Respiratory Illness in Your Flock

It all started, really, with the loss of my Poe. She was a black Easter Egger who had my whole heart and changed me as a human. About a month after Poe died, we had our first hawk attack in the whole six years we have been raising chickens. And I came upon it right in the middle of the attack. Then, about a month later, we had another.

We have a large fenced area (about 3/4 of an acre) for our chickens, complete with lots of trees and many places to duck and cover. In all of our years of keeping chickens, we didn’t have a single hawk attack. When we had two back to back, I started to research heavily. I knew confining everyone to the run was the quickest solution. I read that due to lower than normal numbers of birds in our area that year, hawk attacks were on the rise. But after about a month with our flock confined the run, I realized I didn’t want my flock to live like this. They became stressed and started to exhibit some health issues related to the stress.

I set them free in their 3/4 acre again and decided the risk was worth their happiness– their joy in getting to scratch in the leaves, tromp in the garden for the gleaning, and dust bathe wherever they felt like digging a good hole.

But I had read in some folklore (and while I am an academic and science lover in my mind, I am a folklorist at heart) that black chickens, which look like crows, can help keep hawks away.

It made sense in my heart-broken desperation, of course. With Poe, we had no hawk attacks. Without Poe, hawk attacks.

So I went online and found a local chicken person with black Easter Eggers listed for sale. I was a little worried that the hens, though beautiful, seemed lethargic. We kept them in quarantine for a few days. I was mainly worried about mites. I saw no signs of anything and put them with the flock. I knew I was breaking the rules of quarantine for new birds, but I had done it once before and been lucky.

This time, I would not be so lucky. Desperation and sadness will often lead to bad decisions. This would be no different.

Within a few days, everyone in the flock was acting kind of strange. That’s the only way I can describe it. I remember closing them up one night and realizing they didn’t talk back to me when I told them goodnight. I was scared about what might be going on. Within a week, my first hens were coming down with respiratory issues, and these issues were pretty epic. If I thought the hawk attacks had been my worst nightmare as a chicken owner, I think the realization that my entire flock had been exposed to a serious respiratory issue ran a close second. It was devastating, and it was my fault.

I am terrible at making a long story short, but I need to. I want to help inform others about what I went through and what worked as treatment—and what didn’t work.

The main symptoms were rales, runny nose, sneezing, and swelling around the eyes and face on some birds. Some also experienced gunky eyes. The only symptom of Coryza we did not experience was the smelly, runny poop. However, I have read that respiratory illnesses can be pretty severe and still not be Coryza, so there is a chance we just had a really bad respiratory illness, such as Mycoplasma gallisepticum or MG. Since my goal was simply to treat the symptoms and keep my flock alive, I just focused on finding treatments that alleviate symptoms of the most serious respiratory illnesses.

The rales were the worst, I think. We started out isolating birds who showed signs in our garage, and the rales were so loud some nights I could hear them in the house. It was like some kind of Edgar Allan Poe story where I was being constantly reminded of my sin of bringing in the sick birds, who just so happened to be black and looked like little ravens. You can’t make this stuff up.

I spent months treating what would eventually turn out to be every single member of our flock. Morning and night, I would do rounds of treatments on my sickest patients. Some were highly cooperative; some were not. Of course, they were grumpy at being so sick. I was bitten and scratched, and, of course, I deserved it all, I thought. I work full time and also homeschool my son, so being a nurse to 30 chickens took a toll for sure. I felt so worn.

In the end, I was treating someone from the end of October to the end of January. Below, you will find a list of symptoms and treatments I used. I am just completely honest here about what worked and didn’t work for me.

Others may have different experiences, of course, but I wanted to share what I did, as we did not lose a single hen. I read everywhere that the best thing to do is to cull. I am so glad I didn’t.

Symptoms

Rales (see video below)
Runny nose
Sneezing
Gurgled breathing
Swollen face and eyes (sometimes really swollen)
Gunky eyes

This is what rales sound like. It’s heartbreaking. I am happy to report that 2 and 1/2 years later, this chicken, our Broody Hen, is alive and well and is now almost 8 years old.

Treatments

TreatmentHow AppliedEffect
Vet RxWarmed and applied to nostrils and around the head. The instructions say you can administer it orally, but I chose not to, as I was putting other things in their little beaks. The instructions also say to put some at the wing, where the chickens tuck their heads, and I did this, only I didn’t keep it to the wing. I noticed where each individual chicken preferred to tuck in and then applied the Vet Rx in that spot. The purpose of this is so the chicken can breathe in the vapors. It’s kind of like an herbal Vicks.This had little effect that I could really notice—but some. I think it may be helpful with much milder symptoms, but I also think it maybe took the edge off when things were at their worst.
Olive OilI dosed chickens with 1 ml of olive oil before I got the oregano oil. I used a syringe and put the 1 ml of the olive oil down their throats. In the immediate the olive oil seemed to do some good relieving some of the rales—at least taking the edge off. This was really more of a comfort in the throat it seemed than any real treatment though. But when your chickens have the rales, it’s wonderful to have something simple to help take the edge off of that misery.
Oregano and Oregano OilI added dry oregano to food and to nesting areas several times throughout the winter.

When the oregano oil arrived, I used it in their water. You do have to dilute oregano oil quite a bit because it is strong and “hot.” You also have to make sure you get food grade oregano oil. For preventative, I use one drop per gallon. When I was giving it to the hens experiencing the terrible rales and facial swelling, I used two drops per gallon.

Once I tried Colloidal Silver for immediate treatment of symptoms, I shifted to that, however, as it provided for the most immediate and noticeable improvement of symptoms.
It is difficult for me to say if the dry oregano in food helped in the immediate, but after two years, I can now say that it helps with long-term immune-system building for sure! When I see symptoms flare up in the winter, I add some oregano to the food, and I can notice a difference in symptoms within days.

The oregano oil definitely seemed to help in the immediate with the symptoms, especially the rales and the eye issues. It is important to note that the oregano oil, diluted to one drop per gallon, also seems to help with the long term immunity building you will have to do. I have read some people say that the oregano oil does not dilute well, and I did not notice this as an issue, as I did have some success with it. However, I will say that the oregano in their food as a preventative seems to work similarly as a preventative, so I have shifted away from the oregano oil because it’s so “hot.” Plus, the good, food grade oregano oil is VERY expensive.
Grapefruit Seed ExtractI added 30 drops per gallon of water every day when I changed the water.The idea with this is that it supposed to help the immune system, kind of like apple cider vinegar. I couldn’t tell much from this, but my chickens did recover. It definitely didn’t hurt and could have helped.
Colloidal SilverI gave sick chickens 1 ml of this in the morning, and when things were at their worst, I tried to do the 1 ml in the morning and at night. *Be sure it is 300-500 ppm. This helped more than anything I used, outside of the antibiotics. I found out about it a few weeks in, so I didn’t have it right away. I found it to be amazing at reducing the head swelling and just shortening symptoms overall. I had one hen come down with a very swollen face. I gave her a dose of Colloidal Silver, and by that evening, the swelling was almost completely gone. It is supposed to be an immune system booster, and it worked better than any natural treatment I have ever seen. I will never be without it again.

I now use it as an immune booster in their water in the winter months especially when mild flare ups were mostly likely. We have a five gallon bucket for water, and I add one tablespoon for that five gallons.
AntibioticsI contacted my vet about one hen she had seen before in the hopes of getting some antibiotics for my worst cases. Everything I read said to use Tylan 50 for this kind of issue, but it is no longer available over the counter. The vet actually prescribed a different all-around antibiotic. I used the antibiotics on three of our oldest hens who had the worst symptoms and both of our roosters. This worked, of course. One of my favorite hen’s eyes were so infected I thought we were going to lose her. Her eyes were bulging. I am not a nurse by nature, and I was so scared for her and a little squealing. Thankfully, after just two days on the antibiotics, the swelling was down and she was on the mend. The issue with this is that my vet visit cost more than $200. Also, as I heard and then learned from this experience, the illness can and did come back anyway, just as with other treatments. Everyone who was treated with antibiotics did relapse. But I am glad I had the antibiotics for my worst initial cases.
Clean Dry CoopAs soon as we found out what we were dealing with, my husband and I stripped down the coop and cleaned it from top to bottom. My husband vacuumed any dust in the nooks and crannies and in the rafters.This worked, but it’s critical to keep it up, like forever. You have to make sure you have really good ventilation, and you just have to keep the coop really clean. In the late winter, after everyone seemed to be healed up and over the respiratory illness, we had some really damp cold weather, like swampy and miserable. The coop got a little damp because we forgot to open up the front vents, and two chickens started sneezing and gurgling again. Keeping the coop super clean and dry for the rest of ever seems to be critical.

I think the moral to this story is to not give up hope, even if your entire flock gets really sick. I have some really old hens who took a long time to get well. Both of my hens who had the antibiotics were older and relapsed pretty hard. They were both sick for nearly three months! But you would never know it now. They are happy and healthy now, and I am updating this content over 2 and 1/2 years later!

Preventative Measures

I have also learned that I now have to live my life as a chicken keeper in preventative mode. I have to constantly work to limit stress, keep the coop super clean and dry, and use natural supplements to build my flocks immune systems. I also continue to use dried oregano in food and colloidal silver (again, just be sure to use 300-500 ppm) in winter months.

As a testament to the success of these treatments, last summer, we let several of our broody hens raise babies. I was very worried about what might happen. Of course, these babies could never leave our property, as our flock is closed forever, but the babies all did very well. When the weather turned cold, the young chickens did get some very mild symptoms with a little sneezing and coughing, but the symptoms passed rather quickly and with no treatment beyond my preventative measures that have now become my habits. Their immunity is being built, and that’s really what beating this is all about, I think.

*Please note I was not paid to promote any of these treatments. I simply research treatments others had tried and tried them myself. My opinions are based only on my experiences treating my chickens. If you have any questions, you can post them below, and I will do my best to answer them. Please just keep in mind that I cannot diagnose chicken illnesses and believe that no one really can very well over the internet. If you can afford and access a vet who specializes in chickens, that is always the best first step in diagnosis and treatment.

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