Chicken keeping has become an increasingly popular past time across the country and here at Nute three of our nurses regularly bring in delicious eggs from their backyard hens.
Nicky Hallows BVMS MRCVS is our practice chicken expert and Nute Veterinary Surgery is pleased to be affiliated with The Chicken Vet, a large poultry practice in Exeter. If you have any chicken queries please contact us and if your chickens need veterinary attention bring them into one of our open surgeries and we will be happy to help.
Where do I get my chickens from?
Magazines or internet
Practical poultry magazine or The Poultry Club of GB are usually used by specialist breeders and can be a good source for hens but care should be used with dealers advertising here. Dealers tend to pick up chickens from multiple sources at markets and their health may be very questionable. Think of buying a chicken as like buying a puppy. It’s good to see where the hen has been reared and who by.
Markets and dealers
Care should also be exercised when buying from markets or dealers. Remember if a bird is cheap there’s probably a reason for it, it’s a lot like buying a car, as above it’s best to be able to see the bird in its home environment first.
These can be quite good people to buy from, they are usually pullets ie young hens bought from commercial pullet rearers, they’ve usually been vaccinated.
The British Hen Welfare Trust is doing an excellent job of giving hens a second chance after a hard start to their life having rehomed over 250,000 battery hens.
We’d recommend starting with at least three hens so if one dies the others aren’t alone, also it seems two birds take to a new addition better than one.
What about a cockerel?
Think of the noise and your neighbours but on the plus side a cockerel can keep a flock of bickering hens in check! Watch their spurs though they can cause feather loss and scratching along the back of the hens. They may need to be clipped.
A good hen house will give shelter and protection from weather and predators. One nest box per three birds, perches that allow 25cm/bird (less for bantams), a wide enough entrance to prevent arguments and a shallow ramp up to the door for stiff legged ex-batteries. Bedded ideally with shavings or short chopped good quality straw, not paper. Note low perches for ex-batteries as they can easily fall off and break their breast bone.
From time to time the hen house should have the bedding removed and destroyed, hosed down and cleaned eg with fairy liquid and then left to dry and then disinfected with eg ‘interkokask’. A good disinfectant will kill red mites and coccidia as well as the regular bugs. Remember red mites only come onto the bird at night but can be seen in the crevices of the house. They’re more prevalent in the spring and summer. You need to treat the bird and the house with a suitable product. A heavy infestation of red mites can make a hen seriously anaemic.
Outside: They should have a dry area to scratch around in, a dust bath and a fly trap eg ‘red top fly trap’.
They like eating short grass but be careful if they gorge on long grass it can get tangled up in their crop.
Its best to feed a commercial ration and not just corn-if you feed corn mixed with other feed they’ll tend to pick out the corn and not eat the rest. You can give them a handful of corn to scratch feed at night or now and again as a treat the same applies to mealworms. Layers pellets are the best thing to feed and an adult layer will eat approximately 120g of this per day and drink approx. 200ml of water a day. NB a bantam will need less than this.
Caged birds should have pecker blocks to keep them entertained. You can also nail half a swede onto the wall for them to peck at or hang a cabbage up or cut a turf of grass out for them to have.
They also need mixed grit for their shell and to help break food down in the gizzard. This can be put in a sieve or colander to allow water to drain through. They know when they need it and will take it as required.
Water needs to be kept clean and you can raise it off the ground to avoid it getting soiled and take care in winter for freezing, it may be better to keep water in at night rather than letting it freeze and having to wait for it to defrost.
Obesity: This is a common problem in backyard chickens and this can lead to all sorts of health problems including laying large eggs that can get stuck. It’s best to avoid feeding kitchen scraps unless they’re getting a regular and similar ration as they don’t tolerate a frequently changing diet too well.
Specific health problems
This needs to be differentiated from an increase in urine. With the latter there will be a normal firm poo in the middle of a large pool of watery urine. With the former there will be a homogenous watery/pasty brown deposit.
There are numerous causes of diarrhoea in chickens the main ones being:
- Bacterial infection
- Renal or hepatic issues
- Egg binding
This is a serious condition of birds from two weeks to two months and is often associated with blood in the faeces. You should seek immediate veterinary attention for this condition.
We recommend worming at least twice a year in spring and autumn with flubenvet.
If you are up to date with worming and the diarrhoea has persisted for 24-hours or more and particularly if the bird is off colour then we recommend swift veterinary attention is sought.
This is a yeast infection of the crop leaving it dull with foul smelling breath and a bulging neck. This requires veterinary attention.
Again these animals may be dull and not eating and have a large bulge in the lower neck. This may be caused by problems in the muscles in the crop wall or by swallowing eg a bit of plastic or too much long grass. This may require surgery to remove so is a veterinary job.
Please remember that a chicken’s crop may take on a natural bulge after eating so wait a couple of hours after finding a bulging crop before starting to worry.
The sneezing hen
There are a variety of viruses and bacteria that can cause respiratory problems including swollen watery eyes and sneezing. These generally require treatment with antibiotics and any other in contact hens may well require treatment too.
- TLC is important as is ensuring a well ventilated but not overly draughty house.
- These bugs can return if the bird gets stressed in the future.
- It’s a good idea to keep any new birds away from existing ones for three weeks as a quarantine period.
- Try and get your birds from disease free flocks, ex-batteries will usually already be vaccinated.
- Vaccination if you have a larger number of birds or can group together with other keepers is a good idea but there’s no point in vaccinating an already sick bird.
The wobbley hen
It is not uncommon to encounter birds that are wobbly or paralysed or are holding their heads in a strange way. The two main causes are Mareks disease and meningitis.
This is most commonly seen in younger birds from three months to one year though older birds remain carriers and can potentially infect younger birds. For this reason if possible its best to keep youngsters and adults separate.
There is no treatment for this condition though vaccination of day old chicks is possible. Good hygiene and thorough disinfection are important in keeping this disease at bay.
This can affect any aged bird and often will only be distinguished from Mareks by the fact that meningitis will often respond well to a suitable antibiotic and TLC whereas Mareks won’t. It isn’t usually contagious.
The lame chicken
Check perch height and roughness of perch.
A mite that does exactly what it says in the name. It requires treatment with an appropriate anti-mite product plus weekly washing of the legs with a baby shampoo and soft toothbrush followed by a dunk in surgical spirit and then application of Vaseline.
Foot pad lesions
This is often caused by wet bedding.
A bacteria that enters the foot through abrasions on the foot. Check bedding as sharp shavings can damage the foot as can perch problems see above. This condition causes swellings on the foot and usually needs lancing, flushing and antibiotics.
The bald chicken
Maybe your chicken is just having a normal moult? This generally happens once a year after lay and can last up to two months. Disease resistance is weakened at this time. They can appear very moth-eaten. You can give them a boost with extra vitamins at this time eg ‘aminoplus’.
Eg red mites-treat house and bird with suitable products.
This may be behavioural or due to a lack of protein. You can supplement protein with eg ‘aminoplus’ but it may well be their environment that needs improving. Have they got enough space? Have they got a pecking block? Hang up a cabbage and nail half a swede to the wall!
They can end up with a nasty bald scratched patch on their back if they’ve been having too much fun with the cockerel! You may need to have the cockerel’s spurs trimmed or you can buy chicken saddles from ebay to protect the hen’s back.
Severe nutritional issues
If there’s something badly missing in their diet you may get feather loss. This won’t happen if the bulk of their ration is coming from layers pellets but may if you’re just feeding kitchen scraps.
Chicken keeping can be a fun and rewarding past time and is great for the children too. People can become as bonded to their chickens as they do to their cats and dogs. Try and be as informed as possible before you get started to avoid problems, but should you encounter any, we are here to help.