I’m feeling poorly … 

Keeping hens can either be a straight forward easy thing or fraught with illness and death. Is it luck of the draw, the environment they live in or where they were bought? I think a bit of each to be honest. Our original flock of hens were purchased in 2010 and we had one for only three years, she died from what most hens do: an internal infection which weakens the body to the point where they die from lack of nutrition (a sick hen will not eat or drink) and exhaustion.

The second one made it a good six years but sadly passed away in August this year after a very hot spell. She had been on and off for many years and we often thought we would lose her but managed to bring her back from the brink time and again with additional supplements to her diet and extra care.

We still have one from the original batch of hens and she is going strong. She’s an ‘unusual’ hen, a speckled long plumed sort who doesn’t lay many eggs. This is good in the hen world as it means their bodies are not constantly being overworked to produce the eggs that we take so much for granted. When her buddy died in August I got her a new companion from Hula Animal Rescue. Martha is only three years old and should have been free from issues for awhile yet.

However, for the last couple weeks she started laying dodgy eggs. Super soft shells which crack as you try to pick them up, or shells which are not formed at all and simply slip out of the hen in a messy yolk’y blob. If you see this in your hen it is a clear sign of something internally not right and it shouldn’t be ignored. When an egg doesn’t pass properly out of the hen what is left inside her body will get infected and, if continued to be left untreated, weaken the hen to the point of death.

Signs of a sick hen

  • Staying in the nest box or continually entering it and leaving without producing an egg
  • Hunched posture (seen in pictures below)
  • Lack of interest in food, including favourite treats
  • Reduced water intake
  • Standing in one corner of the coop or garden with little movement
  • Pale colored comb
  • Liquid poo
  • Yellow colored poop which looks a bit like wet scrabbled egg

Luckily we seem to have caught it in time with Martha!

Hens need careful monitoring and observation to ensure they stay in tip top shape. Yes they are an easy pet to own as they don’t require much in the way of faffing or attention; yet a few daily checks will see to it that your hens live long and healthy lives. I had observed that Martha wasn’t coming down out of her nest box in the morning, nor showing much interest in her food. Having seen this in countless hens before I didn’t waste any time in ringing the vets.

If you are based in Milton Keynes or the surrounding villages and keep hens then the vet I would recommend every time is Beech House Vets in Towcester (just off the A5 near the garden centre). Charles Castle is the principle of the practice and has been maintaining and breeding his own large flock of hens for more than twenty years. This vet, and the practice in general, have such a caring manner about them and nothing feels too small. Charles will ‘fix’ your hen if he is able to and provides a wealth of information along with explanations about what he is doing and why. I have trusted Beech House Vets for years with my hens, both in terms of trying to make them better to putting them to sleep when it did not work. I’ve never felt silly for crying (well balling my eyes out) over the passing of one of my chickens and it’s down to Charles I have to say. Lovely lovely man.

Back to Martha. Having noticed she didn’t eat much on Saturday or Sunday, when Monday morning came around I decided to ring the vets who were able to squeeze us in first thing. My worry was egg peritonitis which is a common condition seen in backyard hens of all ages, from the point of lay onwards. It is an infection established within the coelomic cavity of hens, caused by the presence of an ectopic yolk within the coelom (main body cavity).

Charles gloved up and popped his fingers inside Martha feeling around for any remnants of shell within her body. He felt confident that there was none but confirmed that those ‘dodgy’ eggs we noticed previously would have caused the infection we were seeing and if left untreated would have ended in her demise. Her comb was still a deep red which was a good sign and she hadn’t suffered too much weight loss as yet.

We were given a course of antibiotics and advised to try to get her to eat as much as possible over the next few days, along with bathing her backside in warm water (this stimulates any egg potentially trapped within the hen and helps it pass easily).

Important Tips for Maintaining Healthy Hens

  • Reduce snacks and ‘extra’s in the summer months when hens tend to eat less as it is
  • Feed high quality layer pellets and other rich sources of protein such as mealworms
  • Monitor their behaviour so you can catch any signs of illness early on
  • Clean out their coop and run regularly. A dirty environment invites disease
  • Provide fresh water. Every month you may want to splash some apple cider vinegar or hen supplement in with the water to help boost their internal system
  • Worm regularly. You can get wormer already mixed in with their layer pellets so it’s one less thing to remember. Worms weaken hens and they are a fragile creature as it is