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

It’s important to know what a sick chook looks like, so you can try to help your feathered friends feel better ASAP. 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?

Chickens scratching around in dirt scavenging for food

A healthy chicken is a busy little bee. 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 in the roost - or worse - hiding in a dark 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
  • They have a dirty vent (under the tail)
  • Their eyes are watery, or you notice discharge
  • Coughing or sneezing
  • 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

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 any chicken breed’s stress and help stop the illness from spreading (if contagious). You should always have a separate cage, crate, or chook pen on hand for sick chickens. A cage or crate 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 are sufficient.

Common Chicken Illnesses

the chicken health handbook by Gail Damerow

The best investment you will make for any breeds of chicken’s health is to buy a copy of The Chicken Health Handbook by Gail Damerow. It lists the symptoms and treatment for each infection. Also, see page 39 of my ebook, Simple Steps To Successful Backyard Chickens for things that cause stress for chickens.

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.

Contagious illnesses

Respiratory illnesses are very complex, as multiple diseases can often present simultaneously, and so the birds will have a range of symptoms. This is a significant point that many keepers overlook. Unfortunately, they are also highly contagious between chickens. 

Common respiratory diseases include:

Other illnesses you may encounter, particularly in younger birds:

Non-Contagious Illnesses

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 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. Keep layering your compost bin, and leave for 6-12 months. 

While it’s not ideal and may not be your preference, in urban areas of Australia, 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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