Updated May 4, 2021
Because they are almost never given the chance to live anywhere close to their natural lifespan of around 10 to 15 years or longer (typically 5 to 9 years for large breed chickens), there is not very much publicly available information about how to accommodate the needs of older chickens. Due to the result of intensive breeding practices (and the size of large breed chickens’ bodies), there are a number of areas where a sanctuary may have to make changes to help their older chicken friends thrive at their forever home.
As a chicken ages, they may face more health challenges, so it’s especially important to be vigilant in monitoring their health through regular examinations and weigh-ins to effectively treat issues early on. Even common ailments like parasites can be harder to control in older birds and require early and effective treatment to maintain their quality of life. Issues with hens’ reproductive system will also likely become much more common and dangerous, such as ovarian cancer, impacted oviduct, internal laying, egg-binding, egg yolk peritonitis, and prolapse, so keep an eye on older residents!
Special Food Recommendations For Older Chickens
Older chickens may have a harder time pecking or absorbing the proper mix of nutrients from their typical food, or they may be eating quite a bit of food and retaining it due to decreased mobility. Therefore, it’s important to monitor an older chicken’s weight and body condition as they age to ensure that they aren’t under or overeating to a concerning extent, as both conditions can have health repercussions. If a chicken seems to be gaining too much weight, you might have to adjust their overall caloric intake. Generally, an older bird should be on diet with lower protein and calcium levels to prevent Gout, a common and deadly disease. You should be aware of FLHS in chickens and how you can best reduce its chances of affecting an older resident.
If the chicken used to lay eggs but now is laying much less frequently, it might be a good idea to transition them to a “maintenance” or “all flock” food, as it has less calcium in it, and they need fewer nutrients supplemented in their diet if they aren’t producing eggshells. If you do this, make sure that you have a free-choice calcium source available to them should they desire some supplementation (though this may not be an appropriate or necessary option for large breed chickens, who may overdo it)!
An older chicken with arthritis or another painful health challenge may have trouble bending down to eat or drink. Sometimes simply elevating their food and water to chest level can make it much easier and more comfortable for them to eat and drink. Hook on dishes are helpful to prevent spillage when they can be securely fastened and at comfortable height for residents. Alternatively, heavy flat bottom ceramic dishes can help prevent spills, come in a variety of heights and sizes, and can be placed on a stable elevated surface, such as an lager bowl placed upside-down.
Beyond these changes, continue to feed the chicken well with the nutrients they need!
In the wintertime, some people recommend adding powdered cayenne pepper to an elderly chicken’s food to improve their circulation.
Indoor Living Space Recommendations For Older Chickens
Older chickens who are used to perching may need to have a lower perch (one to two feet off the floor of their living space) to prevent any issues when they jump down in the morning. Rod-style perches can be wrapped in vet wrap in order to make it easier for older birds to grip the perch. Some individuals may have trouble continuing to use this style perch and may do better with another sort of slightly elevated roosting area, such as a sturdy platform or a bale of straw. These areas may need a thicker layer of bedding to help protect against pressure sores, which are more common in older residents who may spend more time laying down than they did when they were younger.
Older birds with arthritis may have difficulty walking through long fibered straw. If necessary, transition their indoor space to wood shavings or shorter fiber straw in order to accommodate those with more limited mobility. Depending on the type of flooring, the addition of textured rubber mats can also be beneficial by both adding cushion to the flooring and offering additional traction. Make sure that their food and water sources are close by! An older chicken might also need a gentle ramp to their indoor living space in order to help get them in and out safely and comfortably. Just make sure the ramp offers appropriate traction.
Outdoor Living Space Recommendations For Older Chickens
If an older chicken is having a harder time thriving due to decreased mobility or increased bullying from the rest of the flock, it might be time to give them (and their closest companion) their own living space to spend time in. A smaller living space with close access to food, dust bathing, and water, can give them the opportunity to get around easier and not have to compete with younger or more confrontational chickens for resources like food and water.
Social Recommendations For Older Chickens
As chickens are flock-oriented animals, they tend to form strong bonds with some of their fellow chickens. As a result, chickens who live alone are prone to depression. If you decide that it’s best to give an older chicken their own special indoor or outdoor space, make sure to house them with one of their flock friends– their closest friend if possible! This can help them feel more at home and at peace with their new surroundings.
Foot Care For Older Chickens
Older chickens tend to be less active than their younger flockmates, and as a result, will likely need their toenails trimmed more often than they used to in order to keep them comfortable. In addition, they may also need to have a moisturizing salve applied to their legs and feet to keep their scales from drying out too much!
As their gait changes due to general stiffness or other mobility issues, bumblefoot will be more likely. Be sure to closely monitor the bottom of an older chicken’s feet to watch for any signs of redness or irritation.
Managing Arthritis In Older Chickens
Arthritis is one of the most common health concerns in older animals, especially large breed chickens due to their size, but can also manifest in other breeds of chickens as well. A chicken might develop arthritis or joint inflammation in either or both of their legs or feet. Untreated, this could eventually manifest as debilitating chronic pain. You might have to treat an older chicken with regular anti-inflammatory treatments or chicken-approved NSAID pain relievers such as Meloxicam or Carprofen (never use a combination of NSAIDs). In more advanced cases, the addition of Tramadol can be beneficial. Sanctuaries have also seen some success treating arthritis pains with more natural remedies in conjunction with medication. These include Botswella (also known as Indian Frankincense) to successfully lower inflammation, as well as acupuncture, cayenne, turmeric, and anecdotally, CBD oil. Make extra sure that their environment is as arthritis-friendly as can be, minimizing steep grades (or installing elderly chicken-appropriate ramps) and long walks to food or water if possible! Make sure to talk to your veterinarian to assess the individual and create a treatment plan for arthritis.
Unfortunately, because arthritic chickens tend to spend more time laying down, they are more likely to develop pressure sores. Keep a close eye on their hocks and keels for any sign of irritation before they develop sores. In some cases, extra bedding or padded wraps can be used to prevent irritated areas from turning into sores. Prevention is key- managing pressures sores is not impossible, but can be quite challenging and will make the individual vulnerable to other complications such as infections and flystrike.
If a chicken is in too much pain to move due to severe arthritis, injury, or illness, they will require special accommodations to keep them comfortable. For more information on providing supportive care for non-ambulatory chicken residents, check out our resource here.
How To Care For Older & Disabled Chickens | The Happy Chicken Coop (Non-Compassionate Source)
The Ultimate Coop Checklist For Caring For Old Backyard Chickens | Wide Open Pets (Non-Compassionate Source)
Caring For Feeble Old Hens (Non-Compassionate Source)
Why Chicken Grower Feed Is Good For Older Hens (Non-Compassionate Source)