Reduce Stress for a Healthier, More Productive Flock

Photo by Pamela Steppe

Photo by Pamela Steppe

Reducing or limiting stress is one of the best things you can do to keep your flock healthy and productive. Similar to how stress affects us as humans, in poultry it can lead to many problems. Reduced egg production, poor rate of growth and development, greater susceptibility to disease — all of these can result from stress.

According to Gail Damerow, author of The Chicken Health Handbook, chickens are always undergoing some level of stress. Our task is not to totally eliminate stress, which would be impossible, but instead to limit and reduce stress.

What Causes Chickens to Be Stressed?

Lots of things can cause stress to your flock, most of which are easy to correct or prevent. Some of the obvious causes of stress are inadequate nutrition, lack of water, poor hygiene and extreme conditions, but there are others, too. Let’s look in more detail at things that can cause chickens stress.

  1. Water problems. If your chickens ever run out of water, that will cause unnecessary stress. Poor quality water — water that’s not clean, or water that’s not very palatable (perhaps due to dissolved minerals or additives) — can cause stress. To reduce stress, give them a continual supply of clean, fresh water, and clean their watering equipment regularly. For more information, see our article on the importance of water for chickens.
  2. Inadequate nutrition. Chicken feeds are designed for specific applications and ages. Feeding the wrong type of feed can lead to inadequate nutrition, as can not supplying enough feed or letting feed get spoiled. For example, newly hatched chicks should receive a chick starter that supplies adequate levels of protein, not a lower protein ration intended for mature birds, such as layer ration.
  3. Excessive or Rough Handling. Handling chickens stresses them to some degree, particular rough handling. Sometimes children can unintentionally cause chickens a lot of stress simply because they haven’t been taught how to properly handle the birds. On the other hand, proper handling of your birds can actually reduce stress overall. If you rarely handle your chickens, they will not be used to human contact, and then when you do need to handle them, for example, to check for mites, it will stress them more than necessary. The solution is to handle them gently and frequently enough that they get used to it, but in moderation. Just spending some time in the coop or pen with them for a few minutes on a daily basis helps. (That’s why I prefer a coop or pen that is high enough to get into easily). Picking up a hen or rooster, holding it for a little while and then setting it down gently helps the chicken learn that you aren’t going to harm it, and with regular handling, they will get tamer (some breeds more than others). Tamer chickens will experience less stress when you do need to handle them.
  4. Fear of dogs or predators. If your chickens are being threatened by predators, of if dogs are able to run around the coop, they may frighten the chickens, which will obviously stress them. If things like this are a problem in your area, you may want to consider some kind of perimeter fencing that can keep animals like these well away from the coop. Electrified wire can help keep dogs and predators away.
  5. Overcrowding. Having too many chickens in too small of a space increases stress, exacerbates tendencies toward pecking one another, makes good hygiene more difficult and can increase the risk of diseases and parasites. Make sure your chickens have plenty of space.
  6. Parasites and disease. Diseases, internal parasites such as worms and external parasites such as mites place stress on chickens. Also, stress weakens chickens’ immune systems, making them more susceptible to disease.
  7. Extremes of Temperature. Heat stress is one of the most commonly discussed types of stress for chickens. In another article we discuss things you can do to help your chickens stay cool. Excessive cold can also be a problem. One thing to keep in mind is that chickens are typically much better insulated than we are, so what feels cold to us is not necessarily that cold for them. See also our recent article on caring for chickens in cold weather.

Conclusions

One of the best ways to recognize sources of stress and other problems is to spend time with your chickens and observe their behavior and their living conditions. (This is also a great way to notice not just problems, but things that are working well.) It’s easy to see when the living conditions aren’t clean enough. It’s not difficult to smell the harmful ammonia build-up that can result from inadequate ventilation. Beyond that, chickens’ behavior will change — not unlike how our own behavior changes — when they experience higher levels of stress. If you spend time with them and watch them enough to recognize what their normal behavior is like, then you’ll be able to more easily notice when their behavior has begun to change as a result of stress. Then once you’ve determined the cause, you’ll be able to make changes to fix the problem and reduce their stress levels. That will lead to a happier, healthier and more productive flock.

More could be said about stress, and perhaps we’ll cover that in future articles. For now, I’d like to hear back from you. Have you noticed signs of stress in your flock? What was the cause? And what worked best to reduce the stress?

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9 Responses to Reduce Stress for a Healthier, More Productive Flock

  1. Michael Telson says:

    Denise, time of year (length of day light) is also a factor. Many breeds aren’t winter layers. Half my girls aren’t laying after molting since the turn of autumn and won’t see a return till after January

  2. victor says:

    There is a breeder show in Shawnee OK, on December 12, 2015

  3. victor says:

    my chickens just want me to give them treats, sometimes i say that they are spoiled rotten

  4. Kate says:

    Hi Denise,
    Most laying hens will stop laying eggs this time of year because they are in molt. Molting is when your birds will loose their feathers and re-grow new feathers. It usually happens in the fall, and the process takes a few months.

  5. Korey Pearson says:

    thanks for this post! we had a pack of six coyotes run in between our two coops a few nights ago. maybe in the future, you could publish an article about how to deal with predators? foxes, coyotes, hawks, eagles, and other varmits are a big threat. just an idea.

  6. B says:

    I have come very late to the collusion that chickens are the best people in the world and better than dogs and cats.

    They do not mess up your house and they do not get “fleas”. Nor have I ever to my knowledge ever had a parasite problem with them. To their credit, they can live on chicken feed. They make good companions and are affectionate, and they are good watchdogs. If not crowed and if given their own space, they do not mess up your yard, and they will eat all of those nasty bugs in the yard, and if they are given a safe shelter they will thrive and give you back some wonderful eggs. They are more fun to watch than TV. They sometimes like to watch you and when they do they do so they do so with plenty of comments and if you learn to listen well you can understand every word they say. Once you understand what they are saying then the really interesting conversations start. With chickens as with any other creature…love is a two way street.

  7. Ruby Norwood says:

    I have 40 Chickens all hens except 6 they are Roosters. I have 20 hens that are 6 months old. and the other 20 are about 5 years old. All of my Roosters are good Breeder’s. All of my older hens have laid good until about a month ago now I’m only getting from 5 to 8 eggs a day. They love their laying Grumbles and their Scratch grain and their table scraps. They are free range and have a 1/4 of an acre to run on and eat grass But they also have a pen. And go in to the pen on their own and into their chicken house just at sun down. do you think they might be to old to keep laying?

  8. Denise says:

    I make sure my hens have fresh water and feed, but they have stopped laying. Why is this, and when will they start laying again?

    • Michael Telson says:

      Denise, time of year (length of day light) is also a factor, Many breeds aren’t winter layers. Half my girls aren’t laying after molting since the turn of autumn and won’t see a return till after January

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