While the average pet owner may be familiar with the seemingly never-ending tufts of fur shed by their cat or dog, the hobby farmer may be more familiar with another loss of overcoat — hen molting.
Molting is the annual process through which hens cease to lay eggs and, instead, divert their energy toward replacing their feathers. Molting occurs in both backyard and commercial flocks, though commercial flocks generally molt by artificial stimulation.
“Hens molt to replace their feathers for the winter months coming,” said Dr. Ashley Navarrette, a clinical assistant professor at the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences. “Discontinuing egg production at this time allows them to focus all nutrients on feather regrowth.”
Navarrette says that hens typically exhibit their first full molt around 18 months of age. After this first instance, they will continue to molt annually. This process generally begins in the fall months and can extend into the winter.
“Hens are stimulated by decreased day length more so than changes in temperature,” Navarrette said. “Location in relation to the equator can also affect the timing of molting. The rule of thumb is that most molting takes eight weeks from feather loss to replacement, but can range from one to three months based on variations between birds and environment.”
During molting, Navarrette advises that hens should be fed a diet high in protein to provide the nutrients necessary for feather regrowth. This high-protein diet is different from the diet of an actively laying bird, when calcium supplementation is the focus to support strong eggshells.
As a general suggestion, a 20% protein diet is usually adequate, but owners should consult their veterinarian to best determine the needs of their flock.
Owners of hens going through a molt should also take into account other aspects of their bird’s well-being beyond their diet, including handling practices, their behavior and pecking habits.
“The replacement pin feathers are very fragile and can be easily damaged,” Navarrette said. “Owners should limit handling and use caution when handling molting chickens. It’s also important to limit stressors during molt. Chickens are notorious for pecking behavior so be on the lookout for any signs of this behavior between hens.”
It is expected for a hen to lose feathers and stop laying eggs during this time, but changes in a hen’s eating, drinking or behavioral habits may be indicative of larger health concerns.
While remaining educated about their flock’s health is an important first step to ensure happy and healthy hens, owners should always consult their veterinarian with specific questions and concerns. Veterinarians can provide the best help and guide you through this annual flurry of feathers.