One of the worst things about owning livestock is dealing with death. No matter how careful you are, no matter how much you care and how hard you try, sooner or later one of your animals is going to die an untimely death. This certainly applies to chickens.
Most chicken breeds have a reputation for being healthy and hardy, but they can still fall victim to all kinds of things.
Some are slow and insidious; others strike instantly and seemingly without any warning at all.
Whatever the case, you should know about all the many ways that your chickens can die so that you can strive to prevent them.
In this article will be telling you about nine expected or unexpected reasons why your chickens might die.
One of the most common causes of death in chickens is just simple physical injuries. Injuries might be visible and external or internal, meaning they are difficult to detect if not outright invisible.
Depending on the conditions of your flock, the relationship between your chickens and other animals, and a host of other factors, chickens can be injured in countless ways.
One of the most common ways that chickens get injured is by rough handling, either abuse or neglect.
Skeletal and muscular injuries result from this sort of behavior, but chickens can also be seriously injured in a fight with another chicken or animal. Lacerations, puncture wounds, and blunt force trauma are common.
Head injuries and internal bleeding are other common wounds that can result from fights, falls, and other accidents.
If you are alert you might be able to detect these subtle indicators of internal injury and take action before it’s too late, or at the very least save your bird some suffering.
Make it a point to give your birds a once-over anytime there is a fight, commotion, or accident and don’t discount a seemingly slight change in behavior for any one of your chickens.
2. Organ Failure
Organ failure is usually a sudden and shocking death for a chicken, and for their keeper.
It is usually the result of a prolonged degenerative condition and can include things like liver, kidney, heart, and respiratory failure.
Heart attacks in particular strike like lightning, and usually leave no leeway for an intervention.
Heart attacks in chickens are caused by many of the same things that affect humans, like poor diet, acute stress, and congenital defects. Old, sick and generally unwell birds are more vulnerable to heart attacks overall.
Another common and, usually, sudden cause of death in chickens is poisoning.
It isn’t hard to see why: poisoning can be caused by a tremendous variety of different things, from toxic chemicals used around the property (or present in the environment) to eating something they should not have.
Common household substances that are regular causes of death in chickens include bleach, rat poison, pesticide, herbicide, and antifreeze. All can prove fatal to chickens if ingested.
Natural substances like wild mushrooms and certain plants can also be poisonous if eaten by your chickens, and some garden and landscape staples are regular culprits such as azaleas, daffodils, yew, and foxglove.
There are also unexpected things that can fatally poison your poor flock, like chocolate, caffeinated food, moldy scraps, and more.
With timely intervention after symptoms are noticed, a veterinarian may be able to save your chicken if you’re lucky.
Unfortunately, poisoning can be one of those conditions that are either hard to detect until it’s too late or just too deadly when it occurs.
Be aware that small amounts of many different kinds of potential toxins can accumulate in your chickens’ food sources and environment over time, so keep a watchful eye out for any signs of strange behavior or symptoms of distress in your birds.
One of the most dreaded causes of death in chickens is disease. There are all kinds of illnesses that can affect your birds, some of them chronic.
And there are just as many types of bacteria, viruses, and fungi that can cause disease as there are symptoms.
Though most illnesses are not severe and will ultimately prove to be a nuisance, just as many others can cause acute infections in chickens that can quickly prove fatal if not detected early enough for treatment or mitigation.
Some of the most common infectious diseases in chickens include:
- Avian Influenza – Ultra-contagious virus that primarily affects the respiratory system of birds, leading to severe breathing difficulty or even death.
- Ranikhet disease – caused by an avian adenovirus and usually affects young chickens in their first year of life. Results in lameness, reduced egg production, and increased susceptibility to other diseases.
- Salmonellosis – caused by bacteria that can be found in bird feed, manure, and water. It can result in respiratory issues, septicemia (blood poisoning), decreased egg production, and high mortality rates among young chickens.
- Mycoplasma gallisepticum – a bacterial infection that attacks the respiratory system of chickens and can also lead to decreased egg production as well as eye problems such as conjunctivitis.
- Marek’s Disease – caused by a herpes virus which leads to tumors on nerves and muscles as well as paralysis of the wings or legs; typically fatal for young birds but can be prevented through vaccination programs.
- Newcastle Disease – an infectious respiratory illness with mild symptoms such as diarrhea in the beginning, yet can quickly worsen to horrible neurological effects including tremors, paralysis, and seizures. Eventually leads to death.
- Fowl Pox – mosquitoes and other insects transmit this virus that causes lesions to appear externally on the skin as well as internally inside of the mouth. This can result in respiratory complications, ultimately leading to an obstructed airway resulting in suffocation.
Some, but not all, diseases have vaccines and other cures that can reduce or even eliminate the threat, depending on the type of illness and how it is treated.
Any overt signs of distress or illness in your birds should be checked out by a veterinarian immediately to prevent further complications or even death in your flock.
5. Stuck Egg
One of the most grueling deaths that can happen to a hen is a stuck egg. It is exactly what it sounds like: an egg is stuck in the oviduct and cannot be laid.
This can cause a great deal of pain, as well as infection, to the hen. If not treated quickly, it can lead to death as the egg will either cut off blood flow to the surrounding tissues or put too much pressure on her internal organs.
Sometimes a large egg will prevent the affected hen from getting rid of feces. Death can follow in as few as half a day after the egg gets stuck.
The best course of action is prevention and inspection. Prevention is accomplished by providing your hens with a balanced diet and plenty of calcium, as well as ensuring they have access to areas that are not exposed to extreme temperatures or other environmental challenges.
Inspecting your flock regularly can help catch the signs of a stuck egg before it becomes fatal.
These signs include lack of energy, reduced appetite, halted egg production, and discomfort or distress when being touched around the abdomen.
If you think a hen has a stuck egg, it must be removed as soon as possible by an experienced vet. If left untreated, death will occur.
Keep a close eye on hens that are aging or just known for laying really large eggs, as they are disproportionally likely to get an egg stuck.
6. Crop Impaction
Crop impaction occurs when a chicken cannot digest the food or liquid they have taken in because the crop, the organ where they store food before it passes to their gizzard, is blocked.
This blockage can be caused by a variety of things such as consuming too much grit, eating foreign objects, eating spoiled food, or just having an overly full crop, so much that it gets stoppered up.
This happens most commonly with younger chicks due to overeating.
Crop impaction is another nasty and slow cause of death in chickens, as the bird will slowly starve to death if it isn’t treated in time.
The symptoms of a crop impaction include decreased appetite, weight loss, and regurgitated food coming out of the beak instead of being digested.
Impaction can be detected by feeling the crop for any lumps or firmness, or by using an X-ray to check for a blockage in the crop.
Treating an impaction is usually done through a combination of massaging the crop and sometimes oral treatments. In cases where a foreign object is stuck, surgery may be necessary.
A nasty problem to be sure, every kind of animal you could possibly own can fall victim to parasites- including chickens!
Chicken parasites might be internal or external, meaning they live inside or outside of the bird.
All have one thing in common: they rob your chickens of blood and nutrients, interfere with bodily processed, and cause injury.
Internal parasites, such as roundworms, tapeworms, and gizzard worms, commonly cause diarrhea, weight loss, and even death.
External parasites, such as mites, lice, ticks, and fleas are thought of mostly as aggravations but severe infestations can also be dangerous if left untreated. They literally suck the chickens’ blood which can lead to anemia!
All parasites make chickens weaker over time and make them more vulnerable to illness, and some can cause lasting neurological damage or organ damage.
Treating parasites can be done through a variety of methods, including medicated feed, dusting and/or treatment with specific medications.
When kept in check, however, parasites don’t have to negatively impact your flock’s health too drastically.
The trick is spotting them in the first place: most are itty bitty bordering on invisible, so be sure to inspect your birds regularly and look for signs such as feather loss or discoloration, weight loss, or simply that “off” attitude.
Without question the most heart-wrenching way to lose a chicken. It turns out that pretty much every carnivorous animal on earth (including people!) love, really love, the taste of chicken.
That means that no matter if you live in the city, suburb, or countryside- predators will find your flock!
Common chicken predators include foxes, coyotes, raccoons, hawks, owls, weasels, snakes, cats, dogs, and opossums.
Some of these predators prefer to attack young chicks or eggs directly while others may go right for adults in broad daylight.
It’s important for chicken owners to take steps to protect their birds from predators, especially if they are allowed to free range.
The trick to keeping chickens safe from predators is mostly a matter of creating secure physical barriers that they can’t get past and some strategic deterrents.
Fencing, coops, mesh, decoys, and even “guard” animals like roosters, turkeys, dogs and llamas can all be used to reduce the chances of a strike.
Some larger chickens, or just lucky ones, might be able to ward off or escape an attacker with injuries that could be treated, but especially in the case of larger or more capable predators surviving birds may need to be euthanized.
9. Heat / Cold Stress
Just because chickens are expected to live outdoors much of the time does not mean that they can’t suffer from weather-related issues.
Even if your chickens are extremely hardy, it’s still important to be aware of how certain conditions may affect them and take steps to avoid health problems stemming from the elements.
One of the more dangerous weather-borne threats for chickens is heat stress.
Chickens naturally have difficulty cooling off and extreme temperatures can cause a variety of problems including dehydration, exhaustion, and even death.
To protect birds in hot climates or during sustained high-temperature waves, keep their water fresh and cool, provide extra shade over their run or coop and make sure to limit their exposure to direct sunlight as much as possible.
Cold temperatures can also be an issue, especially since many breeds of chicken are not adapted to surviving in icy climates.
Make sure your birds are well protected from the cold, provide supplemental heat for your chickens during extreme weather, add extra bedding to their coop and/or consider adding insulation to the coop itself.
Chickens are Always Dying but Maybe Yours Don’t Have To
No matter how hard you try to protect your chickens, there is always the chance that something unexpected will happen.
While it’s important to be prepared and aware of common risks, remember that sometimes things just happen. Be ready to do your best if and when they do.
Taking preventative steps like providing a safe shelter, regular health care, good food, secure coops, and runs, and access to clean water can go a long way in keeping your flock healthy, happy, and out of harm’s way.
Just keep in mind that no matter how careful you are, sometimes bad luck strikes and you’ll lose a bird. That’s just the way things are.
Tom has lived and worked on farms and homesteads from the Carolinas to Kentucky and beyond. He is passionate about helping people prepare for tough times by embracing lifestyles of self-sufficiency.