Supportive Therapy for Chickens

I’m not talking about the need for psychotherapy (although if you’re talking about my birds, it’s debatable); I’m talking about SUPPORTIVE THERAPY.

Supportive therapy is what you administer to a sick bird to increase its chances for recovery. I realize that there are some cases where a Fancier may decide to ‘let the strong survive’, and some cases where the flock is just too large for supportive therapy to be practical. I am recommending that you help the bird that is valuable and warrants the extra effort. Perhaps the bird is the last of a bloodline, or the bird is a pet, or you just can’t stand by and watch the bird suffer without doing something more than the routine treatment.

The first thing to do is obtain a fairly certain diagnosis of the illness, and begin the necessary medical treatment. Supportive therapy will simply increase your chances of success. It’s not meant to replace the actual treatment with medication, etc. Next, determine whether the bird is contagious. If so, remove it from the flock immediately and quarantine it. If there is more than one bird affected and they’re accustomed to being together, don’t separate them. It creates more stress and works against you. It’s better to treat them together and allow them to have each other for company. If the weather is harsh, bring the bird indoors or provide the necessary temperature control. A sick bird will not survive in extreme temperatures. Once the bird is quarantined, work with the sick bird last, after working with your healthy flock. It reduces the risk of spreading disease. If you think it’s an airborne virus, keep the sick bird farther away and down-wind.

Keep their environment and routine as normal as possible. Every deviation from what they’re use to creates more stress. For example, if the bird was caged, try to keep it in the same cage. If the bird is valuable and you’ve got a ‘cull’ you can afford to lose that the valuable bird is used to being around, put the birds together. This alleviates stress if the sick bird is not used to being alone.

Start your bird on a good probiotic in the drinking water. A sick bird must drink and eat to survive. A liquid probiotic in the water will encourage them to drink more often. I recommend using the flavored liquid Lactobacillus Acidophilus found at any GNC store in most shopping malls. In addition to encouraging the bird to drink more, you’ll be replacing some of the good gut bacteria they’ll lose during treatment. An antibiotic will kill all of the bacteria in the gut – good and bad. Also, there are certain changes that take place in the intestinal tract during illness that make it difficult for the bird to absorb the very vitamins and minerals that are necessary for the bird’s recovery. Even if the bird is not on an antibiotic, the addition of probiotics remains beneficial because their use can prevent salmonella enteritis, which commonly occurs as a secondary infection in sick birds.

Also use a vitamin and mineral supplement in the drinking water, and make sure the older hens have access to ground oyster shell. Don’t give it to young pullets before first egg though because it can cause kidney damage.

Provide a high protein feed. Cell structure is vital for recovery from disease and cell structure is dependent on both the vitamin supplement and extra protein. (You don’t want to continue the high protein diet after recovery because it could cause other problems, but during therapy it’s vital.) I suggest you find a high protein game bird or pheasant starter. They usually carry a higher protein than the average feed. I like a 30% for this purpose. I have also found that Purina Kitten Chow is 40% protein and they love it. Getting the bird to eat what you give them is key and you may have to be creative here. Try a little creamed corn – it’s sweet and you can mix some pheasant or kitten chow into it. If the bird is taking in the kitten chow in whole pieces, add a piece of grit now and then.

If your bird won’t eat, you’ll have to hand feed. This is where you decide how valuable the bird is – it takes a lot of patience. Use a syringe without a needle for the twice-daily intake of water, but give it slowly so the bird has a chance to swallow between squirts. Add the vitamins, minerals, and probiotics right into this water. For the mash, I recommend mixing the pheasant chow crumbles into some room temperature milk. If you open their mouth and place a small amount on their tongue and let go of their mouth, they’ll work it down into their crop. I found the use of a 1/4 or 1/8th teaspoon metal measuring spoon works real well for this.

Keep their bedding clean and dust-free. They can’t handle the additional bacteria while trying to fight off something else, and breathing the dust draws bacteria into the lungs. You might have to buy litter that’s very small and completely filtered to accomplish this. The large bag of pine pet litter sold at Wal-Mart is pretty good for this. John Lyons also puts out a good horse stall pine bedding by the 8 cubic foot bag that has small particles and little dust.

If you use Oxine, fog the bird once a day. If you know the bird has an upper respiratory illness, fog them 3 times a day for at least 5 days. In this case, the Oxine actually becomes part of the treatment. You can also use Oxine to fog your entire coop when you think you have an airborne virus or fungus. For routine prevention, I fog my coop once a week. If I hear coughing, sneezing, or chirping, I fog more often. If you’re new to Oxine, check out my article here.

Handle your bird as little as possible. Even if they’re hand-reared as pets, handling them causes additional stress. When a bird is stressed, a hormone change takes place that lowers the pH in their gut and creates a bacteria-friendly environment for bad bacteria.

Provide daily exercise if the bird is mobile. Take them out of their cage once a day to allow them to stretch their wings and legs. If you don’t, you’ll be increasing the risk of cage fatigue, which can be a life-threatening illness. To encourage wing flap, simply hold the bird in your hand facing you with legs secure and move slowly up and down. On the down stroke, they’ll probably open their wings. Don’t get fast or rough here – the purpose is to get them to open their wings, not scare them into thinking they’re going to fall. And don’t hold them upside down to get them to open their wings – it risks their health further.

Encourage walking to stretch the legs by offering them a tidbit they love. I use white bread. Offer tiny pieces in your fingers just in front of them. Make them either stretch or walk forward in order to get it. Once the bird begins recovery and gets stronger, offer the tidbits just above their head to encourage a small jump. Gradually move the small jumps up to flying up to your knee or shoulder to get the treat. This progression should take place slowly over time so you don’t exhaust the bird in the beginning of their recovery. But limit the treats because the bird will fill up on them and won’t eat the high protein feed they need to recover.