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    How to wash chickens

    Authored by Gail Damerow

    As long as your chickens have access to loose dusty soil for dust bathing, they may never need a water bath. So how do you know when a chicken needs a bath?

    Should you bathe your chickens?

    Whether or not you should bathe your chickens depends on how dirty they get. Most of the time chickens don’t need a water bath. In fact, frequent bathing is harmful, because it strips the feathers of healthful oils the chickens have so carefully spread over their feathers while grooming.

    So how do chickens stay clean? They bathe in dust. And like anybody else, a chicken needs a bath when it gets dirty.

    When do chickens need washing?

    Area cleaning - Birds may get muddy during rainy season, in which case it may need only its feet, legs and bottom washed. It might get poop on it, for instance by walking beneath a perching chicken that had to go. Or it might have a poopy butt. In both cases, again, you may need to only clean the poopy parts.

    All-over bath - A chicken could use an over-all bath if it has lice or other external parasites. Then a pet shampoo makes an excellent parasite-control option. Ridding chickens of parasites is the only time I can think of when you might bathe all your chickens. That’s assuming you have only a few; for a large flock, other methods of parasite control are more practical

    You may need to bathe chickens you are grooming for show. Washing will enhance the fluffiness of loosely feathered breeds. Light-colored birds should always be washed before a show, but dark-colored, tightly feathered varieties need washing only if their plumage is soiled.

    Where to bath chickens

    I like to bathe chickens in the laundry room. It’s a warm, draft-free place to work and has a deep basin with a spray attachment and plenty of warm running water.

    A bath tub also works, but be sure to disinfect it afterward. For sanitary reasons, bathing chickens in the kitchen sink is a bad idea.

    A lot of chicken keepers prefer to work in the garage or, if the weather is nice, outdoors. In that case you’ll need three tubs filled with clean water — one for washing, two for rinsing.

    Bath temperature

    Begin with a tub full of warm water (90°F). The temperature is right if you can comfortably hold your elbow in it. A chicken may faint in water that’s too hot. When possible, use soft water, as it cleans chickens better than hard water.

    Shampoo or mild dish soap

    Add enough shampoo or mild liquid dish soap to the water to whip up suds. Don’t use a harsh detergent, which makes feathers brittle. I have had great results with flea and tick shampoo for household pets. Not only does it get a bird shiny clean but also zaps any lice or mites that may have gone unnoticed.

    Steps for bathing a chicken

    1. Place one hand against each of the chicken’s wings so it can’t flap and give you the bath. Then slowly immerse the bird to its neck, taking care to keep the head above water. Most chickens relax as soon as they realize they’re in for a warm, soothing bubble bath.
    2. Thoroughly soak the bird by raising, lowering, and drawing it back and forth through the water. With a sponge, soak the feathers through to the skin. To avoid breaking feathers, always work in the direction they grow.
    3. Work in extra lather around the vent and also around the tail, where the oil gland tends to stain feathers. When the chicken is thoroughly clean, lift it from the bath and press out soapy water with your hands, working from head to tail.
    4. Double rinse with this method:
      1. After the feathers are thoroughly clean, rinse the whole bird in fresh warm water that’s slightly cooler than the wash water. Let the bird soak for a few minutes, until its feathers fan out or float. Then move it back and forth in the water to work out remaining soap. Lift the chicken from the rinse and press out excess water.
      2. If any soap remains, the plumage will look dull and faded when dry and won’t fluff out properly. That’s why you want to rinse the bird again. This time, add a little vinegar or lemon juice to remove any remaining soapy residue or lingering feather oil.
      3. Squeeze out excess water from feathers and gently towel off the chicken. Then wrap the bird in a fresh towel and blot to soak up remaining water.

    How to dry a wet chicken

    1. After wrapping your bird in a towel and blotting, release a recently washed chicken into a clean space, such as a roomy pet carrier or cardboard box with fresh shavings. To prevent soil or damp feathers, put only one bird in each carrier or box.
    2. You can let the chickens dry outdoors, supplied the temperature is at least 70°F and they have good wind protection. In cold weather, place the drying boxes in a warm room well away from any heater. Feathers that dry too quickly may curl. If you need to use a heat lamp in an unheated room, hang it no closer than 2 feet above the bird.
    3. Most breeds look best when they dry naturally. But for loosely feathered birds like Cochins or Silkies, you can speed things up, as well as nicely puff out the feathers, with a hair dryer. A blow dryer also works well to fluff up a crest. Always use the warm, not the hot, setting.

    Washing shanks and feet on backyard chickens

    After the shanks and feet have been soaked, dirt and scales will be soft and easy to clean. Even if you don’t wash the whole bird, you can just soak its shanks and feet in warm water.

    Leg scales molt annually, just like feathers do. You can easily remove any dead, semitransparent brittle scales by popping them off with a nail file, a toothpick, or your thumbnail.

    If any dirt clings beneath the scales or toenails, gently remove it with a toothpick. Use a toothbrush and soapy water to scrub the shanks and toes. Now’s a good time to trim long toenails with clippers or nail scissors.

    Finish up by coating the cleaned feet and shanks with baby oil, vitamin E oil, or a mixture of equal parts alcohol and olive oil. I don’t recommend petroleum jelly. It accumulates dirt and dust and also gets feathers greasy. 

    Bathing a chicken takes only 15 or 20 minutes. Complete drying takes 12 to 18 hours, depending on the density of the feathers.

    More knowledge about backyard poultry care

    Twice a year, mature chickens lose their feathers so new, fresh plumage can grow in. Learn more about why, when & what to expect when molting happens.
    Want to learn how to clean your chicken coop? Follow our 6 steps for safely and effectively cleaning your coop to keep your chickens healthy and comfortable.