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What signs to look out for in sick birds

What signs to look out for in sick birds
© University of Nottingham and the British Hen Welfare Trust
Unhealthy bird, © British Hen Welfare Trust

The most useful tool for any hen owner is a pair of eyes. Observation of hens going about their normal daily lives will provide a wealth of information and with experience hen owners can quickly learn to spot common problems. The most obvious sign that anything is wrong with a hen is her demeanour.

Any hen that is indifferent to an approach and/or remains disinterested, with eyes closed and slightly fluffed-up is almost certainly under the weather.

  • Pick up the hen and assess her weight
    Begin your assessment by picking up the hen. Ex-commercial hens rarely put on the same amount of breast muscle as fancy hens and it is easy to think a hen is too thin when she is probably normal weight. However, a prominent keel bone with no muscle either side is a sign of extreme weight loss.
  • Assess her comb
    The comb is a good indicator of hen health. A vibrant red comb is a sign of a healthy hen that is in lay whilst a hen with a pale but plump comb is probably off lay. If the comb has a blue tinge this may indicate compromised circulation. Shrivelled, flaky or dry combs all denote poor health.
  • Check her eyes
    Ex-commercial caged hens have extremely pale irises when they first come out into normal daylight. This along with pale skin on the face and over-long toenails is probably the easiest way to tell how recently a hen has been adopted. The iris will turn a deep orange colour in a very short time and the skin on the face will pink up within days.
  • Feel her crop
    This is the muscular bag at the bottom of the neck. First thing in the morning the crop should be empty and will increase in size as the hen eats throughout the day.

When full a healthy crop is roughly the size of a tangerine and the contents can be felt through the crop wall. The crop should feel firm but not over-tight and the contents should move around easily with gentle manipulation.

If the crop feels like a deflated balloon full of water this may indicate sour crop. By cupping the crop and exerting a small amount of pressure you should be able to demonstrate fluid at the side of the beak which is often sticky, brown and foul smelling.

If the crop is rock hard and the contents cannot be manipulated externally it is likely to be impacted with food and grass or other long stemmy materials.

An extremely large crop (size of an orange+) may be spastic or pendulous. Such a crop will still function but may take longer to empty.

  • Is her abdomen swollen?
    The abdomen should feel typically soft and be in proportion to the size of the hen. A hen with a rigid bowling ball belly may be suffering from abdominal tumours or egg peritonitis. Such hens sometimes adopt a classic ‘penguin-like’ stance.

A swollen but soft abdomen is more likely to be a sign of ascites and will often present alongside a blue tinged comb.

  • Is her vent clean?
    The vent is the exit point for eggs and droppings. It should be clean and the feathering around it free from staining, discharge or droppings.
  • Droppings
    Hens do not urinate separately and the characteristic white cap on a dropping is the urine element. A slot shaped vent (horizontal) indicates the hen is in lay whilst a round vent denotes the fact that she is not. A pasty white sticky discharge from the vent is a sign of Cloacitis (vent gleet).

Photo of poultry droppings with a characteristic white cap
Poultry droppings, ©British Hen Welfare Trust

© University of Nottingham and the British Hen Welfare Trust
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Poultry Health

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