It is important to learn how to inspect a chicken properly to assess it for good health.
Not only is this important when buying chickens that you are purchasing good, healthy stock but good husbandry involves checking your birds regularly for the first signs of problems so that they can be nipped in the bud.
Experienced poultry keepers develop a sixth sense for problems and a quick glance at the way their birds are behaving can tell them a lot but nothing beats a good inspection and examining every bird in the flock individually is the best way to keep on top of numerous problems. The following diagram gives a few pointers of what to look out for:
There are several types of biting lice that affect chickens and other poultry. These are known as ectoparasites or external parasites as they live on the outside of the bird.
Lice are between 1 to 4mm long depending on the type of louse. They can be found crawling on the bird at the base of the feathers but are fast moving so soon move out of the light when feathers are parted. They spread from bird to bird by direct contact and clumps of eggs are usually found at the base of the feathers below the vent.
Off the bird lice can survive for a few days so although less likely, can also spread from bird to bird via the hen house or litter. Most chickens will have a few lice on them from time to time and won't be particularly bothered by them but it's important not to let the numbers get out of control or they will be causing severe irritation and feather loss as they over groom, trying to rid themselves of them.
Lameness and leg problems can occur from time to time in poultry and there are a variety of reasons that these can occur.
Start off by catching the bird as quickly and calmly as possible. A catching net can really help in large areas but the corner of a run can be used to catch a bird quickly, especially if there are two people to do this.
Examine the legs, and feet to establish whether there has been any sort of injury due to an accident that has caused damage to a birds legs. Look for cuts and / or bleeding. Open wounds need similar treatment to cuts we might sustain. Bleeding needs to be stopped by applying sterile bandage or dressing and larger cuts may need antibiotics prescribed by your vet to combat bacterial infection (see Cuts and Wounds for further advice) although the legs have restricted blood flow so don't usually bleed severely.
Northern Fowl Mites are similar in size to Red Mite (about 1mm long) and are almost the same colour but slightly darker, almost brown.
Red Mite live in the cracks in the house and come out at night to feed from the bird but Northern Fowl Mites live on the birds permanently and can therefore be found on the birds during the day. When inspecting birds, examine the vent and head area as well as the ear canals. Check the crests on crested breeds like Polands. Often found in 'clumps'.
Scaly Leg Mite is caused by a burrowing mite (Knemidocoptes mutans) which causes scaly, raised encrusted scales on the legs of chickens and other poultry.
Scaly leg can cause intense irritation to the bird by burrowing under the scales, causing them to become raised and thicken. They are fairly common in chickens. The scales often look like they are protruding outwards and parts of the scales will come off, making the legs look unsightly. Scales should never be picked or cut off as this will damage the legs. Birds need to be treated to kill the mites and then scales left to come away naturally through a moult. It can take up to 12 months before the scales have moulted and regrown to look normal again.
The depluming mite (known in Latin as Knemidocoptes gallinae) is one of the less well known poultry parasites. This mite is related to the scaly leg mite (Knemidocoptes mutans) though each mite prefers to inhabit a different region of the body with the depluming mite preferring feathered areas whilst the scaly leg mite prefers to burrow into the featherless skin on the legs.
The depluming mite can infect most backyard fowl including geese. The mite burrows into the feather shafts and the skin surrounding the feathers. This burrowing causes damage to the skin and feathers, causing fluid to ooze out. It is this fluid on which the mites feed. As the mites burrow into the feathers, the pain can be sufficient enough to cause the bird to pull out its own feathers hence the name 'the depluming mite'.
Small scratches and abrasions usually heal naturally. Severe open wounds require clinical care and you should always seek the help of a veterinarian and should not be tackled at home.
Some smaller open wounds can be taken care of immediately without putting the bird through the unneccessary stress of going to the vets. The information on stitching is provided since we have heard from smallholders and very experienced poultry keepers who have stitched wounds themselves but again, this is really for a vet to take care of and decide on whether it would be better to leave the wound open to heal (see open wound healing process below). A bird will stand a much better chance if a vet treats the wound and administers antibiotics if necessary.
Fowl pox is a very painful condition and one that is hard to get rid of from a holding although the disease itself is not necessarily life threatening.
Fowl pox is caused by a pox virus and mostly affects chickens. There is a pigeon pox virus and a turkey pox virus.
There are three possible ways in which the virus can be spread:
Feathers get damaged and look a little tatty over the course of a year, so it is perfectly normal for birds to replace them from time to time and look rather scruffy when they do!
Chickens shed their feathers in late summer / early autumn but they will sometimes go through a partial moult at other times of the year too, especially if they have been stressed. You will see lots of feathers around their run when they are in moult and the birds will look scruffy. Some chickens can look almost oven ready! Growers will shed their feathers twice during the first 6 months of their life although this is a much more gradual process and visually, youngsters still carry lots of feathers.
Frostbite or a frozen comb usually affects the male of breeds with larger combs, the Leghorn being a classic example. It causes the tips of the comb to turn black and in time, drop off.
Fertility during the next season can be affected although in mild cases doesn't seem to be a problem. Hens will usually sleep with their head tucked under a wing when it's cold and their combs are of course far smaller with fewer extremities to keep warm.