in adult chickens. However, diagnosing the cause for chicken diarrhea is not so simple.Prevention focuses on a clean and comfortable environment:

  • Check feed for mold spores
  • Provide fresh, clean water
  • Keep the pen dry
  • Check for vent prolapse – blowouts can result in diarrhea
  • Add two tablespoons of vinegar to a gallon of water for drinking
  • Try a probiotic such as yogurt


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Egg Binding

A chicken unable to lay her eggs is egg-bound. This can occur from rough handling, especially in the mornings. In some instances, an egg may have broken inside the hen. A clue to diagnosing egg binding is a hen sitting on the ground or on the floor with her feathers puffed out. She may be weary from trying or straining to produce the egg.You can set up a warming cage with a pan of water underneath for moist heat while an overhead lamp provides enough warmth after blanketing the cage to keep it between 90 and 102 degrees. Make sure she has water to drink. A couple of hours in this incubated heat and the egg should pass. A hen that cannot pass an egg within 48 hours will die. Avoid trying to do anything to encourage any movement. Leave that up to the veterinarian.

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Fowl Cholera

The bacterium Pasteurella moltocida, named after Louis Pasteur who discovered it in 1880, is found in a variety of avian species around the world. Transmitted through nasal exudate or feces, it is born of contaminated soil, equipment or people and has an incubation period of about a week. The bacterium persist in the soil. It will infect across species such as cats, rodents and pigs. Concurrent respiratory viruses present predisposing factors.

Fowl Pox

Avian Pox is a slow-spreading viral disease contracted through skin abrasions, from biting insects, other birds that are infected or contaminated surfaces. The symptoms are:

  • White spots on the skin
  • Combs and wattles covered in sores and scabs
  • Ulcers in the mouth, pharynx and trachea
  • White membrane
  • Poor egg production
  • Loss of appetite
  • Depression
  • Affects young and older chickens

More commonly occurring in males due to their propensity to fight with the consequence of skin damage, there is not a specific treatment for infected birds. Flocks or individual birds unaffected can receive vaccinations, and secondary infection can be treated with broad-spectrum antibiotics. With good supportive care including maintaining a warm dry coop and providing soft food, many birds do survive Fowl Pox.

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Impacted Crop

The crop is a chicken’s built-in doggie bag, so to speak, identifiable by the bulge in the esophagus. Foraged foods can be collected and stored in the crop and digested later. However, some elements such as hay, straw, long grasses, baler twine, sand, wood chips and other indigestible items cause a blockage that may also extend into the gizzard where it is not visible.Other causes of impacted crop include diseases that impede gut movement, particularly Marek’s Disease, lead poisoning or egg peritonitis. Intestinal worms or the damage to the gut from swallowing metal objects are also culprits. Chickens tend to eat anything. Left uncared for, the bird can waste away from being unable to digest anything. Granite grit, commercial mash or crumbled diet along with a vinegar/water solution to drink should show improvement.Keep grasses trimmed where chickens forage. Allow feeder space, provide clean, fresh water and sweep the pen for hardware with a magnetic tool to pick up the pieces.

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Lice Infestation

Chickens know to dust themselves in the dirt to make the lice habitat in their feathers very unpleasant. Lice prefer a damp, dirty coop. Lice can travel in transport coops as hitchhikers. Screened coops keep unwanted birds from getting too close for comfort. Treatment has to include both the bird and the habitat as lice live in the coop.All birds in the coop should be treated at the same time, and expect that this will take some time. It’s not a one-shot deal. With the chicken’s head outside of a bag, you can dust birds with powder-form pesticides by shaking it to distribute the powder. Better yet, ensure chickens have a dustbath box using a mix of diatomaceous earth and playground sand.

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There are varieties of parasitic mites that are microscopic and burrow under the scales on the legs. Others live in the coop and wait until nighttime to feed off the birds, like bedbugs. These are the kind that also live and hide in tiny cracks and crevices or within nesting boxes. They travel as stowaways on clothing, shoes or shared equipment. Hot weather encourages population growth as a single female red mite can lay up to 120,000 eggs. A serious infestation can extend to humans getting bitten, and they also can be carriers for New Castle Disease, Fowl Pox and Fowl Cholera.Symptoms include:

  • Itchiness and scratching
  • Bare patches
  • Reduced fertility
  • Diarrhea
  • Weight loss
  • Poor egg production
  • Anemia
  • Ruffled feathers
  • Listlessness

The easiest way to control mites is to ensure chickens have a place to dust themselves to choke the mites.

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Pecking and Cannibalism

The proverbial “pecking order” refers to the expression of dominance among hens that use their beaks in both defense and aggression. In actual fact, pecking is a learned behavior that can progress to cannibalism, if it gets out of hand. Pecking is a natural means of exploring the surroundings as well as a means of establishing a social order.Any stressors may trigger the behavior including:

  • Crowding
  • Extremes of temperature
  • High humidity
  • Intense light
  • Insufficient space to eat or drink
  • External parasites
  • Poor ventilation
  • Heredity – nervousness or excitability
  • Sick or injured birds within the population
  • Boredom
  • Loneliness

Good husbandry should be the main aim in preventing an outbreak of cannibalism. Limit the stressors and rapidly identify aggressors to be removed from the flock. A high-fiber diet enhances gut development and improves gizzard function, which helps reduce aggression.

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Prolapsed Oviduct

Egg-bound hens strain to pass their eggs throughout the day. A blowout of the vent occurs when a portion of the hen’s oviduct normally held on the inside protrudes outside of the vent. This is called a vent prolapse or oviduct prolapse.Common causes are:

  • Poor diet
  • Obesity
  • Large or misshaped eggs
  • Egg peritonitis
  • Oviduct infections

A prolapse that shrinks within 24 hours is a good sign. You can give a hen a break from egg production by keeping her in the dark for 16-hours a day. Otherwise, an experienced avian veterinarian is the best chance of successfully treating this condition. Options include surgery or hysterectomy, for a hen that has become a beloved member of the family.

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Usually the first signs of roup, also referred to as cold or coryza, is runny nose and watering eyes. In advanced conditions, this can progress to a thick, foul smelling discharge with labored breathing and rattles.Also look for:

  • Head swelling
  • Eyes stuck shut
  • Diarrhea
  • Loss of appetite
  • Stunted growth in young birds
  • Decreased egg production
  • Increase in incidence or severity of other diseases

Identifying and separating affected birds is a first step. Treatment with antibiotics and sulphonamides or vaccines are also useful as birds that have recovered may be resistant to one sero-type while antibitotics may only help protect against homologous strains.

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Scaly Legs

Characterized by the raised, encrusted scales, burrowing mites make residence in the legs and cause intense irritation. This is a condition that is fairly common in chickens spread by direct contact with affected birds.Scaly leg mites need to be killed and the scales allowed to be replaced naturally through molting. This can take up to a year to accomplish. Avoid the temptation to pull off scales and cause injury. Petroleum Jelly is useful in softening the scales and suffocating the mites.Dipping the legs in a surgical spirit once a week for about a month along and rubbing Vaseline on the legs between treatments will effectively kill the mites.

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Parasitic Worms (Tape, Round, Gape)

Symptoms include sluggish, weight loss, breathing issues, anal irritation, vomiting, whiteness in the dropping (extreme case), changes in appetite, pale comb, less egg production.

A trip to the vet might be in order for medication or you can try a safe and cheap alternative first. Feed your sick chickens, pumpkin and cucumber seeds. These will help cleanse the intestines naturally and rid the chicken of worms. Also provide some garlic water (add garlic cloves into water) or apple cider vinegar water (1 TBS per gallon in a plastic container) into the coop. You will need to remove any other water and food sources so they have to consume these.

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Related Reading

Reviewed By: Tim Winter

Tim Winter has a strong affection for pets and wildlife. His years of experience caring for various types of pets has led him to share his knowledge with others on the best practices in pet care. Tim holds a Bachelor of Science from the University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communications.

7 thoughts on “Backyard Chicken Health Issues: Symptoms Treatment & Prevention”

  1. We have 6 hens. 2 are Rhode Island Reds. 2 are Sexlinks. 1 Lavender Orpington and 1 Barred Rock.
    One of the Sexlinks sounds congested & sneezes. Been that way for about 3-4 weeks. She’s been fine other than the congestion and sneezing.
    Now one of the RIR’s sounds congested and isn’t eating, walks wabbly and stays close to the ground. She doesn’t stand up straight legged now. She’s also the runt of the 6. She gets pecked on and usually runs from the food when she sees the other hens coming. I try to make sure she gets to eat but I can’t stay out with them very long. Their coop gets cleaned about once a week…sometimes a few days longer. What should I do?

  2. I have an Indian runner duck with green “freckles” or spots on her beak.
    Is this normal? or a sign of something?

  3. Hello ,
    I have been given three Lakenvelder hens and one of them has a very swollen abdomen,
    It is very tight , she is eating and drinking , walking around ,she doesnt seemtoo worried ,
    When I put them away at night it is very tight around her back end as well ,
    Regards Debbie

  4. I bought some adult chickens from a hatchery feathers on there backs are missing large ta small patches they seem healthy will the feathers grow back?

  5. Hello, my name is Ronda.
    We have a couple of hens received from friends that we’ve had for about 5 years. Around 3 months ago, a neighbor moving away gave us 6 more hens. One of our original hens, who is about 7 years old, is passing a very watery stool. Nothing else seems wrong with her and there are no problems with the other hens. Is this an age issue in hens, maybe a parasite issue… looking for advice.

  6. My one chicken has a very dirty but. Her stools stick so bad and I dont know what is wrong or how to clean the area? She seems sluggish and puffy.

  7. I have a one-year-old Amaracauna hen who is losing her feathers around her head and neck. The feathers at the base seem to be quite black. I only noticed this two days ago. She does not seem bothered by it, is still eating well and laying daily. We have four hens and I know the one at the top who can be quite a little bully so would suspect that she might be pecking this one. However, the darkness of the feathers makes me wonder if it is something else. I checked her with a magnifying glass yesterday and could not see any insects.
    If she is being pecked, is there something I could put on her neck and head to make it taste bad or something? she is a real sweetheart and I want to help her.
    Thanks for any help you can provide.
    nancy burmeister


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