Identify and treat heat stress in chickens

Obviously in summer the temperatures get hot and we all get uncomfortably warm, especially outside animals like chickens. There is a big difference between hot and too hot though. Chickens can suffer heat stress just like people can, but unfortunately they can't come in from the heat and chill in the AC like we can! So it's super important to watch for signs of heat stress in your chickens, plus take preventative measures to keep them cool enough to avoid overheating in the first place!

chickens with heat stress

What is heat stress in chickens? 

Just like in people, heat stress is the condition when your body cannot cool itself enough to maintain a healthy temperature. Heat stress is caused by high temperatures coupled with low air speed. Usually it's a ridiculously hot, still day but it can be caused by them being stuck in a direct sun location for an extended period of time on a warm day. 

I'm going to touch really briefly on preventing heat stress, since I've already talked about the 14 ways I help my chickens to stay cool in summer. Then lets get straight into identifying and treating heat stress in chickens!

Preventing heat stress in chickens

Provide lots of shade and other areas to cool down. 
Make sure the coop is well ventilated and open all doors and windows to allow what little breeze there is to waft through.
Make sure multiple water sources are available and refill with cool water often.
Provide chilled or frozen treats for the chickens to peck at.
A small wading pool or mister hose can help them cool off.
Provide a dust bathing area in a shady spot.
Wet down hot areas to cool them off, like spraying a hot dry run with cool water.
Make sure there is plenty of roost space at night so they can spread out to avoid overheating.

For more detailed instructions check out the article I linked to above.

Identifying heat stress in chickens

So let's say you've done all that but the temperatures are sky high and you think the chickens might be suffering from heat stress. Here are the signs to look for:
When chickens get too hot they hold their wings away from their body. They will do this when they are slightly warm since chickens do not have sweat glands, they elevate the wings to allow air under them to cool the skin. This in itself isn't a major indicator of heat stress. It's when they are holding their wings away from their body in conjunction with some of the following symptoms that you may need to take action.

Panting. Chickens only pant if they are hot, so this can be the first indicator that they are becoming overheated!
Their comb and wattles will feel hot to the touch.
Seems to have lost her appetite.
Lethargic behavior. Weakness. 
Closed eyes while standing.
May be staggering when walking.
The may lay down completely spread out with wings and feet extended.
Watery droppings caused by increased water intake
Decreased egg production (though admittedly this sometimes happen during heat waves without the chickens suffering from heat stress!

Once you see these symptoms you know it's time to go into emergency cooling mode!

Treating chickens affected by heat stress

You'll need to cool down the affected chicken quickly and the quickest way is to wet her down with tepid water. It can be slightly on the cool side, but definitely not cold! You want to cool them down, not shock their system. Use a bucket or tub of water and hold the chicken so that the water can get under her wings and across her belly and back. Do not submerge her head. 

After a few minutes feel her wattles and comb. If they feel like they're back to normal temperature you can remove her from the water. She should be allowed to rejoin the flock right away to prevent additional stress. When feeling her temperature be aware that your hands may be cooler from the have someone help you with this or feel with the inside of your arm or even your cheek.

Offer some high fat, low carbohydrate foods like cool scrambled eggs or meal worms. Provide fresh cool water for the chicken to drink. I like to add electrolyte powder to give them a little help recovering. Watered down Pedialyte or Gatorade can be used if you don't have electrolyte powder on hand. 

Heat stress in chickens, treatment

Add a fan if possible to help cool the flock down. If one chicken starts suffering from heat stress the others may not be far behind! Offer some chilled treats like fruit in a bowl of cold water to encourage the flock to eat and drink.

Cool the coop off. I sometimes add a fan to the coop in the evening to blow some cool air in before they head in to roost for the night. Make sure the fan is out of their reach and secured so it doesn't fall over!

Chickens should recover quickly from heat stress though they sometimes lay thin shelled eggs in the weeks after. Add calcium to their diet to prevent this. I like to feed crushed eggshells in a small dish next to their feeder.

Hopefully your chickens will make it through summer without any problems. Mine very rarely get affected by the heat even though it get's in the 90s every summer! As long as they have lots of water and shade, they should do just fine!

Related reading: The 16 best chicken keeping articles on MCF!


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