If you are going to diagnose your own birds you need to know more or less what the anatomy of a chicken looks like.

1. You need to identify correctly vital organs and be able to work your way around body structure: For example: If you know that Gumboro disease is actually known as Infectious Bursal Disease, it helps to know where the bursa is! (part of the cloaca).

2. Knowledge of diseases, symptoms and presentation of symptoms is vital The more you research, the more you know.

3. You need a systematic plan for examining the body of a bird, alive or dead.

The more familiar you are with a healthy bird, what it looks like, the weight on average of each breed, the way it behaves, smells, colour, all of these are important and are a guide to determining a sick bird. In other words you need a yardstick.

Like watching a movie, you need to see good ones so you recognise the bad!


1. Is alert and lively, scratching and eating .Healthy  birds move all the time and as they are trickle feeders will eat more or less all day as well..

2. Will drink well and make appropriate noises.

3. Will have a bright red comb if adult, spongy in the case of cocks and hens, with lovely bright red colour in the red comb breeds. In the case of silkies, this is difficult as the comb is black!

4. Feathers will be smooth, shiny, well cared for. Feathering will be clean and white in white breeds. A dirty bird is a sick one unless dustbathing. There should be no blood on the feathers indicating feather pecking. Watch the feathers around the neck and top of the wings. If these are dirty or sticky the bird has an eye infection or runny nose that it is wiping on its feathering.

5. Eyes will be shiny and alert, not dull or closed.

6. Cocks will crow. If they don’t there is a problem. Hens cackle, if they don’t, there is a problem.

7. Will stand with a straight back, not sloping at the tail. Head will be up, not looking down all the time.

8. Lining of the mouth will be a healthy pink. There should never be a discharge from nose or mouth and no smell from the mouth either. The beak should be clean and not sticky to the touch.

9. Weight is always a good indicator so know how much on average your breeds should weigh. A bird with a prominent keel and light feel to it is not a healthy bird. Breast should be well filled, and you should not be able to feel a prominent keel with no flesh around it.

10. Will have clear lungs, not breathing heavily or gurgling. Nose and eyes should be free of discharge. watch out for snicking, a chicken sneeze. If occasional it is normal and the way birds eliminate excess minerals. If frequent it indicates illness.

11. Vents should be clean, a dirty vent is an indication of parasites or illness.

12. Faeces should be well formed, greenish, with a white cap. As birds do not urinate the white part is actually the uric acid being eliminated. Faeces that is runny, dark, foamy, bloody or pale indicates a problem. Be aware every 10th dropping in a chicken is what is called a caecal dropping where faeces is eliminated from the deepest part of the cloaca, and this dropping will be dark, smelly and a little runny. Quite normal, but not if EVERY dropping is like this. Learn to inspect the droppings every day.

13. In the case of layers eggs should be plentiful, well shaped, with a good strong shell. Soft shells indicate diseases, heat stress, lack of dietary minerals.

14. When you pick up a bird, it should feel as warm as you do. If it is warmer, it may have a fever. if it is cold to the touch, it may have Gumboro or some other illness.

Now that you have learned to look at your birds and determine if they are healthy, what happens if you have an outbreak of something you were not expecting?

What if instead of one sick bird they seem to be dropping all over the place?

You have already mastered the three main points of diagnosis:

Identification of vital organs and body structure

Knowledge of disease symptoms and presentation.

Systematic plan for examining the birds.

If you do have a flock outbreak, remember that a veterinary practitioner is going to need information from you before recommending any treatment. You need to give him the information in a clear and concise form. Here is a guideline:


Outbreaks of diseases must be seen in context of flock and not in context of individual birds. Sources of disease can be determined by correct records of flock history:

A complete history of your flock includes the following:

1. Name and address of provenance, that is where you bought the birds. This includes your location as well as it could be important. it is also important to include the age of the birds when you purchased them: day old, five weeks etc.

2. Number of birds in the flock, and whether you have separate age groups: ie multistage operation or one step operation. This means that you have birds come in at say day old and birds are slaughtered or sold at 12 weeks, with no imports of day olds or other stock during the raising of the initial flock. This is an all in and all out operation. A multistage operation is one where at any one time you have all age groups present on the property from adult down to egg.

3. Breeds, strain, age of birds in the affected flock.

4. Type of operation: show poultry, broiler, layer or back yard.

5. Feeding programme and where the food is purchased.

6. COMPLETE vaccination history. This is where keeping records is important, as you need dates, batch numbers, type of vaccine, diseases covered, method of delivery. In this you should include whether you do the vaccinations yourself or leave it to staff, who are not always trained or conscientious in the application of vaccines. You also need to have the batch numbers and expiry dates of all vaccines used, even the inert ones, to ensure that if the cold chain was broken at any stage, you are able to trace the affected batch.

I had the case some years back with a batch of POX vaccine which gave me trouble, and birds were infected with pox after vaccination. Through my records, and the batch numbers the vet supply firm was able to trace a break in the cold chain, and my vaccines were replaced. This did not help me with my sick birds but at least I had SOME recourse! My birds survived thanks to strict quarantine and good biosecurity.

You also need to include in your flock history:

1. The date the illness was first observed. This is why you need to be always hands on with this as,  if you were on holiday when the problem occurred, it may have been in evidence already several days before it was noticed by staff!

2. Severity, number of birds affected, if there were deaths how long after the onset of symptoms and what symptoms did you observe.

3. Mortality numbers, and how often were there deaths, all at once, staggered, one at a time.

4. Medication history, and this must include what medication you used, method of application, dosage, length of duration of medication given.

All this you must include in any report you send to a lab as well.

As for the farm, remove all contaminated birds at once to a quarantine area. Dispose of all dead birds in a separate area, and if you are keeping some carcasses for Post Mortem, wrap them up  really well in several layers of plastic, and put them in the fridge, preferably not next to the Sunday roast!

Try to have the carcass inspected for necropsy within 24 hours of death.

Keep the affected birds comfortable, warm, ( a sick bird is always chilled even in summer), in a clean pen where you have disinfected and there is no chance of them picking up a secondary infection.

Lastly, describe as accurately as you can, the symptoms, the progression of the symptoms and what you have observed. Have any birds recovered? Are the symptoms respiratory in nature or is there an intestinal problem? Is there excessive drinking on the part of the birds? Are they eating, chilled, too hot, lame or not, are the legs splayed at time of death or not, do the birds die quickly or is this a malingering type of infection? If the birds are babies, what colour is the inside of the mouth at time of death? If the birds are adult, what colour is the head and comb or wattles of the bird at time of death?

This can be very important in adults as things like a blue colour on a red combed bird can indicate either snake bite or heart attack. In snake bite the birds’ heart is affected and this gives a blue colour to the comb owing to non oxygenation of the blood. Birds die very quickly from snake bite even a mildly venomous bite from red lipped herald or night adder. You can look for a bite site but this is difficult among the feathers. You may find a swelling on chest or neck.

blue australorp







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