Identifying signs of disease in poultry

If you suspect that your poultry may be unwell, the first step is to observe the flock carefully.

Observing your birds is best done while they are relaxed. Disturbing them or handling them can:

  • disguise the signs of disease (e.g. a gasping bird might stop mouth-breathing when handled)
  • increase the signs of disease (e.g. a nervous disorder, such as a tremor, might appear because the bird is frightened while being handled).

Common signs of disease in poultry

There are common signs of disease that you can use to detect potential illness in chicken and other poultry. Some of these include:

  • feather loss (unless birds are going through a natural moult)
  • general inactivity
  • discharges
  • abnormal droppings
  • dull and/or closed eyes
  • ruffled feathers
  • drooped wings
  • sitting on haunches or lying down.

For accurate diagnosis and treatment consult your veterinarian.

The following table outlines the common characteristics displayed by healthy birds compared to sick or diseased birds in both adult and young poultry.

Adult poultry

Characteristic Healthy birds Diseased birds


  • Erect
  • Tail held high
  • Tail and wings 'dropped'
  • Head held close to body or twisted over back or between legs


  • Clean comb and wattles
  • Bright about the eye
  • Clean nostrils
  • Discoloured
  • Shrunken comb or eyes dull or watery
  • Nostrils caked
  • Face shrunken or swollen


  • Bird feels 'solid'
  • Struggles vigorously when held
  • Loss of weight and strength
  • Uneven size of thighs
  • Keel protrudes under skin

Legs and feet

  • Clean waxy scales
  • Smooth joints
  • Cool to touch
  • Dehydrated with prominent tendons
  • Enlarged
  • Warm to touch
  • Cracked feet


  • Smooth and neat
  • Fluffed out
  • Stained in abdomen area


  • Breed and strain characteristics
  • Less colourful
  • In hens excess yellow may be from reduced laying rate

Appetite and thirst

  • Eat and drink often
  • Lose appetite
  • Drink excessively


  • Grey
  • Brown with white caps
  • Definite form
  • Caecal droppings may be frothy
  • White
  • Green
  • Red
  • Yellow
  • Very watery or sticky


  • Firm to touch
  • Fat birds may feel hard
  • May be very hard or very soft


  • Clean
  • Level with body surface
  • Inflamed around vent area
  • Pasted over with droppings
  • Protrusion of tissues


  • Silent
  • Beak closed (in hot weather birds may breath with mouth open)
  • Coughing
  • Rattling
  • Snickering
  • Obvious panting movements

Young poultry

Characteristic Healthy birds Diseased birds

Navel area

  • Smooth
  • Colour and appearance of normal skin
  • Thickened appearance and feeling of a 'button' or a knot of tissue
  • Black string of dry tissue protruding
  • Fluid exudate


  • Clean
  • Level with body surface
  • Pasted over with droppings
  • Protrusion of tissues

Legs and feet

  • Legs under body
  • Toes straight and spread evenly
  • Legs sprawled
  • Sores on hock joints
  • Toes curved

Wing feathers

  • Extend to the base of the tail
  • Feathers show no distinct break lines
  • Wings droop
  • Feathers show clear 'fault lines' in vane

Keep records

Keeping records on general production figures such as daily mortalities, feed and water consumption and egg production is essential. A drop in production or change in feed conversion ratio can often be the first sign of disease. Keeping and monitoring records can help to detect an illness early.

Large numbers of mortalities is an immediate alert that a problem exists.