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Poultry Diseases Common to the Homestead

Knowing how to identify poultry diseases, their cause, symptoms and treatment can prevent stress for you and your chickens, empowering you to enjoy the self-sufficient life of homesteading.

Chickens free-ranging on pasture.

Raising chickens is an essential part of our homesteading life. Chickens are curious birds with particular traits and personalities. When they show signs of illness, we act quickly to bring them back to good health.

Chickens in a chicken tractor and chickshaw on pasture.

Chickens on the Homestead

We have been raising chickens on our homestead for over 15 years and have learned the best ways to keep them healthy and productive. It has been said that “prevention is the best medicine,” and we have found that truth to be evident in most things.

Raising chickens on our homestead is a self-sufficient way to provide food for our family. Raising backyard egg-laying chickens and raising meat chickens is self-sustainable, and we enjoy the process from raising chicks to preserving eggs or getting the meat ready for the freezer. 

Since the fall of mankind, diseases have been part of our world. Animals, plants, humans, no living thing or being is exempt. 

Learning how to prevent illness, knowing what to look for and how to apply the knowledge learned is wisdom, and healing animals with natural remedies is the preferred way when possible.

The deep liter method and utilizing our chickens to restore the land are some ways we keep our chickens healthy. These methods create garden compost using our chicken tractor basics, bringing the permaculture cycle full circle.

Once we diagnose the disease in our chickens, we help heal them through various means. Fermented chicken feed, for example, is a simple homemade remedy that can enrich their food supply. Depending on the ailment, you may need more complex treatments.  

Chickens walking into a coop.

A Word on Prevention

“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” Benjamin Franklin was onto something here. If we use preventative methods to keep our homestead food sources healthy, we will also be healthier.

Procrastination is the opposite of that wisdom, and it creates havoc when we don’t tend to the needs of our animals and plant life at the first signs of disease. 

Chicken and two baby chicks.

Common Poultry Diseases and How to Treat Them

There are several diseases that poultry can get on the homestead. I will cover what we found are the most common and how to prevent and, if necessary, treat them effectively.

Parasitic Diseases

Lice, fleas, ticks and the red mite (dermanyssus gallinae) are a few parasites that can infect your chickens. Bird-to-bird transmission of parasites infects chickens. Under-maintained chicken coops create chicken litter that needs more organic matter and can transmit parasites to chickens.    

Signs of damage to their feathers, irritated skin marrings, and even parasites in their feces will be evident. They won’t look vibrant and healthy; instead, they will look frazzled and tired.

Coccidiosis is a common parasite that disturbs the gut lining of chickens. Common symptoms are runny, watery, or bloody droppings, ruffled feathers, and weight loss. 

Antibiotics recommended by your vet or other remedies, such as fermented chicken feed, apple cider vinegar or diatomaceous earth will aid in ridding your chickens of parasites.   

Checking each of your chickens for signs of parasites, and any other birds they share space with (such as other chickens, turkeys, ducks, guinea fowl or pheasants), every couple of weeks is the best preventative measure you can take. 

Cleaning the coop, keeping it dry and using a deep litter method will also help with this problem.  Also, providing your chickens with a dry bin filled with diatomaceous earth for dust baths, will help them deal with their own external parasites.

A woman in a chicken coop holding a basket of eggs.

Infectious Diseases

Bacterial, fungal and viral diseases are the most common among birds. They are spread from bird to bird easily through direct contact, airborne droplets, and shared food and water sources. 

These can cause intestinal, reproductive, nervous system and chronic respiratory disease, to name a few. 

Coryza, for example, is a common respiratory disease with all the signs of avian influenza (sneezing, watery eyes, nasal discharge, and lethargy.) Younger chickens usually weather this virus just fine, but older chickens may be less fortunate. 

Virulent Newcastle disease (once known as exotic Newcastle disease) is a disease that affects the respiratory tract. It has many of the same symptoms as Coryza, with an awkward twist in the neck and possible paralysis of the wings and legs. 

Wild birds can carry this infectious bronchitis virus; vaccination is the best option to prevent this disease if it is common in your area. While isolating the infected chickens from other chickens and turkeys for 3-4 weeks will slow down and stop the spread of these respiratory illnesses, true isolation is rarely practical for a small homestead, and for the health of the rest of the flock, it is generally best to cull and safely dispose of ill birds.

It is beneficial to thoroughly clean and disinfect the coop and give them antibiotics or vaccinations that your veterinarian recommends.

Up close photo of chickens eating fermented chicken feed.

Metabolic and Nutritional Diseases 

Whether your chickens are free-ranged or live in a fenced-in coop, unhealthy environments are the primary cause of these diseases. Properly maintained coops with fresh air and ample space for each bird, proper nutrition, deep litter to leave their waste in, and room to roam will deter these diseases from occurring.

Chickens that look lethargic, irritable, lame, and have a drop in egg production, generally need more food. Without a nutrient-rich diet, this can cause soft bones and beaks, which can be painful.

A nutritious feed with the proper vitamins and minerals is essential for healthy chickens. In the past we have fermented our chicken’s feed and we always give them plenty of room to roam with access to bugs and other insects as an added source of protein. 

When we feed our chickens, we observe the area where they are fed, and if all the feed is eaten in a short amount of time, we know they may need a bit more to satisfy them.

We are the caregivers of our chickens, and therefore it’s our responsibility to see to their good health. Nutrition is important; we strive to obtain healthy eggs from healthy chickens to feed our family.

Two pigs and some chickens in the pig pen.

Behavioral Diseases

Stressed-out chickens can cause a plethora of problems that need to be addressed in a timely manner.

Chickens that become aggressive and are pecking at other hens, eating eggs, plucking out feathers and just have a bad attitude likely need some care adjustments. Very rarely are there just unruly hens, it’s usually stemming from a larger issue such as not enough coop space, under-feeding, etc.

Checking to make sure they have adequate food and water is imperative. Ensuring they have plenty of space that’s not overheated when they are in and out of the coop helps with overcrowding. 

Too many roosters can be stressful; the hens can feel overwhelmed and need more space. Never keep more than 1 rooster per 15 hens to reduce stress in the coop. Balance is important, and they need you to monitor their environment.

Kids hands holding a baby chick.

Marek’s Disease

Marek’s disease is avian cancer and causes paralysis and, unfortunately, death if untreated. It’s a virus that spreads through chicken dander when inhaled. (People cannot get this disease from chickens.) 

A chicken will be a carrier of Marek’s for life if it survives. Removing it from the flock is vitally important.

Typically chickens between 12-15 weeks old are the most susceptible. We do not believe in vaccinating for this disease as it is ambient in our environment and most healthy chickens will not succumb to it. Instead of creating a bird that is dependent on medication, we prefer to maintain a healthy flock that can overcome this challenge. 

Chickens in a chickshaw out on pasture.

Fowl Pox

If you see irritated patches or bumps on your chicken’s skin where feathers once were, sores around their beak with discharge coming from their eyes, these are fowl pox. This disease will heal over time, usually in a couple of weeks. 

Reduce the spread of fowl pox by separating the infected chickens, eradicating possible mosquito swarms that spread the disease, and keeping the chickens comfortable and clean during the healing process. 

Infectious diseases can be transmitted from the sick chickens to your healthy chickens through your shoes, clothing and hands. Keep them cleaned and disinfected when working back and forth between the healthy and ill chickens. 

An egg on top of a bale of hay.
A man and wife smiling.

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Josh and Carolyn bring you practical knowledge on how to Grow, Cook, Preserve and Thrive on your homestead, whether you are in a city apartment or on 40 acres in the country. If you want to increase your self-sufficiency and health be sure to subscribe for helpful videos on gardening, preserving, herbal medicine, traditional cooking and more.

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