Ask the Expert — August/September 2016

You Ask Expert Poultry Questions, We Give Expert Poultry Answers

Ask the Expert — August/September 2016

Rats and Mice

Good afternoon! My chicken house is struggling with rats and mice digging tunnels underneath the dirt floor in the coop and eating the chicken feed! They are a terrible nuisance and I have tried to do my best in getting rid of them by pouring buckets of water down their underground tunnels and killing them. But I have not tried poison yet because I’m afraid if I put it in the coop, my chickens will eat the poison! What would you do?

— Caden Koehn


Hi Caden,

What a frustrating problem! We will turn to our archives for an answer, as we recently published a few pieces exactly on this issue. The first thing to know is, you are not alone. This is a common issue, and usually can be prevented by keeping food in closed containers, including human food, dog food and chicken food. Storing livestock feed in garbage cans with a tight lid will give you double protection, and at night, hang your chicken feeder high and away from walls, or place the feeder inside the closed can or tub.

There are a few natural deterrents, too. If you plant peppermint around the coop, rodents often find it too powerful. Dabbing cotton balls with 20 to 30 drops of peppermint oil and jamming them into entry points also does the same trick, according to Missy Ames, a frequent writer for Backyard Poultry and Countryside magazines.

Now, as far as getting rid of the current mice … You have to do that quickly, as they multiply and they carry disease. Here’s the most foolproof way: If you have a couple friends with cats, we could suggest hiring them for a couple weeks to patrol your coop grounds and start to get rid of the pests. Rat zappers also work, as the mouse crawls inside and is killed immediately.

Finally, do not use poison. You are correct to avoid this, as it’s hard to control, and your chickens will eat it.

Best of luck with this issue, and we hope you can fend off these nuisances.


Swollen Abdomen

My friend’s hen had a swollen abdomen and she died this morning. He cut her open and found fluid in the abdomen and three masses. In the picture you see two masses already cut out of the bird and the third mass still encased in tissue (oviduct?) before he cut it out. He cut them in half and it looks like the start of an egg in one. Do you have any idea what this is?

Swollen Abdomen

— Linda Hamid


Hi Linda,

It’s hard to know from a post mortem what your hen’s original problem was, both those massed looked like egg material and tissue from your hen’s oviduct. Two problems come to mind immediately when you see this: salpingitis and peritonitis. Both are infections and inflammations of the hen’s oviduct and reproductive tract. They are some of the most common killers of backyard hens and are caused by a bacterial or viral infection. I recently wrote about a lash egg, which can be a symptom of salpingitis. There could have also been some type of blockage of your hen’s oviduct. But that’s hard to determine just from photos.

Good luck with your flock!

Editor’s note: Linda contacted us later to report that U.C. Davis confirmed the hen died from salpingitis.


Spreading on the Comb

Have you seen this before? I noticed a penny-sized spot two weeks ago. Since we are in Alaska and I let the crew out for one hour if the temps are above zero, I thought it was frostbite.

Now it is increasing and starting on the other side as well. At first it is wet then crusting over. I think it is bacterial.

Spot On Chicken Comb

Do you have any idea? The girls don’t show any sign of the same problem. I appreciate your suggestion.

— Rita Butteri


Hi Rita,

Thank you for the excellent pictures. It really helps us see the problem, rather than guessing from a description. That said, we’re not exactly sure what might be causing this.

We don’t believe that it is frostbite. The tips of the comb would be the first to freeze, rather than the base. We guess the only way we think it could be frostbite is if he got water splashed on that area, which could be a possibility.

We think you might be right that it might be a bacterial infection. You might try getting a human antibacterial ointment and applying that.

Ron Kean discussed this with a colleague, and he wondered if he might be scratching the area. Check the rooster for mites on the possibility that he is scratching at those. It isn’t unusual for a rooster to have mites even if the hens don’t.

We also wondered about pecking. Are the other chickens pecking at his comb? It isn’t a common pecking wound that we’d expect, as usually the points get pecked rather than the bottom of the comb, but it is possible.

As we said, we’d probably try the antibiotic ointment and see how it goes.


Handling Hens

Do chickens lay fewer eggs when they are handled a lot and played with by the children?

— Bonnie Sheen


Hi Bonnie,

We are not sure about the particulars of your situation, but in general chickens do not lay fewer eggs from being played with by children. The exception to this rule is too much playing. The laying cycle for a chicken can be interrupted when they are stressed. Too much time spent being played with and handled can cause stress.

When Pam’s children were younger, she was careful that most of her time with the flock was spent watching them. Her kids held their chickens, but it was supervised and they were careful to keep it limited. As a result, their chickens, to this day, are very friendly and seek out their attention. We are sure you’ll be able to find a happy medium where both chickens and children have fun.


What is Killing My Chickens?

I have been trying to find out what is going on with my chickens. Let me first start by saying I adore them. I have had chickens for the past six to seven years and they were doing great: no break-ins from raccoons or anything.

Recently, like the last year and a half, it seems I am slowly losing them to something mysterious. They start off lackadaisical, they fluff up, their back ends seem to start to bother them and they walk as though they have an egg stuck between their legs. They seem to get very thin, although they are still heavy when picked up, but the breastbone is still sticking out. They also end up with loose poop on their back ends. This seems to take six months or better before I bring them in and they end up dying (five to date).

I tried talking to my local vet and he admitted he knew nothing about chickens. I tried antibiotics. I have tried spraying the coop with Clorox once or twice a week. I have tried soaking my girls in lukewarm water (thought it was egg bound in the first chicken.) I have tried a little oil in the rectum. It does seem to spread as I have two at the moment going through this. Heartbreaking! If you have any ideas as to what I should try or what I am dealing with I would be very grateful.

— Christine Delucchi


Hi Christine,

This is a fairly common occurrence in laying hens, especially as they get a little older. If you cut into the abdomen (after the hen has died) you will often find an accumulation of fluid and a mass of partially formed eggs. A brief explanation of the “normal” progression of egg formation can help explain this problem.

Yolks are formed on the ovary. There are many small, whitish ova present on a normal ovary. A few of these (normally about seven or so) enlarge and become yellow as they are enriched with nutrients. The ova are encased in a follicle. There should be a progression from small to large. When one yolk is large enough, it is released from the follicle. This is called ovulation. This yolk should be caught by the top of the oviduct (the infundibulum). It should then pass down the oviduct, where albumen, membranes and the shell are added. About 24 to 26 hours later, the hen should lay this egg.

In some cases, a yolk or two may miss the oviduct and be deposited in the abdomen. In other cases, a partially formed egg passes back up the oviduct for some reason. Again, it is deposited in the abdomen. If either of these things occurs once or twice, the hen’s body can absorb them without too much problem. If it happens consistently, the egg material will begin to accumulate in the abdomen. A mass such as this is often found in hens with a distended abdomen. As expected, this egg mass is a fairly hospitable site for bacterial growth. Bacteria, such as E. coli, often lead to illness known as egg yolk peritonitis. This will usually prove deadly to the hen, though some can live a long time before they eventually succumb.

A follow-up question is often, “Why does it happen?” This is not answered quite as easily. A number of things can affect proper oviduct function. There are some viruses that can damage the oviduct. Infectious bronchitis virus is an example. Lymphoid leukosis is a common virus that often causes tumors of the internal organs, including the reproductive system. Infections of the oviduct (salpingitis) can be a potential cause. It is not unusual to find infection at necropsy, but it is difficult to know if this infection was the initial cause, or if it is a secondary occurrence. Some physical damage, from an injury, for example, could also be a factor.

Excess feed, which leads to excessive fat deposition, may increase the incidence of this and other reproductive problems. Some of the distended appearance may be to excess fat deposition in this area as well.

There is a good discussion on this, as well as on other reproductive problems, in this chapter of a book, written by some Canadian poultry scientists:

The loss of feathers that often occurs in this area is most likely due to internal infection. The tissue generally turns red from exposure to the sun.

Though it’s unsightly, the hens can often live a long time with this. If the infection becomes systemic, or if it is leukosis and the tumors grow to a point where they interfere with intestinal passage, the hen will die more quickly. Sometimes the hen will slowly lose weight until they are too weak to go on, too.

We don’t really know of anything that can be done to prevent it. Limiting treats (or using higher fiber, lower energy treats) may decrease the chances of hens becoming overweight, so that may be know of a good answer. Antibiotics can sometimes help, but you said that you tried that and it didn’t work. Forcing a molt by decreasing the hen’s day length to about eight hours might help, as it would take the hens out of production. A few weeks of short days like this will generally cause them to molt. During this time, the oviduct and ovary will regress, so they might come back into production in better condition. Having 16 hours of total darkness is not always easy to do in a small-flock setting, however.

If it is leukosis or some other tumor that is causing the problem, we don’t know of anything that will help.

Sorry we don’t have a better answer.



I love your magazine. My question is: I have three bantam roosters and 11 hens from I believe the same family. Do I have to get rid of my roosters and get different ones so they don’t interbreed? Thank you.

— Don and Sharon Ramberg


Hi Don and Sharon,

This is a good question and it really depends on what your goals are for your flock. If your goal is to have eggs for eating, then there is no need for separation. If your goal is to breed your flock, then it might be nice to separate the related birds. Since it sounds like you may be unsure of who is related to whom, it may be good to add some new unrelated hens to your flock. That way you can separate the unrelated hens and roosters when it’s breeding time to make sure your hatching eggs are not from interrelated birds.

We hope this is helpful. Good luck with your flock.


Are Cedar Chips Harmful?

Are cedar chips safe to use as litter in chicken house? Are they harmful to adult chickens? Thank you.

— Charles Gaines


Hi Charles,

Your question is a good one that often comes down to personal preference with one caveat — cedar chips. Many people like them because they smell wonderful. But that wonderful smell can irritate your chicken’s lungs and cause health problems down the road.

We prefer to use pine shavings. They are probably the most popular bedding option. They are in supply year-round and we get them where we buy our chicken food, so they’re convenient. They are fairly inexpensive, and most important, they are absorbent and don’t break down quickly.

Another option is straw. We personally find it harder to get year-round and it can get kind of sticky. We have also used grass clippings in the summer and leaves in the fall, but only as a treat. If you use these, you want to make sure your lawn hasn’t been treated with chemicals. We have also heard of people who use shredded newspapers and office papers, but they are messy and tend to break down quickly. Plus, we don’t like to expose our flock all that ink and are wary of any metal clips or staples that might be in the paper.

We hope this is helpful!


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Please note that although our team has dozens of years of experience, we are not licensed veterinarians. For serious life and death matters, we advise you to consult with your local veterinarian.

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