Managing Concerns about Backyard Chicken Illness and Disease

When I feel a cold coming on, I immediately start taking Vitamin C and echinacea; during flu season, I drink lots of herbal tea and take elderberry.

As a result, I haven't come down with any serious illness or even gotten much more than a sniffle in years.

I even self-treated my annual bout of bronchitis this winter using ground cinnamon, ginger and cloves instead of rushing to the doctor for a prescription like I have in the past.

I eat lots of nutritious fresh foods, am fairly active, and keep my immune system healthy, because that's your best defense against getting sick.

And when you raise animals (or children), you know that you don't have the luxury of time off or sick days.

We raise our chickens the same way. A good, healthy diet, exercise and fresh air, being vigilant and immediately addressing any issues that crop up ... and in a decade I have only had to bring one chicken to the vet - and that was to be put down due to untreatable neurological problems.

New chicken keepers are often overwhelmed by the seemingly unending list of illness and disease that can befall backyard chickens.

Scary words like Mareks, Coccidiosis, Fowl Pox, Newcastle Disease, Bumblefoot, Infectious Bronchitis, Infectious Coryza, Botulism, Mycoplasmosis, Eyeworm, Gapeworm and of course Salmonella and E.coli.

Thinking about these awful, and often untreatable, diseases floating around your backyard and killing your chickens can often dissuade some from starting a backyard flock.

But let me tell you from first hand experience, that these diseases are not at all common.

Realistically you are unlikely to encounter any of them, even some of the more benign illnesses that chickens can contract, with basic biosecurity practices, proper flock management, diligently watching your flock for changes in appearance and behavior and some preventives to help boost their immune systems. 

Often one pathogen will weaken a hen's immune system, allowing others to move in, and allowing parasites to take up residence in or on the now-weakened bird.

Chickens are nearly impossible to diagnose and they hide their symptoms well, so before you even realize something is wrong, two or three different things could be wrong.

Add to that the difficulty in even finding a vet who will treat chickens or ducks, not to mention the potential cost involved, and little bit of home remedy and being vigilant in watching your flock's behavior so you can treat an ailing hen immediately - when she has the best chance at fighting off whatever is bothering her - is your best bet.

But don't despair.

I want to share with you my track record.

Over the past ten years, and despite having a mixed flock of chickens and ducks that at times has numbered more than three dozen, no infectious disease or other contagious illness has ever raised its ugly head. As for the more common injuries and sickness, here's how many times I have had to treat my flock in that entire ten-year period:

Bumblefoot: 2 (one case in a chicken and one in a duck and the duck was one that I had adopted with the bumblefoot)
Gapeworm: 0 (despite feeding earthworms to our flock regularly)
Internal parasites/worms: 0 (I use a natural wormer twice a year as a preventive)
Scaly leg mite: 0
Serious pecking issues: 0
Ripped/bleeding toenails: 0
Curled toes in chicks: 0
Spraddle leg in chicks: 0
Respiratory distress: 1 (traced to switching from straw to dusty shavings in our coop)
Broken beak: 0
Wry neck: 0
Heat exhaustion: 0 (Despite living in the South for the first 5 years, I take the necessary measures each summer to keep them cool)
Frostbite: 0 (despite now living in Maine)
Eyeworm: 0
Salmonella in us our our hens: 0 (despite often making recipes using raw eggs including mayonnaise, tiramisu and eggnog)
Mareks: 0 (despite not vaccinating chicks)
Coccidiosis: 0 (despite not feeding medicated feed to our chicks)

So far I think we're kicking those pathogens' butts!

If you find yourself constantly treating chickens in your flock for different things, maybe take a look at how you house, pen and treat your flock, what you feed them, and what kinds of supplements and preventives you use.

Take a look at some of the other blogs and Facebook pages you follow and the advice they're giving.

Note how many times they are having to treat their chickens for even such simple issues as pecking order issues, broken beaks, spraddle leg or internal worms....a responsible chicken keeper will find themselves raising a very healthy, robust flock with very little medical treatment necessary

(although it still is important to keep a fully stocked first aid kit just in case - I consider it my insurance policy!)

Yes, you will need to be vigilant, you should consider some supplements and lots of preventives, and you need to spend lots of time with your flock to know what's 'normal' behavior and what's not, but it's well worth it in the end.

Being PROactive is far easier and less expensive than being REactive after a problem has already happened.

I do a comprehensive 'comb to toe' checkup on each hen at least monthly, which helps me know that everyone is healthy and that I catch anything very early on, as well as on a daily basis spend lots of one-on-one time with my flock.

I keep around a dozen and a half chickens these days because I feel that's the most manageable number for me.

Please take some time to browse my blog for advice and tips on raising a happy healthy flock without using medications or chemicals.

Ironically since my flock HAS been so healthy, I haven't personally treated them for many of the things I've written about and have had to instead rely on speaking with friends and fans who have first-hand experience treating their hens and finding out what worked (and what didn't) for them.

I chat with several university poultry science  departments from time to time, a couple of avian vets, as well as consulting with a friend who is an herbalist and fellow chicken keeper for her advice.

If you have a specific question or issue you need addressed, please feel free to contact us via email to:

Although I will always try to help,  diagnosing a sick chicken is not something I would ever attempt to do, especially online. Even a vet won't do that.

But I certainly will do my best to help you make them comfortable and built up their own natural defenses.

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