A regularly occurring topic of chicken conversation is health – have you noticed a sneeze? Why is my chicken not eating? Why is she not laying? The list seems to go on and on as new keepers (and old) get worried about their chicken’s health, especially as many are now part of the family. But, with escalating costs and more squeezes on the household budget, you really don’t want a trip to the local vet only to be told that Gertie has a cold and that’ll be £50.00 please.

Knowing that your birds are in good health is an essential part of the daily routine to ensure they are happy and you get a constant supply of eggs, so how exactly do you know if something is wrong and how do you get the appropriate treatment? The trick is identifying whether that runny eye is being caused by a feather or a virus, or if that sniffle is just the result of water up the nose.

One of the major tools at you disposal is familiarity and knowledge of your own birds.

You probably handle your birds regularly and this will give you an idea of how your bird feels normally: its weight, shape and if it is lively or placid. You’ll also no doubt (especially if you are like me) spend many hours just watching your chickens as they are a constant source of entertainment, and this in itself is not wasted time – you will know immediately if your chicken is not acting normally.

Regular monitoring of your birds will show you what is normal and what is abnormal behaviour: a bird lying on its side and thrashing around in circles may be normal behaviour if it is sunny, but abnormal if there is no sun and the bird does not stand up when you approach. So much the better if you keep daily notes, as when a problem becomes apparent suddenly all of those little things you have been noticing fall into place.

This monitoring will quickly build up a ‘flock history’ and by knowing how a fit bird looks, smells and acts you can then add in the visible signs working from top to toe, allowing better diagnosis when symptoms are similar, and enabling you to differentiate the troublesome from the potentially fatal.

While many individual diseases have common symptoms such as ruffled feathers, weight loss, and reduced egg production, groups of diseases will also have similar symptoms:

• Coughing wheezing, rattling and laboured breathing indicate respiratory problems.

• Diarrhoea, off coloured/bloody droppings and thirst indicate intestinal disease.

• Problems with balance and walking are generally skeletal or muscular.

• Twitching, trembling and convulsions tend to point to nervous system disorders.

In addition, there will be specific symptoms produced by individual, normally bacterial diseases, such as a hard swollen abscess on the foot pad, which is specific to bumble foot.

Remember, if at any point you feel out of your depth, then take your chicken to a vet. Vets have more knowledge about back yard chickens than ever before, and I have been known to take a reference book with me to help my vet!

Fortunately many minor conditions such as cuts and sniffles can be treated with an effective first aid kit (including some good reference books) although again if you suspect something out of the ordinary, then you should always consult your vet.

First Aid Kit essentials

Keeping your chickens in good health should happen naturally if you feed them a good ration, keep them free from stress and boredom, and allow them a degree of free range. That said, there are always little things that upset a healthy balance, and a simple first aid kit will help you deal with them. These are the basics of a workable kit, which will contain all you need:

• Liquid paraffin – to ease an impacted crop, and for making crusty leg scales supple.

• Petroleum jelly – for combs in winter.

• Haemorrhoid Cream – reduces swollen prolapsed tissues making treatment easier.

• Gentian Violet Spray – antiseptic, and it masks the colour red, making wounds less attractive.

• Vitamin and mineral supplement – helps sick birds recover.

• Probiotic – reintroduces gut flora.

• A calcium supplement to treat soft shelled eggs.

• Aloe Vera nose and ear lotion – Cleansing and antiseptic.

• Antibiotic Eye ointment (from the vet).

• Surgical Sprit – to treat scaly leg.

• Cotton wool and cotton buds, good for cleaning and applying lotions.

• Thin disposable gloves.

• A small soft toothbrush.

• Virkon S – a multipurpose disinfectant, which needs adding to water.

• Flubenvet or Verm – X – Internal parasite treatment.

• Flea spray and louse powder – One for the house and one for the bird.

• Cider Vinegar – Acidifies the gut, making it more attractive to beneficial flora.

• Stockholm tar or similar anti peck spray.

• Poultry saddle – for back wounds and mating damage on hens.

• Coccidiosis treatment

• 21g needles.

• 1, 2.5, and 5ml syringes, plus a larger one for administering fluids.

• Nail Clippers (for beaks and toe nails).

You can add to this as you go, although this is the most effective mix of products to start.