Friday, May 11, 2018

Is my chicken fat? Why a hen's weight is really important

Chickens can get fat. Of course chickens often look fat because of their fluffy feathers, but sometimes they can actually be overweight under all that fluff. Unfortunately when chickens get fat, it can be fatal. 

A hen who gains excess weight can develop fatty liver hemorrhagic syndrome. That is exactly what it sounds like. Fat accumulates around the liver and abdomen, the fatty liver hemorrhages and obviously the chicken dies. This often occurs as a hen is straining to lay an egg and often has no prior symptoms. It can be avoided though by making sure your chickens are at a healthy weight.

Hen that may be overweight.

So how do chickens get fat? Same way we do. Too many calories in and not enough calories out. This is usually a problem for hens confined to cages or their coop/run for the majority of the time. Free ranging chickens are less likely to develop extra body fat simply because they get enough exercise. They also fill up on plants and other natural food sources.

The culprit is most likely all the treats we feed the chickens. We all love to give our flock treats and chickens make excellent 'garbage disposals' finishing up all our dinner leftovers so they don't go to waste. Plus it's so cute to see them come running when we have the bread bag or treat bowl! How much is too much though?

A chickens diet should only be 10% treats, and they each need about 1/2 cup of food a day. Now I know you aren't going around measuring out chicken feed and feeding each chicken separately! (I certainly am not!) So outside of your best judgement on what you feed them, you'll need to check to see if your chickens are overweight.

Is my chicken fat?

It's easy to tell if your chicken is obese. Sit down and put the chicken on your lap, facing away from you. Run your hands down the front of her, past her crop. You should feel the sternum or keel bone in the 'stomach' area. 
  • If you can barely feel the bone through the muscle or it feels more like cleavage on either side of it, the chicken is overweight. 
  • If the keel bone is jutting out sharply and you can't feel much muscle on either side of it, the chicken is underweight. 
  • If you can feel just the edge of the bone but feel a bit of muscle on either side of it, the chicken is the correct weight.

Obviously this does NOT apply to meat birds! 

If you find your chicken is overweight there are a few things you can do: 

1) Encourage the whole flock to exercise with free range time.

2) Make the chickens work for their snacks like hanging a cabbage or apple from some twine for them to peck at.

3) Cut down the amount of chicken treats you give them like suet cakes, BOSS, scratch and cracked corn. 

4) Offer them crickets or other bugs that they have to chase around to catch. 

5) Toss treats out to the chickens slowly and in a wide area making them run back and forth to get each treat.

6) Give the flock less fatty leftovers and offer healthy snacks instead.

Now I know how most people feel about "healthy snacks". We'd rather have junk food than fruit, but chickens get just as excited about grapes or watermelon as they do about bread. They won't miss the switch and it's better for them. 

On the plus side, fatty liver hemorrhagic syndrome is not contagious and can be prevented with a healthy diet. However, if your whole flock is eating the same unhealthy diet, then chances are that several of your hens will contract it. It seems to not affect roosters, but a healthy diet and bodyweight is good for them too! 

This is why it's really important that if you find one or more of your hens are overweight, you work to improve the diet and health of the whole flock! 

Related reading: 
I wrote about planting a garden for the chickens to provide them with cheap, fresh produce. 

If your chickens can't free range, you can give them a pile of weeds you've pulled from the garden or other non pesticide/herbicide sprayed area. They'll get exercise and have fun digging through it and finding small bugs and weed seeds. 

~L

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I am not a veterinarian or other animal care professional nor do I claim to be. I am simply passing on information that has worked for me and my flock. This information is for entertainment purposes only and is not meant to treat or diagnose any medical condition. Please see a vet if your chicken is ill. Click for my full disclaimer.

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