Subclinical Illness


A few months ago, I posted about subclinical illness in birds. I feel this topic is very important for anyone who has fowl, not just chickens, so I’m going to address this again.

Subclinical illness refers to sickness that goes undetected because the animal (or person) does not display symptoms. I was diagnosed with subclinical appendicitis only after the surgeon removed my diseased appendix. Until that point, my symptoms were not consistent with those of classic appendicitis, and the doctors were not sure what was going on. So exploratory surgery was needed.

Many bird owners say “My parakeet caught a draft and died” or “The bird just died suddenly. He must have been frightened to death.” Many times, the bird has been sick for a while and subtle symptoms are present, but because birds hide the signs of illness so well, the owners fail to realize the bird is sick. This is called subclinical illness.

In order to understand why subclinical illness is prevalent in birds, it’s necessary to understand their psychology. Birds are flock animals. They live together, fly together, eat together, and sleep together. A sick bird draws predators to the flock. Therefore the flock, to prevent danger to itself, will exclude sick birds. Individuals who are sick need the protection of the flock to survive, so they have become adept at hiding signs of illness.

So what can you, the chicken owner, do about this?

For starters, you should know your birds’ behavior:

  • How much do they eat?
  • How much do they vocalize?
  • What kinds of things do they do during the day?
  • How active are they?
  • Who is on top in the pecking order?

Also get to know their bodies. Pick them up from time to time. Check the following:

  • Crop
  • Eyes
  • Nares (nose)
  • Keel (breastbone)
  • Vent

Know what is normal for your birds. If anything looks unusual, keep an eye on it. If it gets worse or has not changed in a day or two, seek medical attention. Once you have noticed something, the bird may not have much time.

If you notice the following symptoms, the bird is in distress and needs help immediately:

  • Listlessness, not moving
  • Gasping for breath
  • Tissues protruding from the vent
  • Lying on one side

You know your birds best, so know get to know what’s normal for each bird. You may be able to prevent a problem from becoming deadly!

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