Wednesday, June 13, 2012

A Dose of Reality

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by Meredith Chilson

Up until a couple of months ago, I had only a few “glitches” while raising chickens. There have been some instances of “picking,” but I was able to remove and treat the hen with no lasting problems. Two winters ago, one of my hens froze her lovely comb on a subzero winter’s night. Minor things, really, when caught and treated early.

I had heard of, and read about, flocks that were decimated with disease or predator attacks, broods of chicks lost by piling on top of each other on chilly nights, and crop or egg bound hens. Maybe I became complacent, or maybe as my hens have aged their resistance to problems has weakened, or just possibly the luck of the coop has run out. A couple of months ago, I fought an influx of mites in the coop. (Ick.) And, just in the past two weeks, I’ve had two ailing hens.

Hmmm, looking a bit scraggly this morning, Mrs. Feathers.
Every morning when I open the door to the coop, and the hens rush out into the fresh air, I watch them for a bit. I like to see which ones will find a juicy worm that wasn’t quick enough to slide back into its hole in the ground and to listen to the sounds the girls make as they inspect the yard. I also use this time to make a visual inspection of the hens. Sometimes one or more of the hens looks a bit “scraggly,” and I make a note to myself to keep close watch on these girls: Maybe they are beginning a molt, possibly they are just good layers too busy to keep themselves groomed, perhaps others are beginning to pick on them and they’ll need an ointment for protection. Often the hens group together in little “cliques,” and I notice which ones are left out and try to figure out why this might be happening.

One morning not long ago, I noticed that two of my Buff Orpingtons were acting strangely. One of them just went out into the yard and sat down. It was a sunny morning, and sometimes they do this—find a spot in the sun and bask—but it seemed odd to me that she did this so quickly and then seemed to almost doze off immediately. I walked over to her and noticed a peculiar smell—sort of like compost that has gotten too wet. I picked her up, noticed that her crop felt almost like a balloon—large and full—and then she vomited down the side of my leg. First time that has ever happened. Up until that moment, I hadn’t even thought about chickens and vomit. As I continued to hold this hen, I watched the other oddly behaving Buff stretching her neck and bobbing and weaving like she had something caught in her throat and was trying to dislodge it.

My first instinct was to check all the rest of the hens to see if they, too, were having some sort of problem. They seemed to be acting in a normal morning manner, clucking and scratching as usual. The next thing I did was to isolate the two Buffs and head to my books and the Internet to see if I could figure out what was going on, why it was happening, and what to do about it.

Normal morning behavior
There’s a separate “hospital wing” in the chicken coop, but it’s in the process of being made into the teenager apartment for this year’s crop of chicks. Just in case these hens had something contagious, I didn’t put them into this area, but quickly set up our large wire dog crate, and isolated the birds.

Because of the head bobbing symptoms and the squishy feel of the first hen’s crop, I suspected a crop disorder of some sort. A chicken’s digestive system begins with a crop—a bag-like appendage just below their windpipe. In the crop, food begins to soften before it travels to the stomach and gizzard, where it is broken down and digested. Normally, a chicken’s crop fills during the day and empties out overnight. Because chickens do not have teeth, we offer grit to our chickens to help break up food. Sometimes, a chicken does not have enough grit, or something they have eaten—breads or pasta occasionally, or long grasses or even grains—becomes lodged in the crop, causing it not to empty completely. The crop then can become impacted or “bound”—hard and solid, or “sour”—the food not passing through the crop begins to ferment. A fungus infection can begin.

On the Internet, it’s fairly easy to find information about “crop problems in chickens.” Often, however, articles on solutions for these problems offer different forms of advice. I offered my ailing hens water, and began to sort through the articles.

First, most of the articles identified similar symptoms for sour crop: a sour breath smell, an enlarged crop with a bloated, squishy feel, the head bobbing, stretching antics of the bird trying to dislodge a blockage. Many articles also noted that an affected bird might isolate herself from the rest of the flock or become lethargic—and if the situation would continue might have a droopy tail, stop eating or drinking and lose weight. Crop bound hens would have similar symptoms except that the crop would be hard—the term “like a golf ball” was used in several places.

Because more than one of my hens seemed to have similar symptoms, I initially ruled out other possible problems—like tumors, and since only two seemed to be affected, I decided not to consider flock decimating diseases like Marek’s. I focused on “sour crop”—and the causes and treatments.

Causes: I was quite sure I could figure this out. This is haying season. The field across from our house has had tall grasses just waiting for the farmer to come with his mower. Our lawn has been growing inches taller overnight. Often newly mown grasses clump into piles that the hens appear to gorge themselves on. The smell of composted greens emanating from my hen made me suspect that these girls had overindulged in fresh greens and that some of those green had not passed through their crops but had begun to rot internally.

Treatments: The birds should be removed from the flock and given only water at first. (So far, I was on the right track.) Because the crop is not emptying, no solid food should be given. I left the two birds with only water for about 24 hours and checked them several times during that period. They appeared to be about the same, although they were eliminating foul-smelling liquid feces. To me, that seemed like a positive development.

The "lump in her throat"
After 24 hours, I offered them plain yogurt, with active bacteria. I had read that this might help, and I knew that it would give them a source of protein and it would be soft enough that it might pass through. They liked this, so I continued them on a yogurt diet. I also continued to offer them clean water. After the first day, I added a few drops of olive oil to their yogurt, thinking this might also help loosen any materials blocking the passageway. Occasionally I massaged their crops, hoping this would help things move around and soften.

Here’s what I did not do:
· I did not call our veterinarian. I could have, and maybe should have.
· I did not use my syringe to drop olive oil onto the chicken’s tongue. I might have, if I hadn’t read all the horror stories about choking chickens if the oil wasn’t dropped far enough back in the chicken’s throat. (Also, I wasn’t quite sure how to hold the bird, the bird’s beak open and still aim the syringe. It’s not an easy task holding a chicken’s beak open.)
· I did not purposely cause the chickens to vomit by massaging their crops and then tipping them upside down, even though several articles suggested that this would be a good way to empty the crop. Again, I was afraid I would cause the hen to choke or to aspirate … and one of the hens leaked fluid out of her mouth whenever I picked her up anyhow.
· I did not add apple cider vinegar to their water. One source said this was exactly the right thing to do, and another said this was exactly the wrong thing to do. Often in the summer, I add apple cider vinegar to the hen’s drinking water, because I think it’s an anti-bacterial, but in this case, I only offered them plain water.
And finally, I did not perform surgery on the chickens. I read how to do this—even to what sorts of things to use to rinse the opened crop and how to use super-glue to seal it back together. Actually, I didn’t even consider this, although I found it interesting that, apparently, many chicken owners have done this successfully, and written about it afterwards.

I DID keep my girls comfortable in a stress-free environment with fresh water, yogurt, a drop or two of olive oil and no grains or solid food. I made sure they each had a massage every day. After four days, I noticed that the lethargic hen was still spending most of her time sitting and dozing. The other hen, however, appeared to be much better. Her stretching and bending—as if she had something stuck in her throat—had stopped. Her feces were solid—and the sour smell was gone. This hen was pacing in her crate, too—I offered her a few feed pellets softened with milk and she ate them right up. I left her separated from the others for another day, feeding her a few pellets at a time, and then the next evening, I put her back into the coop with the others. In the morning she rushed out to greet the day, as usual. I am still watching her a bit more carefully than the others, to see if there are residual effects, but so far, she seems to be a healthy hen again.

Since then, I’ve been very careful that any cut greens that the chickens are exposed to are chopped—no long, woody stalks. I haven’t given them any extra scratch grains, either. I think the combination of grass and grains caused the problem. The ailing Buff is a happy hen again, the rest of the birds have exhibited no symptoms, and I continue my morning observations as a way to keep track of the health of my flock.

And the other hen? I’ll just tell you that she’s at rest now, too. Her problems were more serious—and that, too, is part of chicken farming—learning when treatment is not working and how to let go. I hope I don’t have many more of these learning situations right away.

1 comment:

  1. What a trying experience for you. It is clear that you did everything possible to provide them the best care. I am glad that one is recovering and sorry that the other did not. Thank you for the useful information and for sharing your experience. As always, I learned a lot by reading the experience of a fellow chicken keeper!

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