Ongoing Poultry Health: Caring for Your Sick Chick

Raising chickens can be a lot fun but caring for chickens comes responsibility. At some point in your homesteading adventure, you’ll have to deal with a sick chicken. Chickens are vulnerable to a wide range of diseases and disorders. Knowing how to identify a disease early can help manage the symptoms and prevent an outbreak in your flock.

two chickens with a chick grooming

Vaccinations for Prevention & Management

chickens eating greens scattered on ground

Vaccinations are a crucial part of poultry health management. Many hatcheries will vaccinate their chicks or vaccinate upon request. Some diseases are most effectively prevented through vaccination during the first few weeks and months of your chicken’s life. Vaccinations work by triggering your bird’s immune system to produce antibodies that can fight infections.

Vaccination Types

Live – The live organism that causes the disease is introduced into the body. It can induce the disease and infect unvaccinated chickens in the same coop.

Attenuated – A specially manufactured and weakened organism triggers the immune system and can cause a mild form of the disease.

Killed – The dead organism triggers the immune system but won’t cause the disease.

Proper vaccination potency, storage, and handling is crucial to the effectiveness of your vaccination program. Always use the vaccine’s recommended application techniques. Vaccines are available in liquid, freeze-dried, or dust form.

Vaccination Timeline

Marek’s Disease – This vaccine is usually given on day one at the hatchery. Marek’s disease affects the nerves and organs and can result in paralysis and tumors.

Newcastle Disease – Three vaccines are administered at 2 weeks, 6 weeks, and 16 weeks. Newcastle Disease is known to pass through droppings and secretions.

Fowl Pox – This vaccine is given at 12 weeks. Fowl Pox can lead to blisters across the skin, comb, and wattles.

Over time, vaccines lose their effectiveness. Because of this, it’s important to give your birds their vaccines every year. Despite the best vaccination practices, vaccination is not a replacement for good biosecurity and sanitation practices. If possible, work with your local veterinarian to develop a proper vaccination program for your flock.

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Mites, Lice, & Dusting

group of Rhode Island Red chickens

Are your chickens scratching like there’s no tomorrow? Are their feathers overly ruffled? If so, your flock might have a mite and lice problem. Early treatment can prevent the spread across your flock. Mites feast on your birds’ blood, while lice’s snack on their skin scales. If left untreated, these minor irritants can significantly affect your birds’ health.

The best way to prevent lice and mites is to keep your birds safe and secure in their coop and run. Mites and lice can travel by rodents or other birdlife. Maintaining proper biosecurity with netting over the run can keep your birds itch-free. In addition, put their feed in a secure area away from access to wildlife.


Lice can be found around the vent or base of the feathers. Mites look like small grey dots near the vent area. Birds infected with these parasites can seem listless and have a pale comb. Behavioral changes such as loss of appetite, reduced egg production, weight loss, and other physical abnormalities such as scabs and bald spots can signal a mite or lice infestation.

Mite and Lice Treatment

Having a dust bath area for your chickens in your run can be a natural way to prevent a lot of these parasitic infections. Adding wood ash or food-grade diatomaceous earth in the dust area can help. If you’ve detected mites and lice on your birds, you should immediately give them a dusting with diatomaceous earth or poultry dust under its feathers and around affected areas while wearing a dust mask.

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Black Copper Maran chickens

Chickens can become infected with worms as a result of foraging and picking up droppings from an infected bird or by eating the worms, slugs, and snails that were previously infected.

Parasites can live inside your birds’ intestinal tract. The most common types of worms include roundworms, cecal worms, and tapeworms.

Signs that your chickens might be infected are:

  • Weight fluctuations
  • Abnormal feeding habits
  • Pale yolks
  • Diarrhea
  • Anemia
  • Gasping for breath

Worm egg count kits are available for sample collection and analysis.


Worms can be treated with several chicken wormers or natural remedies. Specialty formulated chicken wormers can be added to your birds’ water about every three months. Diatomaceous earth and garlic in chicken feed or apple cider vinegar in water can help, but they’re not as effective as chicken wormers.

What’s Molting?

There comes a time in every chicken’s life (usually around 18 months of age) where they undergo a molting process. If you notice your chickens losing feathers like crazy, don’t worry. That’s their natural process to shed and regrow new feathers. Molting usually happens in the fall while they take a mini vacation from laying eggs. Molting can take between 8 to 16 weeks.

Is your chicken going through the molting process? During this time, you can switch to Purina Flock Raiser or Purina Organic Starter-Grower feed. A complete high-protein feed can give your birds the energy required to regrow their feathers and start laying eggs again. Since your chicken’s feathers are mainly protein, a 16 percent protein feed is recommended.

Molting can take a physical toll on your chickens. That’s why the best way to help your birds through the process is to minimize their stress as much as possible. Also, since their feathers are gone, they can be more sensitive to touch. If possible, avoid handling your chickens during molt. Other than the molting, they should be going about their day as usually. If not, something else maybe wrong (Consult your local veterinarian for treatment options).

Caring for Retired Hens

Older looking hens

Chickens can live between 6 and 10 years or more. Over time, their egg-laying abilities wind down. Chickens can produce eggs up to seven years and lay them sporadically after that or completely stop. What happens when your birds have flown past the most productive years of their lives?

Retired chickens can provide a range of benefits for their owners. For one, who wouldn’t want a chicken as a friend? These personable birds can provide companionship and laughs. When it’s time for your bird to retire, you can switch to Purina Flock Raiser or Organic Starter-Grower feed. Even though they’re past their prime, they still need good nutrition. Continue feeding your birds 90% feed and 10% treats.

Birds can become weaker over time, requiring unique feeding and cleaning considerations. It’s a normal part of their lives. Whether you rehome them or keep them as a part of your family, using proper health management practices can keep them healthy and happy up until they walk off into the sunset.