Handling a Contagious Illness in your Backyard Chicken Flock

Of course all of us backyard chicken keepers want to concentrate on hanging pretty curtains in our coops, making fun treats for our chickens and taking pictures of our cute chicks surrounded by flowers. On our Fresh Eggs Daily Facebook page and here on the blog, we try and keep things fun and upbeat, but the reality is that the cutesy side of chicken keeping has to take a backseat to good biosecurity practices, proper sanitation and flock management.

Chickens are extremely susceptible to various illnesses and diseases, many respiratory in nature, and many contagious. Since their body temperature is higher than many other species and their metabolism much faster, bacteria and pathogens multiply extremely rapidly in poultry. Newcastle Disease, infectious bronchitis, avian influenza, infectious coryza, fowl cholera, and mycoplasma, just to name a few, can be disastrous to your flock. 

Many poultry illnesses can be fatal if not treated, but many can’t be treated – or there are no commercial products specifically labeled for use in poultry. It can be hard to find a qualified avian vet to treat your flock, and nearly impossible to diagnose a sick chicken, but that doesn’t mean that you are helpless or your hands are tied. These diseases are not very common in backyard flocks, but prevention is definitely your best best  - and most illnesses can be easily managed by taking a few steps.

A flock with strong immune systems and a clean, well-maintained coop and run are imperative, as is catching any problem as quickly as possible and isolating sick birds to try and stop the illness from spreading through your flock.

To prevent contagious disease:
  • keep a close eye on your flock and do regular 'checkups'
  • spend plenty of time with your chickens so you know what is normal behavior and what’s not
  • build strong immune systems
  • keep your coop and run area clean and well-maintained
  • keep your coop and run free from wild animals, rodents and birds who can be carriers
  • maintain sanitary conditions
  • provide clean fresh water and good-quality feed daily
  • adhere to proper biosecurity precautions
  • don’t bring new additions to their flock in without proper quarantine periods
  • practice over-all good flock management
You don't need to use all kinds of crazy chemicals to fight pathogens and bacteria - we only use natural cleaning products and have never had any kind of outbreak of any disease or illness.

For a strong immune system: A daily regiment that includes good-quality feed and clean water is necessary for a healthy flock. Add to that a bit of probiotic powder in the feed for healthy digestive systems and intestinal tracts, and some apple cider vinegar in the water for overall good healthy and to balance ph levels in the body, and you’ve just increased your flock’s chances for being healthy. 

Go one step further and add some dried garlic powder into the feed or drop a whole fresh clove into the water as an immune system booster and you can sleep at night knowing that you’re providing your flock a super healthy diet. The ‘holistic trinity‘ of apple cider vinegar, garlic and food-grade diatomaceous earth is paramount to raising healthy chickens. 

Adding dried herbs and edible flowers to your flock’s feed also provides additional health benefits. Generally chickens will recognize what they need in order to stay healthy, so provide them the tools to build their own strong immune systems.  But preventives aren’t 100% fail proof and sometimes an illness will still take hold, especially  in weaker flock members.

At the first sign that anything is wrong – including listless or droopy hens, watery eyes or nostrils, coughing, sneezing, infection, swelled wattles, etc. – immediately separate the ailing bird somewhere safe from predators, warm and quiet. Be especially careful if you have a sick bird around chicks or young pullets, or broody or molting hens who’s systems are already being taxed. Assume whatever she has is contagious until you find out for sure otherwise. Consider your flock a 'closed flock' until you get a diagnosis. It’s extremely irresponsible to add to a flock that is potentially fighting a contagious disease.  On the other hand, it's just as irresponsible to sell or rehome birds from a potentially sick flock as well. Even if others don't show symptoms, they can be carriers. Your goal here is to stop the spread of the pathogen to the entire flock.

Until you have a definitive prognosis and know what you're dealing with and that it isn't contagiious:
  • Separate the sick bird and keep her quiet and warm
  • Assume it's contagious and that your entire flock maybe infected
  • Do not eat or sell any eggs the sick bird lays
  • Do not hatch any eggs she lays (or any eggs fertilized by an ill rooster)
  • Do not hatch new chicks or bring new birds into your flock
  • Do not sell or rehome any chicks or chickens from an infected flock
  • Tend to the rest of your flock first, then the sick bird, then change clothes and wash your hands well. Many illness are extremely contagious and pathogens are easily carried back and forth between sick and healthy birds.

Certain diseases are not treatable. Ultimately, if the chicken can’t muster and fight off the pathogens, sometimes culling the sick bird (or sadly your entire flock if the disease has spread) is the only option, but before you take any drastic measures, take steps to strengthen your flock’s immune system, try to find a qualified vet and follow their prescribed course of action, and practice good biosecurity measures and quarantine procedures.
  • Drizzle some molasses over her feed as a toxin flush and nutrient-packed supplement
  • Offer a bit of plain, unflavored yogurt and some fresh (or dried) oregano
  • If you decide to treat your sick bird with any type of antibiotics or commercial medications, be sure you know the ‘withdrawal’ period (length of time after you stop medicating during which eggs are not deemed safe to eat).
  • After you have successfully eradicated the illness (or, sadly, lost or culled the sick chicken) thoroughly clean and disinfect the coop and run area
  • Have dead birds tested at your state avian lab (some states require this)
Infectious diseases shouldn’t be feared or keep anyone from deciding to start a backyard flock,  and hopefully you will never have to deal with any, but knowing the potential risks of not keeping your flock healthy is paramount to any chicken keeper. Below is a link to the common illnesses, symptoms and treatments for an more in-depth look at the various diseases and how to diagnose and treat specific illnesses. 

Here is a wonderful resource from the University of Florida Extension Service detailing Common Poultry Illness.
Read the USDA Biosecurity Guide HERE.


©2013 by Fresh Eggs Daily, Inc. All rights reserved.


  1. Wow this is so full of good info. Pinning for my own use. I wonder if giving them yogurt is as good as probiotic powder since I just have the three bantams.

    1. Plain yogurt is good, but can give them diarrhea in large enough amounts, so I use probiotic powder as a daily preventive/intestinal health booster and give yogurt occasionally as a treat.

    2. I recently lost a 3 year old then a week later a young one. I was so worried about an infection. I cleaned both areas and assessed the 2nd died of eating strings of a blue canvas and couldn't pass it. It was heartbreaking and very stressful for us. So far the rest of the flock is ok. I try to follow your eating schedule but find it hard to add the DE to food. I do add it to their bedding and their dust baths. Thank you for all you do.

  2. Here is how I give yogurt, and I don't think I have ever overdone it. It's actually very easy. I have a flock of 12 right now. One 8 ounce (or 6 depending on what is on sale) plain Greek or regular yogurt goes in the bottom of what was originally a plastic pie holder from Costco. I throw a cup of layer pellets in, a cup of BOSS, and a sprinkle of scratch (not too thick!). I mix it all up and then let the hens go for it. I pull their regular food before I let them out of their coop, so when I bring this, they are READY! OH IT'S A COLOSSAL MESS by the time they are done. The feed, scratch, and BOSS all get eaten and there is flicked yogurt everywhere, so stand back. They get this once a week, on a day when I have time to hang out with them (it's fun to watch!).

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  4. We have ive chickens in a barn that are kept very clean. We had no problems for five years. Then we lost a 3 year old to impacted turned sour crop. Now another chicken is going down hill. We dont know her age. How do chickens die of old age? What might happen? The first thing we noticed was her comb fell over, now she is just weak and losing weight. What can we do?

    1. Hi Kelly. So sorry. As they get older, just like humans, they do lose some ability to fight things and are more susceptible to get sick and die. They can die of old age just like a human, their heart simply stops. But chickens can live to be 10-12 years old, so a three year old isn't that old. Give her some vitamins & minerals or Nutri-drench, something to boost her up. Scrambled eggs or oats are good to put on weight as is corn.

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