One or more of my chickens is not eating

Submitted by Neil Armitage on Mon, 06/04/2018 - 17:54

Why aren't my chickens eating?


I have noticed that my chickens spend a great part of their life looking for food, hunting in nooks and crannies, pecking and scratching around in a busy manner. A chicken that is not doing these things may be off it's food. Because of their position at the bottom of the food chain they are very good at hiding their injuries and illnesses often until it is too late.

Also I have seen that if they can not drink then they will not feed much, especially on dry pellets. Make sure they have access to a surplus of clean fresh water at all times.It could be that one of your backyard flock is not eating or it may be many or all of them. There are several reasons, namely stress, illness, injury, infection, infestation or digestive problems. 

A bird in pain may stand still or on one leg rather than move even toward food. They also have a hunched look with fluffed up feathers. They are generally easy to spot as they will stand on their own away from the group or refuse to come out of the coop or off the perches.

unwell wyandotte cockerel

You can see from the awkward gait and roach back this Wyandotte bantam cockerel is in a bad way.

They will be easy to catch and offer little or no resistance to being picked up.

Other symptoms of sick poultry are : Sneezing, shaking the head or swelling of the face and combs, bad smell and watery or bubbles ( image below) in the eyes. A pale or dark comb is a bad sign as well.

chicken with bubbles in her eyes

A pale comb is a really bad sign.

pale comb in chickens

Broodiness causes a change in eating habits of chickens. They tend to eat as much as they can as quickly as they can to get back to their nest and may only eat twice a day when on the nest.

Causes :

1. Illness - Illnesses can cause lethargy and loss of appetite. Coccidiosis is an example of this, it causes birds to stand still often hunched up in pain ( also called roach back or roach position) and may have the head under one wing and puts them off their feed and progression is quick especially in growing young birds. A chicken with Mareks disease may be unable to walk properly and will choose to stay put and out of the way of other chickens.

2. Physical injury - Physical injury - Damage to the crop or digestive system from other animals, fox or predator attacks or getting trapped in fences or a misjudged drop of the perch in the morning can all cause internal injuries that are not at first apparent.

3. Bullying - Bullying is common in chicken society. Introduced birds may be bullied off food and older birds may pick on a younger or single one, pecking it on the head or pulling it's feathers. 

4. Impacted crop - Impaction of the crop is common in rescued battery hens and hybrids and less so in traditional fowl. Chickens raised free range are much less likely to suffer. Crop problems will generally show as a solid filled crop that never empties (impacted) or a sour crop that feel like a half filled water balloon.

5. Poisons  - They may have eaten something they should not have - Eating things they should not be : There is a an understandable tendency amongst backyard keepers in particular to treat their hens. This is unfortunate as it is not good for them and your chickens do not need it in the diet. There are high levels of starches, sugars and salt in human food is problematic for poultry. The cure for this is simple. Stop giving them the little extra. It may not seem like much to you but even a little pasta or rice upsets the balance of the diet. <Comprehensive guide to feeding hens.>

6. Infestations - I have seen a chicken so infested with lice it nearly scratched itself senseless. It literally stood and scratched itself all over without taking a break to eat.  Parasites require proper treatment and that generally means recourse to chemical treatments or prescribed medicines. As a responsible chicken keeper you should know the limits of what you can prevent and treat with home remedies and what you cannot.

7. Stress - New introductions or a disruptive family dog can cause birds to withdraw to a place they feel safe and they may not eat whilst they're hidden away.

8. Tumour or growths - Rare, although I have seen it twice. Once inside the beak ( I noticed it was dropping it's food but it was otherwise fine ) and once further down the intestines.

It is conditions like this that show the importance of spending time with your poultry on a daily basis. Otherwise you may not notice until it's too late to do anything about it. A backyard bird that is not eating is unlikely to be drinking and dehydration is rapidly fatal in chickens. 

Chickens should make a beeline for food and you when they see you if you been training them well. Mine always come running down the field when they notice me coming to see them and my chickens rarely if ever get treats.

Solution to the problem:

A single bird should be isolated and kept warm. If the problem is with more than a quarter of your flock you will need to treat them all as a whole.

Illness, injuries and infestations all need treating. If you live in a country where medicines are prescription only from a vet you will need to visit one.

Properly bandaged chickens foot

Top tip here: Visit a farm vet, they are often much cheaper than a small animal vet and will generally have a better grasp of farm animals. My local farm vet consultation fee is only £11.80 in caparison to the small animal vet who charges £33.

Yogurt and cider vinegar is not a cure for any chicken ailment at all. They are ADDITIVES and SUPPLEMENTS to help PREVENT problems. Remember that vinegar is adding acid to their drinking water and if you do it every day it isn't going to do them any good.  

Large quantities of any milk or milk products is not good for birds either, its not something they have evolved to be able to eat. In calcium terms there is just as much in fresh green grass. And most milk products except cheese are relatively low in protein. Yogurt has masses of sugar. Do yourself a good turn in the long run and give them a miss as treatments.

I have had the most success treating stress and bullying with changes in practises. More space, perches or a bigger dust bath for example. And being able to get up higher, one of the best things i ever did was move the perches as far up the shed as I safely could to nearly 6 foot up. Chickens feel safer a bit higher up.

The chickens are leaving the pellets.


This is quite common for birds raised on a seed diet like mine or in mid summer when there is plenty of insect and other food around and birds shun the pelleted feed. They don't seem to care for it much. As long as the birds look healthy and are laying eggs you need not worry. I have seen mine graze on grass, eat wild seed and catch bugs and insects as well as finding tasty morsels scratching through the earth. <Here is a full list of foods you should keep your hens away from.>

Mine always get a all seed diet and do just fine on it, there are many ways to give a chicken the balanced diet it needs.

Feeding scraps is illegal in some places. You will be better served by having less waste from your kitchen than seeing it as a cheap feed for your chickens.

Otherwise you need a little tough love here. Treats should never be more than 5% of the diet. Ever. You may think your doing them a favour but you really being cruel.

 

Chickens not eating but are still drinking.

This can indicate a few things. Firstly check the chicken over for a full crop and egg binding. A full crop that does not empty overnight likely means impaction and is a result of them eating hay, straw, long grass or not getting enough grit in the diet.

Egg binding will feel like a solid and possibly distended abdomen with much discomfort. It can completely block the digestive system and most often feels like a lump between the legs. From my experience it is almost exclusively a hybrid layer problem. I do not think I have ever seen it in my rare breeds.

Next check for mites, lice or fleas. The northern fowl mite in particular can cause a bird to drink more as it's body tries to keep up with the fluid lost to the bloodsucking parasites.

Parasites can be a major cause of stress in poultry

If the bird is otherwise well then de-worm and treat for Cocci.

Chickens not eating or drinking.

Watching my chickens return to the water bowls at least 6 times a day I know they like to be hydrated. Chickens normally stop eating before they stop drinking unless the digestive system is blocked completely.

a bullied chicken in a sorry way

A bullied chicken will stay away from the feed and water and hide away. It may have missing feathers or pinch marks on it's comb from the bullies beak. Sometimes with blood showing. Sometimes chickens can be merciless. You can see in the image above how much damaged has been done. A bird in this state is likely to be hiding under a shed or up a tree and fearful of feeding around the other chickens.

What can I feed a chicken that has stopped eating.

I would isolate the bird and inspect for obvious injuries, swellings or crop problems and proceed to give some grated hard boiled egg and provide water with electrolites. 


As with most problems that effect chickens vigilance is the solution and keeping an eye on them is key.

Back to top