Managing Concerns about Backyard Chicken Illness and Disease

When I feel a cold coming on, I immediately start taking Vitamin C and echinacea; during flu season, I drink lots of herbal tea and take elderberry.

As a result, I haven't come down with any serious illness or even gotten much more than a sniffle in years.

I even self-treated my annual bout of bronchitis this winter using ground cinnamon, ginger and cloves instead of rushing to the doctor for a prescription like I have in the past.

I eat lots of nutritious fresh foods, am fairly active, and keep my immune system healthy, because that's your best defense against getting sick.

And when you raise animals (or children), you know that you don't have the luxury of time off or sick days.

We raise our chickens the same way. A good, healthy diet, exercise and fresh air, being vigilant and immediately addressing any issues that crop up ... and in a decade I have only had to bring one chicken to the vet - and that was to be put down due to untreatable neurological problems.

New chicken keepers are often overwhelmed by the seemingly unending list of illness and disease that can befall backyard chickens.

Scary words like Mareks, Coccidiosis, Fowl Pox, Newcastle Disease, Bumblefoot, Infectious Bronchitis, Infectious Coryza, Botulism, Mycoplasmosis, Eyeworm, Gapeworm and of course Salmonella and E.coli.

Thinking about these awful, and often untreatable, diseases floating around your backyard and killing your chickens can often dissuade some from starting a backyard flock.

But let me tell you from first hand experience, that these diseases are not at all common.

Realistically you are unlikely to encounter any of them, even some of the more benign illnesses that chickens can contract, with basic biosecurity practices, proper flock management, diligently watching your flock for changes in appearance and behavior and some preventives to help boost their immune systems. 

Often one pathogen will weaken a hen's immune system, allowing others to move in, and allowing parasites to take up residence in or on the now-weakened bird.

Chickens are nearly impossible to diagnose and they hide their symptoms well, so before you even realize something is wrong, two or three different things could be wrong.

Add to that the difficulty in even finding a vet who will treat chickens or ducks, not to mention the potential cost involved, and little bit of home remedy and being vigilant in watching your flock's behavior so you can treat an ailing hen immediately - when she has the best chance at fighting off whatever is bothering her - is your best bet.

But don't despair.

I want to share with you my track record.

Over the past ten years, and despite having a mixed flock of chickens and ducks that at times has numbered more than three dozen, no infectious disease or other contagious illness has ever raised its ugly head. As for the more common injuries and sickness, here's how many times I have had to treat my flock in that entire ten-year period:

Bumblefoot: 2 (one case in a chicken and one in a duck and the duck was one that I had adopted with the bumblefoot)
Gapeworm: 0 (despite feeding earthworms to our flock regularly)
Internal parasites/worms: 0 (I use a natural wormer twice a year as a preventive)
Scaly leg mite: 0
Serious pecking issues: 0
Ripped/bleeding toenails: 0
Curled toes in chicks: 0
Spraddle leg in chicks: 0
Respiratory distress: 1 (traced to switching from straw to dusty shavings in our coop)
Broken beak: 0
Wry neck: 0
Heat exhaustion: 0 (Despite living in the South for the first 5 years, I take the necessary measures each summer to keep them cool)
Frostbite: 0 (despite now living in Maine)
Eyeworm: 0
Salmonella in us our our hens: 0 (despite often making recipes using raw eggs including mayonnaise, tiramisu and eggnog)
Mareks: 0 (despite not vaccinating chicks)
Coccidiosis: 0 (despite not feeding medicated feed to our chicks)

So far I think we're kicking those pathogens' butts!

If you find yourself constantly treating chickens in your flock for different things, maybe take a look at how you house, pen and treat your flock, what you feed them, and what kinds of supplements and preventives you use.

Take a look at some of the other blogs and Facebook pages you follow and the advice they're giving.

Note how many times they are having to treat their chickens for even such simple issues as pecking order issues, broken beaks, spraddle leg or internal worms....a responsible chicken keeper will find themselves raising a very healthy, robust flock with very little medical treatment necessary

(although it still is important to keep a fully stocked first aid kit just in case - I consider it my insurance policy!)

Yes, you will need to be vigilant, you should consider some supplements and lots of preventives, and you need to spend lots of time with your flock to know what's 'normal' behavior and what's not, but it's well worth it in the end.

Being PROactive is far easier and less expensive than being REactive after a problem has already happened.  

I do a comprehensive 'comb to toe' checkup on each hen at least monthly, which helps me know that everyone is healthy and that I catch anything very early on, as well as on a daily basis spend lots of one-on-one time with my flock.

I keep around a dozen and a half chickens these days because I feel that's the most manageable number for me.

Please take some time to browse my blog for advice and tips on raising a happy healthy flock without using medications or chemicals.

Ironically since my flock HAS been so healthy, I haven't personally treated them for many of the things I've written about and have had to instead rely on speaking with friends and fans who have first-hand experience treating their hens and finding out what worked (and what didn't) for them.

I chat with several university poultry science  departments from time to time, a couple of avian vets, as well as consulting with a friend who is an herbalist and fellow chicken keeper for her advice.

If you have a specific question or issue you need addressed, please feel free to contact us via email to:

Although I will always try to help,  diagnosing a sick chicken is not something I would ever attempt to do, especially online. Even a vet won't do that.

But I certainly will do my best to help you make them comfortable and built up their own natural defenses.

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  1. Thank you...I read so many scary things, this gave me hope!

    1. I hope so! It's good to research and read and be at least aware of things that can go wrong, but not to worry yourself right out of keeping chickens!

  2. Great tips! I agree on being proactive and checking your chickens over often. I also like to do head to toe (or comb to toe haha) checkups to make sure everything is ok. Whenever I hold or cuddle with my chickens I always feel around their abdomen and their crops to make sure they aren't impacted or feeling sour. Just observing and watching "chicken tv" for 10 minutes a day will go a long way in noticing if any of them is exhibiting unusual behavior. And it's relaxing for me to watch them, so it's good for all of us :)

    1. Same here! I am always poking and prodding, and yes its mutually beneficial, so a win-win.

  3. Thank you for keeping us informed. I pre-ordered your book months ago and can't wait to read it. Always look forward to reading your blogs, visiting new sites that you have found useful and delightful and your FB entries. Also, when I have had questions about health care you have always answered promptly. Last but not least...and entering the contests you put out there for us :-)

    1. Thanks so much!! I so appreciate everyone who follows.

  4. What is the natural dewormer you use twice per year? I want to deworm my girls this fall but have become a little stressed out with the options available?

    1. The link is there in the article, just click on it and it should bring you to the link:

  5. Great post! Love the idea of being proactive with both my chickens and rabbits. I'm looking forward to learning more through your book. I've got my copy on order!


  6. Wow - that's a pretty amazing record! Great post Lisa.

    1. Thanks Gretchen. I'm pretty anal about it I admit, but as I'm sure you know, things can escalate so fast and chickens are near impossible to diagnose correctly and treat and I am SO against medications and it works for me!

  7. Thank you! I am so new to this and the other day one pullet was acting tired and had some liquid poops. The threads and people on some websites got me so worried about everything from mareks, to cocci, to worms that I was worrying myself sick trying to decide what/how to medicate. And there are so many opposing and conflicting opinions that I was wishing I had never decided to do this. I am thankful that she just must have had an off day because she is fine now. Maybe they are like us and some days just don't feel great and want to rest! I appreciate your common sense approach and more holistic methods.

    1. Thank you! I don't even read forums any more because of all the junk posted there and how many are so quick to medicate. Antibiotics are SO overused in this country. Good job...I agree, an off day is something that happens to us all.

  8. After 5 years of healthy chickens we lost Pippa due to compacted crop turned to sour crop turned to ???It was devastating. We feel that due to the lack of vet help, chickens may not be for us. We are vegetarians and treat our animal family members as well as we can. Our large animal vet was no help at all. I read forums until I was sick. Still we lost her. There is not much on your site about losing hens. I guess it's a personal thing. Your site is extremely helpful and we are learning a lot. Thanks for all your hard work and for sharing freely.

  9. HI Kelly. I am sorry for your loss and sorry that you are thinking about not keeping chickens any longer. They AREN'T easy to treat - it's hard to find vets. But if you had chickens for 5 years and didn't lose one, you're doing great honestly. There's not alot on this site about losing hens because truthfully, we don't lose them. After one devastating fox attack - which I actually did just recently write about - and a security overhaul, I've found that using loads of natural preventives, you end up with a healthy flock. I do have an article about sour crop- but my friend Yvette also lost a hen to it. Sometimes there's just nothing you can do. I still think the joys of chicken keeping outweigh the occasional loss, or lack of vet care. And one word of advice, stop reading the forums. There is SO much bad information and misinformation. Pick up a copy of a book like Chicken Health for Dummies which is written by an avian vet:

    or my new book which talks a lot about building immune systems:

  10. Hey there, I have a hen that consumed a large amount of mountain laurel which contains a grayanotoxin poison harmful to poultry. Soon after consumption I induced a flush using an Epsom salt / water solution to pass the mountain laurel through her system which worked well. However by this time (about 4 hours after consumption) the poison had taken its toll both her eyes were swollen shut, she was shaking and disoriented. The Following day I started her on Tylan 50 in order to combat a possible upper respiratory Infection (2 days of 1cc orally) then (3 days 3/4cc injection in breast muscle) for a total of 5 days. It is now a week after she consumed the mountain laurel and today was her last dose of Tylan 50 but unfortunately the swelling of her eyes is not improving at all. The whole time she has ate and drank well and after the first two days her droppings have been regular. Other than the issues with her eyes she seems to be doing well but I am at a loss for what to next to help her out.

    1. Hi there. I am so sorry. Just goes to show that chickens don't always know what's good to eat and what's not. I would get her on probiotic powder to build up some good bacteria that the antibiotics has killed off. I would also suggest some VetRX - your feed store might sell it - or its in our Market & Farmacy (tab link at the top of the page) that is great for respiratory issues.

    2. I have actually been using VetRx the whole time (washing her head with 1/2 cup hot water 1 tsp VetRx solution) and rubbing some warm VetRx straight from the bottle on her face, break, and under wings. Thank you for the probiotic powder suggestion I will pick some up today! I had also heard that you can put a probiotic yogurt in their eye to help??? this seemed a little crazy to me!


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