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What ails my flock?

Chickens are susceptible to a variety of ailments and illness, just like any other animal is. Having the advice of an avian vet can make all the difference, but not everyone can afford this, and not all farm vets treat chickens. Many times, the only place to go for information are the various forums on the internet. Unfortunately, there is a great deal of misinformation that is shared in forums. One flock owner may have had good luck treating birds with a product, while another uses that same treatment method and loses half a flock. It can be very difficult to know exactly what to treat for because symptoms for one problem may be common to several others.

Below are some of the things we encountered this summer (2015) with our own flock, and what we did about them.

RUNNY BEAK AND EYES – a common occurrence when any little thing afflicts a chicken. It isn’t always a respiratory infection like MG (mycoplasma gallisepticum), so there’s no need to jump up and cull the entire flock. Some of our young chicks developed these symptoms as a secondary infection which weakened their immune systems. (More on that later). Chickens can also have allergies that cause congestion.Because of the complexity of their respiratory system, sinusitis in a chicken moves very quickly into the eyes.

After consulting various forums, we treated with an antibiotic, and washed eyes with Veterycin ophthamlic solution. Did that work? Partly. We were able to keep the chicks’ eyes moist and clean, but they didn’t improve and we had daily losses. Why? Because they weren’t sick, and we were treating for the wrong thing. The antibiotic was useless in this case.

WEIGHT LOSS AND LACK OF GROWTH – We began to see this in a few adults as well as in our chicks. The immediate diagnosis was cocci. All the forums said to check the birds’ droppings for texture. If they had bloody diarrhea, they probably had coccidiosis (an intestinal parasite) and needed to be treated with Corid BUT FAST. This treatment also failed to work, and we lost more chicks. Our flock didn’t have coccidiosis.

FEATHER LOSS AND BREAKAGE – Molting causes feather loss, but what our flock was experiencing was different. They were losing back feathers only, and most of those were broken at the base of the shaft. The feathers were becoming brittle. Molting normally occurs in the cooler temperatures of autumn, and we were in the early weeks of a hot Texas summer. Several of the hens had begun to neglect their preening routines. The roosters generally caused their damage on the hens’ neck feathers, so it wasn’t a breeding issue. The forums didn’t really supply any answers for this problem.

WRY NECK – Usually the result of a nutritional deficiency, only one hen had signs of this. Her head was tucked fully under her body, and she would very quickly back up to move. She would eat and drink as best she could, and didn’t seem to have any other problems, except broken feathers on her back. The usual vitamin supplement did nothing to help her. She actually had moments where she behaved as normal, with her head held properly and her movements as though nothing was wrong. This was not wry neck.

Now, all of these things were hitting our flock simultaneously. The chicks are in a separate coop from the adults, so intermingling with adults was not the cause of problems spreading. All of the chicks we lost were ones we hatched during March through May, and they only began to show symptoms when they reached 4 to 6 weeks of age. We lost no adults to any of these issues. It took a few weeks to see the age pattern, and go through the gamut of forum suggestions, before I was able to finally locate a vet clinic that would happily see our birds, and help us with appropriate treatments.

I took 3 birds for the initial visit – a silkie crossbreed, age 12 weeks, a Rhode Island red chick, age 6 weeks, and an adult hen (the one with “wry neck”). The vets gave each bird a thorough examination, checking weight, height, droppings, feathers, etc.

As expected, the silkie was in perfect health. I chose her for that reason. She did, however, have some black mites on her neck. The RIR chick was one I had been treating for the sinus and eye drainage. She was small and thin, and I knew she was probably going to die within hours. She was our candidate for necropsy. She also had red mites on her vent feathers.

The adult hen turned out to be mostly healthy. What we thought at first to be wry neck turned out to be an inner ear infection! She also had bird lice. (Who would have thought there were three different skin parasites these birds could have? And we had all of them, at the same time!)

We sent the chick off to the labs, and waited 10 days for results. No sign of microbial or bacterial infection – hence the antibiotics we used were pointless. The birds were not sick. The mites had caused some minor anemia, which accounted for the general lethargy of the young flock. The eyes and sinus problems were the result of a weakened immune system caused by capillaria, or threadworms. This parasite is ingested when chickens eat an infected earthworm, which acts as host to the eggs. Chickens then spread the larvae through their droppings, which infects others if the contaminated droppings are ingested (any chicken owner knows the birds don’t care if they poop on the food bowl).

Our vets spent the next month researching and advising us on care and treatment of the flock and our coops. Everything was cleaned and sterilized – water and feed containers, nesting boxes, brood pens, etc. All nesting boxes were heavily dusted with a combination of Sevin dust and sulfur powder (Sevin dust doesn’t affect red mites but sulfur does). This dusting was done while the birds were in the pasture and runs so they would not inhale it while it settled. The vets agreed with our decision to NOT use Diatomatious Earth, as popular as it is with many flock owners. This product has a documented history of damaging the trachea and lungs of birds when inhaled. We will continue dusting on a weekly basis for a total of 8 weeks, to be sure the egg cycles of these parasites has been broken. This is more intense than the standard “once every 2 weeks, for 3 treatments”, but we want to be absolutely sure we’ve gotten rid of these pests. It may take several more weeks before all the broken feathers are regrown.

We continued using the eye solution on birds with eye drainage. Although we will have three that suffered blindness in the affected eye, they are almost fully recovered from this problem.

The ear infection was treated with Zymox Otic (hydrocortisone free), and the hen has been acting normally. It is not known how long steroids such as hydrocortisone linger in chickens, or if they ever total rid themselves of it, so no product containing a steroid should be used with your birds.

Worming was the biggest question. Since commercial ventures confine their chickens on concrete foundations, and these birds don’t forage, they have no need to be concerned about parasites that are picked up this way. That means no money is spent to research the dosage, effectiveness, and wait times for a product’s use in chickens. There is no wormer specifically manufactured or approved for use in chickens, and therefore no information on how existing products affect eggs or meat. After consulting with FARAD (Food Animal Drug Residue Avoidance & Databank), the vets determined that we should treat our entire flock with Fenbendazole 10 % (the main ingredient in Safeguard wormer for Goats) in a highly diluted format, followed by a 17-day withdrawal period before eggs and meat could be considered “safe for human consumption”. Since administering this treatment, we have had no new instances of occurrence, and our flock has been able to recover lost weight. NOTE: I am choosing not to disclose the dosage used, as it was specific to our flock and the condition of our birds at the time. When the time to worm again rolls around, we will consult the vet clinic for updated recommendations.

So what’s next? In order to provide our customers with eggs from healthy hens, we will continue to work with our vets and follow their advice. It was costly in more ways than one to go through this process, but well worth the expense to learn so much on so many subjects. We also have our flock tested yearly in accordance with the Texas Pullorum-Typhoid program. Maintaining the health of the flock is primary.

Our thanks go to Dr. Kim Downes and Dr. Jennifer Hurley of the Animal Hospital of Heath (a satellite office of the Animal Hospital of Rowlett, Texas). They were more than willing to work to help us keep our girls producing as natural a product as possible, while looking out for their health needs. If you are in need of an avian vet, but can’t find one in your area, Association of Avian Veterinarians has a search tool that can help. Results are displayed at the very bottom of the page.

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