1. Home
  2.  ›
  3. Problems
  4.  ›
  5. Sudden death syndrome

Sudden Chicken Death Syndrome: the Sad Story of Sophia Lor-hen.

Sudden chickens death syndrome explained. Pin for later.

Have you ever had a chicken who seemed fit and healthy one minute, and the next minute just died, for no apparent reason?

If you have, you'll be interested in this story.

It's about one of my hens, Sophia, and how her unexplained death taught me about a little-known phenomenon in the chicken world: Sudden Chicken Death Syndrome.

Like most Golden Laced Wyandottes, this hen was a great beauty. So I called her Sophia Loren after the great Italian film-star. 

But, as she was her own chicken-personality, we changed that to Lor-hen. I also have a very handsome Golden Laced rooster called Spartacus and the two of them were inseparable.

Together, they ruled the roost with a rod of iron.

That's Spartacus in the background, following Sophia into the coop.

My Wyandotte hen who became a victim of 'Sudden Chicken Death' Syndrome. Find out what it is, why it happens and what, if anything, you can do to prevent it.Sophia was always first out in the morning, first in at night.

She was a young hen who I'd hatched myself just nine months before she died. Even then, she stood out from the crowd. 

Sohpia the Golden Laced Wyandotte as a chick.Even as a tiny chick Sophia Lor-hen stood out from the rest.

She was only nine months old when she died. It's no age, even for a chicken.

She was laying well. She was fit, healthy, a good weight and showed no obvious signs of distress.

So why did I find her body in my chicken run one morning?

I'd let her out first thing and she was fine, just like any other day. She was always first out of the coop in the morning, first one to roost at night. That morning she came out as usual, hurrying over to her favourite bug-hunting place.

By lunchtime she had died.  At first I thought she was asleep. Then I realised she wasn't breathing.

But - I would have known about it had she been ill - wouldn't I?

At the time, I was in the middle of training my Livestock Guardian Dog, Luce, how to behave with my flock. For the previous several weeks I'd been spending at least three hours a day in the run - usually more.

None of the flock, including Sophia, had shown the slightest signs of any illness. No coughing, no rasping, no foaming at the beak, no dull or runny eyes, no limping, no mites, no impacted crop, nothing around the vent area, no signs of runny or bloody poop - nothing. 

She was, at least to my eye, fit and healthy – a well care for hen.

The Golden Laced Wyandotte hen on the left became a victim of 'Sudden Chicken Death' Syndrome. Here we examine what it is, why it happens and what, if anything, you can do to prevent it.This picture was taken the day before she died - fit, healthy, pecking around with the rest of the flock, eating and drinking as normal.

Could it have been a predator attack? Nope. I've had a few of those so I know what that would look like. Feathers everywhere. No signs of a body. Or, if the attack was by a member of the weasel family (we have pine martens here in Italy) the scene would be one of total devastation.

Any remaining chickens would be terrified out of their little chicken minds.

This was different. No blood, no feathers, no signs of a predator dig nor any signs of my chain link fence having been breached. Her feathers were intact, her neck was intact, she had no puncture marks, she showed no signs of having been in distress. 

She was, simply, asleep in the warm Italian sun.

This Golden Laced Wyandotte chick became a victim of 'Sudden Chicken Death' Syndrome. Here we examine what it is, why it happens and what, if anything, you can do to prevent it.Even at just seven weeks old, she knew she was top of the pecking order.

Could it be the temperature? Or stress?

What about heat, perhaps? Or cold? Both can have devastating effects on poultry if not properly dealt with.

But no. We were in the middle of a mild Italian autumn. The temperature had been hovering around a very pleasant 26ºC (78ºF). There was no rain, it wasn't humid, the coop was dry and has excellent air circulation.

Chickens don't adapt well to change. It stresses them out, and stress can cause death in chickens.

As I mentioned, I'd been training our Livestock Guardian Dog, Luce (pronounced Loochay) to be around the chickens. She was only 9 months old at the time, and still very much a bouncy puppy.

Could it have been the stress of having Luce around?

Luce, the Maremma Livestock Guardian Dog, in the chicken run.Luce, my Maremma Guardian dog. Could her presence have caused stress?

Unlikely. Although still a huge mound of bouncing pup outside the chicken run, inside Luce was instinctively calm and laid back.

The hens loved her. She would lie completely still while they climbed over her. So I didn't think it was that.

But what could it be?

Sudden Chicken Death Syndrome.

 I don't like not to have answers. I wanted to know why Sophia Lor-hen died. So I did what I do - I looked around for answers. And what I found was a common cause of death in chickens: Sudden Chicken Death Syndrome. You can read more detail about it, here.

This was my first experience of it. I've since had more, and realised it's part of keeping chickens. It just happens, sometimes. It's a hard, horrible experience.

These are viewed in studies(1) as the commonest causes of sudden death in poultry:

  • A hen may be egg-bound without it being obvious. This, though, is very unlikely in Sophia's case - she was showing no signs of pain and she had been laying normally right up until that morning.
  • A bird may have been trampled by another chicken and suffered internal damage. Also unlikely in this case. She was top of the pecking order. She was the largest hen in the flock. If anyone was going to do the trampling, it would be her. 
Sophia Lor-hen and friends.She enjoyed the company of friends.
  • Heart problems are a possibility. She had shown no signs of heart defects though - no gasping, no difficulties in talking to me...
  • To be able to confirm Sudden Death Syndrome as the cause of death, the hen would be seen to have had convulsions and extreme wing-flapping for just a few seconds before she died. I hadn't been in the run when Sophia died so I have no way of knowing whether that was the case with her.
  • I wasn't able to form any conclusions about what had happened. I just had to accept that sometimes, chickens die. And without a necropsy, it's impossible to tell why.

What can you do if it happens to you?

  • You can learn more about how to protect your flock from sudden death, as far as possible, at this link.
  • You can watch over the rest of the flock. If there's any signs of another chicken becoming ill, isolate her immediately.
  • You can keep their coop and run clean and well ventilated. Using herbs like lavender can be helpful but they're no substitute for good husbandry.
  • You can, and should, remember that while your chicken was alive, s/he had the best care a chicken could want. And that's something a lot of chickens will never have.
  • You can learn not to beat yourself up. It's hard to lose any animal or bird, but it's part of the cycle of life and death.

Has this happened to you?

If so, watch this video. I shot it after one of my roosters died, also of Sudden Chicken Death. It will show you that you're not alone.

Sleep peacefully, Sophia Lor-hen. 

This Golden Laced Wyandotte chick became a victim of 'Sudden Chicken Death' Syndrome. Here we examine what it is, why it happens and what, if anything, you can do to prevent it.

I know Sophia lived a good life and died peacefully, her head resting on the warm Italian soil where she loved to scratch for bugs. She provided some rich, healthy, warm eggs during her lifetime. She made me laugh when she bullied my tiny bantam roosters and she made me cry when I found her body that morning.

That's just the way it is. It's hard, but it's life. 

I lost a chicken today.  

But by hatching, raising and keeping her safe I gained so much: I gained all there is that is good and healthful about keeping chickens in my back yard.

 You were a good chicken, Sophia.  Thank you.

Have you lost a much-loved chicken?

If so, you might like to take advantage of the part of my website I reserve specially for tributes to a hen, rooster (UK cockerel) or baby chick.

It's so easy to do, and it means you'll always have something written down that you can come back to and read when you need a quiet moment to remember.

To find out how, just click on the pic or on this link.

More articles about keeping your chickens healthy.

All about chicken health - link.
Common chicken diseases and treatment. Link.
Good husbandry for chickens - what is it? Link.
Which plants are good for chickens? Link.
High protein chicken foods - link.
Healthy treats for chickens - link.
How to free range chickens - and whether you should. Link.
Choosing weeds as chicken treats - link.
Link: get my free newsletter and download a free e-book to keep your flock healthy!
Link to Raising Happy Chickens home page.