Chicken folks up here in New England are pretty lucky. We have a readily available choice of people to offer professional care for our feathered roommates. Unfortunately, other poultry keepers do not have access to vets that will treat their birds.
While we wait for that to shift – as the rise in backyard bird keeping is sure to spur more pre-vet students and doctors to begin thinking about expanding into avian care it is always a good idea to be able to treat some bird issues at home.
A few weeks ago I was able to interview my chicken vet, Dr. Laurie Lofton. As a veterinarian and fellow poultry keeper, Dr. Lofton offered some great advice and information for all of us to enjoy and consider.
This is her website – Laurie Lofton DVM. Currently offering mobile, office and phone consultations (yup!), Dr. Lofton earned her degree in veterinary medicine from Tufts University (class of 1989). Trained in treating both small and large animals, she practiced conventional medicine for ten years before integrating and transitioning to homeopathy and alternative remedies to augment treatments. Dr. Lofton’s practice is rooted in a fundamentally holistic approach that stresses prevention and well-being as the most important aspects of animal health. But,¦things still can go wrong and the only option is to be prepared!
Chickens and other poultry
Dr. Lofton recently lectured at an exciting poultry lab at Tufts University that discussed aspects of chicken keeping. People are returning to the sustainable and beneficial practices of pre-industrial agriculture, but with a new knowledge base, and with backyard poultry keeping (once again!) on the rise, many in the animal health field are becoming more aware of the avian client and the needs of this special class of livestock. Here are a few great tips that Dr. Lofton has shared.
Chickens need these 4 husbandry basics to head-off potential problems:
1. Nutrition. Organic chicken feed is best if you can get it in your area (or try eFowl). Birds also need access to greens and fruits, insects and other healthy treats.
2. Sanitation and biosecurity – be careful about bringing home diseases from other farms or shows. Quarantine new birds and those that are returning from exhibition.
3. Safety from predators, disease sources and unsafe areas (lead paint, poisons and fertilizers, sharp objects etc).
4. Observant keepers. Check birds daily for body weight and condition (this is not readily noticed, as feathers hide weight loss or gain). Feel the keel bone of the bird as it should support good muscling. Crops should be full at night but empty in the morning watch for squishy, swollen or hard crops as these are signs of a problem. Learn what is normal for your flock and be alert to any changes. Watch for any facial swellings or discharge from the eyes, nose or ears. Be aware of any unusual droppings and vent feather pasting. Watch for lameness, injuries, bumps on the feet, lumps or any other skin issues, raised leg scales and other unusual situations a bird may stay indoors, sit by themselves or just act off.
Here is a list of the must-haves for the coop first-aid cabinet:
- Calendula tincture for wounds. Dilute 4-5 drops in 2-3 cups of warm water
- Gauze pads, q-tips, bandage material/vet wrap
- Bloodstop powder
- Eyebright drops
- Nail clippers, scissors (blunt tip)
- Louse powder and organic Poultry Protector (found at eFowl)
- In case of fractures, have popsicle sticks available for immobilizing broken bones. Here’s how: Clean the leg (be especially diligent if there is an open wound involved), wrap with gauze and cut the popsicle stick to fit comfortably. Secure this to the gauze covered leg with vet wrap – tight enough to allow for stability but without the wrapping being too tight. Birds mend quickly! Keep the bird confined for a few weeks until the fracture has healed.
Dr. Lofton has a few extra tips for the poultry keeper. When observing your flock, she recommends the use all of your senses and to take in the whole picture. Even little unusual issues are worth jotting down. As we all know, chickens hide illness and injury until it has become significant as prey animals this is a survival behavior. Take note of any birds that keep to themselves and are not integrating as they normally would (unless a hen is getting broody and preparing to set eggs).
Signs of illness:
1. Prominent keel, weight loss.
2. Lethargy, withdrawn, huddled stance, fluffed feathers, panting when it is not hot.
3. Off-feed, excessive drinking, dry or overly wet droppings, unusual color to droppings (watery with green feces), comb is pale or blue/flopped over (signs of illness or dehydration), closed eyes and excessive sleepiness
Note: some breeds have mulberry colored combs and dark skin, such as silkies and silkie crosses (like, “Mireille”, in the dust bath photo).
4. Trembling, favoring a limb/wing, swollen areas or bumps on feet
5. Scratching or missing feathers (check the vent feathers, and the muffs and crests of certain breeds for insect pets. Lice and mites congregate in the crest, beard and vent areas). Lice lay clusters of white/light grey eggs at the base of feather shafts. Check legs for raised scales as this is a sign of leg mites.
Chickens have a high normal body temperature (105 to 109 degrees) and can only dispel heat from under their wings (why they hold them out on hot days), legs/feet and head. Panting is the bird’s way to cool off, and this is often augmented by a cooling dust bath.
Egg layers need excellent nutrition, clean fresh water and access to oyster shells for calcium.
Include a rest period in your husbandry and do not leave lights on to push production during the winter rest season. Cleanliness is key (again)! Remove droppings and monitor ammonia levels. Ammonia is bad for everybody.
For the layers: Monitor egg production and watch for unusual laying patterns such as a sudden drop-off in production during the laying season. Check hens for reproductive conditions – birds losing too much weight or those that have a swollen abdomen. Getting veterinary help for an internal layer as early as possible is critical!
We have run out of space for this topic, but…hold your chickens!
Keep crowing with your comments and suggestions. Share your thoughts and let us know what other health articles you would like to read about in our “Advice From the Vet” series.