Archive for December 3rd, 2011

Subclinical Illness

A few months ago, I posted about subclinical illness in birds. I feel this topic is very important for anyone who has fowl, not just chickens, so I’m going to address this again.

Subclinical illness refers to sickness that goes undetected because the animal (or person) does not display symptoms. I was diagnosed with subclinical appendicitis only after the surgeon removed my diseased appendix. Until that point, my symptoms were not consistent with those of classic appendicitis, and the doctors were not sure what was going on. So exploratory surgery was needed.

Many bird owners say “My parakeet caught a draft and died” or “The bird just died suddenly. He must have been frightened to death.” Many times, the bird has been sick for a while and subtle symptoms are present, but because birds hide the signs of illness so well, the owners fail to realize the bird is sick. This is called subclinical illness.

In order to understand why subclinical illness is prevalent in birds, it’s necessary to understand their psychology. Birds are flock animals. They live together, fly together, eat together, and sleep together. A sick bird draws predators to the flock. Therefore the flock, to prevent danger to itself, will exclude sick birds. Individuals who are sick need the protection of the flock to survive, so they have become adept at hiding signs of illness.

So what can you, the chicken owner, do about this?

For starters, you should know your birds’ behavior:

  • How much do they eat?
  • How much do they vocalize?
  • What kinds of things do they do during the day?
  • How active are they?
  • Who is on top in the pecking order?

Also get to know their bodies. Pick them up from time to time. Check the following:

  • Crop
  • Eyes
  • Nares (nose)
  • Keel (breastbone)
  • Vent

Know what is normal for your birds. If anything looks unusual, keep an eye on it. If it gets worse or has not changed in a day or two, seek medical attention. Once you have noticed something, the bird may not have much time.

If you notice the following symptoms, the bird is in distress and needs help immediately:

  • Listlessness, not moving
  • Gasping for breath
  • Tissues protruding from the vent
  • Lying on one side

You know your birds best, so know get to know what’s normal for each bird. You may be able to prevent a problem from becoming deadly!

Fat Chicks

Ok, this post is not a disrespectful one about obese women. Rather, it’s about hens that are… pudgy.

You give your girls treats: corn, scratch, meal worms. That’s great! They love these goodies! It’s cute to see them running willy-nilly to get the good stuff. Life is good. Right?

Well, maybe not. Those foods things are high in fat and carbs, and feeding too much of them can leave to overweight birds. Excess fat puts pressure on organs and can interfere with the egg-laying process. Overweight hens are at risk of fatty liver disease, prolapse, heatstroke, and egg binding.

You may think that hens need a layer of fat to keep them warm in colder climates, like Chicago; however, the birds come with their own down coats. Many breeds, especially the dual-purpose breeds and those with small combs, are already adapted to life in colder climates.

I recently conducted a Healthy Hens visit at a home where a hen had died mysteriously. The owner was concerned that she had done something wrong and that her other birds would die, too. I checked the coop and environment and then did an exam of all the live birds. I thought one of them felt a little pudgy.

Then I conducted a necropsy to try to determine cause of death. When I opened the abdominal cavity, I found it was packed with yellow fat deposits. Everywhere. I’ve never seen that much fat on a bird. The living hens’ pelvic bones, which are a good indicator of body weight, felt very well cushioned, indicating that they also had high body fat.

If you think your hens are overweight, you can take the following steps:

  • See that they get exercise. Like humans, chickens need exercise to burn calories. Give them out-of-cage time or build a large run for them.
  • Reduce the amount of carbs they get. Cracked corn, scratch, and whole grains are good to feed in the winter, right before the birds go to bed. They should not be a regular part of the diet if your birds are overweight.
  • Increase the amount of vegetables. This provides calories without excess carbs.
  • Eliminate high-fat treats. Mealworms and other high-fat treats are yummy, but they pack a punch in terms of fat.
  • Feed a balanced layer ration. Put your hens on a nutritionally balanced layer diet, with proper amounts of calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, and other key nutrients. A mature, dual-purpose (egg and meat) bird, will ideally consume between 3 and 4 pounds of food per week.
  • Limit the amount of food. It is always better to provide layer ration as free choice (at all times). This ensures that all your birds get food. However, if they are overweight, you can limit the layer ration to what they are able to eat in 20 minutes, two times per day (morning and evening).

Note: Chickens will eat more during the winter in cold climates than in the summer. In cold weather, metabolic activity increases to help them maintain body temperature. During heat waves, they will eat less.

Your flock needs the same dietary care as you do: high on nutrient value and low on junk food. Keeping your birds’ diet on track will keep them healthy, happy, and providing you with breakfast!