Every farmer and backyard chicken keeper wants their birds to live happy, healthy lives- but sometimes chickens get sick or are injured and it can be challenging finding veterinary care. Chickens often do not show signs of illness until they are close to death, so preventative measures like making sure your flock always has clean water and food, fresh bedding, good ventilation, and safety from predators and parasites are all very important factors to keeping a healthy flock.
But what happens if a neighborhood dog grabs a hen and she has an opened wounds? Or you notice a chicken with one eye closed all of a sudden? How can you prevent large-combed chickens from getting frostbite on their combs and wattles? We have been raising laying hens for going on eight years and have learned a lot of tricks along the way- by trial and error and out of necessity.
One must-have chicken first aid item can be purchased at your local feed store and is called Blu Kote. Blu Kote comes in either spray or a brush for topical application, make sure you read the product label for directions and special considerations. We have used Blu Kote on hens with bare backs from over mating. When chickens see exposed skin they tend to peck, and can really do damage to one another. Blu Kote is a dark blue/ purple color and once applied deters chickens from pecking exposed skin so the birds can feather back out and heal.
Aside from what you find at the local feed store, there are many items you can find ‘around the house’ for preventative and first aid use with your chickens. Below are the top 10 everyday items we for our chickens.
1. Corn Starch
Corn starch is an effective blood stopper when applied topically to wounds. Because it is corn-based it is safe for use on poultry. We have a designated corn starch box in our chicken first aid bin and have used it many times with great success. We once had a chick get his head pecked bloody by a broody hen. It looked gruesome and we were not sure he would survive the night, but after gently coating and patting down his scalp with corn starch for a few days he fully recovered. We lovingly named him Helmet, because while his wound healed beautifully he always had a bald patch the shape of a helmet.
2. Apple Cider Vinegar
We use apple cider vinegar as an immune system boost, especially during winter months when chickens are more susceptible to respiratory illnesses due to being ‘cooped up’ through the colder months. The ratio we use is one tablespoon of vinegar per one gallon of water, and we mix it directly into their waterers. Apple cider vinegar is also useful during warmer months to prevent algae from building up inside chicken waterers, using the same 1 to 1 ratio.
3. Puppy Pads
Puppy pads are not just for puppies! We use puppy pads inside small dog or cat carriers instead of wood chips when we are treating a sick or injured bird. Puppy pads are flat and are easy to place small feeders and waterers on. They are easy to clean up, where wood chips can be very messy and can become stuck to wounds and cause further damage while birds are trying to heal.
4. Fresh Oregano, or Oregano Oil
Oregano has been shown to be a powerful natural antibiotic, and because it is an herb it is safe for use with chickens. We grow oregano and harvest fresh for our flock when the weather allows. We also make infused oregano oil by adding oregano leaves to olive oil for use in winter months. Chickens generally enjoy eating the fresh oregano, and we have had success treating a hen with they symptoms of an infection by secluding her and feeding her fresh oregano with her food for ten days. If fresh leaves are not available, the infused oil can be used by either mixing in with a food/ water mash or by carefully dripping drops on the chicken’s tongue with an eye dropper. If using an eyedropper make sure to only drop liquids on the chicken’s tongue, and not squirt them down the chicken’s throat where they easily end up in the lungs and can cause infections.
5. Epsom Salt
Epson salt is important to have around in case a hen becomes egg bound- a condition where an egg gets stuck while the hen is trying to lay. If the egg can not be passed naturally the hen is at risk of internal injury from the egg shell breaking, or even death. We have had success treating egg bound hens by letting them soak in a warm epson salt bath. Most hens love the warm bath, and especially like to be dried with the hair dryer after!
We use vaseline both as a preventative and a treatment. To prevent frostbite on chickens and roos with large combs and wattles, vaseline can be applied in a thin layer directly to combs and wattles. Make sure combs and wattles are DRY before applying vaseline, if they are wet from condensation or water the vaseline will seal the moisture in and cause frostbite or infection. We have also used vaseline as a treatment for our flock after an outbreak of scaly leg mites. Scaly leg mites burrow under the leg scales of poultry, causing the scales to life up and sometimes look calcified. If you see one chicken with symptoms, treat your whole flock- and make sure to clean their coop thoroughly after every treatment to prevent re infestation.
7. Garlic and Garlic Powder
Garlic and garlic powder when ingested can boost white blood cells, helping chickens fight infection. Garlic also helps deter some parasites who do not like the smell. We use garlic powder mixed in with the chicken feed, at a ratio of about 1/4 tablespoon per cup of feed. It is easier to measure and mix the powder than fresh garlic but fresh garlic is more potent and may be more effective in raising overall health of backyard flocks. Garlic powder can also help reduce the odors of chicken manure when added to their feed.
8. Antibiotic Ointment WITHOUT ‘Pain Relief’
Topical antibiotic ointment, like Neosporin or generic brands, are very helpful to have in a chicken first aid kit for open wounds. Make sure the ointment is WITHOUT ‘pain relief’ ingredients as they can be fatal for chickens. We had a neighborhood dog grab on of our hens a few years ago, and she had puncture wounds from canine teeth in her abdomen. We applied antibiotic ointment to the wounds and wrapped her in vet wrap and were absolutely amazed to find the puncture holes closed up the next day when we went to replace the wrap! We have also used antibiotic ointment topically for chickens with pecked combs, swollen eyes and wattles with great success. For wounds where the chicken can reach and peck, antibiotic ointment is not a good option unless the area can be covered with vet wrap, as the chickens can the ointment it and can cause illness or death.
9. Tupperware Tubs (large enough to fit a chicken inside)
Large Tupperware tubs are very useful while raising chickens. We have used them as brooders for chicks and as chicken bathtubs for egg bound hens, or chickens needing a good soak. We have a mixed flock including silkie chickens – silkies have feathered feet that pick up mud, poop and wood chips in wetter weather. If their feet are not cleaned off it can lead to broken talons, toes or infections. A few times a year we set up a foot spa for our silkies using Tupperware tubs where they can soak their feathered feet to remove any poop or wood chips and prevent injury or illness. Make sure you designate your tubs for chicken use only- no one wants to find their winter sweaters have accidentally been stored in a chicken tub!
10. Dog/ Cat Carriers
It is best practice to seclude a sick or injured bird from the rest of the flock while they recover, both to prevent spread of possible contagious illness and so the sick/ injured bird can recover and rest without interruption. Small dog and cat carriers are the perfect size for a recovering hen. They are easy to move, easy to clean and can be found for cheap or even free at yard sales. We keep about a half dozen ‘extra’ cat/ dog carriers at the farm and have used them many, many times.
There is always something new to learn when keeping chickens! Our chickens bring us so much joy, on top of producing delicious eggs- they are like a part of the family. Every year we learn more ways to keep them healthy and treat injuries or illnesses that may come up. While these home remedies can not replace the care and expertise of a veterinarian, they have been life savers for us when veterinary care was not available. I hope these ‘every day’ items will inspire you to create a chicken first aid kit of your own- and that both you and your flocks have a happy, healthy year!
Kristen Tool is co-owner of Olsen Farm in Lanesborough, Mass., where she works with her husband to revive 28 acres of a four-generation family farm by keeping bees, growing fruit, vegetables and herbs without the use of pesticides; raising poultry, cultivating mushrooms, leading workshops, and preparing plant remedies. She is the Secretary of the Northern Berkshire Beekeepers Association and manages a crew of incredible teens who run the local farmers market through a nonprofit program, Roots Rising. Connect with Kristen at Olsen Farm on Facebook, on Instagram @olsen_farm, and read all of her MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.
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