Managing stress in the chicken coop
Healthy, happy hens are easy to care for and produce plentiful eggs.
Stressed chickens are not happy or healthy. They lay fewer eggs and are much more likely to suffer from parasites and disease. In fact, many common chicken illnesses such as mycoplasmosis, coccidiosis and even E. coli, generally only occur in chickens that are stressed!
But what causes stress in the chicken coop and how can we reduce it?
Is stress bad for chickens?
Stress is a natural response to environmental pressures, threats and changes. Scientists believe that normal stress, the type of stress that prompts action or adaptation, is not a problem for healthy chickens.
Normal stress causes changes in the body and redirects energy, but it dissipates after the initial reaction to the threat. For example:
- The stress caused by a predator helps a chicken to escape
- The stress of being exposed to a new disease stimulates the immune system
- The stress caused by a new chicken in the flock is part of adapting to a new pecking order
When is stress bad for chickens?
However, studies have found that when stress is elevated repeatedly or over a long period of time, it begins to interfere with normal bodily functions such as growth, reproduction and resistance to diseases. It can even cause death!
Stress becomes a problem for chickens in three situations:
- Extreme stress – Caused by trauma, such as surviving a fox attack where most of the flock was killed.
- Long-term or chronic stress – Repeated or extended exposure to stress, for example being bullied by flock-mates or eating a poor diet.
- Multiple causes of stress – For example being introduced to a new flock, after the stress of transport, with new disease challenges and a new diet, all at once.
Chickens take around 30 hours to return to normal after experiencing stress. So anything that causes further stress within that 30 hour period may cause unhealthy stress.
Why is stress bad for chickens?
So what happens when chickens are exposed to unhealthy levels of stress?
Exposure to unhealthy levels of stress can have severe and long-term effects on chickens. Stressed chickens:
- Produce fewer eggs and have more egg issues
- Grow more slowly and use feed less efficiently
- Cannot synthesise sufficient vitamins, so suffer from nutritional deficiencies
- Are more prone to illness, infection, disease and parasites because they have a suppressed immune system and decreased immune-response
Stressed chickens are also less happy. One study found that stressed chickens were more "pessimistic" than unstressed chickens. They were more likely to react with fear and aggression to new objects and changes, and more likely to engage in problem behaviour such as aggression and bullying.
In chicks, stress causes long-term genetic changes that can be passed on to offspring. Hens that were stressed as chicks lay fewer and smaller eggs, and are more likely to engage in feather pecking. Roosters that were stressed as chicks mature more slowly and are more protective and fearful as adults.
Fortunately, it is easy to manage your chicken coop to prevent most common causes of chicken stress!
What makes chickens stressed?
Happy, healthy and well-cared-for hens are far more resistant to stress than chickens that live in less-than-ideal conditions. Commercially-farmed chickens frequently suffer from severe stress caused by things most backyard chickens would barely blink an eye at! But even very well-adjusted chickens are susceptible to the same sources of stress.
Common causes and symptoms of stress in the chicken coop
This scientific review on managing stress in chickens identifies seven types of stressors for chickens, which we have listed below. While any chicken can suffer from any type of stress, heat stress, nutritional stress and social stress are most common in backyard flocks.
1. Heat stress/Cold stress
While heat stress is the biggest concern in Australia, cold stress can be a problem for chicks.
Chickens can suffer from heat stress once temperatures rise above 29 degrees Celsius.
Heat stress is most likely to occur when:
- Temperatures do not decrease overnight
- High humidity is combined with high temperatures
- The drinking water is warm or there is no where to keep cool in the coop
- The hot weather is uncommon or unseasonable
Chicks are susceptible to cold stress if the brooder is draughty or even a few degrees too cold. Cold drinking water can also be an issue.
Adult chickens can also suffer in cold climates, and chickens with feathers that are not water-proof, such as Silkies, are susceptible to cold stress if they get wet.
2. Environmental stress
Environmental stress is uncommon in most well-managed chicken coops.
Causes of environmental stress include:
- Wet or dirty litter
- Built-up droppings
- Too few/uncomfortable nesting boxes
- Too much light - This is one reason that we prefer heating plates for brooders instead of heat lamps
- Environmental changes - Usually only a problem in fearful, already stressed chickens
3. Nutritional stress
Poor diet and poor feeding practices are some of the most common causes of stress in backyard chickens.
Laying eggs takes lots of energy, and if hens are not getting enough protein and other nutrients, this quickly takes a toll on their body, causing stress.
To avoid deficiencies, chickens need a good quality food and they need to be encouraged to eat it, by limiting any additions to the diet such as scraps. Shell grit is also required by all laying hens.
Poor feeding practices
Poor feeding practices can also contribute to stress. These include:
- Feeding chickens only once (or a few times) per day
- Providing a limited amount of feed
- Insufficient feeder space for all hens
- Bullies preventing other chickens from eating
Where feed or feeder access is limited, dominant hens will usually be able to eat enough to meet their dietary needs regardless. But lower ranked hens will not be able to access sufficient food and will suffer from stress.
Hunger, excessive competition for food and and frustration when trying to access food are all particularly stressful for chickens.
Changes to the diet
Changes to the diet can also cause stress to chickens. For this reason, it is recommended that any new chicken feed is introduced slowly over a period of a week to 10 days, to allow the chickens to adjust to the change.
4. Physiological stress
Physiological stress occurs with natural processes such as growth, sexual maturity and reproduction. It isn't normally an issue for backyard chickens, but can be a big problem for commercial chicken farms.
Rapid growth, often caused by the use of 24-hour lighting and feed additives, is usually only a problem in the fast-maturing meat breeds used by commercial farms. Using a heat plate and ensuring chicks have a good diet and ample room to jump, climb and flap their wings as they grow, prevents most problems.
Sexual maturity and reproduction
When chickens reach sexual maturity, the changes in their body can cause stress.
Laying eggs takes a physical toll, which is why nutrition is so important for laying hens. It is also important to let laying hens follow their natural cycle of laying and moulting, which provides a rest from egg production.
A broody hen devotes everything to her eggs, only rarely leaving the nest to eat, drink or dust-bathe. Once the chicks hatch, most of her energy and food goes to them. While reproduction is a natural process, hens require special care while brooding in order to avoid stress-related problems.
5. Physical stress
Anything that stimulates the immune system and takes energy away from normal bodily functions will cause physical stress. While uncommon in a well-managed chicken coop, this type of stress can be caused by:
- Disease challenges, often due to a dirty coop, unclean feed/water or contact with wild birds
- Failure to treat chickens regularly for mites, lice and worms
- Physical injuries
- Handling and transport
6. Social stress
Chickens are social animals and are very susceptible to social stress. Social problems are much less likely to occur in backyard flocks than in commercial situations, but they can still be a problem.
Chickens should never be kept alone. They will suffer severely if isolated from the flock. Chicks are particularly susceptible to social isolation, which can cause life-long, stress-related changes!
Pecking order changes
Any upset to the pecking order causes stress for chickens, because they have to renegotiate their place in the flock hierarchy. Obviously some pecking order changes are unavoidable, but constantly adding birds to your flock, or taking them away, is not recommended.
Population size and over-crowding
Flocks should have no more than 30 birds. Chickens can only remember around 30 other birds, so in larger flocks they are constantly renegotiating the pecking order, which causes stress.
Having enough space for the flock size is also important. This helps prevent boredom and reduces bullying by allowing lower-ranked chickens to stay out of the way of more dominant birds.
Bullying can occur in any flock, although it is more common where chickens are over-crowded or bored. Bullying causes extreme stress to the victim and can often lead to nutritional deficiencies and physical injuries as well.
Generally speaking, having a range of ages in your flock is a good thing, as it helps to maintain a more stable pecking order. But large differences in size can cause issues, as smaller birds can suffer from bullying, insufficient access to feed and injury. In mixed-breed flocks, it is also important to ensure your rooster is a similar size to your smallest hen.
Keeping a rooster generally makes hens happier and decreases stress. But a rooster that is aggressive towards the hens or too rough when mating can stress the hens.
7. Psychological stress
Anything that causes fear can cause psychological stress. Because backyard chickens have more contact with their keepers and the wider environment, they are generally less fearful than commercially-raised chickens. In fact, many of the things that cause stress and fear in commercial flocks don’t affect backyard chooks at all!
Predators are one of the most common causes of stress in a backyard flock. Chicken keepers often observe that their flock seems unsettled, only for the coop to be attacked soon afterwards. Usually, the predator has been scoping out the coop for quite some time, trying to find a way in, but the chicken keeper has not identified the problem until it is too late. Even rodents in the coop at night can cause stress!
Changes to routine
Commercially farmed chickens are notorious for being stressed by changes to routine – even a farmer walking through the chicken house in the wrong direction or at the wrong time can cause panic!
Generally speaking, backyard chickens are much less likely to be disturbed by changes to routine.
Anything that causes fear will cause stress.
Well-adjusted chickens that have been exposed to a range of environments and stimuli from hatch are far less fearful. Exposure also helps to reduce fear. This is one reason why spending time with your chickens is important, as it can reduce the fear associated with handling and other chicken keeping tasks.
Chickens often find loud noises frightening, particularly if they are unused to them or the noise goes on for a long time.
Inability to express natural behaviours
Chickens need to be able to express natural behaviours such as pecking, foraging and dust bathing. If they cannot, they will become bored and stressed. For example, studies have shown increased stress in chickens deprived of foraging materials.
For roosters, being able to mate with hens is a natural behaviour. While roosters are not stressed if there are no hens around, being kept apart from hens that they know are there, or keeping two roosters in a flock, causes stress.
Recognising stress in chickens
So how do you know if your chickens are stressed?
Stress can affect chickens in many different ways. Chicken keepers who spend time observing their flock will be familiar with normal behaviour and can easily recognise when their chickens are feeling stressed.
Any deviation from normal chicken behaviour, and particularly things like spending less time dust-bathing or resting, can be a sign of stress. However, different birds will respond to stress differently.
Common signs of stress in chickens can include:
- Poor appearance, including bedraggled, dull feathers and abnormal feathering
- Increased illness and disease
- Increased parasite loads
- Failure to display normal behaviours such as dust-bathing, preening etc.
- Irregular appetite and weight loss
- Poor egg production
- Abnormal social behaviours such as aggression, bullying or flightiness
- Lethargy and droopiness
In almost all cases, stress will cause health issues and a greater susceptibility to parasites and diseases, which, in turn, cause further stress.
Identifying the cause of stress in the chicken coop
Different types of stress can cause different symptoms in chickens.
If multiple chickens are displaying signs of stress, this also rules out most individual issues such as bullying and broodiness.
1. Signs of heat stress/cold stress in chickens
Heat stress generally causes diarrhoea, decreased appetite, lethargy and panting.
Cold stress will cause distressed peeping in chicks, along with huddling and lethargy.
2. Signs of environmental stress in chickens
Environmental stress, such as a wet and dirty coop, causes an increased incidence of parasites, disease and infections, including bumblefoot. The ammonia produced by built-up droppings can cause respiratory illnesses.
Uncomfortable nest boxes or too few of them will result in eggs being laid in other areas, and may also cause weird eggs, if hens have to wait to lay.
Providing too many hours of light is most likely to result in behavioural signs of stress such as bullying, increased aggression and feather pecking.
3. Signs of nutritional stress in chickens
Nutritional stresses most commonly cause poor egg production and a generally bedraggled appearance, including abnormal feathering.
Birds suffering from deficiencies are also more likely to engage in egg eating, feather pecking, cannibalism, over-eating and eating non-food items such as floor litter. They may display increased aggression or bullying, particularly around food or water sources.
4. Signs of physiological stress in chickens
While uncommon in backyard flocks, physiological stress is associated with increased injuries, particularly leg and foot injuries, and deformities. These symptoms are most common in rapid-growth breeds or where birds are subject to nutritional stress while growing.
In older hens, a bedraggled appearance, poor egg production, thin-shelled eggs and keel bone or leg injuries are common where high egg production is combined with nutritional deficiencies.
5. Signs of physical stress in chickens
The signs and symptoms of physical stressors such as worms, mites, lice and other parasites are easy to recognise. You can read about them here.
Generally poor laying, lethargy, decreased appetite and a poor appearance can all be signs of physical stress.
6. Signs of social stress in chickens
Social stress related to living conditions and flock make-up typically presents as abnormal behaviour. However, the type of behaviour varies, as some birds will become aggressive bullies and others may become victims.
Abnormal chicken behaviours most often caused by social stress include:
- Abnormal feathering
- Feather pecking
- Constant preening
- A failure to preen, dust-bathe or maintain feathers
- Vent pecking
- Pacing, particularly if free-range, and other repetitive behaviours
- Increased aggression
- Loss of appetite
- Hiding or self-isolating
- Refusing to roost
- Guarding areas of the coop, particularly feeders and waterers
7. Signs of psychological stress in chickens
Psychological stress can present differently in chickens depending on the cause.
A predator, or any other cause of fear, is likely to cause distress, flightiness and increased vigilance in hens, while roosters will respond with increased aggression. Chickens may also avoid certain areas of the coop or run, eat less or stop dust-bathing.
Changes to routine and the inability to express natural behaviours, on the other hand, tend to cause symptoms similar to the signs of social stress detailed above.
How to reduce stress in the chicken coop - 10 easy steps
Fortunately, it is easy to create a stress-free chicken coop for your birds. True, all chickens respond differently to the environment, but generally in a well-managed flock, stress is unlikely to be an issue.
Here are 10 easy steps for a stress-free chicken coop:
- Provide a nutritious diet
- Ensure plenty of space and access to food, and provide places to hide
- Allow birds to express natural behaviours such as foraging and dust-bathing
- Spend time with your chickens so they are used to contact with humans
- Provide enrichment and foraging opportunities for confined birds
- Keep the coop clean and free from predators and rodents
- Treat your chickens for parasites regularly
- Put Nesting Herbs around the coop and nesting boxes for their calming effects
- Expose chickens to new items or situations in non-threatening ways, so they can learn to respond without fear
- Try to limit loud noises such as dogs barking, fire works and parties
Chicks are particularly susceptible to stress when young. Ensuring a good brooder environment, providing age-appropriate enrichment and keeping chicks clean, well-fed and watered, together and at the right temperature is the trick.
Dealing with stressed chickens
Remember, stress isn't necessarily a bad thing for chickens. But if your chickens are suffering from unhealthy levels of stress, you may need to help them recover.
Remember, the best possible way to deal with stress in the flock is to identify what is causing the stress and stop it. If this means giving away a hen that is being bullied, so be it!
Once you have dealt with the cause of stress, you can also help your chickens to recover.
Make the coop calming
A clean coop will help calm stressed chickens. Nesting Herbs and other calming herbs spread around of the coop and in dust bathing areas might also help your chickens to relax.
Feed your chickens well
Online advice often recommends “special” diets for stressed chickens. This is bad advice. The last thing a stressed bird needs is a change in diet that will trigger more stress, or a poor diet that will contribute to nutritional deficiencies. Cat food is no good either!
The best thing you can possibly feed stressed chickens is a complete layer pellet.
Happy chicken keeping!
Rachael at Dine a Chook Australia