Reasons Why Your Chicken Is Sneezing + Ways to Prevent & Effective Treatments

A simple achoo is nothing to worry about, right? 

Wrong! Chicken sneezing is normal, but sometimes a harmless sneeze can be a sign of a deadly and highly contagious respiratory disease. 

So, don’t just say “bless you” and hope for the best. Act fast and save your two-legged feathered companions before it’s too late. 

Here are the common respiratory diseases that start with a simple sneeze. Some of these chicken diseases will sound familiar. Coronavirus and herpes ring any bells?

Defense Mechanism: The Real Reason Why Your Chicken is Sneezing

Yes, chickens do sneeze, but why? 

Let’s take a crash course in chicken biology, featuring their respiratory system.

Just like people, chickens sneeze to remove irritants in their noses and throats. Every time that they inhale small particles like dust and dirt, their respiratory tract’s three defense mechanisms – cilia, mucus secretions, and scavenging cells kicks in (1). 

  • Mucus secretions trap particles before they get into the lungs. It gets thicker when there’s an infection.
  • Cilia are microscopic, hair-like projections that protect the airway. They move the mucus with trapped particles back up the airway to either be sneezed or coughed out. 
  • Scavenging cells are the last line of defense. These are like patrol guards that look for particles and invading bacteria or viruses. When they find them, they have an eat-to-kill order to prevent them from spreading. 

If one of those components failed, the inhaled pathogen could build up in the lungs. Chickens have a more efficient respiratory system because blood flows openly through their blood vessels (2). But it also means that infection spreads faster and leads to life-threatening diseases – which we will discuss below. 

Environmental Factors

Sneezing is a common sign of improper management of a chicken’s surroundings. Go over some of the things you need to pay more attention to.

Food

Just in case you haven’t noticed, a chicken’s nostrils are right above its beak – they can inhale small food particles while eating. And that could be all there is to it. No infection, just the case of a dusty meal. 

If you haven’t heard a chicken sneezing before, you might find it cute.

But beware that it can be a sign of a serious health problem. Just to be safe, try adding some immunity-boosting herbs to their diet. These yummy and nutrient-filled add-ons should keep them healthy enough to fight off common viruses and respiratory diseases.

Prevention & Treatment:

  • Give good quality feed.
  • Run the feed through a fine mesh to get rid of dust particles

Chicken Coop Conditions

Put yourself in your chicken’s coop. Would you be comfortable living in it as a chicken? They love a clean house with fresh bedding just as much as you do. Because as the saying goes, “A clean house is a happy house.” But more importantly, it’s a safe and healthy house!

Choosing the right bedding is essential in keeping your flock healthy. Wood-based bedding like cedar shavings is notorious for causing respiratory problems in chickens. 

Yes, it smells nice. But those same fragrant oils can make chicken sneeze. Sawdust obviously is not the best long-term option either. All the indoor scratching activity causes dust to circulate into the air. 

Speaking of dust, have you heard of poultry dust? It’s a combination of bedding dust, poop, and any other parasites or mold spores living in your chicken bedding (3). It’s dangerous to you, too, since you’re the one cleaning out the coop. But more so for your birds living in the coop.

Chicken poop releases pungent-smelling and toxic ammonia that makes things even worse.

It’s definitely strong enough to inflame your chickens’ airways (4). Weak airways make it easier for diseases to take hold inside the chicken.

Poor ventilation keeps all that nasty build-up cooped up (pun intended). Imagine being trapped in that environment with no fresh air.

Prevention & Treatment:

  • Make sure your chickens have a clean and safe environment. 
  • Build a chicken coop with proper ventilation
  • Choose dust-free bedding and change it out often
  • Clean the flooring every week or so

Seasonal and/or Temperature Changes

Maybe you bought your chickens from sunny Florida and had them shipped to Wisconsin right before winter. Don’t worry too much if your chickens arrive sniffly.

Your chickens start sneezing shortly after arrival. You probably would too. Extreme temperature changes affect their bodies the same way it does yours. But the difference is that chickens have more complex and sensitive respiratory systems than you do (5).

That’s because their airways are much narrower, so little things affect them in a big way. Pollen is another sneezing cause. Too much pollen in the air irritates their lungs and air sacs, making chickens sneeze.

Prevention & Treatment:

  • Keep your chickens comfortable.
  • Put a heating pad in the chicken coop when it’s too cold.
  • Keep your chickens indoors if they seem extra sneezy during pollen season.

Biological Factors

Chicken diseases usually come from the chicken’s environment. But these biological diseases cause common respiratory diseases in your chickens.

Bacterial Infections

Mycoplasma 

There are different types of Mycoplasma infections. But they are collectively called Chronic Respiratory Disease (CRD). This disease is pretty much the poster child of upper respiratory diseases in chickens (6).

Mycoplasma gallisepticum, or MG, is the most common of all the strains. It stays dormant in adult carriers, only activated by complications like stress or another infection (7). 

Sneezing is the least of your worries about this disease. But it’s best to call your vet if the majority of your birds start sneezing. They’ll need to run laboratory tests to confirm a diagnosis (6). 

A full-blown active infection means chickens have a hard time breathing. Internal mucus builds up and also causes watery eyes, runny nose, and coughing.

Of course, all that stress takes its toll on the birds and they develop other symptoms. They don’t eat or drink well, and hens stop laying eggs. The worst part is that it spreads so quickly. 

The bacteria pass from chicken to chicken via the air or infected droppings. Even chicks can hatch with the disease because hens transfer the disease through the yolk (8).

Prevention & Treatment:

  • Vaccinate your pullets before they start laying eggs.
  • Follow proper quarantine protocol when getting a new flock.
  • Isolate suspected birds and get the whole flock tested.
  • Give the required antibiotics and reduce stress factors (keep chickens comfortable).
  • Disinfect the entire coop.

Infectious Coryza

Here’s another respiratory disease that lays dormant until triggered by stress.

Infectious Coryza spreads through the air and contaminated water. Contact with other infected, asymptomatic birds also leads to infection. Unlike mycoplasma infections, this doesn’t transmit to the eggs of laying hens (9).

But it infects chickens of all ages, and it isn’t a pleasant sight. Infected birds have symptoms like smelly nasal discharge. Their whole face also swells up, shutting their eyes. 

Antibiotics clear up symptoms, but it doesn’t completely cure the chickens (10).

“There is no cure for this illness, and infected hens must be put down. Any bird that is allowed to linger will be a carrier of the infection.”

Just like mycoplasma bacteria, Infectious Coryza causes loss of appetite. Egg production also stops, and growth rate slows down. 

Prevention & Treatment:

  • Vaccinate your flock during the first few weeks after hatching.
  • Avoid adding chickens to your flock.
  • Make sure your chicken source follows. 
  • Cull and discard infected birds.
  • Follow “All Out – All In” Poultry Management Protocols before starting a new flock (11). 

Colibacillosis

Unlike other diseases, Colibacillosis causes more than sneezing and respiratory issues in chickens. 

Chickens get infected with E. coli from contaminated water or feed. If you keep other E. coli infected animals nearby, your chickens can get it from them.

Unlike the previous diseases, this one picks on young chicks and other flock members with lower immune systems. Once a chicken has it, they start coughing and sneezing. It eventually moves to infect the air sacs, which is fatal to chickens (12).

Colibacillosis doesn’t just cause respiratory issues. It can cause system-wide infection affecting movement, egg-laying, and digestion.

Prevention & Treatment:

  • Proper chicken coop and feeding dishes sanitation.
  • Clean out the bedding and feces regularly.
  • Adequate chicken coop ventilation to prevent airway irritation.
  • Isolate sick chickens right away. Early diagnosis responds better to treatment.
  • Broad-spectrum antibiotics work well.

Viral Infections

Bird flu

Ah, the dreaded bird flu. It’s actually not a common disease. But it spreads fast among chickens and even affects humans. 

Bird flu affects your chickens in two ways: mild or highly pathogenic. Mildly infected birds just sit around, not interested in doing anything. They cough, sneeze, stop laying eggs and stop eating.

Sounds bad? Well, the highly pathogenic version involves swollen combs and wattles. You can also see red or white spots on the legs and head (13). Sometimes these poor birds also get nose bleeds.

There’s a huge fuss about bird flu because it contaminates chicken meat. A single outbreak causes a global panic worth billions of dollars.

But people that catch this virus need to act fast. Treatment only works within 48 hours from when you first experience symptoms (14).

So if you have flu-like symptoms with diarrhea and sore throat after eating chicken, get yourself checked ASAP.

Prevention & Treatment:

  • Highly pathogenic bird flu is fatal in chickens.
  • Both types don’t have a definite cure.
  • No vaccines are available in the USA.
  • Avoid exposure to bird shows or auctions.
  • Eliminate infected flocks and properly discard their carcasses.
  • Notify the CDC immediately.

Infectious Bronchitis

Just to be clear, this is NOT THE SAME AS COVID. This coronavirus only affects chickens (15).

This virus affects chicks and layers alike. Babies cough and sneeze for about two weeks but get better with a boosted immune system. The tell-tale sign of this virus is soft, misshapen eggs (16).

A RT-PCR test similar to the human coronavirus test confirms a diagnosis.

Prevention & Treatment:

  • Symptoms are treatable, but there’s no cure for the virus.
  • Vaccination prevents infection for chicks and adults.
  • Prevent the spread by isolating the infected group.

Infectious Laryngotracheitis

From chicken coronavirus, we move on to chicken herpes.

The distinct symptoms of this disease are bloody cough discharge and red, swollen eyes (conjunctivitis) (17). 

As with most of the diseases mentioned, chicken sneezing is only the beginning. But next thing you know, sneezing turns into trouble breathing and swollen face. Head shaking happens, too, as your birds try to eliminate blockages in their airway (13).

When the birds start coughing up blood, it’s too late to treat them. 

Prevention & Treatment:

  • Early vaccination is an excellent prevention method.
  • Early detection reduces the mortality rate and prevents more damage.
  • Discard dead chickens properly to prevent further contamination. 

Newcastle Disease

Newcastle Disease spreads through contact with infected poop. Contaminated food and water also cause infection. Once infected, hens can pass it on through eggs. 

Newcastle disease quickly spreads everywhere (18).

“Incidents have occurred in severe virus strains, where the majority of the flock dies within 72 hours of infection, without showing any prior signs of disease.”

It gets worse. Sometimes, even if the whole flock dies, you still can’t make a definite diagnosis. Vets need to do several tests to know for sure that Newcastle is indeed the culprit.

If your birds do live long enough, they experience neurological symptoms like head shaking or tilting. Plus, their movement becomes uncoordinated. Eventually, infected chickens end up paralyzed. That’s because this virus attacks the brain. Sneezing is only a symptom of a less common respiratory attack (18).

Prevention & Treatment:

  • Vaccination is necessary to prevent the disease. 
  • Changing bedding and sun exposure also prevents the spread of the disease.
  • Vitamin A supplements help reduce symptoms.
  • Isolate symptomatic birds and call your vet ASAP.

Parasitic Gapeworm

Last but not least, we have the only living culprit visible to the naked eye. 

These creepy crawlies choose the most awkward spot to take up residence. They like living in your chicken’s windpipe. That’s right, not on it, IN IT. 

Your poor chickens try everything from sneezing, coughing, and head shaking to get rid of these worms (19). 

The parasites don’t just make your chickens uncomfortable. They also slowly suffocate them as they get bigger and block their airway! 

Mouth breathing helps chickens get more oxygen in their system. Hence, the name gapeworms. 

Prevention & Treatment:

  • Regular deworming prevents infestation.
  • Give supplementary oxygen to infected chickens while treating them.
  • Move your pen to a concrete area to prevent chickens from ingesting eggs from the soil.

Our Take

Chickens sneezing is common, especially when their feed is dusty and their coop is “cooped” up. But, if one of your backyard chickens has been sneezing for days, it’s time to act fast. A nasal discharge is a tell-tale sign of respiratory illnesses. 

Contact your local poultry veterinarian ASAP! 

FAQs

Yes, it’s normal for a chicken to sneeze, but only occasionally. Chickens sneeze because they accidentally inhaled a foreign particle that irritated the airway.

It becomes abnormal when it happens continuously and for a few days or more. Plus, if the majority of your chickens are sneezing, it’s time to have them checked. Something more serious might be happening.

You’ll know if your chicken has a respiratory infection when they start sneezing more often than usual. If they have an infection, you’ll notice nasal discharge, poor appetite, breathing difficulties, and other unusual behavior.

If you suspect your birds are suffering from respiratory problems, get in touch with your local poultry veterinarian.

Yes, you can get sick from a sneezing chicken, but on very rare occasions. Luckily, most of the biological diseases that cause sneezing in chickens only affect chickens. MG, for example, is a common disease in chickens, but it doesn’t affect humans.

On the other hand, Bird flu is the most famous disease that humans can get from chickens. But you only have a high chance of getting the disease if you expose yourself to infected chickens.

  1. Avian Respiratory System. Retrieved from: https://poultry.extension.org/articles/poultry-anatomy/avian-respiratory-system/
  2. Major Differences in the Pulmonary Circulation Between Birds and Mammals. Retrieved from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2681264/
  3. Quick Guide to Poultry Dust. Retrieved from: https://www.hse.gov.uk/agriculture/poultry/guide.htm
  4. Respiratory Disease in Chickens. Retrieved from: https://www.evolutionfarmvets.co.uk/respiratory-disease-chickens
  5. Understanding How A Chicken Breathes. Retrieved from: https://thisnzlife.co.nz/understanding-how-a-chicken-breathes/
  6. Mycoplasmosis in Backyard Chicken Flocks. Retrieved from: https://tvmdl.tamu.edu/2019/05/20/mycoplasmosis-in-backyard-chicken-flocks/
  7. Chronic Respiratory Disease (CRD). Retrieved from: https://dpipwe.tas.gov.au/biosecurity-tasmania/animal-biosecurity/animal-health/poultry-and-pigeons/chronic-respiratory-disease-(crd)
  8. Approach to Respiratory Disease in Backyard Chickens. Retrieved from: https://www.mspca.org/angell_services/respiratory-disease-chickens/
  9. Fowl Cholera and Infectious Coryza in Backyard Flocks. Retrieved from: http://extension.msstate.edu/publications/fowl-cholera-and-infectious-coryza-backyard-flocks
  10. Possible Ailments. Retrieved from: https://www.omlet.us/guide/chickens/chicken_health/illness/
  11. “All Out – All In” Poultry Management Approach to Disease Control. Retrieved from: https://ucanr.edu/sites/poultry/files/301023.pdf
  12. Colibacillosis in Chickens. Retrieved from: https://extension.psu.edu/colibacillosis-in-chickens
  13. Common Poultry Diseases 1. Retrieved from: https://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/ps044
  14. Bird Flu. Retrieved from: https://www.healthline.com/health/avian-influenza#treatment
  15. Infectious Bronchitis in Poultry. Retrieved from: https://www.merckvetmanual.com/poultry/infectious-bronchitis/infectious-bronchitis-in-poultry
  16. Respiratory Diseases of Small Poultry Flocks. Retrieved from: https://extension.psu.edu/respiratory-diseases-of-small-poultry-flocks
  17. Infectious Laryngotracheitis: Etiology, Epidemiology, Pathobiology, And Advances In Diagnosis And Control – A Comprehensive Review. Retrieved from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7241549/
  18. Newcastle Disease. Retrieved from: http://www.poultrydvm.com/condition/newcastle-disease
  19. Gapeworms in Birds. Retrieved from: https://wagwalking.com/bird/condition/gapeworms
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