Respiratory Distress in Chickens

What You Need To Know About The Common Malady And How You Can Prevent It

Respiratory Distress in Chickens

By Wendy E.N. Thomas, New Hampshire

Abnormal breathing in a chicken could mean the bird is hot, scared or it might mean that the bird has a respiratory disease. The average respiratory rate of a chicken is normally from 15 to 30 breaths per minute. This, however, will vary greatly with the breed and size of chicken.

Dr. Gary Butcher, Avian Diseases Extension Specialist in Large Animal Clinical Sciences at the University of Florida, explains, “Many people commonly see chickens panting and confuse this with respiration. However, it is mostly due to the chicken trying to eliminate body heat by evaporating water in the upper respiratory tract. Chickens produce much more heat per pound of body weight than humans and they need to eliminate it from the body. They do not sweat, so panting is important.”

While viruses and bacteria do cause respiratory illness in chickens, it’s important not to jump the gun in treatment before other contributing factors are ruled out.

These can include:

• High temperatures — birds will pant, which puts increased stress on airways, which can lead to secondary infection by opportunistic bacteria and viruses.

• Too dusty — same as above; the increased irritation from dust can lead to infection.

• Ammonia level too high — this is common in dirty coops where fecal material builds up, especially if the environment is moist.

• Low airflow, stuffy air — suffocation can sometimes occur as birds cannot cool themselves properly. Low airflow can also lead to ammonia build-up and a higher dust level.

Here are a few things to know if you’ve ruled these factors out, and you suspect that your chicken may have a respiratory illness:

Clinical Signs of Respiratory Distress

Clinical signs of a respiratory illness range from mild “snicking” to acute death.

“A snick is a mild sort of sneeze,” says Dr. Laura Luna, Master Avian Medicine (MAM), Diplomate, American College of Poultry Medicine, of PoultryVet, LLC.

Other signs of illness can include sneezing, coughing, mucus discharge from the nostrils, crusting around the nostrils, discharge from the eyes, dirty wing feathers where the bird is rubbing her eyes, swollen face, open mouth breathing, labored breathing, ruffled feathers, lethargy, blue discoloration of the comb and/or wattles, rattling sound when breathing, mucoid and/or bloody discharge from the mouth.

“Any sign of respiratory illness could potentially be a danger sign,” Luna continued. “I would say, however, anything more than a mild snick is of concern. Even then, however, you could be dealing with something quite insidious that’s just waiting to break out.”

The Most Common Respiratory Problems

There are a number of respiratory diseases that can affect poultry. These, according to Butcher, are very important for the commercial poultry farmer as they cause significant economic loss.

“While a cow or pig (or human) that gets a cold can recover and continue, the loss of a week to a respiratory disease in broiler chickens will cause major loss since the average lifespan of the meat type chicken is about 1,000 hours,” Butcher said. Thus, he added, there is no time to get sick and recover so we have to keep them disease free. The same applies to the egg laying chickens that will decrease egg production if they are sick.

According to Luna, the diseases most often seen in chickens include: Bronchitis (IBV) and Newcastle (non-velogenic) (ND) which are relatively common viral diseases. Another common viral cause is Infectious Laryngotracheitis (ILT). Mycoplasma is a very common bacterial cause of respiratory infection — Mycoplasma gallisepticum (MG  and Mycoplasma synoviae (MS) in particular. Other common bacterial causes include Infectious Coryza (Avibacterium paragallinarum) and Bordetellosis (Bordetella avium).

Avian Influenza is not as common, at least in the USA, but it is very important to be aware of. The same is true with Exotic Newcastle Disease, a.k.a., END or Velogenic Newcastle. These two are both reportable diseases.

What You Can Do To Help Your Flock

A long-time concern for backyard poultry owners is that there are few veterinarians who are qualified to treat chickens.

“We’re working on changing that,” said Dr. Sherrill Davison, Director, Laboratory of Avian Medicine and Pathology, University of Pennsylvania, School of Veterinary Medicine. “We’re working on creating networks of small animal vets in several states who are willing to work with chickens.”

If you suspect your chicken is sick with a respiratory illness and you don’t have access to a vet, you can call or email the agricultural co-operative in your state for advice. They usually have experts who are ready to lend an ear and in most cases offer some suggestions on what you can do.

When flocks have respiratory disease, it has been common practice by some owners and vets to treat the flock with different antibiotics and hope one of them has an effect. This is a problem because some antibiotics are not cleared for livestock use.

“Poultry are food producing and we are limited in what we can use so that those drugs stay clear of the food,” Butcher reminds flock owners.

While antibiotics may be of some value for the bacterial type diseases like the Mycoplasma gallisepticum and Infectious Coryza organism; for the viral diseases, antibiotics are of little value.

“There has been a lot of outcry over this abuse of antibiotics, which some believe may lead to resistance to antibiotics,” said Butcher. “This is not conclusive by any means, but the media has jumped on this and is making a lot of noise. Ideally, the cause of the respiratory disease needs to first be identified and then specific treatment applied when needed. … You need to remember that with humans it is not much different. When we get a respiratory disease and go to the doctor, they have no clue to what we actually have. A shotgun approach is applied where antibiotics are given and then it is a ‘wait and see’ if the patients recover on their own.”

While you are waiting to hear from someone who could help treat your birds, there are things you can immediately do to help the bird and your flock. The first thing to do is to isolate your bird.

“I like to start sick birds out on apple cider vinegar in the water at 1 tablespoon per quart/liter of drinking water. This can help reduce pathogenic bacterial loads in the oral cavity and appears to help with gastrointestinal health, as well as acting as a mild expectorant. It also has no withdrawal period or egg residue issues.” Luna advises.

Davison also recommends using apple cider vinegar in drinking water and cautions owners to not use electrolyte drinks like Gatorade.

“Those drinks can have high salt levels and with a bird who may not be getting enough fluids, that can put a strain on the kidneys. Just give your birds good nursing care with their favorite foods and plenty of water.”

When You Should Consider Putting A Bird Down

“If a bird is doing nothing but sitting, trying to breathe, she should be euthanized,” advises Luna. Both Luna and Davison agree any bird that is euthanized or dies should be kept for diagnostic testing. Most often you can send a bird to a state lab that would then do a necropsy to determine the cause of death.

With regard to body necropsy preparation, according to Luna, it helps to dip the carcass in cold soapy water as soon as possible after death to cool the body temperature down and prevent further decay internally. The soap in the water (she uses Dawn) helps wet down the feathers so that the cold water can then contact the body and cool it down. The body should then be double bagged and placed in refrigeration or on ice but not frozen. Freezing disrupts cells and makes certain diagnostics difficult if not impossible.

Other owners may simply dispose of the body on their property (if allowed by local ordinances). If that’s the case, suggests Sherrill, make sure that the body is buried in a deep hole that cannot be dug up by other animals. Another option is to call a local vet; often they have access to services that will dispose of bodies.

Is A Sick Chicken A Threat To Humans?

When asked about safety with regard to humans, Butcher replied, “It is safe to say that almost all chicken respiratory diseases are not a threat to humans. A few are but this is extremely rare.

For example, you have heard of the Bird Flu in Asia, which very rarely can infect humans. I want to stress extremely rare. This disease is not present in the Western Hemisphere. You also have to consider Psittacosis. However, this is also extremely rare in chickens and humans. So the answer is that anything is possible but not of significance.”

How To Prevent Respiratory Infections In Your Flock

According to Dr. Luna, the best way to prevent respiratory infections is to keep you flock closed and don’t allow new birds into the flock.

“Don’t allow visitors, especially those that have birds, to come in contact with your birds or the area in which they are kept.”

• Keep wild birds which can be carriers away from your flock.

• Keep rodents away from your flock.

• Keep feed bins sealed up tightly.

• Don’t visit other flocks and then walk around with your birds. Wear dedicated clothing and shoes when working with your birds.

• Keep your coop clean and well ventilated.

Davison agrees. The most important thing one can do, or rather not do, is bring a new bird into a flock.

“New birds can be carrying unknown, hidden disease. Swap meets, auctions, shows and the like are mixing pots of disease. Even walking through them can expose your birds to disease by tracking things in on your feet or even up your nostrils!”

“Bringing a new bird into a flock should be done carefully if you are going to do it. Quarantine for at least 30 days apart from other birds, as far away as possible, and use different clothes between groups, hand washing, etc.,” Davison added. “Isolation is important, mainly to protect the sick or injured bird. If you isolate them early enough, you may be able to at least reduce the spread of virus or bacteria a small amount but all birds are likely exposed by that time.”

“The biggest thing you can do to prevent respiratory illness in your flock,” Davison continued, “is to start with prevention and most of that is following good, old-fashioned, bio-security standards.”

First, know where your birds come from. Secondly, make sure your birds are vaccinated for diseases like Marek’s, and that you have documentation of vaccinations from any birds you may be purchasing.

By stressing prevention first and being careful and vigilant, you just may be able to prevent illness in your flock later.

Wendy Thomas is a writer who lives in New Hampshire. Reach her at, or follow her on Twitter@WendyENThomas.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *