How to Examine Your Chickens

As chicken keepers, you know that keeping your birds healthy is your primary duty. The majority of the time this will just be a case of checking them every day to make sure they all look active, happy and aren’t showing any signs of discomfort.

As with any animal, once you have cared for them for a while you will soon get used to their behaviour and how they look, so an unhappy or ill chicken will be easy to spot.

There are daily checks you can carry out to make sure you have a happy flock, and you can also carry out weekly physical checks to ensure they’re showing no signs of illness. This page will guide you through the sorts of things you need to be looking out for.

When checking your flock you should be able to determine what a healthy bird looks like as well as having the knowledge to spot the signs of illness:

A Healthy Bird Should:

  • Be alert
  • Stand upright with no problems
  • Be active and mobile
  • Wattles and combs should be bright red in colour
  • Eyes and beak should be clean
  • Feathers should look glossy
  • Be eating and drinking
  • Generally look content

Signs of Illness:

Chickens can be good at hiding their illness, as in many cases you’ll notice a chicken looking unwell, huddled up with their feathers ruffled up but as soon as you disturb them they will stand upright and scurry away. In these circumstances you need to stand still for a while, let the chickens get used to your presence and you’ll soon be able to spot any poorly chickens – they will fluff up their feathers again, their eyes will close, their wings will droop and they just tend to look very sorry for themselves.

In this instance, you need to investigate further, physically checking your bird for more signs of illness. These checks are sometimes referred to as the ‘comb to toe’ check. It’s recommended that you carry out these checks on a weekly basis so any health problems can be picked up and dealt with immediately, therefore enhancing the health and happiness of your chickens and maximising their life span and their productivity.

The Comb to Toe Check:

Starting at the comb you work your way along the chicken’s body searching for any unusual signs.

The Comb:

As mentioned above, a healthy chicken should have a bright red comb. If you notice black spots on the comb, this could indicate signs of frostbite in the colder months or, during the warmer months, could be a sign of fowl pox.

A purple comb can indicate quite serious health problems; it could warn you of a respiratory problem and the colour could be due to the lack of oxygen reaching the bird’s extremities. It can also be the symptom of a stroke or heart attack, and in these cases your bird should be checked over by a vet immediately.


Ideally your chicken should have bright, clear eyes. If they’re watery or cloudy this could be a sign of conjunctivitis. Watery eyes combined with sneezing and coughing could mean your bird has a respiratory illness. Swollen eyes where pus is visible can also be signs of eye worm.

The Crop:

The crop of a chicken is situated at the bottom of the neck and it’s where they collect food to be ground down before being pushed down to the stomach. Usually this will be empty in the morning and fill up over the course of the day, slowly deflating as the food moves down towards the stomach. If the crop feels solid and full of food this could mean they have an impacted crop whilst a crop that’s full of fluid could indicate sour crop, both of which need to be treated straight away.

The Keel:

This is the bone that runs down the centre of the bird and is a brilliant indicator of an underweight chicken. The keel should be well protected with a fair amount of flesh on either side. A protruding bone can be an indicator of health problems; this is an important check to make as a good set of feathers easily hides a thin frame.

The Abdomen

A hen’s abdomen should be fairly round and soft; if it’s hard this could mean there is a problem with egg laying whilst it being soft and full of fluid could indicate that there is fluid in the abdominal cavity.

The Vent

The vent is another word for a hen’s bottom; a healthy vent of a laying hen should be pink and moist, so if it’s a paler colour this means she is not in lay. When checking the vent you should also look out for visible signs of parasites.


Legs should be smooth and generally brightly coloured, with the exception of those breeds with dark coloured legs. Any flaky skin can be a sign of scaly leg mites and should be treated as such.


If your chicken is limping then this needs to be investigated straight away. The main things to look out for are swollen or warm foot pads, as this may mean there is a splinter or something trapped in the foot pad. Black spots on the underside of the foot can indicate an infection or bumblefoot, something that can be fatal and must be treated as soon as possible.

Carrying out these physical checks not only gives you peace of mind and improves your flock’s welfare but also means that, should you spot any problems, you can visit the vet armed with information to help them diagnose and treat the problem quickly.


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