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Backyard Chicken Health

chicken-health
a raised hen house can save space and protect chickens from predators. Photo by Shutterstock
chicken-health
Chickens need their feed to be o§ the ground. Photo by Shutterstock

Keeping backyard chickens is a joy shared by many – the site of a flock of ladies scratching around your garden warms the soul (as long as it’s not your vegie garden). There are simple ways to keep your chickens healthy naturally: give them fresh water, clean housing and bedding, and high-quality feed. Allowing exercise through free-ranging, and providing a stressfree environment by not overcrowding, will encourage happy birds. Happy, healthy chickens will provide you with delicious eggs, meat and free labour in the garden for many years.

Housing And Hygiene

Poultry housing should be large enough to accommodate the number of chickens without stress. There are many theories about the amount of space needed for each bird but, as a general guide, allow around one square metre. A naturally light and airy chicken house will discourage nasty parasites from lurking in dark places.

Provide roosting perches so that birds are not resting on the ground in their own droppings and feather dander, which can harbour internal parasites and viruses. Alternatively, chickens that can fly can stay quite safe and naturally healthy by perching in trees.

Clean, dry bedding such as straw, rice husks, shredded newspaper or sawdust should be replaced regularly in the chicken house and yard. Rake out feather dander, droppings and old feed from the ground regularly. All of this can be recycled onto garden beds and around fruit trees, or composted.

Young chicks should have a clean, dry and safe place to nest at night under their mum.

Biosecurity

At the first sign of a distressed chicken, remove it from the rest of the flock and put it in a quarantined area until you know that it’s not contagious. After you’ve worked in an infected (or potentially infected) pen, wash your hands thoroughly and change your shoes and clothing before you re enter areas with healthy chickens. Feather dander and dust can carry microscopic parasites and viruses which could spread through your healthy chickens quickly.

To ensure that existing healthy chickens are not compromised by the introduction of new – potentially unhealthy – chickens, keep them quarantined separately for around six weeks. This allows any symptoms of ill health to appear in your new flock, which can be treated before you blend new with existing birds.

Keep purchased new healthy young chickens separate from your older birds to prevent them picking up any nasty diseases from your established flock. Younger chicken’s immunity is not as strong as that of an established older flock. House new chickens on clean, uninfected ground.

Chicken yard rotation – similar to crop rotation – can be a good idea if keeping different aged birds.

Water

Fresh, clean and cool drinking water is essential for healthy chickens. Replace water daily, and keep water containers in the shade. Chickens will not drink warm or hot water, so refresh water containers several times on very hot days. If you’re unable to do this, «oat a frozen drink bottle in the water, or provide several water points in deep shade.

Natural tonics can be added to chickens’ water, such as apple cider vinegar and garlic, to maintain a healthy digestive system.

Regularly wash out and scrub water containers to prevent algal growth.

Food

It is essential to feed your chickens with a complete diet to ensure that they get adequate nutrition, especially enough protein for egg production and moulting. Good nutrition also minimises the risks of chickens becoming egg-bound, laying soft shell-less eggs, or reduced fertility.

Manufactured high-quality, high-protein pellets are a well-balanced meal for poultry; organic pellets are available. Grains such as wheat, pearl barley and corn are an excellent source of vitamins and minerals.

Day-old and young chicks can be given good-quality, high-protein ‘chick starter’ and then moved on to a ‘chick grower’. These are balanced, prepared crumbles suitable for that stage of development. Medicated ‘starter’ crumbles are designed to boost your chicken’s immunity against some serious soil-borne diseases such as coccidiosis, and are a suitable alternative if you don’t have access to early vaccination programs. An appropriate diet in the early stages of your chickens’ development will ensure a healthy immune system for the many of diseases which can affect them throughout their lives.

Provide food in containers – not on the ground. Remove uneaten food as it will attract rats at night, and then eventually snakes! Uneaten grain also attracts wild birds such as sparrows, which carry external parasites such as lice. And wash out and scrub feed containers regularly.

Free-ranging your chickens, and feeding them kitchen scraps, are healthy additions to a balanced diet.

Exercise

Exercise is just as important for chickens as it is for humans. Free-ranging is good exercise. Where this isn’t possible give chickens something to scratch through, such as garden waste, lucerne or kitchen scraps – this will keep them exercising for hours. Free-ranging and exercise also allows for development of healthy chicken mental wellbeing through social interaction.

Allowing young chicks to be raised naturally by a mother hen teaches them the art of foraging, while building immunity naturally and early by exposing the chick to the soil and surrounds.

Things Can Still Go Wrong

No matter how healthy you maintain your chicken flock, disease or parasites can invade. General signs of an unhealthy bird can include: lethargy, a lack of interest in eating and/or drinking, reduced or no egg-laying and separation from the flock. Physical changes include: colour changes in the comb and wattles from red to purple (indicating a lack of oxygen); wounds, sprains and broken limbs.

Most parasites, such as lice, can be seen by the naked eye and a major infestation can cause anaemia. There are topical applications to treat lice and mites on the bird and in their housing.

If in doubt about an unhealthy chicken seek veterinary advice. Not only will this help your chicken, but you’ll learn about the signs and symptoms of the diseases and parasites that you have in your area.

Certain diseases and parasites can be more prevalent in specific areas, for example: respiratory diseases, lice and worms will occur in more sub-tropical to tropical areas with high rainfall and humidity; cold and temperate regions will experience less disease, and the occasional outbreak of external parasites and worms; and there may be a higher chance of infertility and lower egg production in colder areas.

The following are some very common domestic health problems that you will encounter.

chicken-health
Chickens need free ranging space for exercise. Photo by Shutterstock

Respiratory Diseases

Colds and serious respiratory problems are most likely in very warm areas with high rainfall. Signs can include watery eyes, sneezing, runny nose and wheezing. Respiratory diseases are highly contagious to other chickens. Quarantine infected birds and seek veterinary advice. Diluted garlic can help ease symptoms, and saline solution wiped across the eyes is very good.

Coccidiosis

This is a parasite that infects the intestines and can be present in all climatic regions. Their eggs can lay dormant in soil, from a previously infected chicken’s droppings, for up to a year. An outbreak is more likely to occur in high-rainfall areas, or around wet ground.

The main symptom is a red ‘worm’ or blood in the chicken’s droppings, although this can also be a symptom of actual worms being present. Or chickens may huddle together, or appear pale and fluffed up. Chickens can be very sick and then die quickly. Seek veterinary advice if you need to.

Young chickens are most at risk because they lack immunity, hence the value of medicated chick starter for day-olds. Treatment is readily available in a concentrated coccidistat, given diluted in water. Immunity is built up over time, and will be seen less in an old established flock.

Fowl Pox

Fowl pox is a very common disfiguring and debilitating viral disease. It is either dry or wet, depending on how it’s spread.

Dry pox occurs mainly of the face, wattles and comb, and appears as raised dark dry scabs which spread over the area to later burst and leave scarring. To relieve pain, apply diluted iodine to the scabs, or two tablespoons of sulphur powder mixed with half a cup of Vaseline to soften hard scabs. Give avian vitamin supplements in drinking water.

Wet pox presents itself as a cheesy wet substance in the mouth and throat which can spread to the chest and cause death. Bubbles will appear in the eyes. Remove cheesy substance easily with tweezers to ease breathing difficulties.

Day-old chicks and unaffected adults can be vaccinated. See your veterinarian, or check whether the local poultry club has a vaccination program.

To avoid spreading this disease: remove infected birds; disinfect water and feed bowls, and perches; and clean housing and yards.

Marek’s Disease

This is a very serious herpes virus, and common in all areas. Symptoms include paralysis of the legs, wings or neck. It can lead to cancer, blindness and wasting disease. In some cases there are no symptoms and no cure.

The only prevention is vaccination! Only buy chickens from reputable sources, where they’ve been vaccinated.

Handy First Aid List For The Domestic Poultry Keeper

Have these to hand:

  • basic poultry-keeping book
  • your vet’s phone number
  • avian multivitamin supplement
  • poultry wormer
  • coccidistat
  • iodine
  • Vaseline
  • sulphur (based medication or yellow powder)
  • a quarantine/transportable cage
  • an axe.

Choose Your Chook: Your Guide To Backyard Chicken Breeds

The choice of chicken breeds is as vast as with dog breeds. The following table is a general guide to understanding a few of the more commonly available breeds, although availability will differ between regions. A good idea, before you choose your chickens, is to attend your local poultry or agricultural show, view the chickens and talk to the breeders.

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