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I have a small flock of about 25 chickens. They range in age from 7-10 months. Recently I've had about 8 of them die. The first signs of a problem were blood on the outside of the egg shells. Then I noticed that several of them had bloody areas around the vent and under the tail. All but a couple of those with the symptoms have died. The few that recovered seem to be OK with 1 exception, and that hen no longer lays eggs, and has a very grungy appearance. After death, if you pick up the bird and examine it, the vent is wide open and you can see right down into the center of the bird. The last bird I found I could even see an egg yolk inside the body cavity. Could you give me a best guess as to what might be causing this and what steps I can take to relieve the problem? I noticed on one hen that I lost this week, that in the day or two before she died, she had a white runny diarrhea, didn't seem interested in eating or drinking and shortly before death she seemed to swell and have a puffy appearance. Another is the roosters, one has had all the smaller feathers around the tail pecked out, and has raw looking skin in that area, the other is missing most of the feathering on his breast. Several of the hens have no feathers in the vent area (probably from what you describe) and on the lower back just above the tail. The main thing I was wondering about is the diarrhea...when I noticed that, I did some research online, and kept coming up with pullorum, and I was wondering if that might be a problem. They say it's nearly eradicated, but occasionally shows up in a backyard flock. What are the chances of that, and what other symptoms should I watch for? If it was that, besides getting rid of the flock, what other steps would I need to take to make the coop safe for future use?

Answer(s)

A

This is a problem of vent picking (cannibalism). It usually begins by one hen picking at the vent of another hen as she is laying an egg. Once blood is drawn, other chickens will peck incessantly at the wounded chicken. Eventually, the vent picking may become a contagious habit within the flock and the hens will learn to cannibalize each other. Unfortunately, once this vicious habit gets started, it is hard to control.

Reasons for vent picking include excessively bright lighting, too hot of an environmental temperature (not the case this time of year in April), perhaps a marginal B vitamin or mineral deficiency, and boredom.

Prevention includes making sure the hens have a fresh supply of lay feed purchased at a reliable feed store, plenty of water, do not crowd the birds, provide nests for the hens to lay eggs in seclusion away from other hens.

Once an outbreak occurs, darken the coop from bright sunlight, clip off the end of the beak perhaps 3 to 4 millimeters, and hang a flake of leafy hay from a string tied from the ceiling to provide entertainment and reduce boredom. If the condition continues, get rid of the affected flock and start over with new hens. Don’t add new birds to a flock that vent picks or there is a good probability the new hens will learn this vice from the others.

There are various causes of diarrhea, pullorum being a possibility, but there are many others also including coccidiosis, other intestinal infections, and even broken eggs in the oviduct. Only through laboratory examination can most causes be diagnosed. 

There is a blood test for pullorum; however, most private practicing veterinarians aren’t equipped to do it. Pullorum disease is caused by Salmonella pullorum and is egg transmitted. It has been eradicated in the commercial poultry industry by testing breeder flocks and culling reactors. Occasionally it may show up in noncommercial poultry – the only solution is culling of infected birds.

Another thing regarding picking of feathers and sores on the vent is to look at your rodent and varmint control in the poultry house. Mice will nibble at the lower areas of the birds while roosting at night. Skunks will get in the coop and eat eggs and chew on carcasses. Normally they do not outright kill the chickens, but weasels or raccoons could.

Posted on 14 Apr 2008

David Frame
Poultry Specialist

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