Friday, 2 October 2009

Bad days with a sick hen…

CAUTION: Please don’t read on if you are in any way squeamish!
It started on Monday. Vera’s comb went purple and droopy, and that never means good news. When Chuck was ill, her comb went purple too so I read everything I could find about it. A purple comb is a major indication of heart and respiratory problems and since we had already lost Chuck, I didn’t want to lose Vera too.
I checked her over and noticed her crop was huge and very hard. Back to the interweb for more research. It turned out that her crop might have become impacted and was cutting off her airway, and worst of all no food was passing to her stomach. She was incredibly thin. A hen’s crop becomes impacted because basically they can’t chew. In the wild they rip small pieces from plants to eat, but in captivity we are prone to chopping up stuff. If that stuff is small enough to swallow but big enough to get stuck the hen can get in big trouble. Long strands of grass are a also major culprit, but so is dry food (such as bread) if they don’t drink enough water.
There were lots of treatments I could try (thankyou to all the poultry forums!), but first I had to wait until the morning. It was important to make sure it was an impacted crop by checking it wasn’t empty in the morning. If it was it could have indicated something potentially worse, but thankfully (!) it was still there, round and hard as a baseball.
I tried syringe feeding her with olive oil first, then massaging her crop, but to no avail. I gave it a day but it wasn’t shifting.
I also found an article about feeding hens live maggots. I read that the maggots clear the crop of food and then get digested themselves. Sounded like a great idea (and full of protein-y goodness) Every hour or so I gave her a handful and she wolfed them down, but on Wednesday morning she wouldn’t touch them and was looking really depressed – not eating, with her tail held so low it was almost touching the floor.
Not eating is the worst sign there is. When a bird stops eating they’ve given up and they are going to die. I was desperate and had only one thing left to try – surgery.
I had read several accounts of this type of home surgery on hens, and I know it sounds drastic but I was assured that the area I would be working on would not be painful to her – all the accounts said the hen hadn’t struggled and was remarkably calm.
I made the bathroom as sterile as I could and gathered all the equipment I would need – disinfectant, towels, swabs, scalpel, forceps (both bought for an art project – I don’t want you to think I do this sort of thing a lot) and needle and thread in case the incision had to be larger than I thought.
I wrapped Vera in towels to get her wings out of the way and softly restrain her, sat down on the floor and tucked her under my arm. I was not looking forward to it, and only the fact that it was now or never made me carry on – she was on the verge of starving to death. I made a small incision through the skin over her crop, then moved the skin and made another in a slightly different place through the crop wall. There was very little bleeding and she didn’t struggle or make a noise, in fact she just sat there looking around like nothing odd was going on.
Her crop was jam packed with chopped cabbage, long grass, corn, wheat… and dead maggots. I gently pulled it all out bit by bit with the forceps, it took about an hour and I’ll never eat sauerkraut again (not really a loss, never eaten it in my life)
I used three stitches to sew her up and swabbed liberally with diluted disinfectant. I had to go to work in the afternoon, so I put her in a big box in the bathroom with plenty of antibioticy water. She was alert and awake and acting like nothing had happened.
Tonight she’s still in the box but very annoyed about it! Her crop is pink and her tail is up. We’ve been feeding her (and she’s ravenous) little and often with bread, yakult and crushed maggots mixed with antibiotics.
The whole thing was incredibly stressful, but seemingly only for me. Vera’s fine. I agonised, I really did, and I didn’t make the decision lightly. I felt incredibly ill afterwards, I have no fingernails left and I have spent an inordinate amount of the last few days sitting next to that box talking to her.
I feel weird writing it down but I’m sure I did the right thing.


  1. Gosh how brave of you to do surgery.

    very pleased to hear Vera is recovering

  2. Well of COURSE you did the right thing, Beccy!! How brave, and what an amazing outcome!

    If it happens again, you will know just what to do, and it will be easier for you. As you noticed, it doesnt' bother the bird at all.

    Go Vera!

  3. Sounds like you saved her life!

  4. That was very brave! Please let us know how she gets on :)

  5. You certainly are brave! I do not have chickens yet but when I do, you are the person I am gonna call if there is a similar problem! =)

  6. Hi, I see you added me on twitter and followed you here! That was very brave of you to do and it sounds like you defiantly saved her life!

    I've had a scary animal encounter once too. When I was 18, my cat had 5 kittens outside and they were all tangled together with their umbilical cords around their bodies.necks with wood, grass, leaves, dirt etc.. stuck to them. I had to very delicately cut each loose. They would have died if I hadn't found them at the time I did and was very stressful to do, so I can imagine what you went through!

    Thanks for sharing this story.


  7. I am a vet tech here in the states (basically a RN for animals) and I'm super impressed with your home surgery! Good job! I know that it looks gross in there, but it's what needed to be done. Vera is in standing good health now, and you've done your first bathroom surgery. Not many people would have done that, so congrats! Happy to hear how it all turned out. Good luck with vera, and if you ever have any emergency animal questions, drop me a line and I'll do my best to help out!