How to Examine a Chicken

May 19, 2016

Last month, I noticed that Oyster Cracker was not herself.   She seemed to be under the weather and not herself. She was almost 6 years old and has had bad days since Sunshine passed almost 6 months ago. The first clue that something was wrong was that she did not roost with the others in her usual spot. She tried to sleep in the nesting box.  The next night she ended up on the lower roost where no one sleeps.  She was just off. By the next morning, I decided that I needed to do some detective work. So, I set out to figure out just what was wrong. As a chicken keeper, there are lots of things that you can do to help determine what might be wrong with your chicken.  I also realized that writing a post on how to examine a chicken might be useful for others.

Original_Caughey-MelissaCaughey-lucy in coop with cuddles

Each and everyday it is a good idea to eyeball everyone in the flock. This should become habit.

Check to see if everyone is accounted for, make sure no one is missing to greet you in the morning.  If so, are they in the nesting box laying eggs?

Next, are they moving around, curious what you have brought out to them and exploring?

Are they eating, drinking and pooping normally?

Essentially, are they acting like chickens?

When you do notice that someone does not seem to be themselves it is always best to catch them and do a hands on examination to help give you clues as to what is wrong. Sometimes the answer will be obvious and sometimes not so clear. It’s important to know this skill so that you can communicate effectively with online helpers as well as your local veterinarian. Here is how I examine a chicken:

I start at the head. I look to see if the eyes are clear. Is there any drainage or masses? Do they seem to be working and focusing? How does the comb look? Does it have a bluish tint? Any spots or changes?

Then I look at the nostrils and beak. Is there any runny nose or discharge? Do I hear any wheezing or notice any drooling from the beak? Any sneezing or coughing? How does the breath smell?

Next I slide my hands down to the crop. The crop sits just over the breast bone.  This is the first stop for food after a chicken eats. Think of it like a sorting bag. How does it feel? Is it full? Enlarged? Squishy? Flat? Hard? Hot? Swollen? Does their breath smell badly?

Next I move onto the wings and slide my hands along the body to feel for any lumps or masses. I even feel under the wings. I look also for any wounds, cuts or scrapes on the entire body as I go.

I check the vent. Does it look normal? Is there discharge? Is it bleeding or can you see internal tissue hanging out?

I check their bodies for mite, lice or other blood sucking predators.

I feel the abdomen. Does it feel like it has fluid in it? Is it hard? When was the last egg laid? Could there be an egg stuck?

Lastly, I check the feet and legs for bumblefoot, cuts, scrapes or swelling.

It is important to know that any unhealthy appearing chicken should be isolated from the rest of the flock until you have a proper diagnosis. This helps to prevent other members of the flock becoming sick as well as bullying of the under the weather chicken. Once a proper diagnosis is determined, it may be possible to add the chicken back to the flock if they are not contagious.

All chickens with wounds should be separated out to prevent picking and cannibalism within the flock.

Snuggle time after morning antibiotics.

When I examined Oyster Cracker, I noticed that her crop was squishy and her breath smelled bad. It was as combination for foul smelling and fruity. I came to the determination that she had a crop issue. Yet, something still seemed off with her abdomen. Was it an egg issue? Infection or worse–some sort of elderly hen complication such as a tumor or cancer? I immediately called the avian vet in my area and had her seen in the morning. My vet agreed with me to try and treat the crop issue with 2 medications and lots of love and care.

Unfortunately, Oyster Cracker, despite the best of care, did not make it. At a follow-up appointment, it was determined that she most likely had a tumor causing a blockage in her digestive system. There was nothing more that I could do for her than send her to the rainbow bridge. I held her in my arms and loved on her the best way I could. I sang to her and stroked her feathers and sent her to fly away to her sister in heaven. You can read more about Oyster Cracker’s passing here.

Photos: Tilly’s Nest


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8 thoughts on “How to Examine a Chicken”

  1. I just had to say goodbye to our Peanut this morning. It was so sad. we were not sure what was wrong and had tried many different resources to find out what could be up, but did not know. She was such a good chicken and will be greatly missed by her sisters, especially Opal another Americana in the flock. It however was sweet that I got to hold her for her last moments on this earth.

  2. I am desperate. How do you know when a chicken is in the process of dying? I presently have an older gal who suddenly stopped moving around and stays clear of the flock (who don’t bother her). She was primarily standing and staying inside the coop for a week or so and keeping to herself (save her best friend who hovers around her). Mostly now, she sits alone too wobbly to stand. If she is moved or placed in a standing position she falls over using her wings to try and balance. Eyes and nostrils are clear, no visible signs of illness or injuries. I tried checking her over as you recommended but am distressed to see her slowly going down hill.
    I have had chickens for decades and have never understood their death process.
    If she is in fact ‘going’, is there anything one can give them to make them comfortable, control any pain (?) Also, a gruesome question, but is there a way to quickly “euthanize” them if they appear to be in lots of pain or discomfort? ANY thoughts would be greatly appreciated. Nearest avian vet is 4 hours away.
    One of the sadder parts of having chickens.

    • I am so sorry to hear this. It does sound like this might be close to the end for her. The best thing you can do is just support her. She may not feel like eating, but you can try giving her some soft bread or a scrambled egg. You might add a crate with straw or hay on the floor so she doesn’t have to roost. I don’t have any quick method of euthanizing them other than visiting a vet. A non-avian vet may assist you to euthanize her. You could inquire with closer vets. It is difficult but it sounds like she is just slowly shutting down. It should not be painful. She will most likely simply go to sleep. It is never easy. I’m thinking of you all.

  3. After losing Buffy a couple weeks ago, her best friend, a younger hen (almost three years) named Tansy started to fail. We were also having a prolonged cold snap with temperatures around 4 degrees at night. Buffy and Tansy had always slept together. After Buffy passed , Tansy stopped being interested in treats. So I made her scrambled eggs. When I fed her, she tossed a few pieces of scrambled eggs to the others. Then eventually scrambled eggs lost their appeal. So I tried mealworms which I rarely give them. Tansy scarfed mealworms for about three days. Then mealworms lost their appeal and she stopped eating. This was about a week after Buffy passed. I brought her inside for hospital care. All she would do was stand in her crate with eyes closed. Not eating or drinking water, and brown fluid emitting from her beak. Of course, like children or pets, this reached crisis stage over the weekend. I called every vet in our area but no one would see chickens. I finally placed an emergency call to a clinic I had taken my hens to before and a vet called me back saying she would see Tansy. This was a new vet, just out of veterinary school. Physical exam showed nothing: no abnormality in abdomen or crop or anything. X-ray showed nothing, no egg binding Or peritonitis. Blood test revealed high liver enzymes. So she recommended fluids and supportive care at the hospital. I left her there for two days, with the vet calling each day to update me on her progress. With supportive care, they got her to eat and drink on her own again. And prescribed a protective supplement for her liver. When I got her home she had a large diarrhea, clear liquid plus white urates. And discharged brown fluid from her beak( which she had been doing before I took her in). It has been four days now and I can’t get her to eat anything although she has been drinking. To me her crop feels squishy but massaging it does not help. I have decided that if she does not turn the corner in two days I will have to euthanize her at the vet. My heart is broken and this comes so soon after losing Buffy . It is harder with no firm diagnosis. Could her heart be broken from losing her best friend? I reread your posts about Sunshine and Oyster Cracker. Tansy and Buffy were buff orpingtons too.

    • Hello, Oh I am so sorry that Tansy is having a tough time after losing Buffy. When we grieve our immune systems weaken. It sounds to me like she is reacting to Buffy’s loss as you suspect. Perhaps some probiotics/vitamins and electrolytes might help and some apple cider vinegar to help acidify the contents of her crop. Please keep me posted on things. You can also try some nystatin oral suspension that the vet might be willing to prescribe for a possible sour crop.


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Sharing an inspired life from the New England seaside. Chickens, Bees, Gardens, Art and Yummy Goodness.