Stress is a modern day phenomenon which most of us experience from time to time. We don’t like the feeling and it can have a very detrimental impact on our health. Guess what? Stress can occur in chickens too. Our hens are just like us and from time to time, they suffer from stress too and this can impact on their general wellbeing too.
Let’s start by thinking about what stress actually is. Well according to the Oxford Dictionary, stress is “a state of mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or demanding circumstances”. So what are the “adverse or demanding circumstances” in the lives of our chickens and what can we do to minimise them, ensuring there’s ?
The Main Causes Of Stress In Chickens
- Poultry shows – all owners want their hens to win prizes at poultry shows but trimming beaks and toe nails is a stressor for your birds. Even being caught and bathing is an unpleasant experience for them. Traveling to the show and then being placed beside strange noisy hens is the icing on the cake for an already sensitive hen.
- Travel – moving hens to a new location or to a new owner is another stressful time. Travel by vehicle can be problematic – the noise created by the vehicle along with the unusual movements that the birds are not accustomed to can stress them. Travelling in a well ventilated darkened box is the best way to transport in safety as this also will help the birds to relax.
- The weather – severe variation in temperature can cause serious problems. Very cold weather at night, when the temperature drops below zero, is a dangerous for the birds, especially ones that are not very healthy. Only really healthy birds can cope with extremely hot temperatures and a shortage of water. Shade is also very important to keep the birds cool. Poultry are more susceptible to heat than many people realise – this is why providing fresh water is invaluable at these times. They can drink up to double their normal intake. Stormy weather can also play havoc with the birds’ wellbeing. The hen coop, feeders or drinkers could be overturned and this would lead to even more stress.
- Predator attacks – the stress caused by predator attacks causes untold damage to any flock. The ones that are injured suffer from both their injuries and from stress while the other birds may take weeks to get over the experience. The birds may be so frightened that they will not leave the housing, and there may be a drop in egg production. The suffering carries on for quite some time and some birds may die from physical and mental effects.
- Insect infestations – treating the birds and housing for insect problems is a major priority as they will suffer from stress if any insects bite and cause them discomfort. Red mite will affect the birds more than any other insect as they physically attack the birds in the evening and suck the blood to such an extent that the birds become seriously ill and may even die. Lice annoy the birds but are not quite as big a threat as the red mite. Care and management to keep the insects under control plays a vital part in keeping stress under control.
- Breeding issues – the breeding season is another very stressful time, especially with birds that are just reaching their first season of maturity. Producing the first egg can be the cause of hormonal changes, and this can be a huge strain on the hens until their bodies adapt to the egg cycle. Stress in egg laying can show on the eggshell itself – there may ridges or the eggs may be oversized as well as soft shelled. As the birds reach sexual maturity, many losses from diseases such as Mareks seem to occur just before, or right afterwards – a sign of disease being caused by stress, perhaps when it was a young chick. Making sure the nutritional requirements are met during this period is very important. There should be a good supply of vitamins, and their feed should include sufficient calcium to help the female with what she needs to produce the eggshells without stealing this from her own bones. Again, always make sure there is a plentiful supply of fresh water, and adding some vitamins and probiotics to the water will help the birds through this time. Mating is an obvious cause of stress due to the vigour and actions of the event.
- Environmental changes – changes to the birds’ environment, such as moving house or having a new owner, is another very difficult time for the birds. If moving the birds to a new home, try and do this carefully and give them time to settle in. Keep away anything that might cause them fear, such as the family dog or excessive noise, and be aware that putting them in a pen where there are resident birds will create stress. Always make sure that the new and old can live together in harmony as bullying can have a serious effect on stress levels and health. Keep the newcomers in a separate pen within view to start with. There is bound to be stress as a new pecking order is established once they are mixed.
The Impact of Stress on Poultry Health
Stress can have a very negative effect on your flock and in extreme cases, it may even lead to a heart attack and death. Any underlying disease may show itself as a result of the stressful situation. This is because stress causes the gut PH to reduce and this makes the birds more susceptible to disease.
Treating Stress in Hens
- Try to minimise the causes of stress if at all possible. If you have to move hens, try not to do it in very cold or very hot weather.
- Try to catch birds in a confined area such as a house quickly and calmly – avoid running around an open field for ten minutes playing chase with a bird who does not want to be caught. That is not good for the hen’s stress levels or your stress levels either!
- Use a good quality hen feed which supplies a wide range of minerals.
- In hot weather, make sure birds have plenty of water and shade.
- Two days before a stressful event (eg moving house, attending a show), give the birds some Imustress from Natural Farm Health. This helps calms them down before the event and then give it to them for two days afterwards. You can’t always predict that stress is going to happen (eg the arrival of a fox) and in those cases, add some Imustress to drinking water for two to three days after the stressful event..