Backyard chickens: How to handle chicken health problems

It’s been a tough week. We’ve had a sick little boy. One of our favorite fish passed on to the great fish pond in the sky. My husband is sick. And I woke up this morning to find that our hens are laying eggs with some watery whites. Apparently, this is common in store-bought eggs, but we do not see this in our eggs. It’s a sign of potential problems.

So I first hit the web to see what in the world could be causing the watery egg whites. I look at the list of things that could be the cause—too much ammonia, warm temperature, old hens, old eggs, and there it is, the worst I can imagine, bronchitis. None of the other reasons really make sense to me, so panic sets in.

I’ve had chickens for two years, and I’ve learned so many things about raising them. But one thing I’ve come to fear more than anything is a respiratory illness in my flock. In chickens, respiratory illnesses are not good. They’re highly contagious and difficult to recover from.

Right now, it’s hard to say if our flock has bronchitis. Even though it’s not super likely because we clean the coop often, I’m trying to remain hopeful that the watery egg whites are an ammonia issue. After all, the weather has been horrific of late, and our chickens have been sitting in the coop a lot, even though they could free range if they wanted.

Plus, there’s the fact that I can’t smell, so I wouldn’t know if there was an ammonia smell in the coop or not. Trust me, losing your sense of smell is problematic in so many ways. There are perks. I can clean the chicken coop and never bat an eye at chicken poop, but I can’t tell you if food goes bad, and apparently, I can’t tell you if our coop smells like ammonia.

I’m trying to be hopeful. I spent the morning with my favorite chicken sitting my lap with my head leaned over her head, so I could listen to see if I could hear any sign of respiratory issues.

No sign. But I’m pretty sure my sweet chicken enjoyed so much mama time.

But thinking about health issues in backyard chickens reminded me of how tough it can be to figure out chicken illnesses. If you’re new to keeping chickens, there’s something very important you should know.

Chickens will mask their symptoms, many times, until it’s too late to help them. Even though chickens are technically predators, they are so often preyed upon that they will never, ever let on to any sign of weakness—if they can help it.

chicken in the bathtub

This is our sweet Roxanne getting ready for a spa treatment in the bathtub to help with some vent gleet she had this winter. She’s all better now.

If you’re new to keeping backyard chickens, I have some tips and processes to keep in mind if you think your chickens may be ill.

Do your best to get to know your chickens as much as you can. This will help you better notice if they are masking some symptoms. At the very least, you will know early when they finally start showing signs of a problem. It’s tough to make the time, but if you can just hang out and pay attention to them maybe 20 to 30 minutes, twice a day, you will get to know their behaviors a little.

Do some periodic health checks. Check their eyes, skin, feathers, feet, and especially the vent. This will also increase your chances of finding a problem.

If you suspect a problem, get as much information as you can from an inspection. Some of my girls are hard to catch, but it’s necessary.

Head to the web but be careful out there. As with everything, the internet is full of misinformation about chickens, so use the web with great caution. Still, it can be a good starting point. And a resource like the University of Maine Cooperative Extension page for poultry is full of reliable information.

Make sure you join some local chicken groups online. I’m a member of the Maine Poultry Connection on Facebook, and it’s so helpful to get advice from people with more experience. Just be sure to provide as much information as you can and share pictures of you have them.

Finally, if you’re able to and can afford it, you can take a chicken to the vet. We have not resorted to this yet because, well, between two dogs and two cats, we have a lot of vet bills already, but I already have husband approval. If I hear a wheeze or see a cough from one of our chickens, it’s straight to the vet! You just have to make sure your vet can deal with poultry.

Getting backyard chickens means you’re surely going to fall in love with them, and it’s hard when they get sick. You love them just like your other pets. Plus, these pets feed you.

So far, we’ve weathered vent gleet, an egg bound hen, and a genetic heart issue. I’m hoping our watery egg whites are not a sign of serious illness. If you’re reading this, please keep my girls in your thoughts.

Crystal Sands

About Crystal Sands

I am a former academic and award winning writing teacher turned hobby farmer/homeschooling mom/freelancer. In 2015, after too many years of working too many hours, I decided to change my life. This blog shares my stories related to making the change and simplifying my life–a process that began when we finally got our first chickens. In this blog, I will share my experiences learning how to hobby farm on a small place in Maine, become more self-sufficient, live frugally, live peacefully, and have more time for love. I hope you will join me on this journey by following my blog and following me on Twitter @CrystalDSands.