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Introduction To Supportive Care For Chickens With Disabilities: Non-Ambulatory Residents

Three disabled chickens lie in fresh green sod- one buff hen faces forward, a black rooster preens his feathers, and a large red rooster lays with his left leg stretched behind him.
Chicken Run Rescue residents Zelda, Squashblossom, and Sully- different stories, common ground. Photo: Chicken Run Rescue

Whether a resident is permanently non-ambulatory due a disability, or temporarily unable to walk on their own due to illness or injury, these individuals will require special considerations in order to keep them safe, comfortable, and content. This overview will introduce the principles, techniques, and materials Chicken Run Rescue (CRR) has developed through the rescue and care of nearly 1,200 chickens since 2001. These individuals arrive with physical and psychological injuries of every description. The folks at CRR are grateful to the caregivers who are providing, or are interested in providing, compassionate, lifelong care to chickens with disabilities. This introduction is intended to help others help chickens by sharing what they have learned. It is not meant to substitute for good medical care from a qualified, caring veterinarian. Once quality veterinary care has been provided, the quality of life of the individual is dependent on the nursing skills of the caregiver.

A veterinarian and veterinary technician stand behind two buff orpington chickens who are sitting in coordinating soft baskets facing each other.
CRR’s primary veterinarian, Dr. Larry Tholl, examines Zelda and new resident Hershey. Photo: Chicken Run Rescue (all photos in this resource are from CRR)

Follow Your Veterinarian’s Recommendations For Residents Recovering From An Injury Or Surgical Procedure!
If a resident is recovering from a recent surgery or is recovering from an injury, be sure to follow your veterinarian’s recommendations in terms of what types of accommodations are appropriate while they recover. There may be certain substrates or physical positions that will need to be avoided during this time.

At CRR, all care decisions are made through the lens of their Animal Rights Caregiving Guide: “Provide animals with what they want and need and protect them from what they don’t.” With that in mind, we will look at the process CRR uses to create a supportive care plan for their non-ambulatory residents and discuss the different elements of setups that have proven successful over the years.

Creating A Supportive Care Plan For Non-Ambulatory Residents

Principle Goal

The goal of supportive care is to provide daily comfort, sustenance, contentment, and independence to chicken residents with an illness, injury, or disability that impacts normal physical, psychological, and social activity. 

Key concepts: respect for bodily integrity and autonomy of the individual, empathy, patience, and creativity

Assessment 

When customizing supportive care, it’s important to take into consideration the type of disability, keeping in mind that sometimes there can be several to accommodate. In addition to a physical disability, injury, or illness that affects mobility, it’s important to assess if the individual also has any other physical or sensory impairments that will require additional consideration (such as having a crossed beak or being blind). If possible, learn the history of trauma or causes of the conditions and whether the individual was born with them or they developed due to injury or illness. Finally, it’s important to understand the individual personality traits of the resident through careful observation.

A buff hen and black rooster lie in the grass eating watermelon and grapefruit. The black rooster has a leg out to the side in an unnatural position.
Splendor in the grass reveals that Zelda and Squashblossom can maneuver themselves to the treats.

To start the assessment, give the individual a safe place, free of distractions and interruptions from other residents, to show you what they can and want to do. If the weather allows, CRR recommends assessing the individual indoors as well as outdoors. Outside, offer time in a grassy area or in an area of deep sand or very loose dirt. Indoors, offer a large dense cushion or thick carpet. Keep careful notes of their likes and dislikes- especially their favorite (or least favorite) foods and interactions. To assess their mobility, place an irresistible treat like watermelon just out of reach and give them time to make their way to it. Pay attention to how they react to the new situation. Some individuals may feel threatened and vulnerable and will either sit motionless, try to escape, or hide their head. Others may charge full speed ahead and wrangle their way to what they desire. How they respond to this situation will give you clues as to what kind of accommodations will work, how active the individual may choose to be, and what kind of stress triggers they have.

Screenshot of an April calendar with each day filled with notes like "Patel's eye much improved."
Phone calendar notes include the name of each resident for a searchable, chronological digital record.

Documentation is an important aspect of animal care, and this is especially true when caring for residents with disabilities. At CRR, they use an iPhone calendar for making notes and taking photographs of events and observations throughout the day. The notes include the name of each resident, so it is easily searchable, and a chronological profile can be instantly created to file in the resident’s digital record. This information can also be easily pasted into an email to send to their veterinarian prior to vet visits.

Key concepts: observation and documentation

Monitoring

When creating a supportive care plan, keep in mind that permanently or temporarily immobile residents require frequent monitoring. This should be at the forefront of your mind when determining where the resident will spend their time, which will preferably be where caregivers are regularly present. At CRR, all residents live in the house with their caregivers (and spend time outdoors when weather allows), but non-ambulatory residents are primarily housed in the main living space, making frequent monitoring fit naturally into the day’s routine. Routine supervision is imperative because you never want a situation where a resident gets themselves into an uncomfortable, or worse yet, dangerous situation with no one nearby to offer assistance. Additionally, you’ll want to ensure they continue to be able to access their food and water, which may become out of reach if they reposition themselves. There are additional considerations when residents are spending time outdoors, which we will discuss more below. 

Establish a set schedule throughout the day to monitor and adjust for comfort, food/water access, sanitation, temperature, sun/shade, etc. At CRR, a phone alarm is set to sound every hour during waking hours as a reminder to do butt checks and/or hot weather rounds. They stress that chickens depend on consistency and routine, but there will be an adjustment period and a learning curve for you and the resident. Also keep in mind that, over time, the individual’s preferences may change, requiring an adjustment on your part. 

Key concept: routine supervision

Physical Setup For Non-Ambulatory Residents

Offering safe physical accommodations is imperative for non-ambulatory residents, but setting up just one space in which they are forced to spend all of their time is not sufficient. At CRR, every day has a set routine of accommodations for morning, afternoon, and evening. Having access to a variety of surfaces throughout the day, both indoors and outdoors (when weather allows), is vital for physical comfort and mental stimulation. Non-ambulatory residents should have a variety of accommodations consisting of different substrates and offering ample cushion to prevent pressure sores or discomfort. These accommodations should also allow residents to spend time in different positions throughout the day. As Mary Britton Clouse, founder of CRR, puts it, “Respecting the birds’ dignity and self-determination/ autonomy is always the guiding principle in accommodations regardless of their physical abilities.”

Four chickens setup in a human dwelling. A black and white rooster stands in a playpen looking out a glass door, two buff hens sit next to each other in a thick dog bed covered with blankets, and a black and white rooster sits in a separate dog beg close to the camera.
Brian (temporary paralysis), Monti and Zelda (permanent disfigurement), and Skokie (congestive heart failure) set up for a winter afternoon.

Before talking about the specifics of how to create these accommodations and discussing other elements of supportive care, let’s meet Zelda and Monti, two of the many chickens who call CRR home, and take a peek at their daily routine-

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Need A Transcript Of The Above Slideshow?
Click here to access a PDF containing the text and descriptions of the photos!

Now that we’ve seen some of the setups that work for Zelda and Monti, let’s talk more about how to create these spaces by looking at the different elements involved:

Bedding, Substrates, And Supportive Devices

Providing the right bedding and substrates is critical indoors and out. This is where the rubber meets the road, so to speak. For a non-ambulatory chicken, what’s under foot or body can mean the difference between utter discomfort and helplessness or the ability to have at least some control of movement and comfort. Providing variety throughout the day is key. The most appropriate types of bedding and substrates will vary by individual, as will the amount of time they spend on each, so be sure to create an individualized routine based on your residents’ needs and preferences (and don’t forget the importance of good notes so you can keep track of their preferences).

Bedding For Non-Ambulatory Residents

There are many ready-made high quality products designed to pamper dogs, cats, and human babies that adapt beautifully to the needs of chickens.

Qualities of good bedding, baskets, pillows, and cushions:

  • Well-balanced and soundly constructed
  • Thick but firm cushioning that allows some resistance for movement
  • Soft, removable, washable fabric coverings
  • Large enough for some repositioning but contoured like a chicken’s body- similar to a nest that would cradle and support the torso

CRR recommends using secondary throw blankets to line bedding, baskets, pillows, and cushions. This allows for quick and easy clean up; blankets are easily replaced with clean ones and laundered daily. Opt for blankets made of heavy, soft, plush fabrics which will prevent shifting and bunching while also providing comfort. When considering fabrics, choose one that would be comfortable to wear if you had a bad sunburn- this will ensure that it will be comfortable for your residents. Polyester plush/ fleece blankets are soft and inexpensive, making it easy to have multiple on-hand. As you can see from the photos, at CRR they like cheetah patterns and find this makes everything look calm, natural, intentional, and attractive.

If needed, blankets can also be used to customize the setup and provide additional support to the individual. Soft plush/ fleece fabrics are also ideal for wraps, garments, slings, or anything else that will come in direct contact with feathers and skin because it is stretchable in several directions and does not unravel when cut. Wraps are sometimes needed for restraint for medication, safety, hyperactivity, or to soothe anxiety. If residents need garments such as crop bras, frocks, or jackets, CRR makes their own rather than using the products that are available online. They avoid fasteners like zippers, elastic bands, velcro, pins, and clips, which could be ingested or cause irritation or injury, opting instead to fasten materials by tucking or tying them. They also avoid stiff cloth that could cause irritation.

  • A small hen’s head pokes out of a white plush blanket that is nestled inside a nest made from a folded cheetah print blanket. Her eyes are closed.
  • A small hen sits in the center of the frame, wrapped in a white plush blanket, nestled inside a cushioned basket lined with thick cheetah print blankets.
  • A caregiver holds up a black and white hen wearing a long black frock that covers most of her body except her neck and head. Two orange feet poke out either side of the frock.
  • A pink fleece blanket creates a sling that hangs around a caregiver's neck and holds a small buff chicken. A small chicken with a featherless head is wrapped in a blanket and held in the caregiver's hand.
  • A stack of plush fleece fabric.

Something else CRR typically avoids are diapers. Not only have they found that most non-ambulatory residents don’t need them, they have also found that the typical design is not comfortable for them and keeps feces in close contact with the delicate skin around the vent until it’s changed. It’s actually much easier to scoop up feces and change out or refold a blanket than removing, emptying, and replacing a diaper. Not to mention it’s easier to see that clean up is necessary without a diaper in place to hide the mess. If an individual requires a diaper, CRR uses incontinence pads or adult diapers, which wick moisture away from the skin. These can be trimmed to fit between the legs with a slit to accommodate the tail. An ace bandage works well to secure it in place around the waist.

Substrates For Non-Ambulatory Residents

In addition to time in the setups described above, which keep residents a bit more contained, some individuals may benefit from being able to “exercise” daily in larger spaces that allow for more freedom of movement, but will require safe substrates to do so. CRR explains that healthy exercise will typically involve some short episodes of wriggling, flopping, and mild panting. Violent thrashing and heavy panting could risk major panic and injury such as dislocation. Be sure to monitor the individual’s activity and intervene if they risk injury or distress.

Qualities of good substrates:

  • Flat
  • Non-slip
  • Cleanable
  • Stable
  • Non-abrasive

Substrates commonly used at CRR include rugs, leaves, sod, sand, and dirt.

Rugs

Heavy woven cotton throw rugs can be used both indoors and outdoors to provide a cushioned, but stable, surface to stand and lay on. Look for thick rag rugs that lay flat and do not bunch. When used in conjunction with a smooth surface, such as indoor flooring, you may need a rug with a rubber backing to prevent sliding. Outdoors, rugs can be used to cover wet ground or add cushion to hard-packed dirt areas. Rugs will need regular cleaning, so limit sizes to what your laundry can handle.

Top left: Rugs can be layered for cushioning. Bottom left: Skokie lost his feet to frostbite. The ends of his shanks were heavily calloused. He could walk and run surprisingly well on grass, but never left his rug when indoors. Right: Brian temporarily lost his coordination due to an idiopathic neurological episode. He was able to keep himself upright on rugs with rubber backing. He has since recovered.

Leaves

Dry non-toxic leaves are a great natural resource to bag and save each year. Like rugs, they can be used outdoors to cover wet ground or cushion hard-packed dirt areas. Indoors, they can be used in deep tubs, playpens, or other enclosures to provide cushion and act as an easily replaced litter. Leaves are lightweight and smell wonderful- in addition to being a safe substrate, they provide stimulation for scratching and pecking.

A black and white rooster stands in a soft playpen filled with dried leaves and has a small head of romaine and a half a tomato in a dish as a snack.
Brian appreciated his leaf yurt where he could stand and lie comfortably as he regained his coordination.
Grass

In outdoor spaces, cool, clean, soft grass is a wonderful substrate, especially in hot weather. Plus it’s a snack! To ensure safety, make sure existing grass, or any grass or sod you add to the space, has not been treated with any pesticides, herbicides, or fertilizers.

If your outdoor space does not have a grassy space for residents, but the climate allows for it, you can create one! While you can always start from scratch with grass seed, sod is another alternative. Not only does sod offer an instant grassy area, it can also be used much like an outdoor area rug and can simply be rolled out where needed. According to CRR, there is no need to prep or root it, but it should be hosed down thoroughly before placement. Sod is especially good for shady areas. When it wears out, it is easy and inexpensive to replace.

Cautions with sod: 

  • Some individuals will overindulge, especially on the dried blades at the edges, which can lead to crop impaction. Watch closely for signs of overindulgence and make adjustments as needed.
  • Freshly laid sod attracts raccoons and other wildlife looking for grubs. In addition to ensuring resident safety, you may need to keep new sod covered overnight to protect it from being rearranged by wildlife.

If using grass seed, be sure to consider the best type of grass based on your climate and also the amount of sun the area will get, opting for quick-growing varieties whenever possible. To keep the area lush, CRR recommends overseeding regularly. While grass may seem like a substrate that can only be used in outdoor spaces, it is actually more versatile than that! Certain varieties such as rye, wheat, or oat grass can be grown in flats indoors during the winter, and much like leaves, can act as both a safe substrate and provide enriching stimulation. Grass and sod can be kept clean with a small landscape rake.

Dirt And Sand

Both dirt and sand can provide a soft, safe dustbathing material that is easy on the body and limbs. These substrates should be dry, at least two inches deep (the deeper, the more enjoyable), and should be free of debris.

Dirt should be free of pesticides, fertilizers, or herbicides. In some areas, the packed earth may be too hard or abrasive for a non-ambulatory resident. Depending on the composition, you may be able to break up the soil (CRR uses a mantis tiller for larger areas) and sift out any rocks or debris. If the existing ground won’t work or you are uncertain about its safety, bagged top soil is a good alternative. Be aware that airborne dirt leaves a film of soot and can affect air quality, so it’s not ideal for indoor use. Dirt can be kept clean with a fine-tine rake.

Play sand is safe and free from contaminants. Outdoors, you can dig out an easily accessible area and refill with sand. Because it is dust-free, sand can be a better option for indoor use than dirt, but it may not be a good option for hyperphagic residents who may try to eat it (such as large breed chickens). Play sand can be kept clean with fine mesh strainer or fine-tine rake.

  • Two hens dust bathe in a protected patch of dirt under a perch.
  • A large screen used to sift dirt.
  • A strip of play sand borders the side of a modular pen. The sand is covered in chicken footprints.
  • A buff hen sits with most of her body in an area of sand and her chest touching an area of soft green grass.
Slings, Therapy Chairs, And Carts

In some cases, individuals may benefit from time in a sling or therapy chair to help them stand for parts of the day, in addition to spending time in safe resting areas while not in the sling. This is not a setup typically used at CRR because they have found the other accommodations described throughout this resource work better for their residents and carry less risk of getting into a dangerous position. However, there may be situations in which standing while supported is recommended to encourage range of motion and muscle development for recovery. A sling can be made out of soft fabric with holes cut out for their legs and can then be held or secured at an appropriate height so the individual’s feet can touch the ground. Carts and therapy chairs can be purchased online or fashioned out of PVC. 

When using a sling, therapy chair, or cart, make sure the individual has their food and water easily accessible, and closely monitor them to make sure they remain comfortable and safely positioned in the device. This setup may not be comfortable (or even physically possible) for everyone, may be difficult to keep clean, and carries the risk of individuals falling out or getting their legs tangled, so close observation is imperative.

When Skokie was unable to stand, his basket sling was a comfort for him short-term as CRR waited for a diagnosis- heart failure. Soft fleece blankets provided cushion to his residual limbs.

Enclosures For Non-Ambulatory Residents

When there are other animals (besides their trusted companions) in the environment, physically protected areas are needed indoors and out. Soft-sided playpens and modular dog pens are frequently used at CRR for this purpose.

Playpens

Soft-sided dog playpens (referred to as “yurts” at CRR) can be used both indoors and outdoors, so long as the weather cooperates and it’s not too windy. These are portable, lightweight, pop-up structures that fold up flat when not in use. The style used at CRR has a zippered top that can be adjusted or removed depending on what is needed. These playpens offer great visibility, so residents can see each other, yet occupants feel secure in them. This setup could be an especially good option for a newly immobile resident and might allow them to remain near their flockmates and continue to interact with them without the risk of being bullied. The soft fabric construction is a sufficient barrier for most individuals and is easy on feathers and beaks.

Playpens can be filled with different substrates, such as sand, loose dirt, or leaves, to give individuals the opportunity to experience and explore a variety of substrates. While this is a great option for non-ambulatory residents, it is also a great wintertime enrichment option for any chicken resident during times when they cannot safely go outside. Remember, while dirt can be used alone or with leaves, it creates quite a mess and may not be good for indoor use. Because of this, CRR replaced indoor dirt yurts with leaf yurts, which, while not quite as fun to say, still provide a stimulating option for residents! When used outdoors, the bottom of the playpen can even be removed to give residents access to the earth below.

Modular Pens

Modular dog pens are another option for outdoor areas. These can be reconfigured in countless ways as needs change. At CRR, they offer a larger protected exercise area for vulnerable individuals and groups so residents with disabilities can enjoy being outside and among other residents while still being safe from the inevitable troublemakers. An additional barrier of soft vinyl poultry fencing around the lower portion of the pen prevents heads poking through and protects against pecking by said troublemakers.

A buff hen and black rooster lie in an outdoor pen and look through vinyl fencing with small hexagon-shaped openings. They lie in the sand but have soft grass nearby, as well as a head of romaine and part of an ear of corn.
Zelda and Squashblossom enjoy the outdoors in a modular pen with vinyl fencing in case of troublemakers.

At CRR, outdoor pens for residents with disabilities are furnished with an easily accessed area of deep play sand or loose soil and fresh sod so even residents with very limited mobility can safely move themselves about at their choosing.

Three hens sit outdoors in a modular pen. A small bantam lays in the grass near a large, gnarly piece of wood. A red hen sits in the sand, and a buff hen sit in the grass under an old piece of wood that has been arranged to form an arch.
Limited mobility doesn’t stop Zazu, Paloma, and Zelda from enjoying an outdoor pen furnished with an easily accessed area of deep play sand and fresh sod.

Location

The ideal location for their setup, be it an enclosure or one of the bedding setups described above, depends on the individual, so take cues from their behavior. Some chickens thrive with interaction and the stimulation of being in an area with lots of human or flock activity and can suffer depression from lack of it. Others may be fearful or annoyed by activity and prefer a quiet place- watch for them trying to escape the situation by sticking their head as far as they can through fencing or hiding their head behind something, as this indicates they feel threatened or vulnerable. When considering location, keep in mind the importance of close monitoring, and choose a spot that allows for this.

Two buff hens sit in a playpen setup inside a large modular pen. Five chickens can be seen in the large pen with one small gold and brown hen looking through into the playpen.
Zelda and Monti thrive with interaction and the stimulation of being in a safe area with lots of human and flock activity.
Elevated Spaces

Almost always, chickens feel safest in a slightly elevated location. As seen in throughout this resource, individuals can be set up in baskets or beds set up on a couch or other elevated space. Additionally, utility carts and wagons are a means to set up beds and baskets that are up high, but mobile, and can be easily wheeled from place to place so the birds can see and safely interact and feel part of the flock. This is an especially good setup for time outdoors.

Outdoor Spaces

Obviously, non-ambulatory residents belong indoors in inclement or hazardously hot weather, but when the weather permits, they should have opportunities to enjoy the outdoors just like any other chicken resident. What this looks like will depend on the individual and your setup. Perhaps the individual can enjoy some time in the grass or can move themselves between a few different safe substrates such as grass, sand, and a soft rug. Alternatively, they might be able to enjoy the outdoors while set up in a padded basket or similar accommodation. Outdoor setups should be located in an area where caregivers are present or where they can monitor from a window and quickly respond if necessary. At CRR, their pen is located in an area with lots of activity and where they can see and interact with other residents while remaining safe.

Looking through the pen grates, four chickens lounge in the shaded corner of a pen. One hen stands on a perch made of a twisted branch, a buff hen and red rooster lie next to each other under the branch, and nearby a red hen stands on a rag rug facing a cushioned basket.
Cheekee, Sully, Zelda, and Maggie enjoy the outdoors set up with a variety of options.

Outdoor areas should be well-drained, and provide sun as well as shade. CRR loves to use camouflage cloth which creates dappled shade, allows for airflow, and creates gentle movement in the breeze. Camouflage cloth can be repositioned throughout the day, as the position of the sun changes, to ensure shade continues to be available. It is a calm natural pattern and also provides visual cover from overhead. Chickens feel safest with some degree of overhead cover- feeling exposed out in the open is extremely stressful even for healthy birds. The addition of camouflage cloth can help residents feel safe, but be sure to position it high enough to prevent entanglement. 

A view of an outdoor modular pen that is slightly elevated from the surrounding ground. The front right corner of the top of the pen is covered with green camouflage cloth creating areas of shade on the grass below.
This pen was specifically designed for non-ambulatory residents in the center of an area populated by an active flock. It is well drained, sunny, and shaded by camouflage cloth. Notice that it is also slightly elevated.

When residents are outdoors, keep a close eye for changing weather conditions, insect swarms, or uninvited guests of all species.

Cleaning

Good hygiene makes the difference between a happy existence and a miserable one. Animals will never choose to live in their own filth. Since non-ambulatory residents cannot control where they are (or have limited control over where they are), attention to a fastidious cleaning routine consisting of regular removal of feces, changing out bedding, and checking/ cleaning their butt is imperative. It may sound daunting but, as Mary Britton Clouse points out, “If what and when they eat is on a routine schedule, the output (poop!) in most cases follows predictably in about four hours.”

Bedding should be changed first thing in the morning (before coffee!). Most birds naturally “hold it” until they leave their sleeping quarters, so morning feces may be larger and more “fragrant”. After the morning bedding change, residents will need frequent checks throughout the day- typically every one to three hours- with feces removed and bedding changed as needed. CRR has found that a dedicated spoon is most useful to remove feces from a cushioned surface. After feces is removed, blankets can also be refolded to create a clean surface. Baby wipes and a comb work well for minor quick cleanups of residents. 

A blue spoon holding a small clump of chicken poop sits on a cheetah print blanket.
A dedicated spoon is most useful to remove feces from a cushioned surface.

The frequency at which residents need to be checked will depend on the individual and their current setup. For example, when they are indoors and are in setups that keep them more confined, hourly checks are often necessary in order to keep them clean. Loose dirt and sand coats feces, making sticking and smearing less likely, so when residents are spending time on these substrates, checking and cleaning areas every 2-3 hours may be sufficient so long as caregivers remain nearby and can respond to any issues that arise. When the weather is hot (and it gets really hot in Minnesota, where CRR is located) all residents, not just those who are non-ambulatory, are checked hourly to ensure their safety and comfort. Adjust schedules as needed to meet your residents’ needs.

Before laundering blankets or other bedding, scrape off excess feces. Regular laundry detergent is sufficient, but CRR recommends using the “hot” setting. They also have found that it’s helpful to use a washing machine cleaner product after every 30 loads. Bleach or other disinfectant are generally used only when there is concern about an infectious condition.

Feeding Non-Ambulatory Residents

Two hens sit in nursing pillows that are facing each other. All cushions are covered in cheetah print blankets. A large pillow placed in between the two nursing pillows creates nooks on either side for food and water dishes to be placed within the hens' reach. One hen is wrapped in a blanket.
Supper time for Zelda and Monti- easy to reach and a tidy affair.

Eating is one of the happiest parts of life for a chicken. The ability to self-feed is a vital aspect of comfort, sustenance, contentment, and independence to chicken residents with an illness, injury, or disability. However, keeping them clean and dry is equally important. Offering food and water to non-ambulatory residents can take some extra thought in order to make sure it is not only accessible, but also unlikely to spill.  Spilled food and water not only makes a mess, spilled water could also result in a non-ambulatory resident becoming soaked and potentially chilled or cause them to develop skin sores and bacterial infections. If the setup allows for hook-on dishes, these will help prevent spills and can be positioned at a height that is comfortable for the individual. Food and water dishes can also be placed inside a larger dish to catch spills and can then be tucked into a secure nook. If dishes are to be placed on the floor, heavy flat-bottom ceramic dishes with wide bases work well and are less likely to be tipped. Dishes can also be raised by placing them on a sturdy elevated surface, such as on a large bowl turned upside-down, or by nestling dishes inside taller vessels.

Serving a complete diet food pre-soaked with water is a simple way to ensure sufficient intake of both food and water and reduce the risk of spills. CRR almost exclusively offers a nutritionally balanced crumble to non-ambulatory residents that is pre-soaked with water (or aloe juice) and refrigerated. Each serving is mixed with more water at meal time to create a loose oatmeal consistency. This mush provides additional fluids during times when positioning a secure water bowl is difficult. While mush is the primary diet of non-ambulatory residents, it’s so popular that it is served to all the residents regularly as a special treat. Mixing in dried fruit, frozen blueberries, or corn makes it extra special! Another appetite stimulant that excites a crowd is extruding hand feeding mush from a feeding syringe. It’s shaped and moves like worms and that spells “good eating!” Everyone at CRR comes running when they see it, and it’s good for positive associations should they ever need it themselves.

CRR has found that chickens enjoy greens, fruits, and vegetables most if they are served in a way that resembles how they would be found in nature- to be plucked, tugged, and nibbled at as if they were still living plants. Bungee balls have a thousand uses as fasteners, as do kitchen clips or commercial treat holders, such as the clay log shown in the slideshow below. If strategically placed, it can be a communal forage feast which is always an appetite stimulant. While set up in their Serta beds, CRR residents also enjoy “foraging” food off their blankets once in a while.

Enrichment For Non-Ambulatory Residents

Enrichment is an important aspect of care for all residents, and we’ve already discussed various forms of physical and nutritional enrichment that can be included in the supportive care of non-ambulatory residents. Additionally, music or nature sounds may be soothing, but watch out for bird recordings- some may include predator warnings that will create a riot (something the folks at CRR learned the hard way!). Visual stimulation can come from mirrors, windows, or videos. Pecking and scratching behaviors can be nurtured with treat holders, treat balls filled with scratch grain, or sprouted grass seeds.

Close up of the back of the head of a black rooster and buff hen setup in cushioned baskets placed on a plastic cart with a small container of sprouted grass in front of them.
Zelda and Squashblossom foraging on sprouted grass seed a la carte.

Get creative with indoor winter enrichment and stimulation. CRR has found that light therapy (“happy lights”) are one of the most significant comforts that can be offered. Birds are extremely affected by light. CRR has 16 portable lights throughout the house, and the residents will literally crowd around them to bask. Light therapy is extremely effective for birds recovering from illness or injury. When using happy lights, it is best to mimic the natural cycle of light and darkness for the time of year.

Clockwise from top left: Hazel is transfixed by her happy light; Lunaris had a skin condition related to psoriasis. She was oddly obsessed with her happy light. CRR learned later that phototherapy is seen to be an effective treatment for it; Zazu keeping vigil with Lunaris in her last days; Lunaris and Mohandas, Temples of Light; Brian and Juan soaking up some rays with Donlan who is under the weather.

Companionship

As highlighted in the Zelda and Monti slideshow (and illustrated in most of the photos in this resource), companionship is vital for non-ambulatory residents. As Mary Britton Clouse points out, “The common prejudice is that other chickens will bully one who is vulnerable, that they are perceived as a risk to the flock as predator bait or a disease vector. That is something to be vigilant for, but our more common observations are that some chickens, especially hens, are the best nurses in the world at heart. They will sit close to a vulnerable bird, preening them or encouraging them to eat, and challenge any bullies who try to start something. Once the flock knows and accepts that another resident is different but they are accustomed to their presence in a basket, or on a bed, or in a yurt, it becomes the new normal. Sometimes the hens will even flock around the individual for a group preen. The individual gains confidence that their complaint- a squawk, a growl, or a shriek- will bring someone to the rescue. (Hint: Keep a squirt bottle set to “stun” handy for the occasional lapse of judgement.) Close supervision is essential and brings a real gift of insight.”

Hands-On Care, Bathing, And Grooming

A golden Silkie rooster sits in a shallow dish tub lined with large bath towels and filled with a few inches of water.
Perry’s Silkie feathers and feathered feet were especially difficult to keep clean and required frequent baths.

While most chickens do not require bathing, those who are non-ambulatory typically do (even if it is just a partial bath to clean their butt). Depending on the type of injury or disability, some individuals are able to pass feces free from their vent feathers and will move away from it if possible (Monti does!). These residents will require only occasional bathing. Others may not have that capability and will require daily monitoring and cleanups and perhaps several baths a week. When you are first providing care for a non-ambulatory resident, it’s best to check them daily and bathe them as needed. Over time, you will learn what is typical for each resident and will be able to create a bathing and monitoring schedule that suits their needs. 

At CRR, routine bathing and grooming are a bonding experience that the resident and the caregiver can look forward to. The sensation of gentle touch is vital for physical and emotional health. It also provides a regular opportunity to trim nails, beaks, preen new feathers, and examine for evidence of problems like skin sores, feather breakage, or joint swelling.

Prior to bathing a resident, set up everything you will need for the bath so it is a quick, efficient, and calm experience. To safely bathe medium or large sized residents, CRR sets up a dish tub lined with towels on the bottom and the sides. The towels create both cushion and offer traction. Baby shampoo or a non-toxic cleansing gel and epsom salts are added to warm water and the individual soaks in this water for about ten minutes. Some individuals, especially tiny bantams, might do better soaking in a bowl with saturated fleece. Soaking softens hardened feces and allows the salts to soothe the skin. Sometimes a fine-toothed comb is necessary for clumped feathers. An additional tub is set up with thick towels and the resident is set in this tub while the rinse is drawn. A large heavy towel placed over their back is usually sufficient to keep them safely in place while you change the water. To prepare the rinse, bath water is drained from the tub, the towels are replaced with fresh ones, and the tub is refilled with clean warm water and epsom salts to rinse the soap away.

After bathing, residents should be dried with a hair dryer, and for this part of the process, a fresh, dry towel is placed in the spare tub and the resident is placed inside. It can take quite some time to thoroughly dry the individual, but the length of time will vary based on the individual and also the hair dryer being used. Set the dryer so the temperature is warm enough to dry feathers efficiently without being so hot as to cause discomfort. The dryer should be kept moving during the drying process and never focused on one spot too long. Positioning a towel over the individual’s back makes a tent that helps concentrate the warm air and fluff the feathers faster. As with any electric tool that makes noise, let it run nearby to let the resident get accustomed to the sound before actually applying it to the task at hand. Warm air in the feathers is extremely pleasant (watch chickens on a breezy summer day), and once they have had a positive experience with it, CRR residents pay no mind at all. They become really relaxed and comfortable and come to enjoy this special time with their caregiver. Zelda is restless when she needs a bath and is a contented new woman after she has had one.

A buff hen wrapped in a towel sits in a feed pan lined with a towel while her caregiver uses a hairdryer to dry her feathers.
Blow drying. CRR calls it “off to styling”. Buff Orpingtons take forever to dry.

To see Zelda getting a bath and styling, check out this recording put out by CRR and Animal Rights Coalition– the video starts out sideways, but corrects a few minutes in. You’ll also get a peek at other CRR residents and their outdoor accommodations at the end of the video!

Thanks to CRR for sharing their vast knowledge about providing supportive care for non-ambulatory residents. Sharing their home with over one thousand chickens over the last twenty years and caring for many non-ambulatory residents certainly brings insights that may not be apparent when there is more separation between humans and chickens. We hope these insights help caregivers feel more capable of providing supportive care to non-ambulatory residents. We’ll leave you with these words from Mary Britton Clouse, “What an honor it is to know these creatures so intimately. There is no deeper bond you will ever have with an animal than through providing supportive care. As demanding as it can be, the rewards for both of you are immeasurable.”

In the foreground, a small bantam hen sits in a cushioned basket with a few leaves of romaine in front of her. In the background two hens sit next to each other and look towards her.
Dedication To All Nurses
Zazu passed away as this resource was being completed. Her left foot had been clubbed by a severed tendon from a breeding band not removed as she grew. For 12 years, despite or because of her disability, she was a dedicated caregiver to others. This is the last picture of her as she passed the torch of nursing on to Zelda and Monti.
Updated on May 21, 2021

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