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Helping Chickens Through Respiratory Illness

Updated: Sep 7, 2022

Before getting chickens, I read books and articles on how to care for these tiny raptors. I wanted to be armed with enough knowledge to keep my hens healthy. My goal was to find out the most common ailments chickens face and the best preventative measures I could take so hopefully, I would never have to deal with any serious illnesses. But on the off chance I did have a sick chicken, I would have a good idea of what I was facing because of my research, and what I could do to help my girls get through it.

So, when my dear Rosemary came out of the coop one spring morning sneezing, shaking her head, and making a gurgling sound when she breathed, I sprang into action. The weather had been all over the place the past few days which is always tough on animals, but respiratory issues in chickens can be serious and contagious so I brought her in the house and placed her in our large dog kennel which has served as our small animal hospital and chick brooder for two years now. I pulled out all the herbs, probiotics, and essential oils and got to work.

Here is a list of my go-to products.

Note, I do get a small commission if you click on these links to purchase.

Each of these is designed to boost the hens immune system. Prior to Rosemary’s illness, I would put all these, except the VetRX into their drinking water at least once a month as a preventative measure. But I think the extreme temperature changes were too much for Rosemary.

Rosemary was in the house for seven days total. Each day I refreshed her water with the vitamins, herbs and probiotics in it. I also placed a drop of VetRX on her beak and rubbed it over her nostrils and feathers to hep her breathe. VetRX is a combination of essential oils and camphor oil. It’s like VapoRub for animals. In addition, I gave her a little yogurt mixed with garlic powder every three days. I also gave the same combination of herbs, vitamins, and probiotics to the chickens outside, just in case, and checked them daily for any sign of illness.

In the videos below you can hear her cough, and you can hear the gurgling sound she made while breathing.

She sounded better right after I applied the first dose of VetRX. A few hours later, however, her face looked a little swollen, her eyes teary, and the gurgling sounded worse. I reapplied VetRX and within minutes she looked and sounded better, but I was worried about how quickly she’d gotten worse, so I dug into my research.

What I found was disheartening. There is a lot of debate about respiratory illness in chickens. Ranches with lots of chickens often cull (euthanize) any chickens that show signs of respiratory illness simply because respiratory illnesses tend to spread quickly and are hard to contain in large flocks.

But in small flocks, it was also suggested quite a bit that a bird with respiratory illness be culled because there are many causes for respiratory illness and the majority of them don’t go away even when the chicken has recovered. The diseases stay dormant in the chicken but can still be passed around the flock. It was even suggested that in small flocks, if you have one bird with a respiratory illness, you should cull all your birds, clean everything, and start all over again!

But that’s not how I roll. First, I have no way to test my chickens to find out what disease they have. There are no chicken vets in my area. Second, I chose to care for these animals, so if one gets sick, they’re going to get the very best care I can provide until it becomes abundantly clear the best I can provide won’t make a difference. I don’t want any animal to suffer, so I will put a chicken down if I have to, but since I try to keep my hens healthy to begin with, I don’t assume they’re incurable when they do show signs of being sick.

In my search for more answers, I didn’t find anything I wasn’t already trying. But there was one tool in my arsenal I hadn’t used yet. Antibiotics.

I’ve had these on hand since my original four girls, of which Rosemary is one, were young hens who’d just started laying. Every egg Parsley laid was soft shelled and one day I thought one of these soft-shelled eggs might have broken inside her. It was recommended, through a fantastic forum on, that I give her antibiotics and calcium. I gave her the calcium which I had on hand and ordered the antibiotics. But I never gave the antibiotics because the calcium did the trick and solved the issue. And over the course of time, I’d become convinced no eggs had broken inside her.

The antibiotic is called Enrofloxacin. You can't get it on Amazon, and it's pretty controversial. The FDA has banned it's use in poultry but many backyard chicken owners still use it. The label says it’s good for several chicken illnesses and infections including respiratory.

I like to avoid these kinds of medications if I can, but while the natural methods were working, she seemed to get slightly worse between doses instead of better. So, I decided to go ahead with the antibiotics on top of everything else I was doing.

The antibiotics are in powder form, so I was able to add it to her water along with the other supplements. After that, all I could do was wait and see if she would start to get better.

That first day, I had to encourage her to eat and drink by using a pipette to get the medicated water down her. She seemed interested in her food but wasn’t really eating. I offered her some yogurt with garlic mixed in and she gobbled that up eagerly, so I knew she was hungry, but the hard pellets seemed too much for her. I mixed some of her medicated water with some of her pellets to soften them up and she started to eat. I also placed an essential oil diffuser in the room with her and diffused eucalyptus oil all day and night.

By day three she was acting and sounding more like her normal self. But on day four, I was worried we were regressing. She sounded better and her energy was excellent, but she wasn’t interested in food or water for a good part of the day. I even tried giving her unmedicated cold water, warm water, and even green tea. Nothing would entice her, but she did eventually start to eat and drink on her own toward evening.

On day four I was worried we were regressing. She sounded much better, the sneezing and wheezing where almost completely gone and her energy was excellent. But she wasn’t very interested in food or water for a good part of the day. I even tried switching out her medicated water for fresh water with nothing added, I tried warm water instead of cold, I even tried green tea, but nothing seemed to entice her. It wasn’t until I offered her a handful of alfalfa from our field that she showed any interest in eating. After that she ate and drank and day four was the first day she went to bed with a full crop since I’d brought her inside.

A full crop was one of two things I needed to see before I would consider putting her back out with the other chickens. The other was no wheezing, sneezing, shaking of the head, or gurgling. One down, one to go.

On day five I woke to find her symptom free. No head shaking, no sneezing, no gurgling. And she wanted out of her confinement in a bad way. But I knew a few hours being symptom free wasn’t enough. She made it through that day and the next with no symptoms and I determined she was ready to return to her flock mates.

Two days later, however, Parsley started sneezing and shaking her head, and the day after that Lemon-Thyme and Paprika also showed signed of being ill. I was frustrated, but continued treating them all. Only I started putting their water in a bowl instead of their normal waterer so I could add VetRX to it. VetRX floats on the surface of the water, so when the chickens go for a drink of water, the oil covers their beak. I wanted to make sure they were all getting some VetRX and the younger chickens aren’t easy to catch, so this was an easy solution.

I decided against giving the whole flock antibiotics since they weren’t showing the same severe signs of illness that Rosemary had. I kept up this regimen for two whole weeks and watched as each chicken got mild symptoms and then recovered. After the two weeks, all nine chickens had showed symptoms and recovered.

It’s possible this illness will remain dormant in them. I still don’t know what it was exactly, so I can’t be sure, but it’s something I will be aware of when bringing any new chickens into the flock. I will also be more diligent about treating them in the spring and fall when the temperatures start to fluctuate. But for now, it appears the hens are all healthy and thriving again. The video below shows Rosemary on day six or seven acting like her normal curious self.

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