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Where to put a sick or injured chicken...

We have been keeping back yard chickens for about twelve years now and sooner or later you get a sick chook that needs to be separated from the others for its own safety (Chickens will attack and kill a weak, sick or injured chicken sometimes) and in case what it has caught is contagious and so the other don't all catch it.

I spend a lot of time watching my chooks (we don't have a TV remember!) and as a result I pick up on things that don't seem quite right quite quickly. If I see a chook limping, sitting a lot, staying away from the others, not joining in when you throw treats on the back yard or just not seeming right AND I can catch her pretty easily, then there is definitely something wrong.

This post is not so much about why the chook is sick but how I "hospitalise" them when they are.

Here's what I do...

I spend a bit of time watching the chook in question so I can see what she can and cant do before I catch her. Can she walk? Is she eating? Why did she get my attention?
Sometimes I take a video on my phone or camera. This saves me having to "make her" do the thing that is obviously hurting her again and again to show the vet (and other people) what the problem is.

I only attempt to catch her when I'm sure I've seen all her behaviours. Obviously if the chook has been mauled by a dog or is stuck in a fence etc I wont spend half an hour watching this but if I think I'm seeing a cough, a limp, a sitting chook or a wobble of some sort, I want to be able to answer all the vets questions with confidence and actual knowledge.

Chickens are social creatures and if I cant "treat" her ailment in the pen I do. If not I separate her out into our "Hospital Cage,"

 If I think they are hurt rather than contagious I leave this cage in the pen so they can still see the other chickens and are still part of the flock. If they just need some medicine, pain killer or to stop walking this works well as its big enough for them to walk a few steps and stretch but not to go anywhere. Its waist height so I don't kill my back trying to catch or feed her with a cage on the ground. Its wired so nothing can get in and she cant get out and the door opens sideways to make access nice and easy. It was a home built aviary of some sort that we got from the "dump shop".

I put roosting perch in there for those that can and want to use it. Its a branch that's been screwed onto a  piece of dowel and then screwed onto a thick base that can hold 3kg of chook with out toppling over. The base is mostly hidden in the shredding.

I also put a jar in the corner for the chook to drink out of - its harder for them to tip it out or stand on- and if I need to I can tie it to the corner with a cable tie or piece of string. I can sterilise a jar if I need to and I can measure small amounts to medicate her if required too. I have found that all of my chooks would rather die than willingly drink medicated water, so generally I will "force" the medication down their throat via a syringe while holding a their head in the other hand. Once they get used to this, its easy, but until then, it can be a challenge. If they fight you a lot and its too hard, wrap the whole chook up in a towel so they cant flap, kick or scratch. Get some one else to hold them firmly around the belly and chest and then attempt to hold the head in one hand, use your thumb and middle finger to prise open the beak with the hand holding the head and aim the syringe straight down the gullet with the other. They really aren't keen on this but if you make it quick and they get a treat afterwards, they seem to accept it a bit more. Remember a chook that lets you handle it easily if a very sick chook indeed... A fighting chook is a good thing!

I put shade cloth on the side if I think its too sunny for them and offer things like grass or greens on the side for them to peck at if they are in the mood. The greens need to be pegged or attached quite firmly so they can "bite" off a piece small enough to swallow. A chook that's not eating her greens is probably very sick...

This is Cloud, a white hybrid layer. She had egg perontinitis. That's where the egg is "laid" inside the chook and goes rotten. It then blows up and then when all the infection and swelling goes down her insides were so mangled and scarred that her dinner wasn't able to go through the system properly. She was slowly being poisoned to death with rotten food stuck inside her. She had a big hot tummy (the infection) that finally came down and then she got more and more listless and spent a lot of time just sitting with me. She liked the company and needed to be kept away from the others as they just attacked her. We ended up getting the vet to euthanise her as egg perontinistis is usually incredibly uncomfortable and fatal due to the damage done to the internal organs. Cloud was carried around everywhere with me when I was at home once she got to the point of not wanting to forage on her own. You know you have a sick chook when instead of chasing them out of the house, they will sit quietly with you when you are sewing or reading - inside or outside.

This is Splash, a white or light Brahma. She had paralysed legs and what I now think might have been (Maraks?) growths or cancers on the leg nerves. She was limping one day and falling over the next. She couldn't run and was too easy to catch. She went through a month or two of losing all the use in her legs no matter what we did. The bird vet we use (Adrian at Brisbane Bird Vet ) thought it might be neurological and he had some student vets with him who spent hours testing her and testing her for everything they could think of with no conclusions. We kept her in these tomato boxes as they slotted together and made a great wee spot for her to hide in while her legs went through this weird paralysis. Just as we were thinking this is no life for her and wondered about euthanasia, she started getting better. Slowly but surely gaining strength and finally walking and running again. She was eating properly and still pooping while she was paralysed so we kept feeding her, massaging and moving her legs and bathing her when the poop built up on her too much. She ended up back in the pen and was great for another 6 months or so before she went down again with the same symptoms but died in a fortnight this time.

The box worked well as chooks like secluded dark places to wait out their illness. Most vege shops will have them and be happy to give you a couple. I put shredding in the bottom for softness and then put a layer of newspaper and then a towel for Splash to sit on.  I also used old face washers as "nappies" so I didn't have to wash to towels all the time. A sick chook still produces a lot of poop and it all has to be cleaned up at some point. The smell will make sure you do!

At one point we had two sick chookies. Thunder was bit off colour for a few days. She had a pale comb and was too easy to catch. We thought she may have been coming down with whatever Splash had but after a couple of days of sitting in the box with treats and antibiotics she decided she was all good and jumped out the box, pooped on the bedroom floor and found her way outside.

Any chook that stays where you put it really isn't well! I use old towels over the top to help them feel secure and to cover them at night to keep them warm. A sick chook might not be able to generate enough body heat to stay warm at night, especially in winter. Sometimes I pop a hot water bottle in the box as well for them. In Summer I might give them a rotating fan to help keep them cool.

I like to keep an eye on my sick chookies. I tend to keep them in the bedroom with me at night and in the lounge or dining room during the day. Its up to the individual. As long as you are keeping the chicken clean, its not much different from having the cat or dog (or rat or guinea  pig or budgie) inside as many families do. Our laundry or garage was no good for this sort of thing.

One of our chookies got this weird epilepsy thing where she would literally have some kind of flapping fit that lasted 30 seconds or so. She would sit quietly in her box listlessly all day and then out of the blue four or five times a night, she would freak out and flap and squawk in a most disconcerting fashion. I was more frighted of the damage she could do to her wings while she was fitting and in the end she slept in the bed with me (us!) where I had her wrapped in a towel and when she had a fit I could hold her close until she stopped and then we could all go back to sleep. She seemed to like the company and in the morning would sit on us contentedly preening and watching us while we got around to getting up... Its was kinda nice and very Disney like, until she pooped! This lasted a week or so and then she stopped fitting, got well and went back into the pen - we think maybe it was a heavy metal poisoning, but we really don't have a clue.

Something new I am trying with a lot of success is dried leaves instead of towels or newspaper in the bottom of the box. It has the advantage of being free and very available, being Autumn/Winter at the moment. We got a trailer load of fallen leaves from a friend and popped it the chook pen for them to rummage through. When Misty sprained her leg and needed some time out I used the tomato box filled with leaves at night and bought her inside (although I think this one is a mango box from Christmas time). I am wondering if died grass or dried lawn clippings would work as well - leaves are mainly a seasonal thing... This is Soleil in the picture, a French Wheaten Marans. She is a poddy chook. She was hand raised, then cossetted by the husband who wanted a tame chook. Now she has no fear of anything, thinks she is human and believes she can go anywhere and do anything. She walks through the house at will and jumps in the car... Hilarious and very entertaining unless you are the one cleaning up the chook poop all over the house and in the car. If she didn't lay such magnificent brown eggs she might not be quite so tolerated...

I find that the poop is dryer and easier to handle when I use leaves in the box. I can wrap/scoop it up in the leaves and just chuck it in the garden/compost, fluff up the leaves and pop the box in the sun to dry out and/or kill any bugs that may be in there.  During the day Misty is the hospital cage by the front door so I can see her a lot and check on her. We have also filled that cage with leaves and find the smell is much less and its so much easier to clean as well.

We have used paper shredding, towels, newspaper and everything in between to line the chooks night hospital boxes over the years. I find the leaves have been the most successful in keeping the chook smell down. They really lengthen the time the box can be used and don't need to be washed like the towels do. I have had Misty in the lounge overnight in her box and didn't smell her presence in the morning as you usually can. Somehow the leaves absorb most of the smell. I top up the leaves when I need a few more to make a comfortable nest for her to sit in and because I know its a sore leg, I fill it as much as I can to be nice and soft for her.

I use the smaller boxes at night as they don't move around too much and the bigger boxes during the day for the ones who aren't wanting to be in the sun during the day but need a bit of room to stretch and move around a little. The boxes "lock" together to make a bottom and two sides. Another one can be used to make a "back", although you may need to figure out a way to make it stay there with a bit of packing tape or just the weight of a towel. A towel suffices for a roof and a front cover for the ones who really want to hide from the world. I find that the chooks tend to sit and stay in them if they feel safe enough and the towel over the top helps them to "hide them from predators".

If the chook is escaping from this set up, see where they are going. Is it darker? More secure? Smaller? Then you need to make their hospital box like that. Are they in the kitchen knocking over the compost bucket? Then they can go back outside with the others or need to be in an isolation cage on the grass somewhere. I take my cue from the chooks actions and try to set them up in a place that they feel safe and comfortable. I always have fresh water available for them and something to peck at. I try to give them a bit of sunshine if they are up to it each day and have grain and greens on offer. I also offer the baby bird feeder mix from the produce shop as it has lots of calories in it if they aren't eating much.

I get them to the vet as soon as I can. Chooks are very good at hiding their weakness and usually by the time you work out that something is wrong, make an appointment and get there, its often too late. Birds have fast metabolisms and when they finally let you see that they are sick, they are pretty far gone.

Its not much fun having a sick chook but I find that a few days of a dark place, lots of good food and peace and quiet along with an antibiotic/medication can work wonders after they've seen the vet.

How do you house your chooks when they aren't well? Let us know in the comments - we'd love to hear you sick chook tales!

Score card:
Green-ness: 5/5 for using a naturally available leaf base for the boxes 
Frugal-ness: 5/5 for getting a free tomato box and not having to pay for a sick chook bed!
Time cost: 10 minutes to set up if you have it all ready - just in case...
Skill level: Basic observation, love and attention!
Fun-ness: No fun at all having a sick chook I'm afraid...


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