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How to Care for your Hens

Our advice about caring for your hens

Vet Dr Michael Morter and Penny Jackson-Smith have put together these facts to help you keep your hens healthy.

There are several different types of chickens:

  • Layers originally bred for egg production,  e.g. Barnevelder, Maran.
  • Table originally bred for meat production, e.g. Sussex, Faverolles
  • Multi-purpose originally bred for eggs and meat, e.g. Langsham
  • Game fowl originally bred for fighting, e.g. Indian Game Fowl
  • Ornamental originally bred for looks, e.g. Brahma, Silkie

All types come as large and bantam breeds and their needs have to be taken into consideration before deciding which type and breed of chicken you are going to have. Many have physical features needing specific care, e.g. chickens with feathered feet will need dry conditions. Chickens also have different temperaments – some like to escape and fly, some are noisy, some are known for their jumpiness and some are calm and docile.

Make sure you can provide the space and time to give your hens the care they need. This will differ with the seasons, and winter care can be more onerous than in the summer!

The five freedoms

Chickens, like all other animals we care for, must be provided with the Five Freedoms

Freedom from thirst, hunger and malnutrition: give ready access to fresh water and a diet to maintain full health and vigour.
Freedom from discomfort: provide a suitable environment, including shelter and a comfortable resting area.
Freedom from pain, injury and disease:  ensure prevention or rapid diagnosis and treatment.
Freedom to express normal behaviour: provide sufficient space, proper facilities and company of the animal’s own kind.
Freedom from fear and distress: ensure conditions avoid mental suffering.

Where should I keep my hens?

All chickens need a roost where they can sleep in safety, sheltered from the cold, wind and rain; and protected from predators (e.g foxes and stoats).

Commercial hen houses are available or you can build your own. Designs vary but the essentials are:

  • Damp and draught free
  • Good ventilation to prevent breathing difficulties
  • Pop holes for getting in and out
  • Suitable number of nest boxes
  • Perches to accommodate all the hens
  • Enough room for all the birds to shelter inside without being overcrowded
  • Easy to clean out

If possible, face the house to the South East – this gives the hens the benefit of the morning sun but will offer shade at the hottest time of the day. Chickens don’t tolerate heat very well; 21-24°C is the ideal outdoor temperature. If temperatures reach 40°C chickens will hold their wings away from their bodies and pant to cool down. Try to cool things down by increasing air circulation, giving extra shade and making sure there is a plentiful supply of cool water.

In very cold conditions, combs and wattles could suffer frostbite; this is more common on cockerels. A layer of Vaseline can help prevent this.

What bedding is suitable?

Dust-free softwood shavings are best. Avoid sawdust which is dusty and can cause breathing problems. Straw and hay can get damp and mouldy – causing ill health, and mite infestation will be more common. Soiled bedding is great for the compost heap!

Care of the hen house

Ideally, this should be cleaned out weekly, by removing bedding and using a suitable disinfectant. Regular cleaning will remove ammonia smells produced by soiled areas, bugs, bacteria and dampness. You will also be more likely to spot the signs of red mite infestation. A spring clean is a must – remove all fittings and scrape out any impacted dirt and old droppings. Remove dust and cobwebs by thoroughly sweeping. Once clean, the house should be disinfected using animal/poultry disinfectant – contact us for recommendations, followed by red mite spray. Make sure the house dries out before putting it all back together. Before putting the bedding in, use a dry spray to help kill bugs and eliminate ammonia fumes.

Don’t forget the exterior – thoroughly clean and treat with non toxic wood preservative.

Do I need a run?

This depends on whether you let your hens have free range of the garden.  Free range hens are messy and love ‘helping’ you in the garden by scratching up or eating plants, so this may not be ideal if you are garden proud.  There is also an increased risk from predators and diseases carried by wild birds.  If you have a run, it is ideal to have it covered as this helps prevent escape and a solid cover will prevent diseases being passed from wild bird droppings.  It also provides shade in the summer and keeps the run dry from the rain.  Wood chip or rubber chippings are ideal flooring materials and will keep the mud at bay.  Chickens need to bathe, so provide a dust bath area, a wooden box filled up with dry fine soil or clean sand is ideal.

What should I feed my hens?

Use good quality Layers Pellets or Layers Mash to provide all the essential nutrients your hens need. The food should be stored in dry, cool conditions and away from rodents – mice and rats carry Salmonella.  A lidded plastic dustbin is ideal. Metal bins can attract condensation which will ruin the food.  Specific poultry feeders should be used which can stop the hens from scattering food around, thus encouraging rodents.  Place the feeders either in the house or under cover in the run to keep the food dry and protected from wild birds.

Grit and oyster shell must be provided in grit feeders.  Oyster shell provides essential minerals such as calcium, and the grit helps grind down the food in the gizzard, making it more digestible.
Mixed grain can also be fed, but offer this later in the day so that the birds don’t fill up on grain early in the day which may stop them eating the layers pellets.

Household scraps should not be given – many are contaminated with animal matter (meat, fish, gravy, etc).  They can also contain far too much salt, and feeding scraps can lead to sour crop where the food ferments.  Vegetables like cauliflower and broccoli can be hung for the birds to peck at, as can apples and pears.  Raspberries and blackberries can also be offered.  Most important of all is a fresh constant supply of water - NEVER let the drinkers run dry.

What not to feed

  • Lawn clippings – these get impacted and cause blockages.
  • Sprouted potatoes and green potatoes – contain a poison called solanine.
  • Poisonous plants include laburnum, lily of the valley, lupins and yew.
  • Any rotten food.
  • Cocoa – some garden mulches contain this; do not feed any household scraps containing cocoa.
  • Antifreeze is highly toxic so do not leave it anywhere hens can get access to it.

Can I keep hens with other pets?

Generally speaking, this should not be a problem but supervision is always a must.  Dogs react variously to chickens, some don’t show any interest, some may want to chase and some may want to dig into the run to get to them.  Many chickens get injured or even killed by the family dog.  The stress alone of being chased can have fatal consequences.

Cats and poultry can often get on well together, but take care with Bantam breeds and chicks.

Chickens may find other small pets curious and can tend to peck at them so avoid letting hens run with them.  Hens are very good at catching mice, frogs and baby birds for their lunch.

Is a cockerel necessary?

Hens do not need to live with a cockerel to provide you with eggs.  A cockerel will not make your hens feel any more broody than living without one.  The eggs produced by hens living with a cockerel will be fertilised so it is important to collect the eggs every day and not let any broody hens sit (unless you want to breed!)  Do bear in mind the noise that cockerels produce – unfortunately not everyone enjoys this sound of the countryside!

How do I know if a hen is ill?

When caring for your new flock of chickens, it’s useful to be familiar with how a healthy bird looks, behaves and feels by regularly watching and handling them. This will make it easier to recognise when a bird is looking unwell.  Healthy birds should have:

  • Dry nostrils and bright eyes: Runny noses, sneezing, ‘foamy’ eyes and swollen sinuses are commonly seen with respiratory infections. A ‘sleepy’ looking hen with eyes that are often closed and a head sinking into its neck may indicate illness.
  • A red comb: Accepting that some breeds may naturally have dark coloured wattles and comb, a strong red colour is a good indicator of health and can reflect a bird may be in-lay. A purplish tinge to a normally red comb could be an indicator of heart problems. A pale colour may be seen with anaemia, such as that seen with severe Red or Northern Fowl Mite infestation.
  • Shiny feathers: Poor quality or missing feathers could indicate external parasites, behavioural changes in the flock or poor nutrition.
  • Good weight and body condition: Causes of weight loss include internal or external parasites, poor nutrition, liver or kidney disease, bullying, lack of water and poor environmental hygiene.
  • Clean feathers around the vent: A dirty ‘back end’ could show a bird has diarrhoea. This can be caused by sudden changes in diet or too much cabbage.  Other causes include infections by bacteria such as E.coli, Salmonella or Bacillary White, diarrhoea, or protozoa such as Coccidia.
  • Smooth legs: Lameness can reflect injury, joint infection or inflammation such as arthritis.  Swellings of the underside of the foot are often caused by the bacterial infection (‘Bumblefoot’).  Thickened and raised crusty scales on the feet are usually caused by ‘scaly leg’ mites.
  • Straight toes: Bent toes may be a deformity the bird was born with. Bandy legs can reflect nutritional deficiencies.
  • Eggs: Providing they are not too young or old or that they are not naturally ‘off lay’ because the day length is too short or they are broody (focussed on nesting to incubate eggs). Factors that may cause birds to stop laying include illness, stress and poor nutrition.

Daily observation and handling is very important.  Symptoms of illness include sitting hunched up with ruffled feathers, weight loss, going off lay, going off food, laboured breathing, lameness and paralysis.  Regularly check your birds’ droppings; normal droppings should be quite firm with a dark coloured portion and a white colour at the end.  Yellow, loose, dark and sticky droppings or any sign of blood may indicate that all is not well.  If in doubt, see a vet.  Chickens are a species that will hide illness – this is why observation is so important as you will pick up any subtle changes in their behaviour.

The annual moult, in Summer/Autumn, is a true assault on chickens’ health, but is quite normal. Their combs and wattles shrivel and they look pasty. Eggs are no longer laid. Growing new feathers takes a lot of extra energy and protein.

We are happy to advise you on and examine and treat individual birds – just give us a call.

Do chickens need vaccinations?

Most keepers of backyard poultry do not vaccinate their birds unless they have had previous problems with certain diseases being brought in by wild birds.

Do chickens need worming?

Chickens can pick up various types of worm by eating insects and earthworms and also from wild bird droppings. Treatment should not be left until symptoms are seen – look for ‘snicking’ or gasping with the head stretched out, which indicates gapeworm, and weight loss which is a symptom of ascarids, tapeworm and gizzard worm. Intestines can become blocked with ascerids which is fatal.

Frequency of worming depends on the number of hens and how often they are moved to fresh ground, but should be at least twice a year. Ask us for our current recommendations. Alternatively, you can purchase pre-treated layers pellets. There are various herbal remedies; but there is no guarantee on their worming effect so we do not advise these. Worms are extremely contagious and can be spread via droppings, so good husbandry is essential.

What external parasites do chickens get?

The most common parasites are common fowl lice, red mite, northern fowl mite and scaly leg mite.

Lice can be seen with the naked eye, usually around the vent or under the wings.  They can be very itchy, so hens can get bare patches where they scratch and peck at themselves.  Treatment is with louse powder dusted on the bird, which needs to be repeated after 10 days.

Red mites live in the hens’ roost and will feed off the birds at night time.  They are very common and can cause various health problems including anaemia.  It can be very difficult to get rid of an infestation – the roost needs to be completely cleaned, particularly in corners and joints.  It then needs to be soaked with a red mite treatment e.g. Poultry Shield or barrier red mite treatment and this all needs to be repeated on a weekly basis.  Red mites are very resilient and will produce many eggs.  Don’t forget to treat the birds as well as the environment.  Signs of an infestation include hens not wanting to go into the roost or nest boxes, loss of egg production and red spotting on eggs.

Northern fowl mite look similar to red mite, but these live on the birds.  They damage mainly the tail feathers and sometimes the wings.  Again, meticulous cleaning of the hen house is needed along with regular treatment of the hens with a mite killer to avoid this problem.  Signs of infestation are clumps of grey or dark coloured material, a bit like cigarette ash, on and around the base of the feathers.

Scaly leg mite irritates the birds’ legs by burrowing under the scales which causes crusty deposits and a thickening and loosening of the scales.  Do not be tempted to pull off any scales – this will be very painful and is more likely to release more mites into the environment, increasing the risk of the condition spreading.  Treatment is relatively simple and effective.  The legs can be ‘dunked’ in surgical spirit once a week for three weeks, or scaly leg mite treatments can be used.  Smearing the legs in Vaseline will also suffocate the mite.

Recommended further reading

  • Diseases of Free Range Poultry ISBN-1-873580-33-3
  • How to Keep your Birds Happy & Healthy ISBN9781873098882
  • The Complete Encyclopaedia of Chickens ISBN 978-90-366-1592-1
  • The Chicken Health Handbook ISBN 0-88266-611-8
  • Practical Poultry Magazine

Thank you to vet Dr Michael Morter and to Penny Jackson-Smith for the text and to Penny for the pictures of her hens.