chickens; chick; chicks; brooders

Poultry production: How to check the general health of your chickens

Question: How can I check the health of my chickens?

If you use your basic stockman’s skills and your senses, a visit to the poultry house will provide a wealth of information regarding the health and management of the chickens.


As you enter the poultry house, especially where young birds are being housed, observe the distribution of the chicks/chickens:

  • If there’s an even spread throughout the house, conditions are favourable.
  • Chickens up to 21 days old huddle when they’re cold.
  • Chickens collect in cooler areas when it’s hot and either stand or lie down and gasp.
  • Draughts make chicks collect in draught-free areas.
  • Crowding at feeders or drinkers indicate insufficient feed or water.
  • An absence of feathers in the house could mean that the chickens are feather pecking.


  • Chicks chirp continually when they feel uncomfortable.
  • Snicking, either mild to heavy and wet, indicate an upper respiratory tract problem. This could be a reaction to a Newcastle vaccine application.
  • A heavy wet snick could develop as a result of a field challenge by diseases such as Newcastle disease, infectious bronchitis, Mycoplasma gallisepticum, Coryza or even Infectious laryngotracheitis.
  • Chicks/chickens that have been chilled could also develop a snick.


  • If you feel comfortable sitting in the house, the chickens should also be comfortable.
  • Crouch down so you will breath in air at the same level as the chickens.
  • Excessive dust irritates the respiratory system and contains numerous Escherichia coli bacteria that will result in secondary bacterial infections if there’s any inflammation in the respiratory system.
  • Ammonia is a dangerous gas. By the time you can smell it, damage to the upper respiratory system of the chickens will have occurred.
  • Litter management and good house ventilation are critical in combating this problem.
  • Drinker management is also involved, as water spillage causes wet litter.
  • Smell and taste the feed – musty feed could indicate the presence of mycotoxins, which can cause poor weight gain.
  • Old, stale feed wouldn’t contain sufficient levels of water-soluble vitamins, and this could result in deficiencies.
  • Check for excessive salt content by taste; it causes wet droppings.
  • Smell and taste the water – note that high chlorine levels could result in decreased water intake; even kidney damage.

Also read:
Egg production: On draughts and egg laying problems
Poultry production: Raising broiler chickens without electricity
Poultry production: Vaccines – Newcastle disease

  • This article was written by dr. Mick Versfeld and first appeared in Farming SA.

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