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STRESS in chickens

PUBLISHED: 18:46 12 March 2014

Moulting can be a stressful time

Moulting can be a stressful time

Archant

Chickens suffer stress just as we humans do – and it can have a serious effect on their health

The general health of your chickens can depend on how much stress the birds are exposed to during their everyday life. Stress can directly affect your birds, but also have long term implications … and it can even be critical.

Chicken by nature

They are not called ‘chicken’ for nothing! By nature they are cowards (this also includes waterfowl). Many birds seem to be afraid of their own shadows, and seem to have a flight instinct every time they are disturbed.

Fear will create stress, and this can lead to a variety of complaints and diseases that would otherwise not affect the bird.

From a veterinary point of view, stress causes the pH in the gut to lower and this creates a ‘gram negative’ bacteria that can take hold, causing illness.

Causes of stress

Predator attacks

The stress caused by predator attacks causes untold damage to any flock. The ones that are injured suffer from both their injuries and from stress while the other birds may take weeks to get over the experience. The birds may be so frightened that they will not leave the housing, and there may be a drop in egg production. The suffering carries on for quite some time and some birds may die from physical and mental effects.

Insect infestations

Treating the birds and housing for insect problems is a major priority as they will suffer from stress if any insects bite and cause them discomfort. Red mite will affect the birds more than any other insect as they physically attack the birds in the evening and suck the blood to such an extent that the birds become seriously ill and may even die. Lice annoy the birds but are not quite as big a threat as the red mite. Care and management to keep the insects under control plays a vital part in keeping stress under control.

High or low temperatures

Severe variation in temperature can cause serious problems. Very cold weather at night, when the temperature drops below zero, is a dangerous for the birds, especially ones that are not really healthy. Making sure combs and wattles are coated in Vaseline can help prevent frostbite.

Only really healthy birds can cope with extremely hot temperatures and a shortage of water. This is why shade is very important to keep the birds cool.

Poultry are more susceptible to heat than many people realise - this is why providing fresh water is invaluable at these times.

Breeding issues

The breeding season is another very stressful time, especially with birds that are just reaching there first season of maturity. Producing the first egg can be the cause of hormonal changes, and this can be a huge strain on the hens until their bodies adapt to the egg cycle. Stress in egg laying can show on the eggshell itself – there may ridges or the eggs may be oversized as well as soft shelled.

As the birds reach sexual maturity, many losses from diseases such as Mareks seem to occur just before, or right afterwards – a sign of disease being caused by stress, perhaps when it was a young chick.

Making sure the nutritional requirements are met during this period is very important. There should be a good supply of vitamins, and their feed should include sufficient calcium to help the female with what she needs to produce the eggshells without stealing this from her own bones.

Again, always make sure there is a plentiful supply of fresh water, and adding some vitamins and probiotics to the water will help the birds through this time.

Mating is an obvious cause of stress due to the vigor and actions of the event. Using a saddle on the females can, in many cases, reduce damage to the her back and prevent injury, so reducing the stress level.

Environmental changes

Changes to the birds environment, such as moving house or having a new owner, is another very difficult time for the birds.

If moving the birds to a new home, try and do this carefully and give them time to settle in. Keep away anything that might cause them fear, such as the family dog or excessive noise, and be aware that putting them in a pen where there are resident birds will create stress. Always make sure that the new and old can live together in harmony as bullying can have a serious effect on stress levels and health. Keep the newcomers in a separate pen within view to start with. There is bound to be stress as a new pecking order is established once they are mixed.

Treatments

Trimming beaks and toe nails is an essential part of poultry keeping, but it can also be a stressful one for the birds. General grooming, plucking, nail trimming and other treatments are all stressful and need carrying out with care.

Never hold the birds upside down - there are claims that this can be linked to causing respiratory disease - and always be as quick as possible when carrying out routine grooming and manicure tasks. A good tip is to wrap the bird securely in a towel to prevent the wings from being able to flap.

Bathing

Bathing for a show needs to be carried out carefully and as quickly and smoothly as possible. Gently wash in warm water without submerging the bird. Make sure the plumage is fully wet then remove the excess water with a towel. Allow the bird to dry naturally if the weather is suitable; if not, use a hair dryer on a low setting, taking care to watch the bird’s reactions all through the process.

If at any time the bird appears to be really suffering from stress, stop and allow plenty of time for it to regain its composure before carrying on with the job.

Travelling and excess noise

This is always a problem: it applies to travel to shows or just bringing birds home or moving them, or taking them to a new owner.

Travel by vehicle can be problematic - the noise created by the vehicle along with the unusual movements that the birds are not accustomed to can stress them. Travelling in a well ventilated darkened box is the best way to transport in safety, and this also will help the birds to relax.

Shows

At shows birds are put under pressure both with the noise and being moved from a box into a strange pen. There is always the bird in the next pen that wants to ‘have a go’, but the show must go on.

In truth, chickens, like humans, have to deal with stress every day of their lives. But keeping it to a minimum will help them stay healthy.

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