How to Care for a Sick Chick

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How to Care for a Sick Chick - The Self Sufficient HomeAcre

For more information, check out my articles How to Hatch Chicken Eggs in an Incubator and How to Care for Day Old Chicks.

Caring for Sick, Injured, or Weak Baby Poultry

Sometimes, no matter how careful we are, baby poultry are sick, injured or weak. Planning ahead for these little emergencies will give your puffballs a better chance to survive and thrive.

You might like to read my Sick or Injured Chick Infographic for the basics…

Sick or Injured Chick Infographic - The Self Sufficient HomeAcre


How to Care for a Sick Chick - The Self Sufficient HomeAcre

Prevention is the Best Medicine

Before you hatch eggs or order chicks online, make sure you have all the essentials ready for their arrival. All baby poultry need proper food, clean water, and a warm brooder (95 F for the first week, reducing by 5 degrees F each week until fully feathered out) that is free of drafts. Be sure there is room for the chicks to move away from the heat in case it is too warm. Use a water dish that is shallow enough that the chicks can’t drown or get stuck in the water.

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Incubating Eggs ~ Clean and disinfect your incubator before starting a hatch. Use eggs that are free of debris, feces, or broken egg residue that can harbor bacteria. Don’t wash the eggs. This will remove the protective coating, making them more susceptible to bacteria. Keep the humidity and temps at the proper levels so chicks don’t have trouble hatching. Dirty eggs or overly humid conditions during incubation and after hatch can cause ‘mushy chick’ disease. (Keep reading for more info.)

Hatchery Chicks ~ Make sure the hatchery is certified Pullorum free. Try to choose a hatchery that is close to home. If you can pick up chicks at the hatchery, that’s even better. If they must be shipped, upgrade to express shipping if you can. The less time they spend in shipping, the better. Check all new hatchlings when they arrive to be sure they look healthy. Dip their beaks in water when you put them in the brooder to teach them to drink. Don’t dunk too deeply, you don’t want to get water in their nostrils. Check for signs of pasty butt. (Keep reading for more info.) Baby birds that have been shipped should be given sugar water or electrolytes in their water to help them recover from the stress of the trip.

Food ~ Use chick starter feed for most chicks and gamebird starter or meat bird feed for broiler chicks, turkeys, and water fowl. The starter feeds are formulated for their growth requirements. Meat bird feed may also be fed to chicks, turkeys, and waterfowl that have higher protein requirements (check the label to see if it is formulated for feeding from day 1). Make sure the feed is fresh and there is no mold or musty scent to it. Vitamin E breaks down in storage after about one month (faster in warm conditions), so if the feed is old you may see symptoms of a deficiency in the youngsters. Watch for problems with twisted necks affecting chicks or flopping over on their backs and waving legs in the air with ducklings. Administer drops of vitamin E if this happens, get fresh feed, and add a vitamin and electrolyte tablet or powder with vitamin E to their water.

Water ~ Use clean, fresh water that is not chlorinated and preferably hasn’t been treated with a water softener. For the first few days, put 2 or 3 tablespoons of sugar in each quart of water to give the little ones extra energy. Do not substitute honey because it can contain botulism spores that are fatal to young animals. I like to use an electrolyte tab in the chick water that contains vitamins, minerals, probiotics, and other nutrients. After the first few days you can give them plain water as long as they appear healthy.

Brooder and Bedding ~ Clean the brooder out thoroughly and disinfect it before introducing the babies. I use paper towels to line the bottom of the brooder for easy cleanup. You can put wood chips or pellets (pine) in the bottom of the brooder, but the chicks will sometimes try to eat them and they make a huge mess in the water dish. You will go through a lot of paper towels, so use the ones made from recycled paper and compost them to reduce the impact on our environment. Don’t use anything that is slippery (such as newspaper), which can cause spraddle leg in young chicks. This is caused when their feet slip, causing difficulty standing and can lead to permanent damage to the legs.

Heat ~ Many people use heat lamps and it is possible to use them safely. However, I prefer not to use them in my house and I often keep the baby birds inside for a week or two before moving them to the barn. I have used the Brinsea EcoGlow brooders with very good results, but mine no longer function. This winter I am using two seed starting mats and they are working perfectly. Check out my article on an inexpensive Redneck Brooder System if you are concerned about the safety of heat lamps. You may also use a 100 watt incandescent bulb to heat a small number of chicks if the temps aren’t too low. Use a thermometer to make sure the temps are close to ideal.

Handling ~ Always handle baby poultry with extreme care. Gently cup them in both hands to prevent broken bones from dropping or squeezing too hard. Children should be taught to handle the babies properly with adult supervision. Very young children don’t understand how badly they can hurt the little birds. Limit visits from friends and families and make sure they wash their hands before and after handling birds. You may need to decline visits from friends if they may bring bacteria or viruses from their own flock or wild birds.

Supplies ~ Just in case you have to deal with any problems once your baby birds arrive, it’s a great idea to have the following supplies on hand…

    • Vitamin & Electrolyte tabs (in a pinch – 1 drop of molasses & 3 Tbs sugar in 1 quart water)
    • Plain yogurt
    • Medicine dropper (eye dropper)
    • Small dish (can be a jar lid, thoroughly washed)
    • Cotton swabs
    • Antibiotic cream (without the pain relief meds added in)
    • Stretch bandage (the disposable elastic, non-adhesive type)
    • Antibiotics for oral administration (for a natural antibiotic use dried oregano)Hatchlings are susceptible to Mushy Chick when incubator conditions are too humid or dirty.

Treating Sick, Injured, or Weak Chicks

Sometimes you can’t prevent problems. When ordering chicks, there may be a few that don’t recover from the 2 or 3 days spent in shipping. Hatching your own certainly doesn’t eliminate all potential problems either. So what should you do for baby poultry that aren’t thriving?

Weakness ~ Chicks that seem weak should be cared for quickly. Warm the little one up in your hands and feed it plain yogurt mixed with water from an eyedropper. Don’t force the liquid into their beak (unless it’s so weak it won’t take food at all), but rather drip very small amounts onto the end of the beak so the baby can tip its head back and swallow it. Be sure it stays warm, isn’t being pecked by the others, and continue feedings at least every 2 hours until it is able to get food and water on its own. If it begins to perk up, you can mix a pinch of chick starter feed into the yogurt mix and see if it will peck at the mix to eat. If the little one had a difficult hatch or is just a bit weak from shipping, but is otherwise healthy, this should get it through a rough patch.

Pasty Butt ~ Young poultry will sometimes have runny bowel movements that stick to their vent and fluffy little butts. If left unattended, this mess can paste over the vent entirely and prevent them from pooping. This will kill a chick if the feces is not gently cleaned with warm water and a cloth or cotton swab. Be very careful not to tear their delicate skin while cleaning them. Feed these babies some yogurt mixed with water as you would a weak chick, as described above. This will introduce beneficial bacteria to their digestive system and help eliminate the runny droppings.

Mushy Chick ~ This is a result of an infection starting in the yok sac or the unhealed naval of the chick and is almost always fatal. You can attempt to administer antibiotics, but if the chicks do survive they are unlikely to thrive. It is much better to prevent the problem in the first place with proper incubation methods. (Refer to section on Incubating eggs, above.) Symptoms include: naval area looks infected, the abdomen is swollen and/or dark blue, a bad smell coming from navel, and chick seems tired and doesn’t eat. These little ones should be removed from the brooder immediately to prevent spread of the disease. Put them in a separate brooder and disinfect any surface they may have touched. Wash your hands thoroughly each time you handle them, because the bacteria may also cause infections in people.

Coccidiosis ~ If you are concerned about coccidiosis, give your chicks a medicated feed or have them vaccinated at the hatchery. This disease is caused by parasites that are common in soil. Symptoms include bloody diarrhea and a bloody vent. It spreads quickly through the feces in their brooder, so remove any sick chicks and disinfect immediately. Give them feed containing a coccidiostat (as long as they did not receive a vaccine for coccidiosis) and keep water and brooder clean. Keeping a healthly flock, rotating pasture, vaccinating or feeding medicated chick starter, and keeping chicks separate from adults will help prevent problems. Young birds may develop resistence to local cocci populations and some chicken keepers prefer to encourage good health for resistance, rather than using medications.

Vitamin & Mineral Deficiencies ~ There are too many possibilities to mention here, but most likely if you are feeding a fresh, balanced chick starter, the baby birds are getting all of the nutrients that they need. If you aren’t sure, you may feed them a mashed boiled egg (remove shell). If they have trouble eating this, mix with enough water to make a thin gruel and feed with an eyedropper. Mixing a little bit of yogurt in with the egg will introduce beneficial bacteria to the gut and that may help too. For more information about deficiencies, check out this website…The Merck Veterinary Manual.

Injuries ~ Young poultry are susceptible to injuries if they are not in a safe environment. Do your best to prevent injuries because it is very difficult to treat them once they occur. If a chick is injured, remove it from the brooder to prevent picking from its hatch mates. Small cuts, scrapes and pecks can be treated with antibiotic cream. Be sure that the injured chick is kept warm and has food and water available. When it has healed, put it back in with the others, but watch to make sure that they don’t gang up on the ‘newbie.’ If they do, put up a small see-through barrier for a while so they get used to each other again and then reintroduce. In instances where bones are broken or there are other internal injuries, home treatment is very difficult. Small splints can be fashioned from cotton swabs and small strips of ace bandages, but I haven’t had luck with these arrangements. If you do not have time to care for the chick and you don’t wish to seek veterinary attention, it might be best to put the chick down.

Putting a Chick Down ~ Sometimes it is necessary to euthanize a chick. If you wish to take it to a veterinary who specializes in bird care, you have that option. When I have the unfortunate task of putting down a sick chick, I use the same method I use for processing chickens…one clean strike of a hatchet to decapitate the bird and end its life quickly. It isn’t pretty and it isn’t easy for me to do. However, I have had to do this on a number of occassions and I know that it ended their suffering.

This article is not a complete reference for caring for sick or injured baby poultry. Instead, it is intended as a starting point. For more information about poultry diseases, check out this website…The Poultry Site ~ Diseases of Poultry.

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35 comments on “How to Care for a Sick Chick

  1. Shara

    I am loosing baby chicks everyday . They get real weak and lay there and die can u please give me some advice on what to do!!! Thanks jessie

    1. Lisa Lynn

      Hi Jessie,
      I’m so sorry to hear that. I would need more information about what is happening to help much. Does it have diarrhea, bloody stools – that could be coccidiosis. Try reading through the article to see if I share the symptoms your chicks are having. I hope this helps.

  2. Anush bolar

    Hi ,
    I have 2 orphan kingfisher hatchlings bought 1 week before.may be now 14 days old .I want to know what I can feed them. I have give them sardines and river fishes .but now 1 is sick ,any medicine?

    1. Lisa Lynn

      Did the sardines have salt? The salt could make them sick.

      Are you grinding the fish up into a slurry? I would assume that you could take whatever fish the parents would eat, grind them up into a watery mush and feed them that.

      Some baby birds also rely on the digestive enzymes of their parents for digesting their food. In this case, the babies may not survive.

      I hope that this works out. I have no idea about medications for wild birds. Do you have any wildlife rehabilitation people in your area?

  3. Sam

    Hii! i recently bought some 3-day old chicks and now they have reached the age of nearly 3 weeks…..but one of them is very lazy and is not much active as the rest. he usually eats and drinks but most of the time, he will close his eyes while standing and chirping as if he has some disease or something. need help! any suggestions for feed etc.?

    1. Lisa Lynn

      Hi Sam,
      Does your chick seem to have any problems walking or flapping its wings? Did you have them vaccinated for Marek’s disease? Usually Marek’s doesn’t show up this early, but I suppose it could happen.

      Are you noticing any bloody or unusual stools? Blood in the stool could be cocidiosis…a parasite infection and there is medicated feed for that…but only use it if the chick was not vaccinated for cocidiosis.

      Those are two of the most common problems but there are other possible problems. I suggest putting electrolytes and probiotics in the water if you can. That will give the chick the best chance at surviving. If you don’t have store bought (Sav-a-chick is what I use) you can try giving it plain yogurt and put a little sugar and a drop of molasses in the water.

  4. Irfan khan

    Hi my chick is feeling sick please tell me the name of the medicine or injections. Is the medicine and injection available in pharmacy only chicks medicine please tell me what can I do?????????? Please telle the name of medicine and injection name.

    1. Lisa Lynn

      Hi Irfan,
      I’m sorry I can’t be more specific about medications without knowing what is wrong with your chick. Please write back and tell me what the symptoms are…

      – bloody diarrhea? Probably coccidiosis – isolate chick, sanitize brooder to prevent spread, give all chicks a coccidiostat or give medicated feed.

      – blue, sticky ‘navel’ area? Mushy chick…apply neosporin to navel and give antibiotics (kind will depend on where you live and what is available)

      – gasping for breath? May have ingested something, food or water may have gone into lungs…this is not something I can help you treat.

      If you can give me more info, I will try to help.

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  7. Molly

    Hi Lisa thanks for the great info. One of my lil chicks looks injured. I think is a wing and a leg. Is it possible for it to get healed with lits if care and attention? Its eating snd drinking well but can’t walk. What should I do?

    1. Lisa Lynn

      Hi Molly,
      Your chick might heal and be okay. It depends on what is causing the problem. If it has a broken wing and leg, I would try applying a splint. Here is a site that gives more info…

      It isn’t easy to heal a chick with a broken bones. It should be separated and let it eat as much food as it would like (unless it is a cornish cross meat bird).Best wishes…Lisa Lynn

  8. zack

    hey my chick has been looking really sick since yesterday, it’s barely moving and eating anything. i really don’t know what to do.

    1. Lisa Lynn

      Hi Zack,
      I’m sorry to hear that. Did you try the tips in the article? I would first try adding electrolytes to the drinking water, and mixing plain yogurt with water and feed it some with an eyedropper.

      I hope this helps. There is a lot of info in the article…maybe one of the descriptions will give you a better idea of what is wrong?

  9. Brandie

    My chicken hatched chicks it’s been about a week we moved them indoors due to crazy weather. We have these weird small hens that lay extra small eggs one of the chicks hatched from that small egg and is very weak it did not start this way it was normal until yesterday. It falls over and can’t get up kinda like a turtle on it’s back. Any suggestions????

    1. Lisa Lynn Post author

      Hi Brandie,
      I’m sorry to hear about your chick. Try removing the chick and keeping it on it’s own to see if it gets better. Make sure it has clean water, and is eating and drinking. Electrolytes in the water would be advisable. Feed mashed egg yolk in its food. I hope this helps.

  10. Amber Lasure Sloan

    I have a week old chick that is very lethargic. Her chest seems “squishy” and she seems to be breathing deeply. This is my first batch of chicks and all the others are doing wonderful. I have her separated from the rest and am trying to get her to drink. Any ideas?

  11. Anonymous

    I have a young chick, she can’t walk quite right, but she eats and drinks but looks weak, what can I do for her??

    1. Lisa Lynn Post author

      Try putting some electrolytes or a little molasses (1 tsp per gallong) and some apple cider vinegar in her water (1 Tbs per gallon). Make sure her feed is fresh and high in protein. Mix some mashed boiled egg yolk in the feed or free choice. This might give her a boost in energy. Best wishes!

  12. Don_in_Odessa

    I have a secret to growing healthy chicks? Scrambled eggs! I use scrambled eggs as an addition to the chick starter nearly every day until they are month old. Then as an occasional treat there after. Makes for very healthy, very sturdy birds. Think about it … our Creator put everything needed to grow a whole bird inside that egg. Who am I to argue with that?

    1. Lisa Lynn Post author

      Hi Don,
      Good info! I’ve used boiled eggs mashed up, but not scrambled. 🙂 I’m sure that it is great for the chicks! High in protein and every thing they need. Thanks for sharing!

  13. KathyB.

    So much good information here. We’ve had chickens for years and it seems everyone who keeps chickens will lose chicks now and then. I did not know yogurt would help, thanks for that tip !

      1. BJ D

        I believe it’s bc anything that ends in ‘caine’ (which is the numbing ingredient in antibiotic cream), is toxic to birds ..not sure why tho

  14. Carrie Feagins Davis

    I wish I had read this last week. Bought eight 3day old chicks. And I have lost 3. Started making a concoction of their food in hot water with a drop of Apple cider vinegar. They are going crazy eating it and getting much bigger. I am praying I have lost my last one. It’s hard to loose them .. It’s my 1st year

    1. Lisa Lynn Post author

      I’m so sorry to hear about your little ones, Carrie 🙁 I’ve also lost young chicks and it’s hard. You did good with the warm water and a bit of acv…it also has probiotics (unless it is distilled). It sounds like the rest should do fine now. Good luck with them!

  15. Terry

    Thanks, that is a lot of good information. I am getting my first chickens soon, but not baby chicks. I have found a local source that will have chicks 4-5 months old. Can’t wait to start this adventure

    1. Lisa Lynn Post author

      That’s awesome, Terry! You’ll have them just a month or so before they start to lay 🙂 (For most breeds, that is) You will have a blast and you’ll find yourself arranging your furniture so that you can watch the chickens from the house and patio, lol! Enjoy the adventure!

      1. Lisa Lynn Post author

        Hi Carrie,
        In another comment, Terry mentioned that she has friends or neighbors who raise chickens and she is getting hers from them. You could look on Craigslist, but be aware that there can be diseases that come along with them.


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