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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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?