chicken moult
Chicken Health

Chicken Moult

Around this time of year, when our chickens are going through their late autumn moult, coops and pens resemble a chicken crime scene. Huge bundles of feathers strewn everywhere!

For the new chicken keeper, experiencing chicken moult can be alarming! When your flock decide it’s time for a change of clothes feathers literally drop out overnight – covering the bedding on the coop floor. Sometimes a soft moult is all that’s needed, just an area of the body here and there, these partial moults often go on unnoticed, but when a hard moult is going on your chickens will look really scruffy for a while, perhaps even naked. Late summer to early winter is usually the time for moult but it can occur at anytime of the year. Your chickens may all go into a moult together or just 1 or 2 at a time.

It may not be noticeable, but our Brahma girls are going through their first adult moult now and looking a little scruffy in places – feet included!

Moult is necessary to replace old and worn feathers in order to be in the best possible condition to keep warm in winter. Most chickens go through a moult without any issues but for others it can be hard going, thankfully there are things you can do to help your flock through it. Chicken feathers are composed mostly of keratin (a protein responsible for the strength of wool, hair, fingernails and hooves), so it’s a good idea to increase protein intake during the moult. Our girls love protein-rich dried mealworms scattered around or mixed in with the usual feed, we like to add them to a warm mash on a cold morning. Boiled eggs cut into chunks to disguise (you don’t want to encourage egg eating after all!), peas and sunflower seeds are good for protein too. These treats should be fed in moderation as and when needed for moulting chickens and not replace the usual feed. Adding tonics to the drinking water will help give a boost in vitamins and minerals, we recommend Life-Guard poultry tonic.

A hen going through a hard moult will either significantly reduce the amount of eggs she lays or stop altogether, putting all her energy into growing new feathers rather than producing eggs. You may even find the occasional soft-shelled egg while a moult is occurring, this should correct itself once the moult is over.

chicken moult
One of our Lohmann Brown hens going through a hard moult, she shed most of her feathers within 48 hours and now she’s covered with pin feathers. She’ll look beautiful again very soon, just in time for winter.

New feathers coming through are known as ‘pin feathers’, they look like blueish spikes pushing through the surface of the bare skin. Try to avoid picking your chickens up during this time, pressure on pin feathers can be quite painful for them. Pin feathers can be very attractive to other chickens, they really bleed if pecked! Keep an eye out for feather pecking problems and use purple spray (also known as gentian violet spray ) as an antiseptic and to help disguise red areas (chickens are very attracted to the colour red, particularly blood) to discourage further pecking, separate if it becomes a real problem to avoid damage or worse.

Chicken Health, Chickens

Poorly Hen, Egg Yolk Peritonitis and Other Problems

garden hen

My beautiful Speckledy hen is feeling under the weather at the moment, it’s a complicated situation not made any easier with chickens naturally hiding illness. Ginny was diagnosed with egg yolk peritonitis last summer, a condition which basically means a hen begins laying internally rather than producing eggs in the usual way. Yolks and egg matter drop into the abdominal cavity and sit there, building up. Left untreated, peritonitis can be very painful due to a build-up of fluids and yolks binding to internal organs, sadly it appears to be quite common with hybrid layers but any breed can be dealt this blow. Treatment really needs to be discussed with a vet, but this usually involves draining fluid when needed with a course of antibiotic to follow.

I noticed Ginny was slowing down and not her usual active self, her trademark dark brown eggs missing from the nest box for quite some time. On closer inspection she felt large hot and swollen underneath, my suspicion of peritonitis being the culprit was confirmed after a visit to the vet. Fluid was drained from her swollen abdomen (which immediately made her feel better) and then a course of antibiotic prescribed to help combat possible infection. On her return to the vet a hormone implant called Supreloin was used to prevent her ovaries releasing eggs, we’d discussed this in depth during her previous appointment. The implant is smaller than a grain of rice and inserted just under the skin in the breast area, Ginny was fantastic about it and hardly noticed it being done. I won’t lie, hormone treatment is very expensive, but Ginny has given me a lot of joy over the years from fresh eggs to funny antics, organic fertiliser and pest control. So I bought her some time and relief.

garden chickens
Ginny being her usual inquisitive self!!

The procedure proved to be very effective and gave her almost 6 months of running around the garden pain-free without the horrible symptoms of peritonitis and the need for draining. I should point out that the implant is not a cure for hens with peritonitis, but it does give the hen a short break from laying, managing the symptoms of the condition to give the hen concerned quality of life and perhaps a longer lifespan. However, I should also point out that the implant doesn’t work on every hen, there are no guarantees, also factors have to be taken into account for each case such as length of illness, current condition and weight. Some hens cannot be implanted full stop. I knew Ginny’s implant would need to be repeated as soon as symptoms of peritonitis returned, and they did, just before new year. Her comb began to grow and redden just as you would expect from a hen coming into lay and her abdomen began to swell and fill with fluid, a sure sign of internal laying. The day before New Years Eve I took her back to the vet to have the procedure repeated.

garden hen

Apart from being thrown into a moult (an unfortunate symptom of the implant) which naturally made her feel a bit miserable, Ginny had been fine (well, as it could be for a hen with peritonitis) up to this point. However, she started refusing food recently and now we’re battling a second bout of sour crop. She’s losing weight and with crop problems on top it’s not looking good. I’d like to think this is just a blip with her treatment for peritonitis, but deep down I believe either her treatment for peritonitis is no longer working (whether or not this can be corrected I don’t yet know), or something else is going on. I’ve seen similar behaviour/symptoms before with hens suffering with cancerous tumours, I’m starting to think this may be the problem.

speckledy hen

Ginny has an appointment booked for tomorrow morning to see the vet who knows her medical history. Please keep your fingers crossed that I’m wrong and that something can be done for her.

Gulp.

bubbles in chickens eye
Chicken Health, Chickens

Chicken Colds – Mycoplasma

bubbles in chickens eye mycoplasma
Bubbles can clearly be seen in the corner of the eye, a symptom of mycoplasma respiratory infection in chickens. Note the slight facial swelling. Photo property of The Garden Smallholder Blog, photographer Karen Jackson.

Does my chicken have a cold? Sneezing accompanied by discharge from the nostrils are commonly referred to as a ‘chicken cold’. However, it’s very likely your chicken/flock are suffering from a respiratory infection such as mycoplasma, often severe in winter. A fairly common illness (according to my vet) and contagious, mycoplasma is transmitted by wild birds, footwear, clothing and feeding equipment. The first time chickens succumb to the infection seems to be the worst, subsequent outbreaks seem to be milder. Early symptoms to look out for are bubbles in the eyes (see photo above), sneezing and facial swelling, left untreated this will surely result in rattles in the chest and eventual respiratory distress. Treatment of antibiotics such as Tylan soluble or Denagard prescribed by your veterinary surgeon will help, usually there’s no egg withdrawal but do check with your vet. Individual cases should be quarantined and kept warm, if the whole flock is affected then treat together. As always good hygiene is important to prevent disease or illness with poultry, however new birds brought in can already be carriers, becoming ill soon after arrival due to the stress of being rehoused or integrated within a new flock.

Stress is a trigger.

Sadly some chickens will die. Most affected birds do recover with treatment but will remain carriers (becoming mildly ill again during stressful situations or during winter) some never get ill at all having a higher resistance than others. Avoid overcrowding and keep up strict hygiene, it is important to treat at the first sign of illness. Any chicken can get a respiratory infection such as mycoplasma, even your ‘posh’ ones. ex battery hens

Regular readers of The Garden Smallholder blog will know I give a home to ex-battery hens when space allows, I have done this for many years and it’s a great joy of mine to watch them experience a different quality of life, for however long that may be. There are many people like me but there are just as many who believe that ex-battery hens are sickly creatures that spread diseases. In fact, ex-battery hens are covered by a strict vaccination schedule, they have to be, they’re in the food chain after all. I doubt very much that all hobby breeders vaccinate so strictly. Most of our ex-battery hens have been lost to laying related issues and diseases such as egg yolk peritonitis (EYP), also internal tumours due to faulty genetics caused by thoughtless breeding to create the ultimate laying machines. That’s not to say mycoplasma has never troubled any of the ex battery hens that I’ve kept over the years, it has but always easily treatable.

ex battery hen

I hope this post has been helpful for spotting the early signs of a fairly common respiratory infection in chickens, mycoplasma is not simply a chicken cold and shouldn’t be ignored, it is treatable. I’m not a vet and I don’t claim to be, I’m just putting my little bit of experience out there to help other chicken keepers.

Always seek the advice of a vet (avian or exotics preferably) for signs of illness in poultry.

Chicken Health, Chickens

Marek’s and Myrtle

bluebell hen

I’m really sad to announce that my bluebelle hen, Myrtle, passed away today at the tender age of 17 months. She went downhill incredibly fast, suffering from suspected Marek’s. Symptoms were paralysis of both legs (splayed), paralysis of the neck with blindness and inability to feed or drink. I took her to my vet today and the diagnosis was exactly what I feared. The decision was made – there’s no treatment for Marek’s and I wasn’t prepared to let her suffer.

bluebell chicken

I understand Myrtle has some fans via the blog, I’m so sorry to break this sad news to you. I’m incredibly upset to lose her from such a cruel disease. Marek’s is very contagious and only time will tell how this situation will develop with regards to her flock mates.

Chicken Health, Chickens

Chicken Health – Red Mite

Occasionally I look at my site stats to see which search terms are finding my blog. I tend to see a lot of chicken/poultry related queries and questions, so I thought I would write about one of the biggest problems poultry keepers sometimes face –  the dreaded red mite.

Carried by wild birds, red mite are tiny grey mites (red when fully engorged with blood) that can be a dangerous health problem for chickens. Usually hiding away during the day in small cracks/crevices of the coop, ends of perches or under felt roofs they come out of hiding just after dusk to feed on your hens whilst they sleep. This makes identifying a problem difficult. Depending on the severity of red mite infestation, a flock will eventually become very unwell and death could well occur. Red mite seem to be more of a problem during the warmer temperatures of summer, but can strike any time of the year. They are super tiny and hard to spot, particularly during the day.

Symptoms / signs of red mite infestation:

  • Pale combs and wattles
  • Decreased appetite
  • Egg laying slows down or completely ceases
  • Chickens reluctant to perch (note: ex battery hens don’t always perch due to weak legs / no experience of a perch so this is not always a helpful sign)
  • Chickens reluctant to return to the coop at dusk, preferring to hang close to the coop in the dark.

I highly recommend checking for red mite as part of your regular hygiene routine. This is how I check for red mite:

  • Using a piece of white kitchen paper or cloth, wipe underneath the length of the perch – blood smears indicates red mite are present
  • Check the inside of the coop with a torch just after dark, quietly and carefully shine the torch on the walls, roof space and perches. If you have red mite you might be able to see small dot like creatures (grey or red when fully fed on your hens blood) moving around.
  • If you can, check the hens legs and feathers using the torch for signs of red mite
  • Very early in the morning is probably the best time to see red mite with the naked eye due to them being fully engorged

Prevention is key. Spray your empty coop with Poultry Shield solution and allow to dry before replacing  fresh bedding. Sprinkle Diatom (Diatomaceous Earth Powder), powder along the perches and on the perch ends, in the nest box, and in any small gaps etc. Use a Diatom puffer bottle to puff the powder into the roof space where red mite could hide, ie wood joints. Of course, there are other red mite products available, I have named the ones I use and trust. If you think you have a red mite problem I highly recommend using the products I have named, following the instructions carefully. I also recommend using Diatom and Poultry Shield as a regular preventative from day one of keeping chickens.

Chicken Health, Chickens

Chicken Health – Droppings

Keeping chickens in the garden is rewarding and can be educational too if you have young children helping with their day-to-day needs. But, as with all animals, from time to time chickens can become ill. Apart from the classic signs that a chicken is unwell – fluffed up feathers, hunched posture, eyes closed etc you may be surprised to hear that chicken droppings can reveal quite a bit about their current health. So, the next time you check on your flock take time to inspect their droppings.

I realise this may sound unpleasant but believe me you could identify a potential health problem just by recognising what an abnormal chicken dropping looks like. You should also get to know what healthy droppings look like too, they come in an array of colours and textures. Try inspecting droppings as part of your daily routine, this way you will get to know your flock (and their poo) a little better!

Examples of healthy droppings:

Examples of problem droppings:

 I will add photos of interest to this post as they occur. All the above photos were taken by me and produced by my chickens. Just as a pointer, droppings to be concerned about are as follows:

Vivid yellow, frothy, green, runny, mainly white or clear runny, bright red blood (not to be confused with normal shedding of gut lining) and regular droppings containing visible undigested grain/food.

If I find a dodgy dropping I keep a good eye on the hens for signs of ill-health, if I do suspect there may be a problem or if I just want to put my mind at ease I contact Retfords Poultry Ltd. They provide a faecal testing service to check for presence of parasites and bacteria. Using this service literally saved one of my hens from certain death. It’s so easy to use, just pop the suspect dropping into a suitable container (screw top lid may be advisable!) and post it off with a covering note. Most good avian vets can also provide this service.

Chickens tend to show the same symptoms/characteristics for many different illnesses, even normal ‘egg issues’ such as soft-shelled eggs can make them appear unwell and give you cause for concern. Being able to identify an abnormal chicken dropping is handy knowledge to have.

Happy poopy peeking :)

Chickens

It’s Never Long Enough

Since my last post (which was quite some time ago) I have sadly lost 2 further hens, my beloved Hope and then Chrissie. Hope developed egg yolk peritonitis and went down hill very suddenly while Chrissie (who had battled so long with a mass in her abdomen) lost her long fight – and what a fight she fought. To say I have so much respect for my hens is an understatement. I never regret having given them that chance.

So, I guess you can forgive me for not keeping the blog updated?! I have been too sad to post about recent goings on and couldn’t summon the will to do it. On another sad note I have another hen that is giving me nightmares, so we shall see how things go with her. All of my hens have had a good bash at life, but as anyone who keeps these fantastic little blighter’s will tell you, it’s never long enough.

Oh, by the way,  thank you all for the fantastic comments that have greeted me on my first return to the blog since losing Mrs N. It means so much! Keep reading, I am around and will be back to ‘veggie and henny business’ soon xx