6 Reasons Your Hens are Sneezing or Coughing. Prevention, Cure

Reasons chickens sneeze or cough (1)
My roo Chandler, flock protector

Chicken keeping may be easy when your flock feels fine, but there will be times throughout the year when you need to stay on top of illnesses, parasites, and reproduction issues. Typically around December, I hear a sneeze or a wheezing noise from some of my hens. 

Why are my chickens sneezing? Your chicken might be sneezing because it has caught a respiratory disease, is generally sick, or reacting to excessive dust. Respiratory illness might include bronchitis, CRD, or Coryza. 

In addition, chickens can get sick from extreme wet or cold conditions and start sneezing. Healthy chickens might start sneezing during particularly dusty periods, such as after their coop has been cleaned out. Because chickens are sensitive to breathing issues, you must address all reasons causing your hens to sneeze. 

New chicken owners must understand the ins and outs of various respiratory diseases that may affect the flock and cause symptoms like sneezing. While sneezing is not always a medical emergency,  it may mean your chicken is sick. Pending other symptoms and how frequently your chicken is sneezing, you’ll need to take action. One sneeze may not require a vet visit as dust can cause chickens to sneeze, but frequent sneezing and a runny nose may mean something more serious is brewing. 

There are natural remedies chicken keepers may want to consider if an upper respiratory illness affects one or more of your birds. Herbs are amazing! Fortunately, I haven’t lost a bird to a respiratory illness. I believe that’s because I’m super vigilant in cleaning those coops every day to cut down on any possible disease, parasites, or other ailments.    

Dust is a common cause of sneezing. It’s normal for your hens to sneeze after you clean the coop and replace the bedding. If you use straw or pine shavings that kick up a lot of dust, you may hear a sneeze from your hens. 

Remember that chickens hide stress and illness. They are masters at hiding that they’re sick. Therefore, you need to observe your chickens every day when you put out feed in the morning and when they get locked up at night. Ideally, you have time during the day to observe your flock’s behavior.  You’ll never know about health and wellness issues if you only see them when they’re sleeping on the roost bars! 

Coop Issues That Cause Respiratory Illnesses

Several problems in a chicken coop can cause respiratory illnesses and issues in chickens. If your chickens start coughing, check that your coop isn’t causing breathing issues with your flock. 

1. Dirty Chicken Coop

A dirty chicken coop will cause respiratory issues very quickly in a flock. Excessive dust, ammonia, and feces can quickly build up and get into the air. Chickens are very susceptible to breathing issues, so if there is dirt, dung particles, or ammonia in the air, your birds will start coughing and sneezing. 

First, check that your coop is clean. If you use the deep litter method, make sure that your litter is healthy and doesn’t stink. With any method, your chicken coop should not have a strong smell or smell of ammonia. 

If it does, clean it out quickly and vent out the air. 

2. Poor Ventilation in the Coop

The need to have a ventilated coop but still have a coop that protects from the weather and predators can confuse many new chicken owners. Your coop should lock tightly and not have gaps where wind and precipitation can blow through. 

But, above where your hens perch and rest, near the ceiling, your coop should have openings where the warm, moist air can rise and escape the coop. A wind that blows into those vents won’t reach your chickens much.
Your coop must have adequate ventilation because, in the summer, it keeps it cooler. In the winter, the humid air can escape. Humidity will freeze and cause sickness faster than dry cold. Plus, the more humid your coop air is, the more likely it is to nurture bacteria in the coop and cause other respiratory issues. 

Common Respiratory Chicken Diseases 

There are a few core health conditions that cause a chicken to wheeze or sneeze. 

3. Bronchitis 

Bronchitis is often called infectious bronchitis (IB) or a chicken cold. Symptoms include sneezing, coughing, and a discharge from the nostrils. Chickens may also lose their appetite. IB is very contagious and spreads fast in a flock. 

Young chickens may cough, sneeze or have running eyes, while older hens may have reproductive issues. Always listen for sneezing if you suspect IB. A sign with the mature ladies is decreased egg production with ‘ugly eggs,’ and the outsides of the eggs will also be abnormal. Larger farms vaccinate, but it’s best to maintain your biosecurity protocols! Always wear separate shoes into the flock and wash your hands. 

4. Mycoplasmas (most common is Chronic Respiratory Disease or CRD)

There are two forms of Mycoplasma, and the acute form causes coughing, sneezing, swollen joints, and frequent death. 

This disease is often known as a chicken head cold and occurs when the weather turns cold. Chickens typically get this from other chickens, and an infected hen may even pass this to her chicks. Antibiotic treatment will help the flock feel better and clear up some of the symptoms, but the disease may also be mild. There is a vaccination for this disease. 

5. Coryza

With this disease, there is almost always a sticky discharge from the nostrils and eyes. In addition to sneezing, their head becomes swollen along with the combs and wattles. A bacterial organism, Haemophilus paragallinarum, causes infectious coryza. This isn’t egg-transmitted, but carrier chickens are the cause of an outbreak. 

When younger pullets are integrated into a new flock, everything may seem fine, and then the younger chickens start sneezing. Look for ‘stinky snot’ coming from their nostrils and eyes. A vaccine can be used but isn’t very common. An antibiotic treatment may help your hens feel better but doesn’t eliminate the disease. 

6. Chilled Chicken 

Most chickens can handle the cold (check out how to keep your chickens healthy in the extreme cold here), although it does vary by breed. If your hens have feathered feet or legs, they are more at risk of getting sick in the snow or rain. That’s because chicken feathers aren’t waterproof like ducks’ feathers. 

You may also have issues with your flock getting sick if the weather quickly goes from one extreme to another in the spring or fall. A warm spell that turns suddenly cold can wear down your flock’s immune systems. 

Other Warning Symptoms To Watch For That Signal Serious Conditions

These symptoms typically accompany sneezing. If your chickens have multiple signs and are acting lethargic, it’s vital to reach out to your livestock or exotic vet. Anything that persists for more than a few days is a reason to reach out to a vet or extension office for information. A lack of interest in eating or drinking may be a common sign of illness. 

  • Watery eyes: Always look for swollen or foamy eyes, a discharge from the eyes, or cloudy eyes. 
  • Runny nose: You may see a discharge from the nose or crusty and scabby nostrils. 
  • Coughing: Your hens may experience labored breathing, panting, or coughing. 
  • Head shaking: Is your chicken constantly shaking their head? Respiratory disease may cause your hen to shake its head.  
  • Diarrhea: Diarrhea may happen when a hen is stressed or ill. So if you see diarrhea in the coop under roost bars, it’s important to start watching to see if you can narrow down which chicken has GI upset. 
First Aid for sneezing chickens (1)
My Wyandotte received a dab of VetRX under her wings

Natural Remedies For Sick Chickens

There are many natural remedies used to address sneezing and wheezing. Garlic is antibacterial and packed with antioxidants, which boost the immune system. Apple cider is alkaline and helps to keep bad bacteria away. It also helps to increase egg production and is thought to promote feather growth in chickens. Diatomaceous earth keeps mites and other pests at bay, but it’s important to use food-grade quality DE. 

  • Garlic
  • Apple Cider
  • Diatomaceous Earth

Other options include: 

  • VetRX for Poultry 
  • Probiotics in their feed
  • Minced garlic 
  • Electrolytes for their water (+ add to self-care section too) 

Herbs That Help Sick Chickens

Herbs can be grown in your garden, or you can purchase what you need online and at a local shop. This store doesn’t have to be an apothecary either. Yet if you have a local apothecary, then head over there and bring the below list. 

Chickens enjoy fresh or dried herbs, and you can add these to their run, in their water, nesting boxes, or even mix it in with their feed. Herbs help with respiratory issues. So chicken keepers should chop them up and offer them as free choice.  

  • Thyme
  • Basil
  • Echinacea
  • Clover

Other herbs that are helpful to grow and combat mites:  

  • Parsley 
  • Mint 
  • Rosemary 
  • Oregano 
  • Lavender  
Herbs can help sneezing hens (1)
A mix of herbs like Thyme and Mint for respiratory issues

Other Preventative Health and Wellness Remedies 

Dusty bedding is one of the reasons your flock may be sneezing. Determine the best type of bedding for your coop, as some materials work better than others. Wood chips (not cedar) and sand are great options. There are ways to prevent your birds from sneezing related to their coop and the overall environment. 

Bedding: When you clean your coop, always move all your hens out of the area after cleaning it. The buildup of ammonia can be dangerous for your flock, and you must clean out the poop regularly. It’s also key to replace bedding (shavings in many cases), and the transfer of old bedding to the wheelbarrow and new bedding can cause a little dust to build up in the environment. 

Consider alternative bedding that doesn’t cause as much dust. Hemp bedding is a great alternative to pine shavings and straw. 

Ventilation: Ensure the coop has plenty of ventilation, both in the summer and especially in the winter. Your hens need a place to shelter outside, so prepare an area nearby with a tarp they can stand underneath and place your coop by shade and bushes if you can!  

Sinus Blockage: If you are comfortable handling your hens or have a buddy, you can also try adding a drop of saline solution to their eyes to help clear out their sinuses.  

Does A Sneezing Chicken Need Vet Care?

Because sneezing can signify serious health issues, observing your flock for other issues is critical. There are many reasons your hen may sneeze, so you need to be watching for the other symptoms earlier in the article. 

Observe the Flock’s Overall Behavior

Every chicken keeper needs to know what ‘normal’ looks like for their flock. A journal will help you easily catch when a hen or rooster is acting a little off. You should always remove any bird acting off to an area where you can closely watch them. You can use a dog crate! You can also bring your chicken into a garage where they’re protected from the elements. 

  • Keep a chicken journal so you can compare and contrast behavior every year. This also helps determine if an illness repeats itself every winter. 
  • Keep an eye out on chickens that may look skinny or aren’t at the feed bowl with the others. Chickens are very social and typically eat together and also preen at the same time. Is anyone bird on the sidelines? 
  • Walk among your chickens and check out the poop! If you see anything that seems off, you may want to walk the coop later that day to see if a chicken looks lethargic. 
  • Do you see any spoiled or moldy feed on the ground you didn’t notice yesterday? Look at the feeding and watering stations and bowls to see if anything smells off or if you see a lot of flies or other pests. Always look at your hen’s fluffy butts. 

First Aid For Chickens

Do you have a first aid kit for your hens? Here’s what I keep in my kit: 

  • Vetricyn 
  • Disposable gloves
  • Clear ointment like Neosporin
  • Electrolytes 
  • Gauze and vet wrap 
  • Tweezers
  • Scissors
  • Needleless syringes and dropper 
First Aid Supplies for Sick Chickens (1)
Chicken first aid kit I keep near my coops

Because sneezing can signify serious health issues, observing your flock for other issues is critical. There are many reasons your hen may sneeze, so you need to be watching for the other symptoms earlier in the article. 

Observe the Flock’s Overall Behavior

Every chicken keeper needs to know what ‘normal’ looks like for their flock. A journal will help you easily catch when a hen or rooster is acting a little off. You should always remove any bird acting off to an area where you can closely watch them. You can use a dog crate! You can also bring your chicken into a garage where they’re protected from the elements. 

  • Keep a chicken journal so you can compare and contrast behavior every year. This also helps determine if an illness repeats itself every winter. 
  • Keep an eye out on chickens that may look skinny or aren’t at the feed bowl with the others. Chickens are very social and typically eat together and also preen at the same time. Is any one bird on the sidelines? 
  • Walk among your chickens and check out the poop! If you see anything that seems off, you may want to walk the coop later that day to see if a chicken looks lethargic. 
  • Do you see any spoiled or moldy feed on the ground you didn’t notice yesterday? Look at the feeding and watering stations and bowls to see if anything smells off or if you see a lot of flies or other pests. Always look at your hen’s fluffy butts. 

First Aid For Chickens

Do you have a first aid kit for your hens? Here’s what I keep in my kit: 

  • Vetricyn 
  • Disposable gloves
  • Clear ointment like Neosporin
  • Electrolytes 
  • Gauze and vet wrap 
  • Tweezers
  • Scissors
  • Needleless syringes and dropper 

Self-care: Head-to-Toe Exams

In addition to spying on the flock once every season, you’ll want to conduct a head-to-toe exam with each bird in the flock. Chickens are really good at hiding an illness, and typically if you didn’t notice any symptoms previously and suddenly, they’re lethargic, they may be very ill at this point. A head-to-toe exam will help you catch an illness early on. It may be easiest to do this with a headlamp and remove each bird at night off the roost. They don’t see well in the dark. 

  1. Catch the chicken and examine the head, body condition, skin, and feathers. 
  2. Also, look at their vent and abdomen, as this is where lice and parasites enjoy spending time. 
  3. A chicken’s heart rate is very fast! The pulse is difficult to feel, but don’t be alarmed if the heart is beating quickly! 
  4. If the chicken is breathing with an open mouth, they may be stressed out, so their breathing should get easier as they calm down. 
  5. Record everything you learn about each bird so you can compare and contrast in the coming months. 

Understanding a Hen’s Respiratory System 

Respiration is unique in poultry because hens have lungs, air sacs, and hollow bones. According to Storey’s Guide on Raising Poultry, “the avian lung is a rigid system of blood capillaries and air in close contact. Therefore, the lung does not expand as it does in mammals.” 

Poultry does not possess a diaphragm, and when birds breathe, the connection of the air sacs, lungs, and hollow bones gives the bird the advantage of an almost constant supply of air during movement and flight. The air sacs and lungs also help chickens regulate heat and moisture. 

The majority of chicken health issues are respiratory. Poultry is susceptible to problems affecting their breathing due to their elaborate and complicated respiratory systems!  

Conclusion

If you suspect your chicken has a health issue, try a natural remedy first and see if you can eliminate some of the symptoms. Following some preventative protocols will also help cut down on respiratory diseases and the common chicken cold. Always conduct a head-to-toe exam every three months to determine anything that’s changed with your flock. 

Christine Caplan

I moved to Washougal, Washington five years ago and our house "came" with chickens! I've since added a second flock after falling in love with my new role as a chicken keeper. I also live with two senior hounds and I'm a certified vet technician which helped prepare me for a life with hens and a rooster. I'm also a writer specializing in animal health and wellness and you can find my other stories in Animal Wellness Magazine and Business Insider. I have a blog called Wag and Cluck that dives deep into my life with chickens and senior dogs.

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