Backyard Chickens / Health

The Spa Treatment For Sick Chickens

The spa treatment for sick chickens

Ever since my tribute to Gisele, where I mentioned giving her spa baths and blow-dries, I’ve gotten a great many chicken-keepers curious enough to ask why I do it and how they can do it, too.

The spa treatment is what I use when one of my chickens is acting “off,” but I can’t immediately tell what’s bothering her. Her tail is down, her head is hunched, her feathers are fluffed. She isn’t eating or drinking as much as she usually does. She stands apart from the flock, or goes to roost early. Sometimes the reason is as simple as exhaustion from a molt, or stress from a change in environment (whether it be a seasonal shift, a move to unfamiliar housing, or the arrival of new flock members). Sometimes it’s a physical ailment, like a stuck egg or sour crop.

A sick chicken with her tail down

In any of these cases, my first step is to always treat her to an Epsom salt bath. It’s not a cure-all by any means, but it often provides relief and makes the hen more comfortable while I try to diagnose her at home.

Epsom salt is a naturally occurring mineral compound called magnesium sulfate. It is used both internally and externally, as a laxative, detoxifier, skin soother, muscle relaxer, and pain reliever. As a general pick-me-up, magnesium can improve circulatory health and reduce fatigue and stress.

Studies on the external effects of Epsom salts (when they’re absorbed through the skin) tend to be mixed, but since I’ve personally always gotten relief after an Epsom salt bath, I feel it never hurts to take a soak. What is medically proven is the use of magnesium sulfate as a laxative; an oral dose of Epsom salts (dissolved in water) helps move things along in the bowels.

For a chicken, an Epsom salt bath helps her relax the same way it helps us. If she’s found to be egg-bound, a warm soak will ease her muscles and encourage the egg to slide out. If she’s eaten something she’s not supposed to, it will help flush out toxins. If she’s suffering from irritated skin, it will soothe and soften the redness. Epsom salts also help maintain the proper calcium levels and restore the balance of minerals in an active layer.

Begin your spa treatment by filling a wash tub with a few inches of warm water (the same temperature you’d take a bath in). You want the water to come up to your chicken’s chest while she sits in the tub.

Fill a wash tub with warm water

Dissolve a quarter-cup of Epsom salts in the warm water. Place your chicken inside the tub and let her relax into her soak. She might stay standing at first, but she’ll eventually make herself comfortable. To relax her further, place a towel over the tub to cover her head. The quiet darkness and steaming effect will help her settle down.

Dissolve Epsom salts in warm water

Sitting pretty in a spa bath

Cover your chicken's head with a towel

Leave your chicken in the bath for up to an hour, or until the water has cooled down. If you suspect she may be egg-bound, bath time is a good time for you to start feeling around her abdomen for an unusual protrusion. You can start massaging her lower area and, in more dire cases, don a glove, lube up a finger, and feel inside her vent for an egg. If you do find an egg, continue to massage her abdomen, taking care not to break the egg inside her (which could lead to a whole set of other problems). With gentle and loving massage, she should be able to pass the egg on her own.

If your chicken isn’t egg-bound but doesn’t seem to be bouncing back after her bath, you can administer some Epsom salts or olive oil orally. Epsom salts help detoxify, while olive oil keeps things lubricated in case she needs to pass an obstruction through her crop or vent. I use a medicine syringe, the same kind used to medicate a child or pet.

Medicine syringe

Dissolve a teaspoon of Epsom salts in one cup of water. If your chicken hasn’t been drinking, you can dissolve the Epsom salts in coconut water or unflavored Pedialyte (both of which contain essential nutrients and electrolytes) to keep her hydrated.

If needed, swaddle your chicken in a towel so she keeps calm. Fill the syringe, then put a few drops of Epsom salt water (or olive oil) onto the side of her beak and wait for her to drink. If you’re doing this by yourself, it can be a very long process… so have patience.

If you have a second set of hands to hold her, you can gently pry her beak open and squirt a few drops directly into her mouth, making sure she swallows. Be careful not to shoot the solution down her throat, as it could go down her airway and into her lungs.

Use a medicine syringe to administer Epsom salt water or olive oil

Put a few drops of solution onto the side of your chicken's beak

I fill the whole syringe (two teaspoons’ worth) and feed until it’s empty. Sometimes it takes two or three syringe-fuls as a good portion of the solution just dribbles down her chin. There doesn’t seem to be any standard for how much you should hydrate your chicken, so use your best judgment.

Once your chicken is fed, towel her off and give her a gentle blow-dry (on low heat) until her feathers are completely dry. My chickens have always loved this part, and will happily take any primping and pampering they can get!

Enjoying a gentle blow-dry

Enjoying a gentle blow-dry

Primped and pampered

Don’t be alarmed if your chickens’ droppings appear very watery after a bath; they should return to normal in a few hours, unless there is an underlying problem that you can detect in the poop.

After a little B&B (bath and blow-dry), you can let your chicken rejoin her flock (if she likes to be social) or move her into a “hospital coop” for a more private recovery. Sometimes this is all it takes to restore your chicken to vigor and make her feel like a brand-new bird.

I’ve treated all of my girls to a spa day at some point… Kimora got a little pampering when I needed to wash off and cut away her poop dreads (yes, it looked exactly like it sounds). Iman indulged during a molt, when the new pin feathers on her feet were breaking and bleeding (and being pecked at by the other birds). Gisele got one the day before she died, which was heartbreaking for me, but I could only hope it made her feel safe and nurtured in her final days.

Even if a spa treatment can’t cure your sweet thing of a more serious ailment, it never hurts to try and the bonding moment you’ll have with your hen is precious.

About Author

I'm a plant lover, passionate road-tripper, and cookbook author whose expert advice and bestselling books have been featured in TIME, Outside, HGTV, and Food & Wine. The No-Waste Vegetable Cookbook is my latest book. Garden Betty is where I write about modern homesteading, farm-to-table cooking, and outdoor adventuring — all that encompass a life well-lived outdoors. After all, the secret to a good life is... Read more »

46 Comments

  • zeitentgeistert
    June 16, 2017 at 7:06 pm

    you may want to edit your page to suggest the addition of a light coloured (!) mat (or something similar) at the bottom of the tub. the slippery surface of an unknown vessel (sink/tub) in a strange environment will freak out most animals.

    Reply
  • Serena
    March 26, 2017 at 9:51 pm

    This post helped me a bunch! My Cornish chick i got from the feed store had something wrong with her leg(it kind of stuck out and has just gotten worse. She puts most of her weight in one leg and lays around most of the time because she always slips (I think it’s painful for her).but anyway, I figured that an epsom salt bath would relax her muscles (it did, she loved it) and she was in need of a cleaning, anyways. But thank you so so so much!!

    Reply
    • Linda from Garden Betty
      April 6, 2017 at 8:52 am

      You’re welcome! So happy to hear all is well with your chick!

      Reply
  • Kuritsa Coq
    May 18, 2016 at 11:40 am

    You are not a vet. Treating a sick bird with a “spa day” is neglect. Had you taken Gisele to an avian veterinarian, who actually knows how to diagnose chicken ailments, she might very well still be here. This blog is irresponsible, reckless, and dangerous to chickens.

    Reply
    • Linda Ly of Garden Betty
      May 18, 2016 at 10:00 pm

      Your assumption is incorrect and no, she would not “very well still be here.” I took Gisele to an avian vet, as I detailed in this post http://www.gardenbetty.com/2013/10/a-heartfelt-thank-you-and-giseles-diagnosis/ and she was euthanized per the vet’s suggestion. I was told that by the time a chicken shows unexplained symptoms of illness, she’s usually beyond any reasonable treatment by a vet. The UC Davis lab diagnosed her with a form of cancer after we submitted her body for analysis.

      Reply
      • ComeN'Take
        August 25, 2016 at 1:21 pm

        Some people are so callous. It looks like she made the account just to post that. Not everyone has money to take a CHICKEN to the vet. Get a life! I will be soaking mine in Epsom salts as she has vent gleet and her butt is filthy. Thanks for the tips!

        Reply
        • Jane Gundlach
          March 21, 2017 at 5:25 am

          What worked well for me was a butt soak in diluted miconazole shampoo I had for another pet, then painting the vent area with betadine. Found this in Chicken Health Handbook by Damerow and it cured her.
          E

          Reply
    • Molly Aggar
      November 1, 2016 at 6:08 pm

      It is much more complicated to find vet help for a chicken than one might assume. My vet advised similar treatment as above, along with a few other natural remedies, as he feels strongly that there is no proof that antibiotics ever fully leave the ovum. So, it is about making her comfortable, and giving her the best odds.

      Reply
    • Opy Brook
      September 4, 2018 at 3:13 am

      And, as a veternarian nurse AND a farmer with free range organic layers she did the RIGHT THING! Vets are not God and frankly few vet clinics treat birds. So, as its plain you are NOT a vet. Shut up your hatefulness to this lovely young lady that treats her chickens with such love, care and respect. It is YOU that has no idea what you are doing/saying!

      Reply
  • Pam Gray
    May 28, 2015 at 5:24 am

    I did this to my lethargic hen and when I took her out of the water, she started vomiting clear liquid and shortly afterward, she died. Could I have used too much Epsom salts? I might have used 1/2 cup.

    Reply
    • Linda Ly
      May 29, 2015 at 8:24 pm

      I don’t know why she would’ve vomited, unless her head was underwater during the spa treatment.

      Reply
    • Annie
      August 27, 2021 at 5:50 am

      I don’t think so. I’ve seen widely varying amounts of Epsom salts to use and the amount your mentioned doesn’t seem dangerous. I’m sorry.

      Reply
  • Lori
    February 23, 2015 at 11:22 am

    Okay i have got to try it. One of my girls has been of for about 2 months now. took her into the house for several weeks but she is till acting strange, not to strong, has problems roosting, sets in the nest for hours, past a really weird shaped flat egg. was hoping that was it, her vent always looks fine but she act like she had a stroke. she is still queen and kicks some serious chicken butt when necessary but im not sure she will ever be the same. Spa Treatment!

    Reply
  • Eda Milotz
    September 8, 2014 at 10:18 am

    Thank you for sharing. It is very informational, and I love how much you care for your animals! I love my ladies, and it is hard to see one of them sick.

    Reply
    • Linda Ly
      September 8, 2014 at 2:59 pm

      It is! Especially since they can’t tell you what’s wrong. I hope you won’t, or rarely, have to deal with a chicken illness.

      Reply
      • Eda Milotz
        September 9, 2014 at 7:22 am

        She didn’t make it through the night. She did enjoy her spa treatment though. I just hope it isn’t something that my other girls will catch. 🙁

        Reply
        • Linda Ly
          September 9, 2014 at 1:52 pm

          I am so, so sorry to hear that. My Easter Egger died the day after her spa treatment as well, and my only comfort at the time was knowing she enjoyed her last day at home. Sending positive vibes for the rest of your flock.

          Reply
  • Dawn Gonzalez
    October 2, 2013 at 6:47 pm

    Thank you for sharing this! I love my girls and this sounds like an excellent way to help them stay healthy. The only time I have bathed one of the girls was in a warm bath of “Dawn” dish detergent to rid her of mites. Gisele was a lucky girl 🙂

    Reply
  • Kristen
    October 2, 2013 at 7:52 am

    I love reading about how you nurture and care for your chickens. People often have a hard time understanding my bond with my five feathered ladies. But these sweet creatures deserve the same attention and care as any of our animal friends!

    Reply
    • Linda Ly
      October 2, 2013 at 4:22 pm

      I agree. Our pets are our family, no matter how small.

      Reply
  • Mount Eden
    October 2, 2013 at 7:36 am

    Great article! Brought tears to my eyes though : ( I have had my 6 girls for 3 months now, however they were already 11 months old when I got them and set in their ways, most of them are finally letting me touch them — somewhat…some more than others, so I hope that they’ll let me give them a spa treatment someday. I am feeding them your feed recipe and they love it. I hope you are feeling a little better yourself. Take care. Diane

    Reply
    • Linda Ly
      October 2, 2013 at 4:21 pm

      Thank you Diane. Give your chickens time to adjust… I’m sure they’ll grow more affectionate as they spend more time with you!

      Reply
      • Mount Eden
        October 2, 2013 at 5:46 pm

        Guess what! One of them jumped in my lap tonight and let me pet her, it was awesome XD,,,

        Reply
        • Linda Ly
          October 2, 2013 at 7:11 pm

          Yay! It’s so sweet when they do that. 🙂

          Reply
    • Opy Brook
      September 4, 2018 at 3:23 am

      I would recommend quietly picking up and cuddling 1 each night when they are roosting, then place them back on their perch. They will be easier to pick up this way tho’ they may protest until they learn in time to not fear your touch. Talk to them, sing around them. I always tell my girls and Joseph “thank you girls for the good eggs and thankyou, too, Joe for doing your job so well”. They hear this every night when I lock the gate to their pen. They will learn your voice.

      Reply
      • Mount Eden
        September 4, 2018 at 4:14 am

        Appreciate the uhhh comment, but why are you replying to something I wrote 5 years ago?

        Reply

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