Caring for sick poultry and other small livestock in your permaculture homesteading system

Bantam chick in brooder being treated for toe curl with a splint on its foot and a sling to take weight off while it recovers. Chick bones are pliable and easy to treat if caught early. Toe curl defects can result from incubator issues, nutritional deficiences or possibly be hereditery however no good science exists to settle the matter properly. Note the red glow of the heat lamp on the right of the cage, the soft pine chip bedding & fabric cover to control drafts.

Once you bring animals in to your life & your homestead you need to be ready for emergencies: at some point they are going to become injured or sick or need medical help during breeding. The best way to do this is to have a hospital cage all set up and ready to go. Its a vital step in caring for any sick animals from your permaculture system. This simple setup will save you time, money and greatly ease the suffering of your valuable and loved livestock. Not only can it save the life of the patient but it just might protect the rest of the flock/herd/etc from the calamity of infectious disease outbreak.

Ideally we would have every patient seen to immediately by a kindly vet who would have great knowledge and experience with that particular breed/ illness but that is not reality for most homsteaders or livestock breeders. A single hen may be worth less than $20 but one trip to the vet could result in over $100 or much more and there is no guaruntee that your bird will be able to be treated successfully.

The exception to this would be the possibility of infectious disease that may contaminate your whole flock or herd, or dealing with a large expensive animal you have purchased for an important role in a breeding program. If you ARE in a position to get to a vet then go for it! Your livestock have their best chances of survival with professional care and expertise.

One thing we all can do however is make sure our hospital cage is set up and we have some basic meds and equipment ready for use at any time day or night.

The Hospital Cage

A hospital cage should be positioned in a draft free quiet environment preferably somewhere away from too much activity so your patient will feel less stressed by their isolation, illness and sudden new environment.

Small livestock, particularly birds, are very sensitive to change and being handled & removed from their family. To help them recover quickly they need warmth. Small animals will use a lot of energy keeping warm so we can reduce the load on their immune system by ensuring the hospital cage is nice and warm. This can be achieved by partial covering of the cage with a towel or sheet. This will also reduce drafts, light and noise.


We also want to provide the patient with a good source of heat via a heat lamp. These lamps can be purchased online or from a pet supplies store. There are several different kinds including a hanging red bulb which hovers over the patient and is positioned inside the cage in a corner, or possibly a heated pad which is positioned on the floor of the cage. Its important that the sick animal can get away from the source of heat so there should always be a portion of the cage that is not heated. You will need to monitor this if the animal is unable to move freely by themselves because of illness.

How to set up a hospital cage for sick and injured small livestock and poultry from your permaculture system

Keep in mind that sometimes animals can become ill from heatstroke on a sudden hot day and in this situation we won’t want to use any of those heating devices. Make sure they are switched off and be sure to add some electrolytes to drinking water or provide by hand in the form of a dropper or syringe for oral dosing if required.

We want to give the cage a good cleanout and disinfectant before and after use to try to prevent any further infection particularly if the patient has an open wound or sore or has had any stiches or needles. These are all situations where they are more vulnerable to any pathogens on the surface of the cage.


After thoroughly drying the cage we can add some bedding. Untreated pine chips are soft and absorbant and work to repel pests although some breeds of animals may find pine fumes irritating so always check first. Newspaper and soft towels or rags can also work or even straw if this is available. Use a dust free bedding if your patient has a respitory illness so as not to irritate their airways further.

This tiny bantam chick was attacked by a homicidal hen as it was attempting to hatch from its egg. It had not yet absorbed its egg sac. It spent the night cuddled up with another injured chick inside a hospital cage but sadly did not survive.

feeding and watering

Sick animals can sometimes have trouble reaching their food, or in a state of distress they may knock over their food and water bowls so you have to asses the situation and figure out exactly what kind of feeding set up is going to work best so they can get to their food and not make a mess. Make sure bowls are heavy & or secured properly so water and feed dont get kicked over and spoil the bedding.

Check feed and water- provide it in small amounts and check it often to make sure your patient is feeding and drinking. Often sick animals will not eat… if they do begin to eat and drink then this is a very good sign that they are on their way to recovery but it really depends on the illness or injury. Sometimes animals can develop obstruction of their GI tract and not be able to properly digest their food even though they are hungry and appear to be eating normally.

Rosie the king pigeon chick hovers over her strategically placed food and water bowls while recovering from a leg injury & poor condition. She was a rescue pigeon who went on to have her own babies. She was a star.

Handling the sick patient

Always speak quietly and lovingly to your sick animal patient as you would with a newborn baby. Move slowly and handle them gently & with confidence so they dont become too stressed. A small towel may help secure the animal and protect you from accidental scratches or pecks.

Rosie the baby rescue King pigeon sits comfortably in a towel handled with care by my daughter Freya after a bath to clean her extremely soiled feathers from being abandoned in her nest.

Your first encounter with a sick animal you have raised yourself may be extremely stressful for you and its normal to feel that anxiety and your hands may be shaky handling your animal. You can only do your best so dont give yourself a hard time if you find it a struggle. With the experience that comes from homesteading and working with livestock your confidence will grow.

A wooly winter sock was the perfect place to snuggle for this sick baby guinea pig we named Sophie Max.

Giving care & medicine to a tiny frightened and fragile creature is an art that is only mastered through repetition. Often our efforts to save a sick pet will fail and that is always awful but it is never an entirely wasted experience. With each crisis we research and experiment and apply what we know already …and every other animal we need to handle after that one will benefit from what came before. Having a hospital cage set up and ready to go is an exellent start to the process.

Do you have any hints, advice or stories for readers who are caring for a sick furry friend? We’d love to hear them! please go ahead and tell us in the comments below.

See you in the garden 🙂

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