Photo courtesy of Tony Johnson
Dr. Johnson's chickens simply don't care about his landscaping.
I hope no one on the board of my little community reads this.
I have illegal chickens. I am a chicken felon. If apprehended, I could go to federal chicken prison and do hard chicken time.
About 2 years ago, my wife and I ‘happened’ upon some chickens. Someone, a family friend, had gotten all caught up in the recent rage of urban chicken acquisition and had obtained 6 chickens – an unholy number of chickens. They had also forgotten to obtain any housing for these selfsame chickens, so they roosted in the bushes and trees around her house, and laid their eggs in old lawnmower parts in her backyard shed. What a surprise to go pull the cord on the lawnmower engine of a spring morning and have eggs fly all about. Easy way to make a soufflé, I suppose.
When we heard that this person and her chooks were in a bind, we offered to help out. We read up on chicken husbandry, built a coop (or as we achickionados call it, a run and shelter) and drove over to her house to bring home our new flock in cat carriers. We only took three. Six birds is insane; three is a normal number of chickens. We are normal.
Here’s the upside to chicken ownership:
- Great, fresh eggs, every day (on average, each chicken lays one egg/day)
- No need to buy eggs anymore – cost savings and we know our chickens are humanely treated.
- No need for a noisy rooster! Chickens lay whether or not they get laid
- Fun for the kids to watch (us, too – chickens are hilarious goofballs)
- Easy disposal of your kitchen waste – they eat everything (as long as it is not moldy or an avocado; avocados are chicken kryptonite)
Now, here’s the downside:
- Sometimes they are noisy. They squabble and fight like junior-high-school girls. Sometimes I have to go out on the back porch and shout out a loud: “SHHHHHHHH! If you don’t shut up, I am calling The Colonel!” It works, but I am afraid they are a tad demoralized.
- Poop. Everywhere. No way to potty train a chicken, no such thing as a chicken diaper (yet). We let them out for some fresh air and bug-eating, and they poo. A lot. Everywhere.
- Watering them – it’s a pain and in the winter, my fingers stick to the bucket as I trudge out in sub-zero weather to fill their waterer.
- Although ours have tested negative for Salmonella, I do worry about our family’s exposure to it, given the large amount of poop around.
- We will never, ever have nice landscaping. In their obsessive quest to find the juicy bugs and worms that must be right there under this lovely hydrangea, they dig up everything. Then, for good measure, they poo on it.
To keep the neighbors happy (and so they don’t turn us in to the chicken police), we give them fresh eggs every now and again. So far, no problems.
Chicken ownership reminds me of my one professional interaction with a chicken (other than ordering some in Vindaloo sauce from our local Indian eatery). When I was a resident, I had someone wander in with their pet chicken, Red. Now, had they called, I could probably have saved them a trip by letting them know that I was ignorant in the medical ways of chicken. Cook them, I could; eat them, I could. But treat them? Are you out of your chicken mind?
But, no – no phone call, she just came in. And after talking to her and trying to convince her of my chicken naiveté, she pulled a Princess Leia on me: “Please help, Dr. Johnson – you’re my only hope!”
So, reluctantly, I cared for Red. I tried to convince her that someone with chicken wisdom could probably get to the bottom of it faster and cheaper than an urban ER (small animal) veterinarian, but she was somehow attached to me and implored me to do what I could for Red, despite the cost.
Red was nice. She was sick, but didn’t try and peck me, which fits my minimum definition of ‘nice’ for a chicken. (Also nice: not going poo on me.)
When dealing with a case, we always get the chief complaint from the owner – the reason they came in. Red’s chief complaint was lethargy and not eating, plus a swollen abdomen. Now, whether you are a chicken, a narwhal, a person, or a wallaby, there are only so many things that can make your abdomen distended:
- Fetus (for a chicken – eggs)
- An organ that’s too big
- A tumor
I decided to start there. We got a little chicken X-ray, and I found that Red had fluid in her abdomen, and no eggs blocking anything, constipation or obvious tumors. Working from basic medical chicken-narwhal-people-wallaby principles, there are only so many things that will give you free fluid in your abdomen:
- Infection (peritonitis)
- Low blood protein
- A blood clot or obstructed veins in an organ somewhere, causing pressure to build up and fluid to leak out
- A tumor
I got a tiny sample of the fluid in the abdomen and saw no white blood cells – no infection. I did have to consult our lone bird book to find a picture of what bird white blood cells looked like, but I was pretty convinced that there was no infection. No cancer cells, either.
So: low blood protein got bumped up the list a bit. In a dog or a cat, we would draw some blood from a vein and check the protein levels on a little gizmo called a refractometer, but I didn’t know where any veins were on a chicken. Well, except for that grody one that is always on your drumstick, but I wasn’t about to go for that one. So, I needed to find a way to get some blood; all I needed was a drop.
I decided to go with a method that we used to use on cats to check glucose levels, but that had fallen out of fashion as too mean: clipping a toe nail. I figured it would be no fun for Red, but I needed the info and the pain would only be momentary. I apologized to Red and clipped a claw. She let out a weak squawk and looked at me as if to say “I didn’t peck or poo on you, and this is how you repay me?” I hung my head in claw-clipping chicken shame.
The protein level in the blood was indeed low. I remember the feeling when I looked in the refractometer and saw the low protein level; I was elated. It was one of those moments when you think to yourself “I can do this!” I was feeling like I just might get the bottom of what was going on with Red. I felt like Dr. Chicken House, MD, or Shercluck Holmes; Come, Watson – the gamecock is afoot!
Back to the basics, again: you can only have low blood protein in a few ways:
- Losing it through the urine (chickens don’t really make urine per se as all the waste products come out in the feces, but they can still lose protein through their kidneys)
- Losing it through the intestines
- Not making it in the first place – meaning poor diet, or liver disease (the liver makes protein)
So, we had a pretty short list of things to run through. Chicken poop was in ready supply, so I started there. And there we found our answer, under the microscope:
Hundreds of them.
Coccidia are little protozoan parasites that live in the intestines, cause inflammation and make protein go spilling out of the intestines. They look a little like diamonds under the microscope. Dogs and cats can get Coccidia, too; it is a common cause of puppy and kitten diarrhea. And also, apparently, chickens, too.
So – the Coccidia cause inflamed leaky intestines and protein loss, the low protein caused the abdominal fluid to build up, and the whole combo of diarrhea, low protein, and abdominal fluid conspired to make Red feel like a sick chick.
Out of sheer medical joy, I did the chicken dance. It was poultry in motion.
The cure was a simple inexpensive medication called amprolium that can be added to the feed or water. I told the owner what we found and what she needed to do, and off she went after effusive thanks and perhaps a hug, Red under one arm and her receipt for the $250 workup in her hand.
Before I got too big-headed about the whole ordeal, I reminded myself that any self-respecting poultry doc could probably have diagnosed Red’s problem much faster and cheaper. But still, I had snatched Red from the beak of death, and the owner was happy. I called her a couple of weeks later and she said Red was a happy bird, had gained back her weight and started laying again. All was well.
And now, years later, and an unindicted chicken owner myself, I can understand her desperation to get to the bottom of it and save her little friend, no matter the cost.
The Colonel would just have to find another bird; he wasn’t getting Red.
To learn more about the care of backyard chickens, see:
VIN News Service commentaries are opinion pieces presenting insights, personal experiences and/or perspectives on topical issues by members of the veterinary community. To submit a commentary for consideration, email firstname.lastname@example.org.