The bulk of the chickens in my flock are in their fourth year - well past the age that most commercial laying hens are allowed to live. And I know that chickens don't live forever. Over the millennia that chickens have been domesticated, high egg production was the trait that was valued above all else—so that's the trait that was selected for. Longevity wasn’t even considered, since chickens typically were slaughtered long before the end of their natural life. Thus, chickens don’t have long lives. Laying an egg practically every day eventually wears a hen out. It is highly probable that eventually something will go wrong with her complex, high production egg-laying machinery—the oviduct becomes infected; an egg becomes impacted; the oviduct breaks and leaks yolk into the abdominal cavity which becomes infected; tumors form—the list goes on.
When I was a kid on the farm, the problems of aging hens was not a problem because there were no aging hens. Chickens raised for meat were slaughtered in their first year. Laying hens were kept for two years and when their egg production slowed they became stew. Old chickens and their health problems became a reality only recently, when people like me started keeping small backyard flocks. We backyard chicken people bond with our chickens and our rationale for keeping them goes beyond eggs and meat. We keep them for the pleasure of keeping them, and for the satisfaction that comes with nurturing them and giving them a good and happy life. Chickens have become pets. And that’s OK—chickens are fascinating, compelling, and beautiful animals. But the grim reality that is interwoven with the many pleasures of keeping a flock of backyard hens is the anxiety and angst of dealing with the inevitable sick birds and the anguish when one of those sick birds dies.
Before I tell the story of the recent illness of two of my hens, let me say that if you are the keeper of a small flock and you stumbled across this post looking for information about your sick hen, then I hope you can find some information here that is of value to you. But bear in mind that this information is about two specific hens. There are, however, resources that are encyclopedic on the subject of chicken maladies that you should check out. Gail Damerow is an expert on all aspects of chicken keeping and has written an informative and well-organized book entitled, “The Chicken Health Handbook.” The second edition is available from Amazon, and the first edition is actually available in its entirety on-line. The wonderful Terry Golson has been blogging about chickens for years on her Hen Cam blog. While she is no longer actively blogging about chickens (she’s moved on to horses, her other passion), all of her blog archives are still available and contain a trove of information on chicken health issues. Finally, Kathy Shea Mormino continues to blog about backyard chickens as the Chicken Chick. The information on chicken health on her blog is both comprehensive and trustworthy—plus it’s just fun to read! Her blog is one of the blogs I have listed on the sidebar to the right.
Chickens, in the scheme of things, are prey animals. And every chicken innately understands that the weak perish. Consequently, a chicken has to be suffering enormously before it can no longer maintain the façade that all is well. So when I found Arlene Barred Rock sitting alone in the hen pen one day in late June when the other chickens had gone indoors to roost for the evening, I knew something was very wrong. I had just arrived home from an out-of-town trip and when I first saw her I wasn’t even sure it was Arlene. For a moment I wondered if somebody had sneaked a bedraggled old hen with huge patches of missing feathers into my coop. Arlene was an active, inquisitive hen and a member of a junta of four Barred Rocks that ruled the coop. This hen before me looked like an old and exhausted version of Arlene. She didn’t seem eager to move and when she finally got up and walked I saw that she was walking with a profound limp—hardly putting any weight on her right foot. I scooped her up and carried her into the pole barn and immediately gave her a thorough physical exam. The Chicken Chick blog gives a great outline of how to give a hen a physical, and it was my modified version of that procedure that I performed then, giving special attention to her feet and legs. Her comb was a healthy red, there was no noticeable bloating of her crop or abdomen, and no wounds, blood, or exterior signs of physical trauma. My best guess was that she had somehow caught her leg in something and had strained muscles or tendons in pulling it free. The feather loss was obviously due to a molt. While a June molt is extremely unusual, chickens will sometimes spontaneously molt when subjected to stress, and Arlene’s accident and subsequent lameness was, without question, stressful. The fact that the rest of the flock was fine allowed me to rule out a predator attack or any event that would have involved the whole flock.
I have a dog crate that functions as my all-purpose chicken sick room and broody hen rehab space. I put Arlene in that crate for the night, and that’s where she continued to live for the next few days—a confined space forced her to stay off her bad leg. She got free access to water and her normal chicken food along with a daily handful of scratch grain as a treat. The only meds I gave her was a daily baby (81 mg) aspirin to manage her leg pain. Normally, to get a chicken to eat aspirin, I crush it in a little oatmeal, but in this case, since Arlene was molting and needed extra protein for feather growth I mashed the aspirin into a tablespoon of canned cat food. Chickens love cat food. Arlene would greedily eat it down to the last nibble and she learned to look forward it to every day. After a week in the crate, I moved her to a small pen in the corner of the big chicken coop, which gave her a little more space and allowed her to visit with the other hens through the fence. Her featherless patches eventually sprouted pinfeathers and began to fill in. When she eventually started regrowing her tail feathers she began to look like Arlene again. And she began to act like the old Arlene. Arlene was always the hen that would follow me around when I was in the coop, and would often come up and peck me on the leg, just to make sure I was paying attention. I knew she was starting to feel better the day I walked into her corner pen and she looked up at me and pecked me on the leg. Last week, in order to give her an opportunity to exercise her leg, I allowed her to access the center part of the pole barn where I store supplies and tools and park the tractor. She contentedly wandered around that space and pecked at random bits of spilled grain on the floor. She still walked with a decided limp, but she was bright eyed, alert, and happy.
|A bedraggled and molty Arlene in the chicken sick room|
|Arlene loves her aspirin-laced cat food!|
|Arlene explores some pine shavings in the tractor front-end loader|
Then last Wednesday evening the situation that started Arlene’s ordeal played itself out again—this time with a different hen. As I was closing the coop for the night, I found Rhoda the Rhode Island Red sitting alone in the hen pen after the other chickens had gone indoors to roost for the evening. Again, I knew something was very wrong. There are holes in the ground in the hen pen that the hens had excavated for dust bathing. It had been raining all day, these holes had filled with water and Rhoda was sitting in one. She was wet, muddy, and bedraggled. I picked her up, carried her into the coop and set her gently on the floor. For some reason this triggered some sort of primitive flock defensive response in the other chickens and they swarmed Rhoda and began to aggressively peck her. It was a strange situation, she was acting strangely, and maybe the other hens didn’t even realize it was just Rhoda. I instantly rescued her from the other hens and moved her to Arlene’s corner pen. Arlene was pecking at some feed when I brought Rhoda in and she looked up briefly as if to say, "Oh. Hi, Rhoda!" and then went back to pecking. No drama from Arlene at all. Rhoda pecked at feed a little and drank some water, but mostly just stood around lethargically with her tail down - not a good sign. I decided, since it was roosting time, that I would leave her alone for the night and do a full exam the next morning. I knew that I would worry about her all night, though, and that’s exactly what I did.
Thursday morning, as soon as I was out of bed, I went right to the coop to check on Rhoda. What I found was not good. Rhoda was in a corner of the pen, hunched up with her eyes closed and obviously in pain. Her comb had taken on a bluish hue, her abdomen was swollen like a balloon, and there was a hard lump at the base. The swelling was probably caused by ascites, the accumulation of fluid in the abdominal cavity—ascites is a symptom of some underlying problem and its presence is almost always an indicator that the underlying problem has proceeded to a point where the chicken can’t be saved. The lump maybe was a tumor, or it may have been a formed egg. But if it was an egg it was in completely the wrong part of her body and would have been there only because it had torn out of her oviduct due to some sort of blockage.
I knew then that the best kindness I could provide Rhoda was to end her suffering. I euthanized her in a gentle and nontraumatic way and buried her in the woods. Terry Golson has written in her Hen Cam Blog that in her early days of hen keeping she felt that she would let her hens live their days until they died of natural causes. Then she started doing necropsies. “What I found inside of the hens was disturbing,” Golson says, “A chicken can live a long time with a diseased body before she shows outward signs of illness. A hen can starve death right under your loving care.” Euthanasia is a final kind deed you can do for your suffering hen.
I grieve for my hens. If you’ve ever lost a pet, you understand what I’m talking about. Although there are differences. Sick dogs and cats usually go to the vet and undergo reams of tests before you decide, with the vet’s input, that nothing more can be done. But when a chicken has reached the end of its life, there’s really very little that can be done, and there’s nobody to share the decision-making responsibility with. You’re on your own. So you make the decision and then you grieve. My grief is tempered by this: At any given moment there are twenty billion chickens alive in the world. For the most part the lives of these chickens are short and unpleasant. But Rhoda got to live like a chicken. Her days were filled with egg laying, pecking and scratching in the run, dust bathing, and interacting with the other hens in the flock. She lived a good life. And in the course of living her life, she, along with the other chickens in my flock provided me with unquantifiable happiness.
I paused in writing this to go to the coop, tend to the hens, and gather eggs. Arlene was at the far end of the pole barn when I walked in and she ran to me, then pecked my leg. To be sure, it was a gimpy run, but she was running. It’s time to starting thinking about transitioning Arlene back into the coop with the other hens. Life in the coop goes on.
[This post has been shared on "Clever Chicks Blog Hop #220]