A guide to chicken diseases and what to do with sick chickens

Updated: 13 March 2023

It’s important to know what a sick chook looks like, so you can try to help your feathered friends feel better ASAP. Hours can matter when it comes to sick poultry. There are sure signs that will tell you if your lovely ladies are feeling under the weather. So let’s look at what’s normal and what’s not.

What does a healthy backyard chicken look like?

Healthy Australian Bantam Langshan pullets and rooster looking bright and alert

A healthy chicken is alert and busy. She knows what the other chickens in the backyard are doing. She’s pecking at the ground, scratching the dirt, and fighting for that tasty morsel. 

When you first open your backyard chickens’ coop, your ladies should eagerly exit, all guns blazing to start a new day. Expect to see happy chooks ready to get stuck into the chicken feeder

Any chickens left behind on the roost or looking quiet in a corner require your immediate attention.

What are the signs of an unhealthy backyard chicken?

  • Sleepiness. Chooks do not sleep during the day - they should be alert and active
  • May have a 'hunched up' appearance, standing but looking uncomfortable
  • They have a dirty vent (under the tail)
  • Their eyes are watery, or you notice discharge
  • Discharge or crusting around the beak or mouth
  • Foul smelling breath
  • Coughing or sneezing
  • Loss of appetite
  • Loss of weight, breast bone feels sharp and protruded
  • Smelly, nasty droppings (a strong ammonia or sickly sweet smell)
  • Sitting apart from the other chooks or being picked on
  • Sitting all day on the nest (but not broody) or has an egg protruding
  • Losing feathers (but not the normal moult)
  • Stumbling
  • Limping
  • Scratching or pulling at feathers
  • Constantly shaking their head to one side

In the below picture, you can see that the hen has a slightly hunched and uncomfortable looking stance. Other signs she was unwell included that she was standing on her own in the corner and was not interested in food. Contrastingly, she's usually the bossiest in the flock, pecking at boots and pushing the other hens out of the way for treats.

What does an unwell ISA Brown hen look like?

Image description: Surrounded by autumn moulting feathers, this Hy-Line Brown hen is showing signs she is unwell. She's uncharacteristically standing on her own, has a slightly 'hunched-up' stance and is refusing food.


What to do with sick backyard chickens

If you have the slightest suspicion you have a sick chook, isolate her immediately - don’t wait! 

This will reduce your chicken's stress and help stop the illness from spreading (if contagious).

What should you use to isolate a sick chicken? You should always have a separate cage, crate, pet carrier or chook pen on hand for sick chickens. A cage, crate or carrier with enough room for her to move around is ideal. Otherwise, a cardboard box (that you can then dispose of) and some netting or mesh over the top will be sufficient.

Common chicken illnesses

the chicken health handbook by Gail Damerow

The best investment you will make in your backyard chicken’s health (and your peace of mind when you suspect you have a sick chicken!) is to buy a copy of The Chicken Health Handbook by Gail Damerow. There's now even an Audible version! It lists the typical symptoms and treatment for common chicken diseases and conditions.

Stress and wet or dirty housing are the number one causes of illness for all types of chickens. However, rodents, flies, mosquitoes, and sparrows also carry disease; hence prevention is always better than cure.

But what's stressful to a chicken? See page 39 of my ebook, Simple Steps To Successful Backyard Chickens for things that cause stress for chickens.


Contagious illnesses

Respiratory illnesses are very complex. They may be bacterial infections, viruses or mycoplasma infections. To add complexity, multiple pathogens can often be present at the same time, with a range of symptoms. This is a significant point that many keepers overlook. Unfortunately, chicken respiratory diseases are also often highly contagious between chickens. 

Common respiratory diseases include:

Should I take my chicken to the vet? When it comes to respiratory diseases, don't waste time on low-grade antibiotics from the feed store. Go to the vet, and veterinary-quality antibiotics specific to the infection. Yes, viruses won't respond to antibiotics and getting a correct vet diagnosis can be a challenge... but don't ignore respiratory symptoms. They rarely go away on their own.  Elise McNamara, Chicken Coach

Other illnesses you may encounter, particularly in younger birds:

Non-contagious illnesses and conditions

What to do with dead backyard chickens?

Dead chooks can be buried or cremated in a garden burner, but they also make excellent compost, provided your chicken didn't die of an infectious disease and you are using a bin that is not open to vermin such as rats. 

Place the dead chook in your compost bin, add a few shovels of wood mulch to cover it, and water thoroughly. It shouldn't smell. Keep layering your compost bin, and leave it for 6-12 months. 

If you live in an urban area, ask your local veterinary clinic if they provide a disposal service. If not, while it’s not ideal and may not be your preference, you could also wrap the dead bird in cloth or newspaper, place it in a plastic bag, and put it in the garbage. It’s the last resort, but it could be your only practical option!

One of the best ways to prevent your backyard chickens in Australia from falling ill is to help them maintain healthy gut bacteria. That’s where probiotics come in. Resistance Assistance Poultry Probiotic is used and recommended by Australian Avian Veterinarians. It’s 100% Australian, natural, and safe for all ages of poultry. 


Want your chickens to be the healthiest and happiest they can be? I offer backyard chicken workshopsonline programsphone coaching, and in-person support to families, schools, and free-range egg farmers. Visit my online shop for natural, tried-and-tested poultry supplies in Australia.

Grab my free guide, The First 8 Steps To Naturally Healthy & Happy Backyard Chickens now! 

Elise McNamara, Chicken Consultant & Educator.

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