Archive for the ‘Housecalls’ Category

When Should I Call the Vet?

When a member of your flock is injured or sick, sometimes it is difficult to know if veterinary care is needed. A predator may have attacked your chicken, and you are not sure if the cuts or scrapes will heal on their own, or if there are worse injuries to attend to. Perhaps your chicken is showing signs of a respiratory infection. Or that bad case of bumblefoot is not responding to home treatments.

While not trained in veterinary medicine, Home to Roost provides “in-between” services for hurt or sick birds that require assistance. We provide first aid and simple at-home, animal husbandry-related solutions; however, for more complicated issues, we will refer you to avian veterinarians for diagnosis and treatment. Visit the “Home to Roost Services” tab of my blog for more information.

Do you need to see a vet? Here are some guidelines:

1. Does your bird have an injury that is life threatening or that involves a wing or leg?  

Any kind of trauma, such as a predator attack, broken bone, amputated limb, or deep wounds, requires a visit to the vet. In these cases, your chicken may need pain medication and/or antibiotics. A trained avian veterinarian should know how to assess the bird’s condition and treat appropriately.

2. Does your bird have a respiratory infection that is not improving?

Signs that suggest a respiratory infection include sneezing, coughing, rattling, wheezing, and mucus coming from your bird’s nares (nostrils). Bubbles in the corner of the eyes can also suggest a respiratory infection. Birds have a complex respiratory system that involves nine air sacs positioned around the body. Because of this complicated system, respiratory infections may not resolve on their own and may require antibiotic treatment. While you might be able to access antibiotics for chickens, antibiotics must be prescribed by a veterinarian.

3. Does your bird have bumblefoot (pododermatitis) that is not improving?

If Epsom salts soaks and drawing salves are not working on your chicken’s bumblefoot, do not perform surgery on your own. Surgery is a delicate procedure that may result in damage to the bird’s foot. Surgery is also very painful, and your bird will need pain medication.

4. Does your bird need antibiotics?

Antibiotics are prescribed based on the kind of infection, the location of the infection, and the purpose of the bird. Some medications are not approved for use in chickens. An avian veterinarian will know what medication to use and how to administer it (injection, drinking water, with a syringe, etc.). It is important to limit unnecessary use of antibiotics; if antibiotics are given too often, bacteria can develop resistance to them, and infections may not respond to future treatment.

5. Does your bird need pain management?

How can you tell when a chicken is in pain? Chickens tend to hide pain to avoid predation and prevent being excluded from the flock. They also do not have facial expressions that can be easily read. A chicken in pain may withdraw from the rest of the flock, show little interest in food, or stop vocalizing. Limping also may be a sign of pain, as well as breathing hard, panting, or a heartbeat that is faster than normal. Chickens often peck at a painful area. Birds that require pain management should be taken to a veterinarian.

Avian Vets in the Chicago Area

If you live in the Chicago area and have a chicken that needs medical attention, I maintain a list of recommended avian vets in the area. Go to the Resources tab of my blog. Tell these practices that Home to Roost sent you!

Jennifer Murtoff
Photo by Liz McCrory,

All in a day’s work….

Well, today was a double-header.

This afternoon, I consulted to a family off the Mag Mile who very kindly rescued baby chicks from a less-than-ideal situation after they were hatched at a school. There are two little ones who are doing their best to hang on.

Then I moved on to a family who lost a hen for unknown reasons. Necropsy revealed a very impacted crop due to grass clippings and a thin-shelled egg, broken in the oviduct.

Molting or Pecking Problems?

The midwinter doldrums have hit, and my clients and discussion group colleagues are reporting that their hens have feather loss in large patches on their heads, necks, and backs. Many think this could be molting; however, feather pecking/cannibalism is also a possibility. I recently visited a coop in Winfield and determined that cage agression, rather than molting, was the cause of feather loss. I also surveyed the coop and gave the owner some suggestions for improving conditions.


Molting Patterns  A molting bird will lose feathers in cycles, and not all at once in one area. You can see this especially in a wing molt: First one feather will be lost, then the one next to it, successively down the wing. Chickens will lose their feathers in order: head, neck, breast, body, wings, and tail. You will notice large amounts of feathers in the coop and run, and new feathers will appear (covered by the old, as-yet-unshed feathers).

Bloodfeathers  Each new feather will have blood supply, covered by a shiny casing. As the feather grows, the bird will strip off this casing. If is very important not to break these new bloodfeathers; if one does break. pull the feather completely out and stanch the bleeding with cornstarch until coagulation occurs. Make sure the bleeding stops completely. You can read more about molting here.

Pecking Problems

There are two kinds of pecking problems: self-mutilation and cannibalism.

The first, self-mutilation, is seldom an issue in flocks of backyard hens. This occurs when a bird overpicks or overpreens its feathers out of boredom, anxiety, fear, or loneliness. This is often seen in lone birds, such as caged parrots. A bird who self-mutilates its feathers may also mutilate its own flesh for the same reason. Parrots are flock animals and need attention from others. Self-mutilation is often a problem with these highly intelligent creatures.

The second kind of pecking problem, cannibalism, occurs when one bird pecks another, damaging feathers or skin, and possibly killing the other bird. Cannibalism can be triggered by a number of things. (Note: Baldness on the neck, head, and back can be due to overmating, as these are the places a cock will contact when mounting a hen. Also check nest boxes and coops for low-hanging splintery surfaces, wire, or nails that may cause feather damage.)

  • Coop size: Too many birds in a small coop can lead to cage aggression/cannibalism – hens pecking one another to death. Provide 4 square feet per bird in a coop with a run and 10 square feet per bird in an enclosed coop.
  • Breed of bird: Large breeds may bully smaller breeds, and chickens with odd features (e.g., peacomb, crest on head, or feather on feet) may be singled out.
  • Fear: Threat of predators can trigger picking. The flock will sacrifice weak members for its own safety.
  • Boredom: Birds need constant activity. Wild junglefowl, the ancestors of the modern chicken, continually search for food and try to remain safe from predators. If they don’t have something interesting to do, pecking can result.
  • Newness of bird: A flock will often attack and kill new arrivals. Introductions can be tricky (or seamless!). Read more on my post Avian Introductions.
  • Previous injury:  A bird with a scabbed over area, a missing toe, or an odd wing feather may be targeted in that area. Birds are naturally curious and will pick at things that look different.
  • Change in environment: Birds are creatures of habit. They like routine and prefer an environment that is not always changing. Sometimes addition of something new can trigger picking.
  • Dietary deficiencies: Lack of salt, protein, methionine, and manganese can cause picking. The birds will eat one another’s feathers to supplement their nutrient intake. Always feed a balanced commercial layer ration purchased from a reputable organization. I do not recommend mixing your own feed or providing supplemental salt, methionine, or manganese unless you are certain the issue is dietary AND you have the advice of an avian certified vet.
  • General meanness/pecking order nonsense: If the alpha bird is particularly dominant, it can lead to a deadly pecking war. As a last resort, debeaking, separation of the flock, or removal of the aggressive bird may resolve the problem; however, sometimes the other birds have picked up the habit and will continue to harass their flockmates.  Sometimes flock composition simply does not work out.

 Signs of Cannibalism

If you think you might have a case of cannibalism, you can examine feathers for signs of pecking (rather than molting). A normal feather (left) will look like the one below, smooth edges, nice contour, a bit of a sheen. A picked feather may have a V-shaped divet (middle) , indicating that the end of the feather was torn off. It may also have ragged edges (right) with bits missing on the part furthest from the body (the rounded contour), and a dull luster. A pecked bird will have multiple feathers with these problems.

Solutions for Pecking Problems

If you have a pecking problem in your flock, consider the following

  • Get a larger coop or add a run.
  • Remove problem birds.
  • Remove stressors or potential threats.
  • Allow birds out to forage.
  • Provide places for birds to hide, such as pieces of plywood, crates, etc.
  • Put out several feed/water stations.
  • Provide fun, healthy foods in creative ways that encourage foraging behaviors (whole apples, baked squash partially opened, celery suspended from ceiling, live crickets).
  • Introduce new birds carefully, and watch them for aggression (see my post Avian Introductions – this may help but is not fool proof.)
  • Remove bleeding birds immediately.
  • Feed a balanced commercial layer ration purchased from a reputable organization. Nutrition can be lost with pellets, so try switching to a mash/crumble.
  • Provide a handful of dry cat chow once a day for extra methionine, a essential amino acid.
  • Apply an antipick spray or powder. Rooster Booster Pick No More is available on line.

Good luck!

Home to Roost in the Chicago Tribune!

On Tues., Feb. 14, I had a scheduled visit with Oak Parker Paul Wicklow. A Chicago Tribune reporter and cameraman followed me on the visit, and this story ran in the Feb. 19 Sunday paper. Check out the online coverage and video!

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!

Healthy Hens Visit

One of the services I provide to urban chicken keepers is a Healthy Hens visit.

This generally involves checking the chickens for any signs of disease, addressing any questions the owner has about the flock, and checking out the coop.

Recently I visited an urban chicken owner in Chicago who owned a lovely flock that included a game bantam, a buff Orpington, a silver laced Wyandotte, a speckled Leghorn, and a barred rock.

The little bantam was showing signs of being picked on, and her owner wanted my opinion on the situation, as well as the health of her birds and the layout of the coop.

Tammy, the game bantam turned out to be an older bird, and the others were indeed picking on her. The others were all healthy and happy! My recommendation was to separate Tammy from the others, and I provided other suggestions about the coop, perches, food, and water. I also showed the owner how to assess the health of her birds.
Here are some pix from this healthy hens visit!

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