Caring for Chickens with Special Needs
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We all do the best we can to care for our chickens. We give them food, water, shelter, and love. However, even with the best designs and intentions, things can go wrong whether it be in pre-hatch development or injury later. We can still house and care for special needs chickens with just a few modifications, especially in feeding and watering.
It is not uncommon for a chicken to hatch with a cross beak. This is when the top and bottom beak halves do not line up, and there are varying degrees of severity. A chicken with mild cross beak may be able to completely live on its own without any accommodations. Caring for a chicken with a cross beak may include raising their feed tray up higher so it is easier for them to scoop the food into their beak if it does not close well around the food. If this does not work, a deep dish such as a dog food dish in which the chicken can stand in the food may be better. Water must be in a dish as nipple waterers will not work. If the cross beak is very severe, culling is not your only option. There are ways to keep this chicken alive and well with a good quality of life. Tricia Stone-Shumaker brought her cross beak rooster, Poppy, inside as a house chicken. Being a house chicken, he must wear a chicken diaper, so he does not leave messes all over the floor. Poppy has a severe cross beak in which his two beak halves do not overlap. It was less severe when Poppy was young and continued to deviate as he matured. Because of this, Poppy cannot scoop food into his mouth at all. Tricia makes a special food for Poppy which she calls “torpedo feeding.” The “torpedoes” are made from chick crumble that has been ground to a flour consistency mixed with raw egg and coconut oil to reach a Play-dough-like texture. This can then be rolled into thin pretzel-stick shapes that Tricia inserts into Poppy’s mouth. She feeds him 2-3 times per day with morning and evening being the main feedings. A chicken must have a full crop before roosting for the night. You can gently feel for when their crop is full.
Some chickens with a severe cross beak may need to be fed by a syringe. They will also need assistance with self-grooming as their beak is not adept at preening. You may need to occasionally blow-dry the chicken and roll the feathers at the base to help disperse the oils throughout. Although diatomaceous earth is controversial for use with animals, to begin with, it absolutely cannot be used with cross beak chickens because they are less able to keep the dust out of their airway. Cross beak is often genetic, so you should take care that your cross beak chickens are not among those that reproduce in your flock. Easter eggers tend to be more prone to cross beaks.
A chicken that cannot walk, either from injuries such as frostbite or a congenital deformity, will need extra assistance. They cannot simply sit on the ground all day, so a chair should be constructed for them. Some chickens who have simply lost toes may still be able to care for themselves all except for roosting. It is also possible in some cases to make a “wheelchair” for the chicken and equip it with prosthetic legs so it can still move around. These chickens will need to have a chicken diaper, so they do not sit in their own excrement all day. They will also need food and water dishes raised up and usually attached to their chair for ease of access.
Blind chickens can sometimes live normal lives in the coop, or they may need indoor care. They will rely on their food dishes always being in the exact same location, so they do not have to search for them. If other chickens peck at the eyes of the blind chicken or pick on it, it will need to be separated, with a friend that doesn’t pick on it. Often those with disabled chickens find that the chicken will have a close friend in the flock who cares for and guides them. Free-range only with supervision.
Chickens with neurological issues often lose the use of their legs, so you can default to the same protocol as chickens that cannot walk. They may have a harder time feeding and fending for themselves.
When caring for a special needs chicken, you must first determine if the chicken can survive on its own with a few accommodations or if it needs more help. Many special needs chickens can remain in the coop either with the rest of the flock or in their own fenced-off space where they have company but will not be picked on. It is important to weigh your special needs chicken occasionally to see if they are gaining/maintaining weight or if they are losing and need more care. House birds can get along with other pets if they can all learn to respect each other. Not every pet is willing to do this, and only you can judge if your pets will. At night they can have their own roost perhaps in a bathroom or sleep in a basket.
Caring for a special needs chicken takes extra time, but not as much as you may think. Hand feeding does not take long and only needs to happen a couple of times per day. The chickens are often content to “hang out” with the family in the house or follow you around in chores, depending on their limitations. If you are not willing or able to take the extra time for this care, there are many people who will gladly take the opportunity. Search for support groups for rehoming and caring for chickens with special needs. Caring for these chickens often gives people a sense of purpose and fulfillment creating a symbiotic relationship.
In caring for a chicken with extra needs, it is important to find a veterinarian who will do check-ups on poultry to help with ongoing care. Having higher needs does not have to be a death sentence for a chicken. They can still live fulfilling lives with just a little accommodation and give you plenty of love in return.
Originally published in the October/November 2021 issue of Backyard Poultry and regularly vetted for accuracy.