Chickens have historically been used for eggs and meat. When egg production slowed down, the bird became table meat in the time of our parents and grandparents.
Once a hen is past her second year, the egg laying machinery slows down. Although she may lay into her fourth year, it’s unlikely (but not unheard of) that she will continue to lay.
Currently, commercial farmers and poultry raisers generally still cull birds at their second year or before- economically it makes sense for them.
However, thankfully for a great many backyard chickens, things have changed dramatically.
To many of us, our birds have become a family ‘extension’ like a pet. The hen still provides us with a good deal of happiness, smiles and interaction that psychologically make us content and happy.
As your birds age, they have to deal with several issues which are similar in nature to human aging. Problems can include decreased mobility, intestinal problems, reproductive problems, tumors and general debility.
This article is intended as a general guide to caring for your elderly and/or disabled hens.
What to do With Elderly Hens
When initially thinking about starting with chickens, few people seem to think about what will happen when their hens become older and no longer lay weekly, never mind daily!
Many of us know the signs of slowing down in their birds- egg production slows and eggs become thinner shelled or misshapen. The reproductive tract is closing down slowly. Now what?
If you have limited space in which to keep your hens, it can be a dilemma for those who don’t want to cull non-productive birds.
You still want hens that will lay, so you need new birds but you don’t want to kill your old ladies but you have no room…what do you do?
Sadly there are no retirement homes for chickens, so if they are going to retire it will be in your yard-unless you know someone who has the space and kind heartedness to take on senior hens.
How to Keep Aging Hens Mobile and Active
One of the biggest issues for older birds is mobility and agility. Many older birds suffer with arthritis or articular gout (joint inflammation) as they age. The leg joints bear the brunt of wear and tear and can become inflamed, swollen and stiff as the bird ages.
Does this sound familiar? As with humans, these ‘arthritic’ type changes can seriously affect mobility.
You can help older birds overcome this by making perches lower and a bit wider, also building a simple ramp up into the coop if necessary.
If the scales of the legs become very dry, an occasion application of Vaseline or similar will help to keep the scales a little more supple. I use a homemade salve of plantain and comfrey; it has mild anti-inflammatory properties and can reduce skin irritation.
If she doesn’t do much foraging or scratching, her nails may become a problem. Just as you can trim dog and cat claws, you can trim a chicken’s claws using regular nail clippers.
You only need to take the tip off- beware of cutting too far down the claw as it will be painful and bleed! If that happens, use cornstarch or a styptic pen to stop the bleeding.
As long as your hen can get around, eat/drink and appears otherwise content, supportive care is all she needs at this time.
Common Problems with Old Chickens
Visceral gout is one of the most common issues with older chickens and can be very serious- the end result can be kidney failure leading to death.
This can be caused by several things including:
- Excessive dietary calcium with low availability of phosphorus.
- Using feed with more than 30% protein.
- Water deprivation.
Older birds should be kept on 16% protein ration continually to reduce the likelihood of visceral gout, the only exception being during molt season.
Chickens are very prone to tumors- diseases such as Mareks and lymphoid leucosis illustrate this well. Needless to say, as the bird ages the likelihood of tumors increases. Vigilance is the key here since little can be done for these diseases currently.
Egg Machinery Failure
As hens age their ‘egg machinery’ goes into decline and eventually ceases to produce eggs. Older hens are much more prone to severe health issues related to the malfunctioning of the egg cycle. Problems such as peritonitis (from internal laying) and salpingitis (inflammation of the ovaries) can be fairly common.
In both of these cases a veterinarian should be consulted since the hen will likely need antibiotics.
Real Life Stories of Caring For Disabled Chickens
There are many wonderful people out there who care for disabled chickens. These birds obviously need lots of time, care and attention from their owners.
The disabilities are varied- from blindness to inability to walk.
In talking with several caring owners, I have been happily surprised to hear the lengths that some folks will go to care for these birds.
The needs extend from special eating cups for crossbeaks to shoes and walking apparatus for those with walking difficulties. Many of these special appliances have been made by enterprising people finding unique solutions to a problem!
Sparkle is one such lucky chicken, an olive egger just under a year old.
As a chick she suffered a bacterial infection in her feet. She eventually lost one foot completely and part of the other foot, it took months to save her. Her home is with artist Robin Rusk Gorton.
Sparkle is part of the family– a house chicken. She sleeps in the master bathroom on towels at night. In the morning, she has scratch and cuddle time with Robin in her studio. Robin says she is a talkative hen and lets you know when something is out of the ordinary!
Sparkle gets daily checks on her legs to make sure she doesn’t have any pressure sores and she gets frequent baths since she cannot roost and gets a bit ‘poopy’. If her legs do become sore, she has a special pair of custom made red shoes to wear!
Since she has lost some of her ability to regulate her temperature with the loss of her feet, Robin has to adjust the house thermostat to keep Sparkle comfortable.
Another lucky girl is Zinnia, who lives with Megan Eaton. Zinnia had severe mobility problems from birth and was unable to eat or drink well due to this.
Megan had a wonderful veterinarian that worked with her to help Zinnia. She has made tremendous progress with massages, special walking boots and a chicken ‘wheelchair’.
She can now walk on her own!
For Megan, her ‘proto-chicken’ was Ginny. Ginny was always sick, but with love, patience and lots of care she lived for many months. Megan says Ginny was her ‘gateway’ chicken to special needs birds.
Carolyn Bartczak runs a Chicken Sanctuary in Northeast Pennsylvania, where she cares for around forty seven hens of different ages and abilities.
Her special needs favorite is Myrtle- a one-eyed crossbeak. Myrtle needs to have easily accessible food to scoop with her beak. Occasionally her beak gets filed down to make eating a bit easier for her.
Note: With crossbeaks, you need to pay regular attention to the beak to ensure the bird can eat. A nail file can be used- caution should be exercised with clippers since the bird may move quickly causing you to trim move than required.
It’s at this point I’d like to thank everyone who has shared their stories about treating and living with special needs birds- there is precious little information available about dealing with such birds so it’s important we share information and ideas!
Until recently most chickens lived short lives, but thankfully many people now look upon their chickens as pets, not just ‘egg-laying’ livestock.
Increasingly, chickens are living longer, more comfortable lives and this in turn leads to disease and ailments of old age.
As noted, little research has been done on elderly chickens, perhaps this will change in the future.
Caring for an older or disabled hen is time consuming and requires a great deal of time and effort. The amount of research and thought that goes into caring for some of these hens is truly astounding.
Looking after a ‘special needs’ chicken is certainly not for everyone, but these dedicated people prove that it can be done.
If you care for elderly or challenged birds, we would love to hear your story and how you care for them in the comments below!