My main fear – there were a few – of having chickens was ‘what if something bad happened?’ Illness being one of those ‘something bad’ fears. And thankfully, for the past ten months, nothing untoward happened. If a hen was losing her feathers, it was because of moulting. If she was sitting down doing nothing (yes, I’m talking about you Jemima), it was because she was brooding.
But one morning, Dottie looked very poorly indeed. Lethargic and hunched down. While Florence was eager to get out of the coop, Dottie was still in the nest box, seemingly without the energy to jump/fly down. (She was on the top tier). I had to lift her out.
Whereas our bossy Dottie was previously strutting about proudly, demanding mealworm and corn, now she was sitting in one corner in the Chicken Garden. Unlike Jemima, who was obviously in a on/off broody trance, Dottie looked depressed. Had the weeks of being the sole non-broody affected her? Had she felt lonely and this was only now caught up with her? Was it a temporary state of mind?
You see how I didn’t want to admit it could be a physical illness.
Dad came round to visit and we brought her in to investigate further. Coming from a farming background, he had more of an inkling about such matters. He felt her crop, which can be felt on the chicken’s chest, and said it didn’t feel right. For the first time, I felt it and it seemed bigger than I expected.
I had a read of a couple of my chicken books.
The crop is a muscular organ that helps chickens digest their food (they are unable to chew). According to Mini Encyclopedia of Chicken Breeds and Care, food is stored and softened in the crop, which empties overnight.
An impacted crop is when there is a solid mass still in the organ first thing in the morning. The encyclopedia recommended olive oil and gently managing the crop to ‘help break up the mass’. The hen may get better on her own. If not, a vet will be needed.
So we massaged the crop and poured some olive oil in a little bowl.
We left Dottie in a box complete with olive oil and water. She appeared thirsty for the oil and kept drinking it.
Simon came over later that evening for the weekend and we decided to call the vet and see if we could make an appointment for the next morning, hoping meanwhile she would get better. The emergency vet warned us he didn’t have much experience with chickens and it would cost £90 for an emergency appointment. But we had already decided to let her rest until the morning and see if the impacted crop (which is what we thought it was) would improve then. The vet told us he had some space free in the morning, if we rang then he would be able to fit us in.
The next day, she looked the same, lethargic and listless. I rang the vet surgery again, whose receptionist told me it was emergencies only as they were so busy. After I explained what the emergency vet said about being able to fit us in, she had a word with, I presume, the vet we spoke to the night before, and gave us a 11.30am slot, warning us there might be a delay as it was so busy.
We waited nearly an hour, among amputated hedgehogs in boxes, poorly turtle in a tray, a beautiful bear-like Newfoundland, a yappy but cute Bichon frise and various other patients coming and going.
Finally Dottie’s name was called and we carried her in. She was a well behaved patient, both in the waiting room and at the vet’s. However, this was also an indicator of how ill she was. A chicken should want to flap its wings and try to fly out of a box and be vocal. Dottie was too tired to do anything.
The vet felt her crop but believed it felt normal. Her weight was in the right range. He checked her faeces and whether she was egg-bound. Her poo was fine and there was no egg stuck in her insides.
He couldn’t find anything physically wrong.
So he told us to come back Monday if she was still unwell and gave us a packet of high energy food and syringes. The nurse showed us how to use the syringe to feed Dottie, who was a model patient. It looked easy enough to do at the vet’s….
Using the syringe was much harder than it first looked.
Simon held her and we tried to open her mouth. Although she was compliant at the vet’s, she was less so in my house, clamping her beak firmly shut and shaking her head away. This became more and more the case as she gained strength – and regained her old bolshy attitude.
Once her beak was prised open, we slipped the feeding tube in. Again this was tricker than it first appeared. We weren’t even sure if it was going the right way. Then, once it was in, we sucked the food solution into the syringe and then pumped it into the tube. When we saw her swallow it down, we knew she was tasting it. Then we alternated with giving her water.
20mls a day, divided into four portions a day, maximum, was recommended and this energy food powder was mixed with water to create a brown semolina-type paste. Simon referred to it as ‘gunk’. Hmm, nice!
Apart from pecking the cardboard box on the way home, Dottie remained in a very poorly state all day. We fed her a couple of times and left her on the floor, sitting on a teatowel next to the box, alongside small bowls of water, grain, grit and olive oil. When it was her bedtime (just before it got dark), she went back into the box.
Her friends came to visit briefly. But as we didn’t know what she had, this may not have been a good idea as the illness could have been contagious to the other hens. Yet the company did give her a boost. I wouldn’t recommend it though unless you know for certain the hen doesn’t have a contagious disease.
So Friday she was ill. Saturday she was just as ill, at least mentally. Sunday she started moving around more. I had bought some herbs from a local garden centre and left them on the floor. Next thing I saw Dottie wandering over to the mint, nibbling on it. She was still slow but she was showing more of an interest in life and this was surely a massive improvement.
On Monday morning, I lifted the lid of the box to see, not a sleepy, huddled, depressed looking hen bit an alert, curious, bright-eyed Dottie, obviously wanting to get out of the box and into the big wide world.
So out she went, and when I saw her digging away in the garden, looking for worms and making her usual noises, I knew the worst was over.
So what was the illness? I suspect it may have been an impacted crop after all as I think it did feel more prominent before we took her to the vet the following day. Personally, I think Dottie was still getting over the illness on the Saturday, but the physical ailments had gone thanks to fasting, massaging the crop, water and olive oil. But I don’t know for sure. Whatever was the matter, going to the vet and giving her high energy food was the right thing to do.
So a lesson for me is to physically check my chickens more often. To feel the crop and pay more attention to their behaviour. Chickens are small but rather complicated individuals and every day is a lesson to learn.
Many thanks to Mini Encyclopedia Chicken Breeds and Care by Frances Basso and The Urban Hen by Paul Peacock.
Also thanks to my dad and Simon for helping with Dottie.