Sudden death in chickens

Has one of your chickens ever just died? Like, there was nothing wrong earlier, she didn't seem sick and she didn't get hurt but there she is suddenly just...dead? It happens more often than you would think. Today I want to talk about the unexplained reasons why a hen or rooster might just drop dead. Sudden death in chickens is very upsetting because not only have you lost your pet chicken, but now you're worried about the rest of the flock. So let's try to figure out what happened.

Sudden death in chickens causes

You open up the coop in the morning and there's one chicken laying on the floor instead of perched on the roost. How did you not see this coming? You see, chickens are pretty low on the food chain. Because of this they get pretty good at hiding their illnesses. You often can't tell they're sick until it's too late. 

Today I want to go over a postmortem assessment of sorts to try and determine what actually happened. We are not going to cut into the chicken for a necropsy (I'll save that for another post) but this is how I would asses a birds appearance to determine her cause of death.

There are 2 types of sudden death you might read about in chickens. One is a problem only in broiler chickens. These special meat production breeds grow really big, really quick. A meat bird can get to full butcher weight in as little as 8 weeks! People that raise meat birds will tell you that you must butcher by 12 weeks old. They are prone to several problems including sudden death which is often attributed to their heart. 

If you're raising broiler chickens and they just suddenly die between 3 days and 12 weeks old, it's often because of something called Flipover. You can read more about that here. Since most of us don't raise meat birds I want to focus on the other reasons why a chicken might suddenly die.

Causes of sudden death in chickens


Parasite, poisoning, egg binding, injury, poor nutrition, organ failure: most likely heart, Salphingitis and other disease that show very few symptoms. Any of these can be the reason your chicken died suddenly. The sooner you can take a look at the body the better. Hopefully you found her in the same day that she died. You want to look her over before she starts to decompose since the body changes as it starts to deteriorate.

Examining the chicken for cause of death


Start by examining the chickens face. Is there swelling of the comb, eye area or wattles? Does she have crust around her eyes or the top of her beak? Swelling and/or discharge could indicate: Newcastle disease, Infectious Coryza, Infectious Bronchitis or Fowl Cholera. These all have symptoms before death, but I've certainly been too busy to look each chicken in the eye each day, so I understand how they could have been missed. Here is an excellent post from Morning Chores on identifying and treating these common chicken diseases. These are all communicable so you'll want to check and treat the rest of your flock quickly!

Feel the hens weight. Pick up a different hen of the same breed/age if necessary to determine if the deceased one was a healthy weight or not. Run your fingers across the breast bone. Is it sharply jutting out or can you feel some 'meat' on either side? She wont be as meaty as a chicken from the grocery store (different breed) but you should feel something there. Again, compare with a similar hen if necessary.

If she is severely underweight was she being kept from the feed by others higher in the pecking order? Could she have a parasite infestation like worms? Are they getting adequate feed? Could she have a blockage from eating foreign objects like in hardware disease? Has she been broody for an extended amount of time?

Is she overweight? Being on the chubby side is bad for chickens and can cause heart problems or fatty liver hemorrhagic syndrome.

If she has died very recently, check for mites or lice. If you're not sure when she died, check her flock mates for lice or mites. (probably should do that anyway) They tend to jump ship pretty quickly when their host dies, but if one chicken has them usually the whole flock does. A heavy mite infestation can cause anemia and even death in chickens.

Look under the wings and between feathers for bruising or other injury. Gently tug a few feathers. Even after death they should require quite a bit of pulling to get them out. If they pull out easily it could indicate botulism.

Feel around her vent by pressing into the skin below it. See if you can feel a stuck egg or perhaps a mushy, water bubble type of feeling. A lump that feels like an egg would indicate egg binding. A yolk/egg white type discharge coming from the vent would indicate a stuck egg that broke inside the hen. 

A feeling like she has a water balloon in her belly would indicate Ascetis. Ascetis is often referred to as water belly because it is a fluid build up in that area. Here is a great explanation on water belly from The Cape Coop.

Sudden death in chickens, examine the vent feathers

While you're in the vent area, look for poop stuck to her bum feathers or any abnormalities. Diarrhea in chickens can be caused by a large amount of internal parasites, coccidiosis, moldy feed, contaminated water, an internal blockage or even kidney damage. 

Diarrhea can also attract flies resulting in flystrike which can result in death. Chickens suffering from flystrike will have an open wound that might still have maggots in it.

Feel the crop. Does it feel full or empty? If it's full, squeeze it slightly. Does it feel hard like a baseball or does it give a bit like a stress ball? An impacted crop tends to feel hard and balled up, whereas a crop filled with fresh feed and water will be more mushy. If a chicken has died from an impacted crop she will be underweight since she has not been able to consume a normal amount of food. 

Think about her behavior. Has she been laying eggs lately? Did she have any recent health problems? Has she been hanging with the flock or keeping to herself? These answers can help you to determine how long she has been having problems. 

Have you found a lash egg in the nest box lately? A chicken suffering from Salpingitis will often pass an egg shaped mass of tissue in the days before she dies.

Outside factors in a chicken death


How has the weather been? Is there a chance she became so overheated she died, or so cold she actually froze? Did she somehow get herself stuck in a sunny spot on a hot day, or out in the snow overnight? Rare yes, but it happens. 

Could your chickens have gotten into something poisonous? Have you (or even a neighbor) recently sprayed for weeds, insects or put out rat/mouse/ant bait? Some poisons act slowly but if a chicken ingests a few bites of rat poison, she will die rather quickly.

Smell inside the coop. Is there a strong odor of ammonia? The ammonia smell can build up when coop litter becomes too wet or too filled with poop and can result in ammonia burn keratoconjunctivitis in chickens. This alone won't kill them, but can cause eye and respiratory problems and leave them susceptible to bacterial infections. The eye and respiratory symptoms can leave them listless and uninterested in food which can cause malnutrition. 

Sudden chicken death, how to examine chicken and coop

Many disease that are fatal to chickens like Mareks, Pullorum, Fowl Pox and others are not on my list because they show obvious symptoms for days to weeks before the chicken dies. Remember, we're only discussing a sudden death from a chicken that did not appear sick recently.

There's always that chance that it was just her time to go. While there are reports of chickens living up till their teens, most do not make it that long even with the best care.

If you cannot determine why your chicken died you can get a necropsy done through a vet or the department of agriculture. If multiple chickens are dying, I highly suggest you take the most recent one to get examined and tested to determine the problem before you lose your whole flock.

Just like you, I'm still learning about chickens. I don't think I'll ever be done! I certainly have not experienced all the chicken diseases (and my gosh who would I be to be giving advice if my chickens were that unhealthy?) in fact I've had very little in my flocks. I have spent 10 years learning all I could and I pass that info on here, however I'm sure there's things I haven't learned about yet. I promise though, I will update this post anytime I find more information that may help you to determine why a chicken would suddenly die.

Related reading: 15 easy to miss signs of illness in chickens

~L 

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