Wheezy Chicken: Why Is My Chicken Panting?

My half-blind chicken—Pete—tends to get bullied a lot, which stresses him out. 

I have to hand-feed him. While it’s cute, he runs around quite frantically before I can scoop him up to feed him, and twice now, he’s choked on the chicken feed. The sight of him wheezing as he chokes on the feed and gasping for air is quite disturbing, and it looks like a chicken with heat stress, though there’s more of a gagging action. 

Sometimes, he sits there panting, looking generally unhappy. I decided it was time to get the vet involved as I had grown quite fond of him, and I didn’t like seeing him so distressed. 

Why is my chicken panting? Chickens pant or wheeze for various reasons. The most common is heat stress, but a viral infection such as Newcastle disease can also lead to respiratory distress. Other causes of wheezing can include choking on food, environmental contaminants that affect the chicken’s respiratory tract, and stress. 

What Does a Panting or Wheezing Chicken Look Like?

Chickens can’t sweat. To cool down, they have to pant like a dog. However, this behavior, where their beaks open and their wings are spread away from their bodies, is not only caused by heat stress. 

Sometimes, the wheezing can also include other subtle changes, like when the chicken looks like they’re gagging or carries their neck to one side or they have mucus coming from their nose or beak. When you observe these added behaviors, it’s time to consult a vet, as it may be more severe than mere heat stress. 

Normal Panting Vs. Sick Chicken Panting

Regular panting is normal for a chicken as it’s how the chicken lowers their body temperature. If the chicken is panting excessively and lies limply with their wings out, they are in danger of heat stress. Heat-stressed chickens pant much harder than a normal warm-weather panting behavior. 

If your chicken is sick and panting, their panting will often be weak and irregular and have other accompanying symptoms such as sneezing, coughing, mucus discharge, and tremors.  

7 Causes for Chickens to Pant and Wheeze

My vet explained all the different causes of panting or wheezing behavior. We carefully considered all the other options, finally finding what was wrong with Pete so we could help him.  

1. Heat Stress

Chickens don’t sweat, so they have no effective way to cool their bodies other than lying in the shade, spreading their wings, and gasping or panting. With all those feathers, chickens quickly overheat. As soon as their body temperature reaches critical levels, the chicken can easily suffer a stroke or heart failure.  

Signs of Heat Stress

  • Heavily panting and rapid breathing 
  • Wattles and comb become pale 
  • Wings held out to sides with feathers pinned up
  • Lying listless and not grazing about
  • Only drinking water and not eating 
  • Diarrhea from extra water consumption that leads to dehydration 
  • No further egg production 

What to Do to Stop Heat Stress

  • Provide cool water. Add ice to water bowls if the weather is particularly hot. 
  • In extreme cases, it may be necessary to submerge a particularly heat-stressed bird up to their neck in cold water with ice. 
  • Don’t overcrowd chicken coops. Broiler chickens in battery cages frequently die from heat stress if they are not cooled sufficiently. 
  • Add fans or air conditioning systems to poorly ventilated coops.
  • Ensure the chickens have loads of shady spots to hang out and cool down.
  • Use misters to help reduce the temperature around the coop.

Treat heat stress quickly, as it can become heat stroke, which is often fatal to chickens. A chicken that pants and then suddenly dies has probably shown several signs of heat stress and suffers organ failure due to their excessively high body temperature. 

2. Chicken Respiratory Disease (CDR)

Several respiratory diseases can cause a chicken to pant or breathe heavily. When you notice other signs such as mucus, sneezing, and loss of weight that accompanies the panting or heavy breathing, you can put your money on a CDR. 

Typical CDRs include infectious bronchitis or laryngotracheitis, which are both treated with the administration of an appropriate antibiotic. Mycoplasma is another respiratory disease that can trigger wheezing and gaping mouths in chickens as their nasal passages can become blocked, complicating breathing.

Signs of a CDR

  • Pale wattles and combs 
  • Heavy breathing
  • Rasping noise in throat
  • Mucus discharge from the nasal openings or eyes 
  • Lethargy 
  • Weight loss 
  • Sneezing and coughing

What to Do to Treat Respiratory Disease in Chickens

  • Isolate any birds showing signs of CDRs as a chicken respiratory disease is highly contagious. Provide fresh water and feed for the chicken, but don’t let them share their feed or water with other chickens. 
  • Provide hydration, nutrition, and warmth for sick birds. 
  • Use a spoon or dropper to provide a nutrient-rich solution with antibiotic medication to the ill chicken until they show fewer signs of CDR.
  • Provide a vitamin and mineral supplement (like Kickin’ Chicken feed supplement) in your chickens’ drinking water every two to three days to help improve their immunity so they can build up resistance to respiratory disease. 
  • Take preventive steps by giving your chickens a good quality probiotic to enhance their immunity further if you know that CDR is active in the area. 
  • Don’t slaughter chickens for meat or consume eggs for 7-21 days once treatment starts.

Different CDRs affect chickens. Some diseases have a low mortality rate, and if your chicken is healthy, they should quickly stop their heavy breathing and recover. 

Other diseases, such as avian flu or bird flu, can be much more contagious and may even transmit to people. So take care to always wash your hands and wear a respirator mask when you work with sick chickens, in the coop, or elsewhere. 

3. Poor Air Quality 

My cousin suffers from asthma, and when she enters a place that’s closed up with poor circulation, like the little library in her hometown, her lungs close like clam shells. Some chickens are the same. 

If they are closed in a coop with poor ventilation, they can overheat and also breathe with difficulty. Panting and heavy breathing may be symptoms of poor air quality affecting them. 

Signs of Ventilation-Related Breathing Problems

  • If your chicken breathes heavily the minute they enter their coop or shed but breathe fine when outside in the yard or in the run, you have a ventilation problem.
  • When your chicken sneezes in the coop or has a mucus discharge from their eyes or nose in the morning, they may suffer allergies that can lead to heavy breathing. 

What to Do to Manage Ventilation Problems

  • Provide more ventilation by using a fan, adding an extractor fan, or cutting more windows in the side of a shed and covering these with mesh instead of using solid wood or steel. 
  • Move the coop to a shady area, as a cool coop will offer better air quality. 
  • Clean the coop frequently to remove allergy-causing material like manure, dust, and dander. 
  • Thin your flock as an overcrowded coop will be a coop where the chickens can’t breathe or invest in another coop, so there’s ample space for your chickens.

Chickens have sensitive lungs and easily suffer respiratory distress when confined in areas where mites, dust, and dander can enter their lungs. 

4. Obstructed Throat 

I suspected that my chicken Pete may have had an obstructed throat causing the heavy breathing and panting, so I had my vet check inside his throat next. 

Signs of an Obstructed Throat

  • Mouth opening and closing while the chicken tries to swallow.
  • Heavy breathing and gasping as they try to ingest the food that’s become stuck.
  • Walking in an off-balance manner with the head moving erratically.
  • Wheezy breathing and gulping motions.

What to Do When Your Chicken Has a Throat Obstruction 

  • If you suspect your chicken has a food impaction, you should assess where the obstruction is in the throat. Palpitate down the length of the throat using gentle pressure. Feel for a hard part where feed has blocked the throat. 
  • If the lump is relatively small, you can gently massage the throat and help ease the food down the chicken’s throat.
  • If the lump is more prominent and not moving, you may need to gently syringe a small amount of water down the chicken’s throat. Only try this if the lump is visible, or you can prize the chicken’s beak open and see the food in the chicken’s throat. 
  • Should the lump be fixed, and if the chicken’s crop is full, you can use a small amount of vegetable oil in a syringe to lubricate the chicken’s throat and help them swallow. Withhold further food and offer fresh water until the chicken has recovered. 

5. Gapeworm 

Not all parts of the world are affected by gapeworm, but it is a worm infestation that specifically affects a chicken’s throat. When you look down the chicken’s throat, you will see tiny red follicles that are actually parasitic worms latched onto the trachea, where they cause inflammation, swelling, and a mucus discharge. 

Signs of Gapeworm

  • Gasping chickens (trying to breathe better)
  • Chickens walking with their mouths open, necks extended to ease the pressure in their throats
  • Decreased appetite

What to Do If Your Chicken Has Gapeworm 

  • Treat the chicken with a good deworming medication by adding it to the chickens’ water supply. 
  • Isolate the affected chicken while treating it.
  • Monitor the other chickens for signs of gapeworm, as it’s quite contagious. 
  • Don’t slaughter the birds or consume their eggs for 7-21 days when treatment begins. 

6. Avian Pox

Avian pox or fowl pox is an insect-based disease that spreads among backyard chickens, causing lesions and bleeding. Usually, the infected insects carry a virus from the avipoxvirus genus. There are two variants: the dry pox and wet pox. 

Wet pox creates lumps and swollen scabs inside the chicken’s throat, leading to gagging and gasping that can easily be misinterpreted as signs of chicken tracheal obstruction. 

Signs of Wet Pox

  • A chicken walking with mouth agape
  • Gasping and difficulty swallowing 
  • Loss of appetite 
  • Trouble breathing 
  • Hot and inflamed neck tissue
  • Lesions on the inside of the throat

What to Do When Your Chicken Has Wet Pox

  • Sadly, there is no effective treatment for chickens that have already contracted the disease, and culling affected chickens is recommended.
  • Vaccinate chickens in the wing web at four weeks, with a booster vaccine administered two weeks before layers reach laying age.

If your chicken is confirmed as having chicken pox, it’s best to vaccinate the whole flock and any new birds joining the flock, as the scabs from the pox can remain in the area, still causing infections years later. 

7. Virulent Newcastle Disease

Newcastle disease is not common in the U.S., and no case of virulent Newcastle disease has been reported in the U.S. since 2018, when an isolated outbreak happened in Riverside County, California

Many chickens die without exhibiting any signs of the disease due to its virulence, and the disease is fatal in all cases, so culling affected chickens is advised. Once a case of Newcastle disease has been confirmed in your flock, the USDA and department of animal health will insist on culling your flock. 

Poultry deaths that have the markers of Newcastle disease should be reported to the department of animal health in your area to prevent the further spread of this highly contagious disease. 

Signs of Virulent Newcastle Disease in Chickens

  • Sneezing and gasping behavior followed by a sudden death
  • Nasal discharge and coughing 
  • Twisted necks and inability to move 
  • Swollen eyes 
  • Green and watery diarrhea

What to Do When Your Chicken Has Newcastle Disease

  • Unfortunately, nothing can be done to save your affected chickens and flock.
  • After reporting the contagion to the USDA and animal health, your flock will be culled, and your property will be placed under quarantine. 
  • Be proactive and stop all foot traffic onto the property by unauthorized people.
  • Disinfect the chicken coops, burn all bedding material, and spray all boots and equipment to prevent the spread to other areas.

Crisis Management When Your Chicken Is Wheezing

You may feel panic when you notice your chicken walking about wheezing or with their beak open and panting behavior. After all, nobody wants their chickens to suffer. 

It’s important to take instant action, and this is how you should take action: 

  • Calmly catch the chicken, folding its wings down the side of their body, and keeping them as calm as possible.
  • Feel the overall warmth of the chicken. If they are very hot, you are probably dealing with heat stress that’s about to transition to heat stroke. 
  • Move the chicken to water and shade. While preparing a cooling ice bath, feel the chicken’s neck to confirm any swelling or food obstructions. If there is none, submerge the chicken into the cool bath up to their neck, gently but firmly holding them in place. 
  • Remove the chicken from the bath every couple of minutes, and check their reflexes when you gently stroke their face. If they blink and seem more alert, you can release them back into the chicken coop. Continue monitoring the chicken for signs of relapse. 
  • If you feel swelling in the chicken’s throat, it’s important to determine the cause before using an ice bath. 
  • Open the chicken’s beak, gently keeping it open while you examine their throat for signs of food blockages, lesions, parasites, mucus, or inflammation. 
  • Report your findings to your local vet and take action as recommended. This may include taking the affected bird to the vet for confirmation of a diagnosis if there is a viral component. 


Why is my chicken panting and lying down?

Chickens pant when they are hot as they can’t sweat like humans. Normal panting lasts a few minutes, and the chicken may lie in the shade while cooling. Panting that increases in intensity and where the chicken has lain down without much sign of relief may indicate the chicken is suffering from heat stress or is ill. 

Why is my chicken panting and can’t walk? 

Panting can indicate heat stroke, in which case the chicken may suffer organ damage (including brain damage) that can lead to motor damage and an inability to walk. If the chicken is panting or gasping because of virulent Newcastle disease, they will suffer stiffness and become unable to walk before dying.

My chicken was panting and then suddenly died—what to do?

Heat stroke is the most likely cause of death following panting, but sudden death syndrome of chickens and virulent Newcastle disease are also likely causes. Report the chicken’s death to the local agriculture and animal welfare department, as it may be a contagious disease that requires a government response. 


We don’t like the thought of our chickens dying. Being alert to signs of distress, such as panting, gasping, and heavy breathing can indicate that something is wrong or that your chicken is sick. It’s important to take action immediately and consult your vet if you’re unsure what is causing the panting behavior. 

I was lucky with Pete, and the vet agreed that Pete had simply gorged on feed because he was gobbling up the maize crush that I hand-fed him. The solution was simple: I cleared the obstruction with gentle massaging and a few drops of water to help the food pass into his crop. 

From now on, I feed Pete on his own in a little enclosure with the maize crush scattered between some straw and fresh grass, so he has to work a little to find the tasty morsels instead of getting all blocked up. 

For more on heat stress in chickens and what to do about this condition, read our helpful guide.  

Talitha van Niekerk

Hi, I’m Talitha van Niekerk, and I made the leap to farm animal ownership when I decided to fulfil my lifelong passion to own horses. Now, over a decade later, I run a public stable facility on 180 acres of land, caring for over 75 horses of all breeds and sizes. I love to write about my experiences, sharing the knowledge I have gained and helping others achieve their life’s passion to live on the land. See my about page here.

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