Before conducting a physical examination, the bird's appearance and behavior should be observed from a distance and within the flock. A healthy bird should be bright, alert, and interacting with the flock, with good appetite and free of abnormal behavior. Chickens and other domestic fowl can be restrained for examination by reaching over the back and holding the wings down. Then, the bird should be picked up and the fingers inserted between the legs while supporting the breast with the other hand. Restraining the bird upside down is not ideal, because it may increase its stress level and also cause regurgitation, as well as result in broken bones if bones are brittle from low calcium. The bird should be kept as calm as possible to prevent injury to both the bird and the handler. A chicken catcher, which is a wire hook used to grab birds by the legs, can also be used. For larger birds such as turkeys, the handler can fold his or her arms and upper body over the wings and back of the bird, hug firmly, and lift. It is important to remain low to the ground when handling bigger birds; grabbing these birds by their wings or legs can be dangerous and easily cause injury during struggling. For waterfowl such as ducks and geese, it is easiest to use the neck as a catching handle; however, once the bird is caught, it should be picked up by grabbing the wings together behind the back and using the other hand to support the abdomen. Smaller flight birds, such as quail, chukar partridges, and pheasants, can first be restrained by careful use of a net or towel and then holding the wings or legs. Catching birds on the first attempt minimizes stress.
Physical examinations should be performed using a systematic approach.
1) Examine the head and neck. The comb should be bright red, slightly warm, turgid, and free of scabs and lesions. The bird should hold its head high and have good muscle tone.
2) Observe the eyes, and check for any discharge or cloudiness that may indicate illness. The eyes of a healthy adult bird should be clear and bright and have a copper-red iris and a round pupil with well-defined margins. Young chicks generally have a blue-gray iris. The eyelids should be free of swelling and opened wide.
3) Check external nares for discharge, crusts, and scratches. The beak should be smooth and free of cracks, and the tips should come to a point.
4) Open the mouth and check for ulcers and mucosal lesions on the tongue and mucosal membranes at the commissures of the beak.
5) Check the color of the earlobes to predict the color of the eggs the hens will produce. Hens that have white earlobes generally produce white eggs, and hens that have red earlobes generally produce brown or other pigmented eggs.
6) Evaluate the feathers to check for feather loss and how they are distributed. Loss of feathers around the back and back of the neck may indicate mating behavior by roosters. Check feathers at the base of the feather shaft to look for parasites such as lice, mites, and nits (lice egg packets). Feathers around the vent should be clear and free of blood or feces. Pasting of the vent with loose feces may indicate enteric disease. Check for scabs and blood around the vent, which are evidence of vent pecking and cannibalism.
7) The two small bones at the sides of the vent are the pubic bones. They should be flexible and have space in between. If hens are in lay, this distance should be the width of three or four fingers. When the hen is not laying, the pubic bones are usually stiff and close together (distance between is one finger width or less).
8) Check the legs and feet. The scales should be smooth and closely adhered to each other. If scales are raised and crusty, there may be a scaly leg mite infestation. Check the footpads for scratches, swellings, or ulcers caused by footpad dermatitis or pododermatitis (bumblefoot).
Birds are prey animals, so early signs of illness may be subtle and difficult to discern. Some early signs of illness include changes in eating and drinking habits; dull feathers; soiling of the feathers around nares, vent, shoulders, or eyes; swelling around or discharge around the eyes, discharge from the eyes or nares, abnormal feces, favoring or lameness in limbs, or decrease in activity.
Last full review/revision June 2015 by Yuko Sato, DVM, MS, DACPV; Patricia S. Wakenell, DVM, PhD, DACVP