Not every sick or injured chicken needs to be taken in for professional veterinary care. In fact, there is a lot the backyard poultry keeper can do to administer basic first aid to their birds at home.
The key, according to animal health professionals, is knowing what a sick bird looks like and being prepared.
What does a sick bird look like?
Poultry keepers need to know their birds so they can pick out when one is sick or injured.
“You really need to observe your healthy birds regularly so it’s easy to pick out the differences when they are not feeling well or are injured,” according to Dr. Carolyn Hurwitz, assistant state veterinarian with the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry. “Changes in eating and drinking patterns, decreases in laying eggs or a bird isolating itself from the group are often signs it is not feeling well.”
One of the more classic signs of a sick bird, she said, is a chicken or other poultry looking puffed up and hunched over with eyes half-open.
Other less obvious signs include swollen areas around the eyes, swollen wattles — those flaps hanging from a bird’s neck — and blocked sinuses are often difficult to detect, Hurwitz said.
“You need to really observe the birds regularly to know if a bird is acting or looks different from the others,” she said. “It’s important to become informed on what sick birds look like.”
A bird suddenly not sitting on a perch at night could mean a foot injury, Hurwitz said. Or if a bird starts stretching out on the ground it could be in digestive distress or have some other internal injury.
Something as simple as sneezing could mean an upper respiratory infection, she said.
“If you know what your birds look and act like when they are healthy, you will recognize when they are not,” Hurwitz said.
Hurwitz also recommends looking at online videos that demonstrate what sick or injured birds look like to get a basic idea what to look for, and consulting online poultry sites like backyardchickens.com for basic poultry health information.
What should you do with a sick or injured bird?
If a member of your flock is injured or sick, the first step is to separate that bird from the flock, Hurwitz said.
“You need to plan ahead so you have a clean, dry, warm space if you need to isolate a bird,” she said. “This will allow you to observe the bird and will keep the rest of the flock from harming her.”
Chickens can be especially brutal to injured members of the flocks and will peck at even the smallest patch of blood on another bird, creating a larger and potentially lethal wound.
They will also attack and potentially kill a bird that is sick and not acting normal.
A large dog crate, pet carrier or a large box with vent holes and lined with bedding work well to house a sick bird and can be used to transport it to the veterinarian, if needed.
“For the first 24 hours a bird is isolated from the flock, hydration is the most important thing,” Hurwitz said. “Really focus on getting the bird to drink — ideally water with electrolytes in it.”
In the case of a bird with possible digestive issues, Hurwitz said some backyard poultry farmers wrongly believe force feeding yogurt or other dairy products will help settle the stomach. But that’s not a good idea.
“Do not shove dairy products down the bird’s throat,” she said. “Chickens and other poultry did not evolve to eat dairy, and they can’t digest it. Giving it to them can cause more problems.”
How to create a poultry first aid kit
While it’s not practical to have a full-on medical treatment center set up for poultry health issues, it is a good idea to have a fully stocked first-aid kit at the ready to treat minor issues.
“The best item to have in your first aid kit is the telephone number of your veterinarian’s office where you and your flock should be established clients prior to any emergency,” Donna Flint, poultry health technician with York County University of Maine Cooperative Extension, said. “Having that first aid kit ready for use can save a life or give you more time to get your bird to your veterinarian for diagnostics and treatment.”
Flint recommends having the following items in the kit:
— Vinyl or latex gloves to protect you and bird.
— Protective eyewear and mask to protect you.
— Saline for washing out wounds.
— Hydrogen peroxide for use diluted with equal parts water on the initial disinfection of a wound use for the initial disinfection of a wound because it can damage healthy and healing tissue.
— Betadine solution for daily cleansing of wounds. Dilute bottle solution to a light brown color.
— Vetericyn Hydrogel Spray wound treatment
— Bandage materials like nonstick pads, gauze or self-stick Vetwrap for binding wounds or securing an injured limb.
— Lubricating jelly or Preparation H to ease and reduce swelling on a prolapsed oviduct.
— Electrolytes like Sav-A-Chick to provide a quick boost to stressed birds.
— Petroleum jelly to coat and protect combs and wattles from frostbite.
— Empty syringes with the oral tip to aid in feeding or getting water into a bird.
— Cotton swabs to apply ointments and clean wounds.
— Pet nail trimmers and nail file to trim beaks and nails.
— Flashlight that can be set down or attached as a headlamp to direct light where you need it.
— Blood-stop powder for minor wounds. In a pinch, corn starch may also be used.
To gather all of these items, you are going to have to visit drugstores, feed supply stores and your veterinarian. To store your supplies, a plastic tool box is a good choice.
Fling recommends cleaning and disinfecting the kit periodically and keep a current list of supplies with their expiration dates taped to the outside of the box or inside the cover.
“Have a supply of index cards or a notebook in the kit to track what medications or procedures have been done to which birds and when,” Flint said. “You may need this information to track a patient’s progress or when consulting with your veterinarian.”
Know your veterinarian
Having that relationship with a veterinarian is very important, Hurwitz said, because the veterinarian will be able to prescribe medications that are proven safe for poultry and instruct on how to safely use them.
“If a chicken is badly injured or not responding to treatment in two or three days, you should consult your veterinarian,” Flint said. “If many birds are sudden sick, don’t wait. Get in touch with your veterinarian right away to determine what the next step should be.”
This was originally published in the Bangor Daily News Homestead section in December 2018. It was updated in December 2020.