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Why Do Chicks and Chickens Sneeze?

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Chickens are one of the most popular animals to raise. They are just as commonly found in backyards as they are on farms and ranches. One of the challenging aspects of raising any animal is being able to tell when they are sick. You may notice your chicks and chickens sneezing while you are caring for them, but does a sneeze from a chicken mean that it is sick?

So, why do chicks and chickens sneeze? Chickens are susceptible to many respiratory illnesses, which is why they sneeze. Chickens can suffer from upper respiratory infections (like colds in humans), bronchitis, mycoplasma bacterial infections, avian influenza, and more. Sneezing is a symptom of all the respiratory sicknesses that can affect chicks and chickens.

hen walks on fence

Knowing the reasons your chickens are sneezing, how to respond to the illnesses they may have, and how to prevent further illness in your chickens is important for all chicken owners.

Reasons Your Chickens Could Be Sneezing

Respiratory illnesses are almost always the reason that your chicken is sneezing. There are several respiratory sicknesses that can affect chickens.

Name of Illness Information Symptoms Diagnosis
Upper Respiratory Infection A common illness in chickens,
usually harmless.
sneezing, open mouth breathing, wheezing or gurgling breathing sounds, ruffled feathers, eye and nasal discharge, head shaking must be examined by a vet – antibiotics are used to get rid of the cold
Mycoplasma Gallisepticum One of the costliest diseases for commercial poultry producers in the U.S., bacteria cannot survive without a host for more than a few days. Also known as Chronic Respiratory Disease nasal discharge, infected sinuses and air sacs, pneumonia, decreased egg production – chronic cases can produce swollen heads, respiratory compromise, and severe cellulitis. Some chickens do not show symptoms. Chickens remain infected for life. clinical signs, blood tests for bacterial presence. Vaccines are available to vaccinate flocks before the bacteria is present. Antibiotics can reduce the symptoms.
Mycoplasma Synoviae An infection of the respiratory tract that can spread to the joints. a decrease in egg production, a reduction in the growth rate of turkeys,coughing, sneezing and wheezing, eye and nasal discharge, joint swelling that can result in lameness clinical signs, blood tests for bacterial presence. Vaccines are available to vaccinate flocks before the bacteria is present. Antibiotics can reduce the symptoms.
Infectious Bronchitis Commonly referred to as IBV. Caused by an avian coronavirus. coughing, decreased egg production, death in young chickens blood test
Infectious Laryngotracheitis Commonly referred to as ILT. Caused by an avian herpesvirus. severe respiratory distress, coughing up bloody mucous, high mortality rate lab tests on sick or dead birds suspected to have ILT. A vaccination is available to prevent the occurrence or to stop it from spreading
Avian Influenza Also known as Bird Flu. Caused by the Type A influenza virus of birds. Only occasionally transmitted to poultry. Has 2 forms – highly pathogenic (HPAI) and low pathogenic (LPAI) respiratory disease, drop in egg production, swollen head, hemorrhages on the body or comb, a high mortality rate with HPAI, but LPAI produces minimal illness in birds blood test for antibodies, respiratory and cloacal swab tests
Aspergillosis Also known as Brooder Pneumonia, caused by the fungus Aspergillus fumigatus severe inflammation in birds’ lungs and air sacs and can affect other tissues -respiratory tract cultures, microscopic exam of affected tissues
Avian Cholera Caused by the bacteria Pasteurella multocida abscesses in tissues, pneumonia, high mortality rate bacteria culture from blood samples, sores, or dead birds

In addition to the primary respiratory illnesses that can affect chickens and cause sneezing, there are other illnesses that can affect chickens and exhibit respiratory symptoms, even if they are not respiratory illnesses themselves.

Name of Illness Respiratory Symptoms
Gapeworm Adult Syngamus worms live in the chicken’s trachea and can travel to the lungs, causing respiratory symptoms like sneezing and coughing. A “gaping” mouth appearance follows.
Fowl Pox (avian diphtheria, bird pox, chicken pox) There are two forms – dry pox and wet pox. Wet pox forms canker-like lesions within the mouth, pharynx, larynx, and trachea and can obstruct the upper air passages.
Newcastle Disease (pneumoencephalitis) It can cause hoarse chirps, watery nasal discharge, gasping, labored breathing, paralysis, and trembling.
Infectious Coryza (roup, coryza) It can cause facial swelling, foul-smelling and thick discharge from the nostrils and eyes, labored breathing, and rattling sounds while breathing.
Chlamydiosis (ornithosis, psittacosis, parrot fever) It can cause discharge from eyes and nose, conjunctivitis, sinusitis, diarrhea, weakness, weight loss, and loss of appetite.
Swollen Head Syndrome (facial cellulitis, thick head, Dikkop, SHS) It can cause sneezing, reddening, and swelling around the eyes that spreads around the head and down the jaw. Adult chickens will sometimes experience respiratory disease before exhibiting Swollen Head Syndrome.
Mycoplasma meleagridis (MM, N strain, H strain) It can cause unthriftiness, respiratory distress, deformities in cervical vertebrae that cause a crooked neck, and leg deformities.

Clearly, there are plenty of reasons that your chickens could be sneezing. However, none of them have easy solutions. In fact, with chickens the adage “the best treatment is prevention” holds true, as these are complex and serious diseases.

How to Respond to Respiratory Illness in Chickens

If you notice one of your chickens sneezing, you should first quarantine the sick chicken and then investigate your chicken coop. Most chicken illnesses can be controlled this way because bird-to-bird contact is the most common way that the diseases are spread. If you can take away the sick chicken before the disease spreads to the rest of your birds, that is the best method of prevention.

After you quarantine your sick chicken, you should follow these steps:

  • Call an avian veterinarian. You should first figure out exactly which illness you are dealing with. For instance, chickens will suffer from Chronic Respiratory Disease for life, but there are other sicknesses that can be treated with antibiotics or vaccines. It is essential to find out exactly what you are dealing with as soon as possible to prevent the spreading of sickness.
  • Make sure that your quarantine area has proper ventilation. Sneezing in chickens could be caused by something as simple as dust in the air because of inadequate ventilation.
  • Check the rest of your birds. See if there are more birds that are sick. If you have multiple infected chickens, the issue becomes more serious.

Mild respiratory illnesses can be treated simply by cleaning the coop, changing the bedding, or using natural remedies. More severe illnesses will need medical intervention in order to lessen or stop the symptoms.

Quarantining and diagnosing sick chickens allows for three critical things: you will know if your bird is contagious, you will have a better chance at finding a medication that will work, and you will know if a vaccine can help you control the issue.

It’s important to realize that some sicknesses, like Chronic Respiratory Disease, infect chickens for life and can cause complications with secondary illnesses.

Next, you must investigate your chicken coop. There are many factors within the chicken coop that can allow illnesses to thrive.

Some causes of respiratory distress in chickens include:

  • Extreme changes in temperature. If there is a cold or warm front coming, take measures to ensure that your chickens say at a comfortable temperature in order to prevent them from getting sick.
  • Introducing new chickens to your flock. This is a stressful experience for all the chickens involved, and stress makes the chickens more susceptible to becoming sick.
  • Excess dust and fine residue. Dust is extremely irritable to chickens’ airways. Keep your chicken coop clean, change its bedding regularly, and carefully pour the chickens’ feed in order to avoid stirring up unnecessary dust.
  • The presence of moist litter. If the litter and bedding of the chicken coop are moist or wet, they can breed mold and bacteria that can get your chickens sick.
  • Inadequate or poor coop ventilation. Ventilation allows for dust and other irritable particles to make their way out and prevents drafts from coming in.
  • Extreme stress. Stress can make any mild symptoms that a chicken has become problematic. Putting too many chickens in a coop, and chickens being overly bored can lead to more stress than usual.

If the investigation of your chicken coop shows that the coop or its conditions are not conducive to active, healthy chickens, you need to make some changes.

photo of hen inside coop

To create a proper, safe chicken coop, you must:

  • Make sure your chicken coop is secure. A secure chicken coop keeps out predators, rodents, and wild birds that can harm or stress your chickens.
  • Make sure that your coop has proper ventilation. Chickens have complex respiratory systems that are sensitive and prone to illness. Ventilation helps to prevent chickens from getting sick.
  • Make sure that your chicken coop is as clean as possible. Purchasing easy to clean perches and removable floor trays can make hygiene easier. A good rule of thumb is to quickly clean your coop once a week and thoroughly clean it once a month.
  • Get the right perches for your coop. Your coop should be sizable enough to fit roosting perches that give sleeping chickens at least 5 cm of room on each size.
  • Include nesting boxes in your coop. For every 4 chickens in your coop, you need one nesting box. It is recommended that the nesting boxes be put in an out of the way place within the coop and kept dark for maximum egg-laying.
  • Make sure your chicken coop has enough space for the chickens in it. Allow 10 to 11 square feet per chicken in your flock.

If all else fails, there are some difficult decisions that must be considered. Some chicken owners may choose to live with the infection and use vaccines or medications to control illness. In more serious cases, you may be forced to cull or depopulate the flock.

Culling involves euthanizing infected birds in order to prevent the spread of the disease to the rest of the flock. Another option is depopulating the flock. This is an extreme measure for only the most severe cases that involves euthanizing the entire flock, cleaning out your coop, and starting over completely.

How to Prevent Respiratory Illness in Chickens

Preventing respiratory illness in your chickens is better than having to nurse an entire flock back to health once sickness has spread throughout the whole coop.

There are many ways to prevent disease in your flock.

Preventative Measure Details
Vaccinate your chickens. Vaccinations available for chickens are avian encephalomyelitis, chicken anemia, egg drop syndrome 76 (EDS 76), fowl cholera, fowl pox, infectious bronchitis, infectious bursal disease, infectious coryza, infectious laryngotracheitis, Marek’s disease, and Newcastle disease.
Keep the environment clean, dust-free, and stress-free. Clean your chicken coop regularly, ensure proper ventilation, and minimize stress for your chickens.
Quarantine new birds. Quarantine new birds for two reasons: to make sure that the new birds are healthy before introducing them to the rest of your flock, and to minimize stress by slowly introducing the new birds to the flock.
Separate sick birds immediately. Common respiratory symptoms to look for are sneezing/sniffling, runny nose or mucous discharge from nose, watery eyes, and swollen sinuses. Any of these symptoms should result in the removal of the chicken(s) from the coop.
Don’t overstuff your coop. Make sure that each chicken has adequate space within the coop to thrive.
Buy chickens from trustworthy sources. Always know and research your sellers to ensure you start with or add healthy chickens.
Follow proper biosecurity measures. Make sure people and equipment coming in from other areas are clean and disinfected. Those working in the chicken coop should wash their hands, change their clothes before and after working in the coop or handling chickens, and wear disposable shoe covers or dedicated rubber footwear. Change clothing, shoe covers/footwear, and wash hands after caring for sick chickens and before tending to healthy chickens. Don’t put in bird feeders or bird baths that can attract wild birds. Empty, clean, and disinfect chicken coops at least once a year.

Another way to help prevent respiratory illness in your chickens is to boost their immune systems naturally. There are many natural and herbal remedies, solutions, and treatments that can help to prevent, and even relieve, respiratory sickness in your chickens.

Some great natural ways to boost your chickens’ immunity include:

  • For chickens that are coughing, sneezing, or breathing heavily, you can massage their throat and give them a drink of water that is mixed with some olive oil to soothe their throats.
  • gently squirting saline solution into your chicken’s eyes several times a day can help clear out their sinuses.
  • Adding a fresh clove of garlic and apple cider vinegar to your chickens’ drinking water can help to ward off respiratory illnesses. Additionally, if they are showing respiratory symptoms, you can add more apple cider vinegar to their water. Typically, you’d use 1 tablespoon per 1 gallon of water, but if the chicken is showing signs of sickness, you can use 2 to 4 tablespoons per 1 gallon of water.
  • Basil, clove, dill, thyme, and cinnamon are a mixture that can be fed to your chickens to help prevent sickness. You can serve it to the chickens alone or mixed into their food.
  • VetRX
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    is an all-natural poultry aid that can be put into the chickens’ drinking water, squirted into their nostrils, or placed under their wings at bedtime. It helps to promote healthy respiratory function. It helps prevent scaly legs and eyeworms as well.

Chicken respiratory illnesses are highly contagious. Their outcomes can vary between the following:

  • Full recovery after two to four weeks
  • Recovery but the chicken remains a carrier of the infection long-term
  • Chronic illness
  • Death

Hobby Farms details a great plan that involves preventative, safe, and healthy poultry care and biosecurity practices for those who raise chickens.

The plan includes:

  1. Make sure that you only get hatching eggs and replacement chickens from a reputable hatchery or USDA-approved dealer who participates in the National Poultry Improvement Plan, “a USDA program that tests and monitors a number of avian diseases.”
  2. Separate your chickens by age group. Younger chicks need time to grow and develop their own immunity.
  3. Limit the people that you allow in your chicken coop. All those allowed into the coop should wear proper clothes and wash their hands.
  4. During the quarantine of new birds, have your avian veterinarian test your bird’s blood for antibodies and perform a fecal parasite screening as well.
  5. Use coarse bedding materials to produce less dust. Discard all feed or bedding as soon as it becomes wet.
  6. If you bring your chickens to shows and fairs, quarantine them for health screenings every time they return to the flock. The quarantine should last for 2 to 3 weeks to allow for proper monitoring.

In Conclusion

Chickens have sensitive respiratory systems and the best treatment is prevention. Follow a protocol every time you hear a chicken sneeze in order to preserve the health of your entire flock – quarantine, diagnose, treat. While sneezes may not seem very important, they can mean a more serious issue is present.

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