As many of you are devoted pet owners, you know how it feels when your pets are sick. Not good. Helpless. Worried. Distracted. With our dogs and cats, we take them to the vet. They hate it, they stress out a bit, but they’re used to human interaction and going places and coming home. Medicine, maybe a dreaded follow-up visit, and back home and well again. With chickens, it’s very different. This is when we wish the seasoned old traveling farm vet would trundle up our drive in his ratty but well-equipped truck and saunter bow-legged to our door, black bag of medicinal miracles in hand.
But in this new age of backyard chicken-keeping, accessibility to expert vets is limited. Most small animal veterinarians don’t treat chickens, nor are they equipped to do so. My vet happens to be willing to try (as evidenced when Mabel and Marge were sick), but we all know how that turned out. In addition, the stress of bringing a chicken to the vet’s office, having her handled by multiple people, possibly jabbed with needles and force-fed remedies, blood draws–that all usually doesn’t bode well for an easily-stressed creature. As if treating them wasn’t hard enough, there’s this added caveat: when a chicken exhibits signs of illness, it is usually too late for treatment. As prey animals, they’ve learned to hide any signs of illness, since they’d be singled out by predators as an easy dinner. And so they hide it until they’re in a desperate state. And that’s when we see it.
So when Goldie wobbled out of the run last Sunday morning in slow motion, tail dropped, stopping often to rest and close her eyes, I did what any worried pet owner would do: freaked out, texted everyone I knew for advice, then scoured the Internet for backyard chicken-healing remedies. Mid-morning, she laid a very unusually light-pinkish egg with a fairly soft shell, waddled out of the coop, and lay down in the shade. Shit on a brick: Goldie is sick.
Here’s another conundrum in the chicken-health world: there are NO recognized, authorized online experts for diagnosing and treating chicken ailments. There are one or two fairly well-informed chicken owners who preach “their” methods, but the rest of the chicken-healing web world is built on community forums filled with advice and recommendations–often varying greatly in content–that must be waded through and dissected carefully for what makes sense to you.
In my experience with sick hens, I knew it wasn’t looking good, especially with Goldie’s age (five) working against her. So I gleaned what information I could, blended it with advice from a valued chicken-keeping friend, and searched my cabinets for Mabel’s antibiotics from two years ago. Found them! Expired by six months, but who gives a rat’s ass. We are in panic mode here. Pulverized half a pill, mixed it with water and yogurt, readied the syringe, and psyched myself up to get it in her gullet. Thankfully, she’s easy to catch and rather happy to sit on my lap for a conversation over coffee, so I had her set up in moments. Lightly tapped some of the meds on her beak, and she immediately drank it. (Chickens will eat almost anything you drip on their beak.) and so it went: a few drops of antibiotics followed by a B12-soaked series of chopped-up grapes, more antibiotics, another grape, and before long, all the meds were down the hatch. Off she waddled to sit in the shade with her gal pals. The rest of the day, I went outside every hour or so to give her more vitamin-soaked grapes and peas, a whole raw egg (the yolks are one of the highest concentrations of B12 you can get) which she enjoyed some of, an oatmeal mash infused with oregano (considered to be a natural antibiotic), and anything else I could think of to boost her immune system. Dripped a few drops of oregano oil in her water, added electrolytes, and watched and waited and hoped.
Later that evening, another dose. Next morning, PRAYED (and I don’t pray a lot) for her to come out of the coop, and when she did–albeit slowly–rejoiced to all that are holy. More research on the Internet, more B12, more treats, and off to the feed store I went in search of Tylan, an antibiotic known to have good success rates in chickens. It’s a powder you simply mix in their water. And it ain’t cheap. Let’s just say you could’ve replaced your entire flock tenfold with what this stuff costs. But Goldie is my matriarch, my ambassador for chickens, the mother figure who teaches all the babies what’s up with the chicken world and how to live in it. And I adore her. So the Tylan made its way into her little body via yogurt-cranberry juice-water-filled syringe, and she was again rewarded with green grapes after her dosing. Same routine as the day before: constant checking, more treats in an effort to keep her eating and hydrated, and more worried hours. She seemed to go through the motions of grazing with Henrietta and Mabelene every few hours, but would stop often and lay down, close her eyes, sleep in the most random places–mostly under the house where it is cool. The girls would just take their cues from her and stop and drop along with her, sleep when she did, and get up and graze when she felt like getting up.
By Tuesday, I noticed a slight improvement. A bit more pep in her step, less napping, more inclined to eat and drink on her own. Hallelujah! She was definitely feeling better. And so I kept up my regimen, and she continued to get better. By Wednesday, I stopped praying and started to make a list of what I owed God for this immense favor.
Thursday morning saw me taking up my new morning habit of wide-eyed staring out the window, coffee cup in hand, waiting for the girls to descend the coop ramp and emerge into the run. “Thump!” The sound of someone jumping off the roost onto the coop floor. Henrietta emerged. Sixty seconds later, another thump and there was Goldie (whew, again I could breathe.) But oddly, no Mabelene. THIS was strange. Not only is she normally the first one out, she’s normally out before daylight. A minute later, here she comes down the ramp, eyes half-closed, taking careful slow-mo steps, tail drooping. She looked like the hunchback of Chicken Dame. Shit on another brick: Mabelene’s sick. Back to the meds, the B12, and another chat with God.
By evening, after a tenuous session of syringe-feeding a chicken who is NEVER held (and who let me know in no uncertain terms that she did NOT want to make it a habit), she was sipping on a raw egg yolk and retired to bed before dark. Thus began my second vigil of the week, another round of cancelled appointments for the next day, and a sleepless night. Next morning, out waddled the crew. Except Mabelene. I knew she was dead. I started planning her funeral and choosing her music. I considered how it would be to open the coop and face her cold dead little feathered body on the roost, frozen in place like a perfect little sculpture. But wait–was that a thump? I saw a small cloud of pine shavings floof out of the coop entrance. Mabelene is alive! Still a bit off kilter, but with a gleam in her eye that had taken a 24-hour hiatus. After the air re-entered my lungs and my body unfroze, I flew outside to greet my flock. Whew.
And so Mabelene has bounced back along with Goldie. Henrietta seems to have been immune to whatever virus affected her sisters. I’m certain the virus–or whatever it was–came by way of the new babies from their farm. So everyone just wrapped up their 5- to 7-day round of antibiotics, just in case, and I am ecstatic to have seen my gals waddle out of the coop again each morning like it’s just another day in the life.
Time to exhale, and to resume the daily business of integrating the flock… Stay tuned for a progress report in my next blog post.