Think your chicken is depressed?  Has Tom Turkey stopped strutting? Birds often show signs of illness in subtle ways and it may be hard to detect. The first step to knowing if your chicken, turkey, duck, goose, or other feathered friend is sick is to know what is normal for your flock.

We recommend that you start by watching your birds for a short time every day. Observation is a great tool for both veteran poultry farmers and new owners. Be sure to keep a record of your observations so that you don’t have to guess if something has changed. “Normal” behavior will vary slightly between different flocks, even those of the same species!

Now, what should you expect to see? Chickens and turkeys should walk with their heads held high with the tail feathers slightly elevated in an even, steady gait. Ducks and geese tend to waddle from side to side but still carry their heads high. Feathers should lay smooth against the body and have a shiny, sleek appearance. Unless it is very hot outside, their chests hardly move when they breathe, and their breaths  should be quiet; you shouldn’t hear wet sounds or wheezing. The birds shouldn’t look like they are putting a lot of effort into each breath. Open-mouth breathing can be normal on a hot day, but can otherwise be a sign of stress or disease. When held, your poultry should feel dense and weighty, not light and hollow. Measure their daily feed and water consumption.  If your birds don’t feel well, it may initially manifest as a poor appetite. Keep regular notes on how many eggs each bird lay per week because a decrease in the number of eggs may signal a problem.  Finally, take a look at their manure every day and see if it looks different. Knowing how your birds normally walk, look, and eat will help you decide if there is something wrong. There are many ways poultry may start to clue you in that there is a problem. You can learn about early signs of illness by reading THIS article.

If you are concerned that one or more of your birds are ill, consult with your veterinarian. Your veterinarian will examine your sick birds and usually perform diagnostic tests to determine the cause of the illness and create a treatment plan. You may be asked to change how you raise and manage your flock to optimize their health.  For example, you may have to repair your fence if dogs or other animals gain access to your enclosure and injure your birds.

Some common contagious poultry diseases seen in Southern California are Coccidiosis, Coryza, Infectious Bronchitis, Infectious Laryngotracheitis, Marek’s Disease, Mycoplasmosis and Fowl Pox. Veterinarians in California have also previously diagnosed highly contagious and deadly poultry diseases such as Avian Influenza (AI) and Virulent Newcastle Disease (vND). Outbreaks of these serious diseases result in emergency responses by state and federal animal health agencies. Although AI and vND are life-threatening and have economic consequences for commercial operations, they are less common than some of the other diseases listed above.


two veternarians holding a chicken



Quite common in all species of poultry, coccidiosis is caused by a single-celled organism called a protozoa from the Eimeria genus.  Birds become infected by ingesting the infective protozoa, called an oocyst, which is present in their manure. Some birds will show no clinical signs, while others become very sick with severe, blood-tinged diarrhea.


Infectious Coryza

Chickens that are sneezing with nasal discharge and swollen sinuses may have Coryza. It is caused by a bacteria that will infect their nasal passages and sinuses.  It spreads easily within a flock and may be difficult to eliminate.


Infectious Bronchitis

This virus causes chickens to eat less and cough, and it may result in open-mouthed breathing.  Their eggs can appear abnormal, too, because this virus also affects their egg production.


Infectious Laryngotracheitis

Another viral disease that causes coughing and difficulty breathing. Some chickens can cough up blood-tinged mucous.


Marek’s Disease

This is a ubiquitous avian infection that can be found in flocks worldwide.  According to the Merck Vet Manual it should be presumed that every flock, everywhere is infected. It is caused by a virus and, luckily, can be prevented by vaccination. The most noticeable sign of Marek’s Disease is leg paralysis, but some chickens can have abnormal feathers, too. This disease can also lead to T cell lymphoma tumors in organs throughout the chicken’s body.

When you buy chicks, make sure they have been vaccinated to keep this disease away because Marek’s is highly contagious and there is no treatment available. Vaccination is the single most effective means of addressing this viral disease.  Find out more about Marek’s disease here.



A mycoplasma is a microbe similar to bacteria. If poultry are infected with Mycoplasma gallisepticum or Mycoplasma synoviae, they may show signs of upper respiratory disease such as swollen sinuses or discharge that comes from the eye or nose. Chickens may also appear lame, with difficulty moving about.


Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI) and Virulent Newcastle Disease (vND)

Both diseases are caused by highly infectious viruses, and the majority of the flock will be sick and will die from them. These diseases are easily passed from one bird to another and from one flock to another.  Birds may have nasal discharge, swollen faces, and make “snicking” sounds. When birds show these signs, they are often close to death. Detection of either of these two viral diseases requires notification of animal health agencies.  If they are found in the United States, a coordinated outbreak response effort by state and federal government entities will be initiated due to how severely they could devastate poultry populations.


This is only a short list of important poultry diseases in Southern California. If you notice your birds are not their usual selves, contact your veterinarian.  Your veterinarian is best trained and equipped to diagnose and provide a treatment plan for your birds. To report a sick bird, call the California Department of Food and Agriculture’s sick bird hotline on (866) 922-2473.