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The Chicken Health Handbook, 2nd Edition: A Complete Guide to Maximizing Flock Health and Dealing with Disease

The Chicken Health Handbook, 2nd Edition: A Complete Guide to Maximizing Flock Health and Dealing with Disease

Автором Gail Damerow

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The Chicken Health Handbook, 2nd Edition: A Complete Guide to Maximizing Flock Health and Dealing with Disease

Автором Gail Damerow

5/5 (1 оценка)
1,186 pages
11 hours
Jan 8, 2016


Healthy chickens are happy chickens. This one-of-a-kind reference book covers the health problems that plague chickens of all breeds and ages. Practical charts identify common symptoms and causes of infection, while an alphabetic listing of diseases provides advice on treatment. You’ll find helpful descriptions of troublesome ailments of all types, from poor egg production to crooked toe syndrome. Practical remedies and gentle preventative care measures will help your beloved flock stay happy, healthy, and safe.
Jan 8, 2016

Об авторе

Gail Damerow has written extensively on raising chickens and other livestock, growing fruits and vegetables, and related rural know-how in more than a dozen books, including What’s Killing My Chickens? and the best-selling Storey’s Guide to Raising Chickens, The Chicken Encyclopedia, The Chicken Health Handbook, and Hatching & Brooding Your Own Chicks. Damerow is a contributor to Chickens and Hobby Farms magazines and a regular blogger for Cackle Hatchery. She lives in Tennessee with her husband, where they operate a family farm with poultry and dairy goats, a sizable garden, and a small orchard. Visit her online at gaildamerow.com.  

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The Chicken Health Handbook, 2nd Edition - Gail Damerow

Advance Praise for the Second Edition of

The Chicken Health Handbook

Twenty years ago, I got my first hen and turned to The Chicken Health Handbook for answers. Today, Damerow’s work continues to provide sound counsel. This new edition — based in solid science, detailed and comprehensive — is an accessible and practical guide for anyone who has chickens. 

— Terry Golson, founder, HenCam.com

A wonderful reference book filled with practical advice that any new or experienced flock owner will find beneficial.

— Dr. Susan Watkins, Professor of Poultry Science, University of Arkansas

A must-have book for all chicken lovers.

— Jeff Smith, Cackle Hatchery

Accurate, valuable information that can be read with ease.

— Glenn Drowns, author of Storey’s Guide to Raising Poultry

When it comes to questions on chicken health, this is the book I turn to for quick reference. We have one on every desk at Stromberg’s and recommend it to everyone from beginners to longtime fanciers. The extensive pictures, illustrations, and explanations in the new edition should make it required reading for anyone interested in keeping a strong flock.

 — Eric Stromberg, Stromberg’s Chicks and Game Birds Unlimited

Widely regarded as the Patron Saint of Poultry since her 1994 edition became the chicken keeper’s bible, Gail Damerow has kept her finger on the pulse of chicken management innovations, advances, and trends, bringing us this completely recalibrated, modernized Chicken Health Handbook. More than a guide to chicken health, this book is a call to deliberate thought and informed decision-making, concisely providing the tools necessary in chapters that read like a novel.

— Kathy Shea Mormino, The Chicken Chick®



Chapter 1: Keeping Chickens Healthy

Chapter 2: Good Nutrition Means Healthy Chickens

Chapter 3: The Inner Chicken

Chapter 4: Mysteries of Metabolism

Chapter 5: What’s Bugging Your Birds

Chapter 6: When Chickens Get Wormy

Chapter 7: Diseases Caused by Protozoa

Chapter 8: Conditions Caused by Bacteria

Chapter 9: The Fungus Among Us

Chapter 10: Dieseases Caused by Viruses

Chapter 11: Management Issues

Chapter 12: Diagnostic Guides

Chapter 13: What’s Going on Inside

Chapter 14: Treatments and Therapies

Chapter 15: Your Chickens and Your Health

Quick Guide to Diseases and Disorders



Other Storey Books By Gail Damerow


Share Your Experience!


Numerous knowledgeable specialists took time out of their busy schedules to help bring this edition up to date (any errors that remain are entirely my own). Thanks go to H. John Barnes, DVM, PhD, North Carolina State University (fungi); Paul Bukaveckas, PhD, Virginia Commonwealth University (algae); Gary Butcher, DVM, PhD, University of Florida (parasites); Ron Kean, poultry specialist, University of Wisconsin (small flock issues); G. Lynne Luna, DVM, Banfield Pet Hospital, Eugene, Oregon (diseases of backyard chickens); Larry L. McDougald, PhD, University of Georgia (parasites); Richard D. Miles, professor emeritus, University of Florida (nutrition); Eugene S. Morton, PhD, York University (technical guidance); Beth A. Valentine, DVM, PhD, Oregon State University (pathology); Susan E. Watkins, PhD, University of Arkansas (small flock issues). And, of course, to my wonderful husband, Allan Damerow, who patiently suffered through daily dialogs on the nature of chicken wellness.


A lot has happened since the release of the first edition of this book. New technologies have changed the way we view the well-being of chickens, making us more certain of some things and less certain of others. The Internet has given us better access to academic research and to rapid communication with specialists.

More people than ever before raise chickens, providing unique insights due to their diverse educational and professional backgrounds. Online poultry forums have given us a clearer consensus on the issues of backyard flocks compared to problems of industrially produced chickens, or ailments induced and studied under laboratory conditions.

More small-animal veterinarians are accepting chickens as patients — indeed, many of them have chickens of their own — and today’s chicken keepers are more inclined than in the past to seek veterinary care. And not least of all, I have had two decades of additional experience keeping my own chickens healthy.

So what started out as a simple update to the first edition has turned into a complete revision. As I reviewed where to start, I first decided to expand the chapter on incubation and brooding, which ended up becoming an entirely new and separate book, Hatching & Brooding Your Own Chicks, issued by Storey Publishing.

I then added a new chapter on metabolic disorders and split the old chapter on infectious diseases into three separate chapters, respectively, on bacterial diseases, fungi, and viruses. These changes provided more room to expand on emerging new diseases, our current understanding of old diseases, and how any disease gets a foothold in a backyard flock. By understanding how disease-causing organisms work, we have a much better chance to prevent them.

Critics of the first edition of this book took exception whenever I suggested that culling (euthanizing a hopelessly sick chicken) is sometimes the best option. I understand that urban and suburban flocks are smaller than rural flocks of the past, and that accordingly each chicken becomes a beloved family pet, resulting in the perspective that culling is not an option. However, isn’t allowing a chicken to suffer, or to spread an incurable disease to other chickens, a worse option?

To minimize the likelihood that you will ever reach that point, this edition focuses on a preventive approach and on methods of natural immunity enhancement. A chicken with a strong immune system is better able to keep itself healthy and less in need of being treated for one ailment after another.

Make no mistake, however: the longer you keep chickens, and the more chickens you have at one time, the more likely you are sooner or later to encounter problems. But you’ll be less likely to find yourself dealing repeatedly with the same issues, if you learn how to manage or avoid each one the first time around.

This book is called The Chicken Health Handbook because its focus is on keeping your chickens healthy. By applying vigilance, knowledge, and common sense, you’ll find it’s not a difficult mission. Indeed, a few years ago the United States Department of Agriculture issued a report on small flock health and management that stated, Owners of backyard flocks report very few health problems.

Here’s to very few health problems in your own backyard flock!

Note: There are tables and info-graphics throughout. If they are hard to read, double-tap the image to open to fill the screen. Use the two-finger pinch-out method to zoom in. (These features are available on most e-readers.)

Chapter 1

Keeping Chickens Healthy

Healthy chickens are a joy to behold. They are bright-eyed, alert, curious, and lively as they chase butterflies or scratch in the soil and peck at a bug, a blade of grass, or a seed of grain — all the while vocalizing over their accomplishments. They regularly visit the feeder and drinker, take dust baths, groom their glossy feathers, stretch out to enjoy the warm sun, and take frequent catnaps. At dusk they flock inside to settle on the roost side by side for the night.

Even while a chick is growing within the egg, it has the beginnings of an active immune system that continues to develop after the chick hatches. Along with other natural defenses, the chicken’s strong immune system helps it resist disease as long as the bird remains in a wholesome environment: one that is clean, free of hazards, and safe from predators; one that provides adequate space, light, ventilation, fresh water, and suitable feed; and one that protects the flock from unnecessary stress.

The Nature of Disease

Disease is a departure from health, and it includes any condition that impairs normal body functions. Disease results from a combination of indirect causes that reduce resistance — in other words, stress in one form or another — and direct causes that produce the actual disease.

Direct causes of disease may be divided into two categories: infectious and noninfectious. Noninfectious diseases result from things other than an invading organism, such as nutritional problems (deficiency or excess), poisons, traumatic injury, or even excessive stress.

Infectious diseases result from invasion of the body by another living organism — bacteria, viruses, fungi, protozoa, and a variety of internal and external parasites. Some are always present but cause disease only under certain circumstances, such as when a chicken’s resistance is weakened because of stress. Such microbes are called opportunists.

A few microbes produce disease wherever they occur. They are commonly known as germs, although technically they are pathogens and are described as being pathogenic. Variations in virulence among different strains of a specific pathogen can cause the same disease to appear in different degrees of severity or even in different forms altogether.

Speaking of Disease

biosecurity. Collective disease-prevention management practices

contagious. Readily transmitted from one individual or flock to another

fomite. Any inanimate object on which pathogens may be transported from one place to another

infectious. Capable of invading and multiplying in the living tissue of another organism, thus causing disease

opportunist. A pathogen that is noninfectious to a healthy individual but causes infection in one with reduced immunity

pathogen. A microorganism that causes infection, disease, or death by living on or in another organism as a parasite. Commonly called a germ

pathogenic. Capable of causing disease

primary pathogen. A pathogen that is capable of infecting an individual with a healthy immune system

Reservoirs of Infection

Regardless of a disease’s cause, before you can effectively control it, you need to know how the disease is introduced into a flock and how it spreads among the chickens. Diseases are introduced from reservoirs of infection, which can be any source or site where disease-causing organisms survive or multiply and from which they may be transferred to a susceptible host — in this case, a chicken. A reservoir of infection may or may not be another living being.

A chicken can serve as its own reservoir of infection, as occurs when a disease is caused by a microbe that normally lives on or in a chicken’s body without causing disease. Examples are streptococci and Pasteurella bacteria, both of which infect a chicken after its resistance has been weakened by some other cause. A sick chicken is, of course, a reservoir of infection, as is also an infected dead chicken that is pecked by other hens.

Some disease-causing organisms, such as the infectious bronchitis virus, are species specific to chickens, meaning they affect only chickens and no other type of animal. Other diseases may be shared by more than one species of poultry. Sometimes microbes that are harmless to one species can be devastating to chickens. One such microbe is the Marek’s disease virus, which is common and harmless in turkeys but potentially deadly to chickens.

A reservoir of infectious microbes that affect chickens need not be some type of poultry. It might be a wild bird, or an exotic or cage bird kept as a household pet. Or it might not be a bird at all. Other pets, livestock, or rodents and other wild animals, even humans, can be reservoirs of an infectious disease that affects chickens. Salmonella bacteria is an example of a microbe that infects a wide variety of vertebrates, including humans. A few infectious organisms that parasitize chickens spend part of their life cycles living in arthropods — fleas, mites, ticks, lice, and mosquitoes — and can spread disease to chickens through those creatures’ bites.

Inanimate reservoirs of infection are nonliving objects that harbor disease-causing microbes. Among them are accumulated droppings, litter, soil, dust, and feed or water in which an accumulation of pathogens survives or thrives.

When a chicken falls ill, knowing where the disease came from — the reservoir of infection — can help you control the disease and prevent future occurrences. You also need to know how the pathogen got from the reservoir of infection into the chicken.


Carriers are major reservoirs of infection for many chicken diseases. A carrier is an individual that appears to be healthy even though its body harbors a pathogenic organism. A carrier may be a chicken that has recovered from a disease, or a chicken that never showed any signs of having been infected.

Either way, these stealth carriers are especially dangerous for backyard flocks, because they go around infecting other chickens without offering much indication that they might be the cause. A potential clue is that other chickens fall ill while the carrier remains apparently healthy.

The older a chicken is, the more exposure it has to disease-causing organisms in the environment, and the more likely it is to be a carrier of one disease or another. Since growing and adult chickens carry levels of microbes to which chicks and young birds have not yet developed resistance, mixing together chickens of various ages from various sources is always a hazardous practice.

Disease Happens

The vast majority of microbes are either harmless or actually beneficial. Beneficial microbes may live either on a chicken’s skin or within its body, aiding digestion and/or enhancing the bird’s immunity by fending off pathogenic microbes, a process known as competitive exclusion. (For more on this subject, see Probiotics and Prebiotics.)

Given the opportunity, however, some organisms that normally live on or in a healthy chicken can multiply to the point that they become harmful. Such an opportunity most commonly occurs in a chicken with an immune system that has been somehow weakened, perhaps by poor nutrition, a parasite overload, or excessive stress.

In contrast to these opportunistic organisms, other disease-causing organisms are primary pathogens. These organisms are not commonly found in the typical poultry environment, but when they arise from a reservoir of infection, they are capable of infecting a chicken with a perfectly healthy immune system.

Such an organism enters the chicken by being inhaled into the bird’s respiratory system or taken into its digestive system with feed or water. Or the pathogen might be on or burrow into the chicken’s skin, scales, or feathers, or invade the body through an open wound.

How Diseases Spread

Once introduced into an individual chicken, a disease may or may not be capable of spreading to other chickens. A disease that is caused by a primary pathogen is more likely to be contagious than one caused by an opportunistic organism. Brooder pneumonia, for example, is caused by opportunistic fungi and does not spread from chick to chick, while ringworm is caused by a primary pathogen and is contagious.

A contagious disease can spread either vertically or horizontally. Vertical transmission always involves direct contact between the infected chicken and the one that becomes infected. Horizontally transmitted diseases may be spread by either direct or indirect contact.

Vertical transmission is the spread of a disease from an infected hen to her eggs, and subsequently to chicks that hatch from the infected eggs. Some viruses can be vertically transmitted to chicks from an infected cock through the semen that fertilizes a healthy hen’s eggs.

Horizontal transmission is the spread of a disease from one chicken to another by means other than from an infected breeder to offspring through eggs that hatch. Horizontally transmitted diseases don’t necessarily require direct contact between a healthy chicken and a sick one.

Direct and Indirect Contact

Direct contact occurs when an infected bird and a susceptible bird mate with, peck, or preen one another. Diseases that spread through contact with the skin of an infected bird include pox and influenza (caused by viruses) and staphylococcal and streptococcal infections (caused by opportunistic bacteria). Staph and strep infections also spread through mucus-to-mucus contact during mating.

Indirect contact occurs when pathogens are mechanically transported from a reservoir of infection to a chicken that becomes infected. As with reservoirs of infection, modes of transportation can be either animate or inanimate. However, here the animal or object doing the transporting is not itself the original source of infection but is merely giving the pathogen a ride from one place to another. Logically enough, an object that gives a pathogen a lift is called a vehicle.

Where microbes are normally found on and in a healthy chicken

Vehicles of Transmission

Animate vehicles of transmission are living beings, which might be wild birds, rodents, household pets, or other animals that transport pathogens on their feet, feathers, or fur (as distinct from diseased animals that are reservoirs of infection, spreading disease through their saliva or droppings). Flies and other arthropods can transport pathogens on their feet or bodies (as distinct from infected arthropods that spread disease by injecting contaminated saliva). Humans can transport pathogens on their clothing, shoes, hair, or hands when they visit each other’s flocks, travel from flock to flock to inspect or vaccinate, make deliveries, or attend a poultry show.

Inanimate vehicles of transmission are nonliving objects on which pathogens are transported from one place to another. They include shed skin, feathers, droppings, broken eggs, and other debris from infected birds. These bodily discharges can be transported to healthy chickens in contaminated feed or water. They might also be transported by air, which wafts dust, fluff, fine bits of dried droppings, and droplets of respiratory moisture expelled by breathing, sneezing, or coughing. Luckily, most airborne infections don’t spread far.

A common vehicle is a single needle used for flockwide vaccination or blood sampling of both infected and susceptible birds. Reused items, such as egg cartons, feeders, drinkers, and tires (of a car, truck, tractor, mower, or wheelbarrow), are other objects to which body discharges containing pathogens may cling and be transported.

In veterinary jargon any inanimate object on which a pathogen hitches a ride is called a fomite, from the Latin word fomes, meaning tinder. A pathogen can travel on a fomite for hundreds of miles before setting off a new disease outbreak.

Vertical Transmission

Horizontal Transmission

Direct Contact

Indirect Contact


Biosecurity encompasses all precautions you take to protect your flock from infectious diseases. The fewer precautions you take, the greater the risk that sooner or later a disease will affect your chickens.

On the other hand, no set of biosecurity measures, no matter how strict, is 100 percent foolproof in preventing disease. The best you can do to protect your flock is to follow a well-thought-out program of interrelated measures that are grounded in old-fashioned common sense. Your biosecurity program should include the following measures:

Start with healthy chickens.

Feed them a balanced ration (discussed in the next chapter, in Chicken Feed).

Maintain a flock history.

Provide a sound environment.

Routinely clean their housing.

Disinfect as necessary.

Keep a closed flock, or quarantine newcomers.

Exclude wild birds.

Minimize stress.

Medicate only as necessary.

Acquire Healthy Chickens

Maintaining a healthy flock is difficult unless you start out with healthy chickens. The best way to make sure new birds are healthy is to purchase locally, so you can see whether or not they come from a healthful environment. You can then ask the seller, eye to eye, about the birds’ ages and health history, and you can see for yourself if any of the seller’s birds show signs of diseases that might be carried by the birds you plan to buy.

You’ll have the least chance of getting diseased birds if you start with newly hatched chicks. The older the bird, the more disease problems it has been exposed to. If you do purchase older chickens, take your time inspecting them. Make sure they have glossy plumage, look perky and active, and don’t show any signs of stress behavior (see Stress Management).

Flocks and hatcheries enrolled in the National Poultry Improvement Plan are certified to be free of several serious infectious diseases (see NPIP, below). Unfortunately, you may not find a member who has the kind of birds you want.

Don’t buy any chicken unless you are completely satisfied with its background in terms of genetics, management, sanitation, and health history. Above all, avoid chicks or grown chickens from live-bird auctions, flea markets, wheeler-dealers, traders, uncertified hatcheries, and any other source where chickens are brought together from far-flung places.


The National Poultry Improvement Plan (NPIP) is a nationwide collaboration between state and federal departments of agriculture to certify member flocks as being free of the following diseases:

Avian influenza — a potentially serious viral infection of chickens that can also infect humans

Chronic respiratory disease — and other infections caused by pathogenic species of mycoplasma bacteria

Fowl typhoid — an egg-transmitted bacterial disease that kills both baby chicks and mature chickens

Pullorum — an egg-transmitted bacterial disease that kills baby chicks, as well as hatchlings of many other poultry species

Salmonella enterica — an egg-transmitted bacterial disease of poultry that can affect humans who eat contaminated eggs

An online keyword search for NPIP will yield detailed information on the program, including a directory of certified hatcheries and flocks.

Keep a Flock History

A flock history is essentially a diary that documents anything and everything pertaining to your flock. Start it the moment you acquire your first chickens, noting the date (or date of hatch — if you purchase by mail, it will be on the shipping carton), source, strain (if known), anything the seller tells you about the birds and their history, and any health certificates that come with them.

Document your feed source(s), feeding and management practices, and any changes you make as you go along, including vaccinations you give and medications you use. Write things down as they occur, rather than trusting your memory to reconstruct events should you later need the information to help trace a health problem.

You don’t need to make elaborate notes. In most cases, the date, along with a few key words, should be sufficient. The Flock History table lists some of the information that would be vital should your chickens come down with an infectious disease.

A Sound Environment

The way you house your chickens can influence their continuing state of health. Most poultry housing falls into one of the following categories:

Cage confinement — favored for show birds and pedigreed breeders

Confinement housing — favored for fast-growing broilers, breeder flocks, and floor-managed layers

Range confinement — favored for pasture-raised broilers and sometimes layers

Free range — favored for laying flocks where sufficient forage is available

Coop and yard — the most common method used for urban and suburban flocks, and others where space is limited

Chickens raised on an industrial scale are confined entirely indoors for several reasons, among them that lighting can be strictly controlled, air can be filtered, water systems can be easily medicated, and diseases that are spread by flying insects and wild birds can be more effectively excluded. If there is a major problem, the manager will remove all the chickens, clean and disinfect the facilities, and then bring in an entirely new flock.

While confined flocks are protected from some diseases, as a trade-off they incur other health issues due to lack of sunshine, fresh air, and activity. In addition, if a contagious disease does manage to get into their crowded environment, it spreads like wildfire.

Backyard chickens typically have more space to roam, as well as having access to fresh air and sunshine. They not only develop stronger immune systems, but pathogens that might wander in are more likely to get diluted by air and space.

By far the most common method of housing backyard chickens is in a coop constructed in a fixed location, with a fenced run attached. The challenge in keeping chickens healthy in such a situation is that microbe and parasite populations accumulate over years of constant use. Therefore, the single most important feature of any chicken facility is ease of cleaning. If cleanup is a hassle, you won’t do it as often as you ought, and your chickens will suffer for it.


A coop’s flooring influences its ease of cleaning. Several different types of flooring are common in backyard coops.

A dirt floor is simple and cheap, and it keeps birds cool in warm weather. Its disadvantages are that it’s colder in winter, does not exclude burrowing rodents, and cannot be effectively sanitized.

A wood floor invariably has cracks that get packed with filth, and most are too close to the ground, providing a hiding place that invites invasion by rodents. (For more on rodents, see Rodent Control.)

Sheet linoleum covering a wood floor is a popular option in small and suburban coops because it’s easier to clean than plain wood. The chief disadvantages are that it may not hold up under repeated cleanings, and bored chickens may take a notion to peck it to pieces. (For potential toxic issues, see Vinyl Flooring.)

A droppings pit fashioned from wooden slats or welded wire covering a boxlike pit may be set up directly beneath the nighttime roost, where most poop accumulates, or it can cover the entire coop floor. It has the advantage that poop will fall through, where chickens can’t pick in it. The pit must be periodically cleaned out before the accumulated droppings reach the slats or wire.

A droppings pit consists of wooden slats or welded wire through which droppings fall and accumulate underneath where chickens can’t pick in them.

A droppings board is a smooth shelflike surface suspended beneath nighttime roosts. The collection of overnight poop is then scraped off each morning. The disadvantage is that cleaning the board is a daily chore. The advantage is that you will become well acquainted with your chickens’ droppings and can readily detect any changes in appearance or odor. For more information on examining droppings, see Intestinal Disorders.

A droppings board is a smooth, wide shelf installed underneath nighttime roosts, where droppings accumulate and are scraped off each morning.

Concrete, when well finished, is the most expensive flooring, but it requires minimal repair and upkeep, is easy to clean, and discourages rodents and other burrowing predators.

Floor Space

Crowded conditions get filthy fast, reduce the flow of fresh air, and cause stress — all inducements to disease. When building a new chicken coop, the trick is to figure out how much space is adequate for the number of chickens you want plus their feeders, drinkers, roosts, nest boxes, and doorways, all arranged to allow the chicken keeper access for easy maintenance. Despite all best intentions, most chicken coops end up being too small. One of the main reasons is that coop designers forget to allow sufficient floor space for all the necessary fixtures.

Feeders and drinkers. When planning a new coop, figure 1 square foot for each feeder and each drinker. If your climate turns hot in the summer, allow space for an extra drinker to make sure your chickens don’t run out of water. If you have a big enough flock to accommodate more than one rooster, minimize territorial disputes by providing one feeder and one drinker for each rooster — spaced well apart — around which he can gather his harem of hens without conflict.

Nest boxes. Furnish one nest box per four to five hens and allow 1 square foot per nest box. If the nests are stacked in two rows, one on top of the other, allow 1 square foot (0.1 sq m) per lower row. For instance, for two nests stacked on top of two nests, allow a total of 2 square feet; for three on top of three, allow 3 square feet. Nests that are constructed on the outside of the coop do not require additional floor space.

Roosts. Allow at least 8 inches (20 cm) of roosting space per bird. If your roost is built on upright braces that rest on the floor, add 1 square foot (0.1 sq m) per brace that touches the floor. A smaller coop housing just a few chickens may manage with a roost that’s attached to the walls and therefore doesn’t require additional floor space.

Doors. For each people-size door that swings inward, allow 3 square feet (0.3 sq m). A door that swings outward does not require extra floor space, and neither does a pophole doorway.

Square footage per chicken. For each mature chicken allow the square footage indicated in the Sizing a Chicken Coop (per chicken) table. If your final calculation doesn’t handily accommodate dimensional lumber, round upward — a slightly larger than needed coop is always better than one that’s slightly too small.

Floor Space Worksheet

Let’s say you plan to have six Plymouth Rock hens. Rocks are midweight chickens, so allow 21 square feet (6 × 3.5) for the birds. You’ll have one feeder (1 square foot), one drinker (1 square foot), and two nests, stacked one on top of the other (1 square foot). Your door will swing outward (no floor space). You need only 4 feet (120 cm) of roost, which therefore could be attached to the walls (no floor space). Your total required floor space is 24 square feet, so your coop could be, for instance, 6 feet by 4 feet.

As another example, you plan to have 18 Araucanas, a light breed. The chickens will need 54 square feet (18 × 3). You plan to have one large hanging feeder (1 square foot) and two drinkers (2 square feet). You’ll need 12 feet of roosting space, which could consist of three 4-foot horizontals on two vertical braces (2 square feet), plus four stacked nest boxes (2 square feet) and a door that swings inward (3 square feet). The total is 64 square feet, or a coop measuring 8 feet by 8 feet.

Use the same method to determine how many chickens can be comfortably housed in an existing building. Let’s say the building is 75 square feet, the people door swings outward (no floor space required), and you plan to add nest boxes on the outside wall (no floor space required). You plan to have one feeder (1 square foot), two drinkers (2 square feet), and a roost with two upright braces (2 square feet) for a total of 5 square feet for fixtures. The floor space available for chickens is therefore 70 square feet (75 – 5). You want Rhode Island Reds, a midweight breed requiring 3.5 square feet per chicken, so the most chickens you should house in your retrofitted coop is 20 (70 ÷ 3.5).

Sizing a Chicken Coop (per fixture)

Sizing a Chicken Coop (per chicken)

Metric conversion: 1 square foot = 930 square centimeters

Allow one nest box per four to five hens, and 1 square foot of floor space per nest box; half that if the nests are stacked. Nests constructed outside the coop do not take up floor space.

Allow 8 inches (20 cm) of roost space per chicken, and 1 square foot of floor space for each vertical brace. A roost attached entirely to the wall does not take up floor space.

Litter Management

Litter covering the floor absorbs droppings and moisture expelled by the flock. For chicks, use 3 inches (75 mm) or more of clean litter that’s absorbent, nontoxic, and free of mold, and has particles too large to be eaten. For adult birds, litter should be at least 8 inches (20 cm) deep.

A variety of different litter options is available. Dry pine shavings make excellent litter. Hardwood shavings, on the other hand, should be avoided because they tend to harbor molds that cause the respiratory disease aspergillosis. Cedar shavings, as well as pine that hasn’t been thoroughly dried, release toxic phenol fumes that can cause respiratory distress and therefore should not be used in confined spaces such as nest boxes or brooders.

Whether you remove and replace the litter once a week, once a month, or once a year will depend on the type of litter you use, how many chickens you have, and how big the coop is relative to flock size. The important thing is to maintain the litter so it remains fluffy and absorbent, not damp, packed, or smelly. Frequently raking the surface and sprinkling a little fresh litter on top is often all that’s needed for the bedding to keep doing its job.

Between thorough cleanings, remove and replace any litter that becomes packed or moist. Litter tends to pack at pophole openings and around feeders and can become damp at pophole openings (if rain can blow in) and around drinkers. Moist litter favors the growth of molds (such as those causing aspergillosis) and bacteria (that produce ammonia and other unpleasant gases), and aids the survival of viruses, protozoa (such as those causing coccidiosis), and nematodes (worms).

As necessary, but at least once a year, empty your coop, clean out and replace all the litter, and scrape droppings from the perches and walls (see Keep It Clean). Fall is the best time for this chore, since it gives your chickens fresh litter at the start of winter, when bad weather keeps them indoors much of the time. Compost the used litter, or spread it on soil where your chickens will not range for at least 1 year.


Fresh air dilutes the population of microbes, especially those that cause airborne diseases. Good ventilation keeps air in motion without causing drafty conditions and removes suspended dust and moisture. Moisture tends to be particularly high in a chicken house because birds breathe rapidly, thereby using more air in proportion to their size than any other animal. Other important benefits of good ventilation are to prevent the buildup of ammonia fumes and to avoid frostbitten combs and wattles in winter.

Providing an adequate flow of fresh air may require a fan to move out stale air and bring in fresh air. Fans are sold according to how many cubic feet of air they move per minute (cfm). A good rule of thumb is to get a fan that provides 5 cfm per bird.

A fan designed for use in your home won’t last long in the dust and humidity generated in the normal chicken shelter. To find a fan suitable for agricultural use, visit a farm store or rural-oriented builder’s supply, or do an Internet keyword search for barn fan or agricultural fan.

To tell if your coop would benefit from a fan, stir up dust by scuffing your foot in the litter. Wait 5 minutes for the dust to settle. Then look at a light beam coming through a window, or use the beam of a strong flashlight to check the air. If dust is still hanging in the air, the coop is not adequately ventilated.

The Chicken Yard

A fenced yard gives chickens a safe place to get the sunshine, fresh air, and exercise they need to remain healthy. A nice spacious area provides 8 to 10 square feet (0.75 to 1.0 sq m) per chicken. If your soil is neither sandy nor gravelly enough to provide good drainage, site your yard at the top of a hill or on a slope, where puddles won’t accumulate when it rains. A south-facing slope, open to full sunlight, dries fastest after a rain.

As many advantages as a fenced yard offers, it has one big disadvantage — chickens can quickly destroy the vegetation by pecking at it, scratching it up, pulling it up, and covering it with droppings. The smaller the yard, the quicker it will turn to either hardpan or mud, depending on your climate.

Where space for a yard is truly limited, and you have only a few pet chickens, one way to avoid the problem is to level the yard area and cover it with several inches of clean sand. Go over the sand every day with a grass rake to smooth out dusting holes and remove droppings and other debris.

The larger your yard, the better chance you’ll have of maintaining some vegetation in it. Since chickens are most active near their shelter, denuding will start around the entrance and work progressively outward. The best way to cope with this problem is to fence off part of the yard and let the chickens into only one section for several weeks or months before letting them into the next section. If you have enough space, you might establish two or more yards with a separate pophole door into each.

Keeping the chickens out of each yard long enough for vegetation to regrow reduces the concentration of pathogens and parasites. If this system is to work, the chickens must stay out of any resting yard(s), which means no flying over or ducking under fences. How often to rotate the flock from one yard to another depends on how fast the vegetation is destroyed and how long it takes to reestablish, which in turn depends on such things as the type of vegetation, your climate, the number of chickens, and the size of the yard.

Ammonia Check

Ammonia is a pungent-smelling gas released by bacteria that decompose manure. It not only smells bad and can be a health hazard for chickens and their keeper, but it is also an indication that nitrogen is literally evaporating — not a good thing if you count on using composted litter to fertilize your garden.

High levels of ammonia in the coop’s air can discourage chickens from eating, affecting the growth rate of young birds and the production of laying hens. Ammonia gas dissolves in fluid around the eyes, causing irritation, inflammation, and blindness. A chicken that can’t see to find sufficient feed and water may die. Even if affected chickens don’t die from ammonia blindness, they may contract (and die from) a respiratory infection caused by pathogenic bacteria entering through membranes in the upper respiratory tract that have been damaged by inhaled ammonia fumes.

Signs of ammonia-induced conjunctivitis are rubbing the eyes, reluctance to move, and staying away from sunlight. High levels of ammonia can also damage the mucous membranes of a bird’s respiratory tract, allowing bacteria, dust, and viruses to travel farther down the tract to cause disease.

Before the ammonia level is concentrated enough to cause conjunctivitis or respiratory damage to chickens, it is concentrated enough to be detected by the human sense of smell. To check the ammonia level in your coop, squat or bend down until your head is 1 foot (30 cm) above the litter, or about the height of a chicken’s head. Breathe normally for a moment or two. If your eyes, nose, or throat burn, the ammonia level is too high for your birds — refresh litter to decrease litter moisture, and improve ventilation. Once the condition is corrected, a chicken’s cells that were damaged by ammonia fumes should repair themselves within a couple of weeks.

The time-honored practice of attempting to neutralize odors by sprinkling agricultural lime on a dirt floor during coop clean-out actually turns out to be counterproductive. Lime is alkaline, and the bacteria that produce ammonia thrive in an alkaline environment. By increasing the pH level, lime accelerates the release of ammonia. Better options for neutralizing ammonia, as well as reducing litter moisture, are diatomaceous earth (DE) and absorbent clay (bentonite or montmorillonite), sold as horse-stall conditioners. Some stall fresheners contain a combination of DE and clay.

Keep It Clean

After a period of continuous use, chicken housing becomes contaminated with pathogens that may eventually reach infectious levels. Regular cleanup (at least once a year) does not eliminate microbes, but it does keep them at bay. A thorough cleaning will remove an estimated 95 percent of contamination.

Dry cleaning is not nearly as effective as using water, and hot water cleans better than cold water. Detergent (or a 4 percent washing soda solution) added to the hot water reduces surface tension and helps the water penetrate and soften organic matter. In addition to this benefit, detergents are mildly germicidal.

During cleanup, wear a dust mask and avoid inhaling poultry dust, which can cause human respiratory problems. Methodically follow these steps:

1. Choose a warm day when the facility will dry quickly.

2. Suppress dust by lightly misting everything with water and a bit of detergent.

3. Remove all equipment that’s portable, including feeders, drinkers, nests, and perches.

4. Remove all used litter; compost it or spread it on land where your chickens will not range for at least a year.

5. Use a broom, brush, or shop vac to remove dust and cobwebs from all surfaces, including the ceiling and walls.

6. Brush, blow, or vacuum dust from such fixtures as fans, vents, and heaters.

7. Use a hoe or other scraper to remove manure and dirt clinging to the floor, walls, and perches; as long as you can see manure or dirt, keep scraping.

8. Turn off electricity, and protect electrical equipment and outlets with watertight covers or duct tape.

9. Systematically apply hot water, mixed with detergent or washing soda, to the ceiling, walls, floor (other than dirt), and washable equipment with a long-handled brush or a fruit-tree sprayer that delivers a pressure of 400 pounds per square inch (psi) for good penetration.

10. Open doors and windows, and turn on the ventilation fan, to air out and dry the housing before letting the chickens back in.

11. Finish the job by removing any discarded equipment or other debris that may have accumulated in the yard since your last cleanup.


A thorough cleaning is usually all that’s needed to effectively sanitize a chicken coop and related equipment. In this case, sanitizing is defined as reducing the number of microbes to a tolerable level. Soap or detergent used during cleaning does not function as a disinfectant, but once coop debris has been thoroughly removed, most remaining microbes can’t survive long.

Following a disease outbreak, however, or prior to introducing used equipment into your chickens’ environment, disinfection is essential. As distinct from sanitizing, disinfecting involves using some means to either inactivate or kill any microbes that might remain after a thorough cleaning.

Not all disinfectants work equally well against all pathogenic organisms. Following a disease outbreak, a veterinarian or poultry pathologist can help you select the appropriate disinfectant for your situation. Once you have a positive diagnosis, the published manufacturer/label information sheet for any given disinfectant will tell you if it is effective against that pathogen. Manufacturer/label information sheets are available online, usually in PDF format, from manufacturers, as well as from many disinfectant suppliers.

Chemical Disinfectants

A suitable disinfectant should be readily available, relatively inexpensive, and easy to use. Other characteristics of a good disinfectant include the following:

It should be safe for use around your chickens and you.

It should not be corrosive to the equipment it’s used on.

It should not have an unpleasant or lingering odor.

It should be effective against a wide range of pathogens.

It should remain effective for some time following application.

It should be stable when diluted in water or exposed to air.

If you have hard water, an additional essential attribute is solubility in hard water. Here are some chemical disinfectants suitable for use in a poultry environment:

Bleach. One of the most readily available and inexpensive disinfectants is ordinary household bleach (such as Clorox and Purex), the active ingredient of which is sodium hypochlorite. The average strength of sodium hypochlorite in laundry bleach is approximately 5 percent, although strength varies from brand to brand and decreases with length of storage. Bleach works best when mixed in warm water but evaporates rapidly, so prepare a fresh solution before each use. For disinfecting purposes use ¹⁄4 cup bleach per gallon of hot water (15 mL/L).

The effectiveness of bleach as a disinfectant depends in part on how much bleach is added to water, but more so on the water’s pH. The less alkaline the water, the better bleach works as a disinfectant against bacteria and many viruses.

The chief disadvantages to bleach are that it is irritating to the skin, eyes, and respiratory tract and is corrosive to metal. And if you’re not careful, you can end up with bleached-out blotches all over your clothing.

Another type of bleach that makes a stronger disinfectant than sodium hypochlorite, but is safer for both birds and humans, is chlorine dioxide. Like sodium hypochlorite, chlorine dioxide is used to sanitize municipal drinking water. It is also used by manufacturers to bleach flour white. Oxine AH (animal health) is a brand sold for livestock use. It is more effective than sodium hypochlorite; has no odor; works against a broad range of bacteria, viruses, and fungi; and is relatively inexpensive because only low concentrations are needed. On the downside it degrades rather rapidly and therefore has no lasting effectiveness.

Vinegar. Vinegar contains acetic acid, which kills most bacteria and many fungi and viruses. It is biodegradable and deodorizing and at low strengths is nontoxic to humans and chickens. Most brands of vinegar — whether apple cider, raw, or distilled — contain about 5 percent acetic acid, making them relatively expensive because they must be used full strength to be effective. Heinz cleaning vinegar, at 6 percent acidity, is more effective as a disinfectant. Horticultural vinegar (such as Bradfield and Nature’s Wisdom), marketed as a weed killer, is 20 percent acidity, making it highly corrosive to metal, and toxic if swallowed or inhaled. Further, concentrations of acetic acid greater than 11 percent are extremely caustic and can burn your skin on contact and cause permanent eye damage. For use as a disinfectant, horticultural vinegar should be diluted to 10 percent acidity by carefully mixing it half-and-half with water.

Citric acid. Citric acid alone does not have a broad spectrum of effectiveness unless it is combined with some other substance with disinfecting properties. The brand PureGreen24, for instance, is combined with ionic silver. Citric acid disinfectants are rapidly effective against bacteria, fungi, and viruses, nontoxic to humans and chickens, and need not be rinsed after application. They are effective deodorizers, noncaustic, and noncorrosive. They are, however, extremely expensive, especially since they are used full strength.

Iodine. Organic iodines (such as Betadine) are less toxic to humans and chickens than any other disinfectant used around poultry, but are not practical for routine use because they can leave yellow or brown stains, and because most products are used full strength, making them costly. They may, however, be prescribed for disinfection following a disease outbreak. They are effective against most bacteria and some fungi, protozoa, and viruses. Organic iodines consist of iodine combined with something that makes it readily soluble in water of any temperature, and in hard water, but they lose effectiveness in alkaline water.

Phenols. Phenol is another name for carbolic acid, a coal-tar derivative and the standard by which all other disinfectants are measured. Common brand names include Lysol and Tek-Trol. Phenol smells like pine tar and turns milky when diluted in water. Mixed according to directions on the label, phenols are effective against bacteria, fungi, and many viruses; work in hard water; don’t leave stains; and have a long residual effect. Their chief disadvantages are that they are highly irritating to the skin, eyes, and respiratory tract; are known to be carcinogenic; and are especially toxic to cats.

Quats. Quaternary ammonium compounds (referred to as quats or QACs) are widely available at drugstores, pet shops, feed stores, and poultry supply outlets, and vary in composition from brand to brand. Common brand names include Germex and Roccal-D. Quats have no strong odor and leave no stains, and are deodorizing, noncorrosive, nonirritating, and relatively nontoxic. They are effective over a wide pH range against bacteria and somewhat effective against fungi and viruses. They are relatively expensive, but a little goes a long way when diluted according to the directions on the label. However, when inhaled or ingested, these products are toxic to birds; following disinfection a thorough rinsing and drying is therefore advised.

Factors Affecting Chemical Disinfectants

Five main factors influence the effectiveness of a chemical disinfectant. They are as follows:

Concentration. Too little disinfectant won’t do the job; too much can be toxic.

Temperature. Most, but not all, disinfectants work best at temperatures between 55°F and 110°F (13°C to 43°C).

pH. Quaternary ammonium compounds are more active at a high pH; bleach, iodine, and phenols are more effective at a low pH.

Contact. A disinfectant must have direct contact with microbes, which can’t happen if the microbes are hidden by droppings or other debris.

Contact time. Disinfectants take time to work; allow at least 20 minutes, unless a longer period is specified on the label.

Using Chemical Disinfectants

Most disinfectants don’t penetrate beyond the surface of chicken coop debris, and in some cases poop and other organic matter actually deactivate a disinfectant, so follow the steps under Keep It Clean for a thorough cleanup before applying any disinfectant. While you disinfect, keep the chickens out of the coop. Some disinfectants are toxic if consumed, can cause irritation on skin contact, and may be irritating to the eyes and respiratory system — especially if sprayed.

Don’t be tempted to increase a disinfectant’s effectiveness by combining it with detergent, washing soda, or any other cleaning product without first checking the label for compatibility. Mixing a disinfectant with another product may destroy the disinfectant’s effectiveness — or worse: in some cases the resulting chemical reaction is highly toxic.

Store disinfectants in a cool place, ideally away from children, pets, livestock, food, and feeds. To avoid the possibility of a dangerous error through misuse, keep disinfectants in their original containers with the labels intact.

Always dilute a disinfectant according to either directions on the label or instructions provided by a vet or poultry pathologist. Disinfectants that don’t work well in alkaline water may require the addition of an acidifier. Some disinfectants work best in hot water, while others evaporate quickly in warm or hot water.

When applying any disinfectant, avoid getting it on your skin or inhaling the fumes. Wear goggles to protect your eyes and a respirator to protect your respiratory tract. Work systematically, starting with the ceiling, then the walls, and finally the floor. Using a long-handled push broom to scrub in the disinfectant is safer than spraying, as it is less likely to get on your skin or be inhaled as droplets.

If the disinfectant changes color or looks dirty, it probably isn’t working well anymore, so mix a fresh batch. When you’re done inside the coop, don’t forget to disinfect your shovel, broom, rake, hoe, and other cleanup tools, as well as your boots.

Wait at least 20 minutes to give the disinfectant time to do its job before rinsing housing, fixture, and tools with plain water. Some disinfectants must be left in contact longer than 20 minutes, while others need not be rinsed at all, so check the label for rinsing requirements.

To protect your chickens from skin injury, respiratory irritation, or a potential toxic reaction from consuming disinfectant, allow housing to dry thoroughly, and leave it empty for as long as possible before letting your chickens back in. The safe time between application and letting your chickens in varies from 4 hours to 2 days and should be specified on the label.

Nonchemical Disinfectants

Not all disinfectants are chemicals. Here’s the rundown on readily available nonchemical disinfectants:

Hot water increases the effectiveness of some chemical disinfectants, and boiling water and live steam are both effective disinfectants in their own right.

Resting the coop by keeping chickens out for 2 to 4 weeks after cleanup further reduces the microbe population, since many microbes can’t live long in the absence of chickens.

Freezing weather deactivates some microbes, but not most viruses. The longer empty housing is exposed to freezing temperatures, the fewer microbes will survive.

Drying for a period of time after cleanup also reduces the population of microbes, but killing a significant number by drying can take a long time.

Sunlight speeds up drying of portable equipment (such as feeders, drinkers, nests, and roosts) and the parts of housing that can be opened up to direct rays. Sunlight does not penetrate deeply but will destroy microbes on the surface. Sunlight and normal soil activity will effectively disinfect a yard or run once the accumulation of organic wastes has been removed from the surface.

Heat produced by composting will destroy most of the bacteria, viruses, coccidial oocysts, and worm eggs present in litter. Heap the litter into a pile (but not on a wood floor, where it could start a fire). If the litter is dry, dampen it a little to start fermentation. Let the pile heat up to at least 125°F (52°C), leave it for 24 hours, then turn it so the outside is on the inside. Let it heat for another 24 hours before spreading the litter back out. Composting litter to destroy microbes is always a good idea, even when the litter will be used to fertilize a garden or field.

Flame is an effective disinfectant, but a hazardous one, especially around wood structures. It is best reserved to disinfect concrete pads and to sear away feathers stuck to wire cages, but take care: if you hold a torch to wire long enough for the wire to get hot, the galvanizing will be damaged. In some extreme cases (such as a severe tick infestation), burning contaminated housing is the only way to eliminate the contamination.

Closed Flock

Each flock is exposed to its own combination of pathogens, causing each to develop its own combination of immunities. Chickens from two perfectly healthy flocks, when mixed together, can therefore give each other diseases for which the others have developed no defenses.

Once your flock is established, the best way to avoid diseases is to keep a closed flock. Keeping a closed flock means your chickens have no direct or indirect contact with other birds. Complete avoidance is not always possible, but knowing where the dangers lie can help you keep them to a minimum. Maintaining a closed flock means you never:

mix chickens from various sources;

introduce new chickens into your flock;

return a chicken to your property once it’s been elsewhere;

visit other people’s flocks;

let owners of other flocks visit yours;

borrow or lend equipment; or

hatch eggs from outside sources.

Unfortunately for biosecurity, visiting other flocks is part of the fun of having chickens. If you do visit other flocks, wear rubber chore boots that you can scrub and disinfect afterward; keep a supply of inexpensive disposable overboot covers; or slip large plastic bags over your shoes and secure them with large rubber bands. When the visit is over, place the chore boots in a large plastic bag until you get them cleaned, or seal the overboot covers or plastic bags in a garbage bag for disposal. If other flock owners visit you, ask them to do the same, or have a supply of overboots or plastic bags for them to wear over their shoes. You may feel foolish and overly cautious, but you’ll feel even more foolish if visiting spreads a disastrous disease from one flock to another.

Quarantine Incoming Chickens

Trading and showing your chickens are other fun activities that create a nightmare for biosecurity. Although diseases are more likely to be spread by trading than by showing, occasionally a highly contagious disease (often infectious laryngotracheitis) makes the show rounds.

To be on the safe side, isolate any returning show bird (or incoming new chicken) for a month, and feed it only after you’ve taken care of all your other chickens. As an added security measure, house two or three sacrificial chickens from your flock with the isolated chicken to serve as sentinels. If your old chickens remain healthy by the end of the month, chances are pretty good the incoming chicken is also healthy.

Exclude Wild Birds

Wild birds can transmit diseases to chickens either by mechanically carrying pathogens on their feet and feathers, or by becoming infected and shedding pathogens in their poop and saliva as they travel around in their daily activities. Wild birds are attracted to chicken yards where gaps in coop construction provide suitable nesting sites and feed is readily available.

Native North American birds are not as problematic as nonnative species, which are much more numerous and tend to congregate in large numbers. Further, native birds are seriously endangered because of deforestation, wetland draining, being preyed on by nonnative species, and other disturbances to their natural environment. Disrupting the nesting sites of native species is therefore a federal offense. To discourage birds from visiting your chicken yard, don’t provide birdseed or nesting sites in or near your chicken yard; keep chicken feeders indoors, so spilled grain won’t attract wild birds; and, where possible, cover the top of your chicken run with wire or

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