How To Care For Older and Disabled Chickens

How To Care For Older and Disabled Chickens Blog Cover

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.

Buff Orpington
Why Can’t Hens Stay Young Like This!?

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.

Example of a Low Perch
Here is my low perch for my old girls!

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

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.

Tumors

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

Sparkle is one such lucky chicken, an olive egger just under a year old.

Sparkle
Everyone meet Sparkle! A 1 year old olive egger.

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!

Sparkle Red Shoes
Sparkle’s Red Shoes

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.

Zinnia

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’.

Zinnia
Zinnia in her Walker

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.

Myrtle

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!

Summary

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!

Comments

  1. Ualani Chinen says

    Thank you for this article. It didn’t help me much but, it made me realize that some chickens have it worse off. My crooked mouth chicken is very special to the whole family. And it’s nice to see everyone in the house helping with her and keeping an eye out for her all the time. The only way she will eat is if my finger moves her food constantly. it takes a good 15 minutes before i can feel food in her stomach. I try to do it at least 3 times a day.

    • The Happy Chicken Coop says

      Hi Ualani,

      It’s so nice to hear that there are such caring people out there in the world!

      Good luck for you and your hen 🙂

      Claire

  2. Mary says

    I have a 5 week old disabled chick with a leg deformity like Zinnia. I was able to correct her feet, but not the turned out leg. She has very little mobility. I would love to get instructions on how to build a walker like Zinnia has. Also, is Sparkle’s poop bag home made? I plan on caring for this disabled chick and need all the help I can get. She is living in a very large box with disposable bed liners. Shavings were too irritating to her underside. I would like to get her up and rolling. This chick has a will to live.

    • The Happy Chicken Coop says

      Hi Mary,

      It’s so nice to hear there are other people out there trying as well 🙂

      I have emailed Zinnia’s owner Megan, so fingers crossed I will have some more information for you shortly.

      Claire

  3. Patricia Walden says

    I have a 13 week of hen I hatched out named Charity. She has a neurological disease in her feet and legs, passed down through her blood line. She has a special cage . It’s real hard for her to walk she eats good. I massage her feet and keep them clean and make sure circulation is going through or toes she comes out of her cage and sits in front of the TV on her soft blankie and watches TV she’s a very loving chicken and I will care for her to the day she passes I would like to find out how can I get her a chicken wheelchair and how much they cost so she can walk around the house and it won’t be so hard on her cuz she uses her wings and her head to try to keep balance as she tries to walk I see her she can see cracked corn not too much at one time and she loves Cheerios she needs a little weight on her but I don’t want to get over weight as it will it harder for her. to walk. If you can help me with where to get her a wheelchair i be so grateful. Thank you Patricia

    • The Happy Chicken Coop says

      Hi Patricia,

      It sounds like you really go above and beyond for Charity- well done 🙂

      I have emailed Zinnia’s owner Megan, so hopefully I will have some more information for you shortly.

      Claire

  4. kim says

    So I have a chicken, isn’t that how many a crazy life moment has happened?
    His name is blue boy. He has gotten hurt. At first I thought it was some sort of paralysis, but his legs can move. During his convalescence he tries to get up , scoots around, etc but he won’t put weight on one leg. I am convinced that is the area of trouble but I can’t find any evidence of a break. He is a silkie and very fluffy.
    I need directions on how to make a rig to hold him upright that will allow his legs to touch the ground. Any suggestions?

    • The Happy Chicken Coop says

      Hi Kim,

      I would personally take him to your nearest vet to get a diagnosis- it might be something which they can medicate him for…

      Claire

  5. Pamela Jarvis says

    I have two chickens that I got about 8-9 years ago. They are my backyard chickens and are allowed to roam freely. They sometimes like the front yard or the neighbors yard (oops!) One chicken is an Ameraucana named Peep and the other is a Dutch Bantam named Rosie. They have laid eggs continuously until about 6 months ago except when moulting. I don’t have to worry about the wintertime I live in south Florida. But just recently Rosie was MIA (missing in action). I found her in the coop and she appeared fine so I let her be. But a day or so later she still in the coop so I picked her up to check her out and there we’re 10 eggs under her. This was very unusual especially since she hasn’t laid eggs in a while and really only laid maybe 4-5 eggs a week even in her egg laying days. I was wondering what’s up with my 8 year old chicken? Is she going to start laying eggs again? I was just shocked by this and wondered if this was normal!?

    • The Happy Chicken Coop says

      Wow I’m shocked Pamela! Are you sure they are her eggs? Or have you had ‘visitors’ 🙂 ?

      Claire

      • Pamela Jarvis says

        Yes, they are her’s. I live in a urban area and not many chickens around. And I only have two chickens. And the other chicken lays blue eggs and the eggs we’re all brown.

  6. Sherry Rieder says

    Thank you for this site. I work at an animal sanctuary that I connected with when they had some ex-battery hens that I “rescued”. (Really, they did more for me than I could for them.) Now I keep bringing home some of the most needy ones, especially roosters and I have one who was called No Toes because he has deformed feet with stubs that he walks on. He was always getting into fights so he had to be isolated at the sanctuary but he is top rooster in my backyard with three other roosters and 8 hens and his name is Prince now. I have been wanting to do something for his feet because even though he gets around pretty well, I know it’s difficult. Thanks to your story about Sparkle, I am going to try to fit some shoes for him somehow. I’m so glad to hear about people who take good care of chickens. I have 34 total in three different flocks and am getting another batch of ex-bats this week.

    • Megan Eaton says

      Hi there. I’m Zinnias mom! There are shoes for chickens. The company birdy booty or search etsy can help you find them. Zinnia has used shoes for her rehabilitation and knows of Sparkles journey too. Good for you for taking such good care him!

  7. Kaz says

    Useful article, thanks. I need some food advice. I have 2x 10year old crossbreeds who stopped laying a year ago. 2x5yo bantam frizzles who are currently broody but will still lay when they finish being hormonal. And 3x 11week legbars. They are all free rangers. What’s the best strategy for food? Don’t want my old girls to get too much calcium northe young uns. But middle girls need layer nutrition. Help!

    • The Happy Chicken Coop says

      Hi Kaz,

      Are they all in the same flock or are they separated? If they are all in the same flock you can use a mixed feed specifically for this circumstance.

      An example of this being Purina’s Flock Raiser.

      Claire

  8. Brenda says

    Hi I have adopted several old gals and an old rooster. Some of my girls still lay eggs and they have to be atleast 8-9 yrs.old. we love them and I have been taking care of them making sure they are warm and safe from predators. My one hen is polly. She’s my girl. Thanks

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *