As I shared in When Things Go Wrong: Chicken Infirmary, Part 1, things can go wrong with your chickens with little warning. Having emergency supplies like gloves, antiseptic and temporary housing at the ready can make a big difference in aiding your chickens. But sometimes, it’s not enough.
Friday morning, I let the girls out to forage, the cool morning promising bright sunshine and warming temperatures. As usual, they raced out to seize the day in that manner that reminds me to do the same. All, that is, but Ethel, my lovely silver laced Wyandotte.
I had noticed that Ethel had seemed a bit off lately, not quite as engaging, moving a bit slower, less interested in snatching treats, thinking this a result of a shift in pecking order that put her back at bottom with Lulu’s return. The evening before, she went over to their beloved blackberry bushes and just stood in the bare patch which is only beginning to show hints of new growth, still void of leaves and true protection from predators and the elements that make it such a desirable locale for the girls. I thought it odd that she wasn’t scratching through the straw or resting as they like to do in that spot, but didn’t think too much of it as I went about my chicken chores. Had I thought more of it, I don’t know that it would have made any difference, but hindsight is 20/20 and I can see it all more clearly as I write this.
When it was time to go in, I called the girls and watched a flurry of wings and rushing legs race my way, my hens happily chortling at the prospect of treats. I always count my girls, as most chicken keepers do, not once but twice, to be sure everyone is accounted for, and not just upon return to the coop but periodically during free ranging.
I counted seven, one short. I looked over to the blackberry bushes and saw Ethel still standing there. I called to her, shaking the remaining treats in the cup. She slowly exited the raised bed and made her way over but upon entering the run, made no attempt to eat treats that were right at her feet.
This caused me to stop because if there’s one thing chickens love, it’s treats, even five minutes after having them. I watched her walk over to the coop ramp and just stand, looking at me through tired eyes. I went in and picked her up, asking about her woes. But alas, chickens can’t answer us and therein lies the challenge. What was wrong?
Her vent area was terribly dirty, a compounding issue I had just reported to a friend who keeps chickens as well. I decided to take her inside and try to clean her off, a task I expected to be unpleasant given that chickens don’t care much for getting wet. That was my next red flag.
I filled a basin I keep for the chickens with warm water and placed her into it, expecting her to protest. She settled into the bath without protest and seemed to like it, even closing her eyes, a concern for a bound egg forming in my mind at this reaction. It was an icky job, but I got her cleaned up as best I could. When I needed a second basin of clean water, I lifted her out and placed her on the garage floor where her legs didn’t even attempt to support her. She didn’t even flinch when I fired up the blow drier to keep her from getting chilled when I finished cleaning her. Bound eggs kill chickens if not removed promptly. Was that the problem?
I reported the issue to a good friend. While we analyzed various potential woes, she deteriorated before my very eyes, not accepting water, not eliminating for hours, nor moving from where I put her, closing her eyes as she stood in place in the makeshift infirmary.
Now along with an emergency kit, there was always a consideration for a backup plan. I’m not an experienced chicken keeper so would I take an ailing chicken to a vet? I have several friends who keep chickens with differing styles, some who would do anything for their girls, others who make it clear that they are chickens, not household pets. Where did I fall in this?
Faced with a dying animal and little ability to remedy the situation, I decided that just as I’m a steward to my honey bees and offer mite treatments and support for their efforts, my hens likewise deserve my compassion and care. So I called a vet that sees livestock, explained the possibility of a bound egg but more certainly, deterioration. I was granted an emergency appointment.
I loaded sweet Ethel into our smaller dog crate and then into the car where she never made a peep, nor stood for that matter. It bears noting that our chicken guard dog was aware that something was wrong with Ethel, having followed me around as I tended to her all morning. When I moved my car closer to the garage in order to load up the crate, the wind blew open the garage door and he raced out, hopping into the car in hopes of accompanying her. In retrospect, I wonder if he sensed how ill she was in that intuitive manner animals display.
The vet probed her, finding no bound egg. As I outlined the chain of events of that morning, he took a syringe and promptly removed a murky solution from her breast area, squirting it onto the exam table. He had me pick her up and note her sharp, protruding breastbone, what I earlier considered to be a possible obstruction, even an impacted crop. He said she had no fat tissue at all. She was very sick and dying. None of the possibilities were good, certainly not meriting further exploration given the cost constraints and that none of the woes he suspected would be reversible. He said she would not make it much past the next morning, if that.
As humans, we have an opportunity to intervene on behalf of animals when they are at the end of their journeys with us. I’ve had to do this for a beloved dog and cat as well. It feels crummy when that decision is made but it’s a decision we’re able to make that can be ethical, humane and compassionate, all of which Ethel was in need of that day. I made the choice to end her misery and have her euthanized, just a chicken, I know, but a sweet hen that brought us much happiness over the two years we had her.
Fortunately, the department of agriculture is not far from me. I had her autopsied, primarily to be sure that there were no pathogens at play that could have affected the rest of the flock since we didn’t definitively know what ailed her, and because I wanted to know what caused her sudden decline. A $12 fee covered the euthanasia and autopsy, from which I promptly learned hours later that she had been riddled with cancer.
The pathology report indicated that they removed a full liter of fluid from her body, making her actual weight a mere 1.9Kg. As the vet suggested, she had been sick for a while, not eating, but covering her illness, trying to hide it from the flock for her own well being. Since chickens feed at will, I didn’t know she wasn’t eating. The fluid gathering within her maintained her outward appearance, only her lethargic, disinterested behavior finally revealing a problem.
I went home and shared the sad news with our children who learned valuable life lessons. Then I went outside and remorsefully told the girls. I let them out and watched them wander about the yard in search of treasures, the evening closing on a warm day, perfect for foraging- honey bees flying, chickens scratching and pecking, and the steward observing it all in this wonderful patch of land I’m fortunate enough to attend. And when it was time to call them into the run, I counted. But only to seven.
“Don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened.”
Thank you, Dr. Seuss