A healthy varied diet, clean home and plenty of exercise are essential for your chicken to remain in good health. They will be bright-eyed, alert and look clean with healthy wattles. Always keep a close eye on your chickens so that if they do become ill you will be able to spot the signs easily. Always use mite and louse powders and keep on top of cleaning to keep parasites at bay.
Signs of illness in chickens
A few signs of poor health are hiding in corners, erect feathers, hunched, their head tucked under their wing, and reluctance to move. If you notice any of your chickens doing any of these consult a vet. If one chicken has become ill, get them treated right away as this will spread quickly to all the other chickens.
Your chickens will need worming on a regular basis to reduce the risk of becoming infected. Common problems are lice and red mites — lice can be found all over the body and eggs will be around the shafts of the feathers. The lice are about 2-3mm in size so they shouldn't be too hard to spot. Red mites are much smaller and are usually found under the wings and in the chicken coop.
Chickens will naturally dust bathe to clean their feathers and this process also helps get rid of any lice. Making sure they have access to dry soil is a benefit to their health.
Looking after chicks
If you are thinking about getting your chickens from a young age (under six weeks) you will need to take special care of them. They'll need to be kept in a smaller cage with a heat lamp as they can't withstand cold temperatures until their feathers have started to form.
It is best to keep them in a cage or box that has solid sides to protect them from any draughts — larger cardboard boxes can do the trick just nicely! Or you could use an old fish tank. Make sure that your chicks aren't all crammed together and that there's enough space for them to live comfortably, and place your heat lamps over about half of their cage so they can cool off when needed.
You must be careful where you position your heat lamp, so that your chicks can't burn themselves, and any bedding in the cage doesn't overheat and catch fire. In a chick's first week you should make sure the temperature from the heat lamp is about 95°F, and drop this by about five degrees each week until they are six weeks old. Keep a thermometer close by so you can monitor the temperature regularly.
For the bedding, you will need to use newspaper and paper towels — this will soak up any spillages and allow you to clean away any droppings and other mess easily. Wood shavings can be used but you must be careful as chicks can mistake this for food. Chicks can slip about very easily and this can damage their legs — this is known as 'spraddle leg' — where the legs slide to each side beneath them and they cannot stand. So always put something on top of the bedding that the chicks will be able to grip, such as mesh or wire.
Check your chick's toes, making sure that they grow straight and don't start to curl up or look deformed. This can sometimes already be the case when they hatch, and splints can be used to straighten the toes out if need be. Seek advice from your vet if you notice any problems with your chick's legs or toes.
You should always keep your chicks topped up with fresh water at all times. Specially designed water feeders will allow your chicks to drink without the risk of drowning. To keep their energy levels up you may want to add a little bit of sugar to their water, and make sure you introduce them to the water so they learn what it is.
What should I feed my chicks?
You can buy starter feeds for your chicks which they will need to have until they are six weeks old, these should be available from your local pet store. After six weeks you can move your chicks onto pellet grower feed, which they can stay on until they reach about 20 weeks, and then they can be fed a laying feed. A 'mash' or 'crumbles' diet is more suitable for your chicks as it's easy for them to digest, and they won't need to have any grit added to this. Any treats that you give them in between their normal food will need to be mixed with grit.
Ask your local pet store for advice on what are the correct foods for your chick if you are unsure. Doing some research first will always help and you can be confident that you can raise your chicks without any worries.
After six weeks introduce your chicks to grower feed and move them into a coop. If there are other chickens already in the coop, you may want to create a section for your chicks so they can retreat if the other chickens become a little intimidating. Make the entrance small enough so the chicks can get through, but prevents the fully grown chickens from following them. To avoid the chickens eating all the food and leaving the chicks with none, put plenty of food and water in the chicks own separate section.
You will need to check on your chicks regularly, as they are vulnerable at such a young age. They will sleep a lot because they are so young, so don't be worried if you notice them sleeping a lot of the time. Make sure you keep any other pets away from them whilst they are indoors in their first six weeks. Cats and dogs are likely to see them as something to play with and could seriously harm or kill them.