Sour Crop and Flystrike: The Little Red Hen Gets Well

This is the story of how one tenacious little red hen at death's door fought her way back to the land of the living.  I’ve excerpted a lot of stuff from a previous post I wrote on this story in order to tell the complete narrative here.  If you’ve read the previous post, you are totally justified in skipping the first couple of paragraphs. I won’t be offended.

The first sign that something was wrong with Roxie the Rhode Island Red was the diarrhea.  Diarrhea is hard to miss—you notice the loose stools in the coop, and you can spot the perpetrator by finding the chicken with soiled feathers on her backside.   When I spot this on just one hen and it’s a new thing, I keep a watchful eye, but I certainly don’t panic.  Hens get diarrhea—sometimes it’s just due to the heat or “something they ate” and sometimes it’s due to something more serious. So I watch and wait.  Roxie seemed bright-eyed and active so my concern for her was mild at most.

A few days later, a Tuesday in mid-August, as I was cleaning the coop, I noticed Roxie make a couple of attempts to hop the short distance into a nest box and fail at both attempts.  This definitely raised my level of concern.  So I corralled the little red hen and picked her up for a quick exam.  Her eyes were bright, her comb was a nice bright red, and both her crop and her abdomen felt normal—neither puffy nor distended.  But there was a lot of poopy feathers on her back side, so I flipped her over to take a closer look and then audibly gasped.  She had become fly-blown.  Here’s the part you don’t want to read if you’re squeamish:  Sometimes in the summertime certain flies find their way to hens who are suffering from diarrhea.  Flies, as we all know, love poop.  So the female fly deposits her eggs on the poop-laden feathers.  When the maggots hatch, they immediately burrow into the chicken’s skin and create bloody skin lesions that are laden with thousands of maggots.  A hen can go from normal to fly-blown in 24 hours, and can go from fly-blown to dead in an equally short period of time.  Roxie’s back end was teeming with maggots.  I immediately carried her to the house, took her to the laundry room,  and bathed her several times in dog shampoo and water, removing all the poop and maggots that I could find.  There were a couple sizable maggot-eaten lesions around her vent.  I trimmed the feathers around all the bad spots and treated them all with Veterycin, a veterinary antiseptic. 

Then I set up a sick-room in the basement:  I put newspapers under a dog crate and furnished the dog crate with a piece of 4x4 for a roost, a dish with some chicken crumbles, and a small water font filled with a probiotic/electrolyte solution to get her diarrhea under control.  I installed Roxie into this space and she hopped onto the roost and didn’t budge.  She showed no interest in the food or drink and simply roosted with her head and tail down and her eyes closed.  This poor hen was in pain.  I gave her a couple drinks of the electrolyte solution using a syringe, but mostly left her alone.  But I certainly didn’t stop thinking about her.

On Wednesday morning I gave Roxie a Betadine soak followed by a bath, a blow dry, and more Veterycin.  There were two maggot lesions near her vent. The smaller lesion seems to be healing. I found maggots in the large lesion, but just a few this time. She hadn’t touched her food, so I mixed up some oatmeal and she gobbled that right up.  The newspapers under the crate were soaked with green tinged fluid--This bird’s stomach was so empty that all that was coming through was bile-tinged water.  No wonder she was weak and in pain!  I noticed her drinking several times throughout the day, so felt like maybe she was making a little progress, but she would not eat at all—not even when I offered her more oatmeal.  What awful gastrointestinal disease did this little girl have?  There are about a million things that can cause a chicken to have bad diarrhea.  Many diarrheal diseases are caused by biological agents:  worms and other parasites, viruses, bacteria, and fungi.  Just to take a stab in the dark, I mixed up some Duramycin.  Duramycin is a veterinary antibiotic—a form of tetracycline—it would only be helpful if Roxie’s disease was bacterial, but it at least made me feel like I was doing something useful.  I decided to hold off on giving her the antibiotic until the next day, though.  Antibiotics should not be administered casually, and I hoped that she would show signs of progress on her own.

Roxie looks things over after her morning betadine soak, bath, and blow dry.

Thursday morning Roxie showed no improvement.  She was still sitting lethargically on her roost, and hadn’t touched her food.  I gave her another bath and blow dry.  Roxie actually loved her bath and blow dry.  As foreign as getting dunked into a tub of water must be for a chicken, she actually relaxed.  I suppose the warm water and blowing air just felt good.  After the blow dry I checked her lesions and was pleased to see that both of them seemed to be healing nicely.  Then, when I turned her bottom-side-up to apply more Veterycin something interesting happened.  Fluid trickled out of her beak and onto the floor.  I tipped her over a second time and a lot of fluid gushed out of her beak. 

There was a strong, nasty odor emanating from the pool on the floor--It smelled just like sour beer.  Have you ever tasted sour beer?  It’s one of the trendy brews showing up at all the best brew pubs and microbreweries and is characterized by its intentionally sour taste.  I think the taste and smell of sour beer is very unpleasant, so maybe that’s why it came to mind when I got the first whiff of the nasty puddle of chicken emesis.  Unfortunately, I’m sure the next time I sample a sour beer in some tony brew pub, the Roxie puddle will immediately spring to mind.  Then then I can arrogantly comment to the resident cicerone, “Ah!  This beer has a bright flavor reminiscent of chicken vomit with a subtle basement floor finish.”  But actually…the yeasty odor was making alarm bells go off in my head.  Roxie’s crop had been empty when I did my first exam in the coop.  Now, as I felt the right side of the base of her neck, I felt her crop making a large squishy bulge.  As I pushed at her bulging crop, more vile fluid came flowing out of her mouth, and again I was hit by the smell of sour beer.  Sour beer and maybe some notes of oatmeal stout.  The only thing Roxie had eaten since I took her out of the coop was oatmeal, which she should have long since digested. I suddenly knew exactly what was wrong with this hen.  Roxie had sour crop!


Roxie cuddled in a towel post-bath & right before I realized what her illness was
Before I talk about sour crop, I should first explain about crops and say a few words about a chicken’s digestive system.  When a hen has her morning breakfast of delicious crumbles, each time she swallows, the crumbles travel down her esophagus to a small pocket at the base of her neck.  That’s her crop.  The crop is basically a food storage pouch. Some very basic digestion takes place there, mostly food softening.  From her crop, the food passes into her stomach, and then into her gizzard, a muscular pouch that mixes the food with grit and grinds it.  A hen doesn’t have teeth, so she chews her food with her gizzard before it moves on to her small intestine.

The symptoms of sour crop are exactly what I’ve just described—a full, squishy crop, and the emanation of a bad smelling fluid from the chicken's beak when you tip the chicken.  I’ve seen sour crop in my flock once before.  When Emile the rooster was just a teenage cockerel, shortly after I moved him into the big coop, he got very sick with exactly the symptoms I’ve described.  I was a novice chicken keeper then, and surprised myself first by correctly diagnosing his illness, and then by saving the little guy.  I haven’t seen this disease in my flock since Emile was stricken with it, so I decided it was time to do some research.  I turned to my copy of the excellent “Chicken Health Handbook” by Gail Damerow, and, of course, to the internet.  My internet research turned out to be an exercise in extreme frustration. 

According to a recent UC Davis poll of backyard chicken keepers in California, 87% percent of respondents say they use the internet as the main source of information about poultry.  And there are indeed some excellent blogs and websites that give good information about all things poultry. I’ve mentioned Terry Golson’s “Hen Cam” blog and Kathy Shea Momino’s “Chicken Chick” in a previous post.  Both of these bloggers give good information about chickens and rely on veterinarians and other experts as their sources of information. 

There are a host of other good chicken blogs, many of which are well written, amusing, and have an interesting story to tell, but much of the information given by these sites is specific to the life-lessons of the individual blogger and not always scientifically verified.  I include myself in this group of bloggers.  My career as a public health microbiologist has given me a certain body of knowledge about infections and infectious agents, but in general, since I am neither a veterinarian nor a poultry expert, I present any information I share with the caveat that it is only my own personal experience and is not intended as advice. 

Then there are the forums where any random person who has a few chickens roosting in the rusting car body on his front lawn can say any ridiculous thing he wants.  All he needs is an internet connection.  If he thinks he can increase egg production by whacking his hens upside their feathered heads with a two by four, he can say it in print for all to see.  But I would take this advice with a grain of salt.

By Googling “Sour Crop” I quickly accessed information from all of these sources with their range of reliability.  I found a ton of information but much of it was confusing, and much of it was contradictory.

Many, but not all, information sources agreed that there were at least two conditions affecting the crop that were separate from each other but also related. “Sour crop, or Candidiasis, is caused by an overgrowth of Candida albicans.  Simply put, it is a yeast infection inside the bird’s crop.”(Natural Chicken Keeping). “Impacted crop is when something…gets stuck in a tangled mess and blocks food from moving from the crop to the stomach.” (Purposefully Simple).  How are these conditions related?  Some sources say that sour crop causes impacted crop and other say the reverse—and some waffle on that very subject—it’s the classic “which came first, the chicken or the egg?” situation.  For example:  “Sour crop…occurs most often because of an impacted crop that hasn’t been cleared, and yeast begins to grow and feed on the food that is stuck in the crop.” (Purposefully Simple) and “As the hen becomes infected with the fungus [i.e. yeast], the lining of her crop thickens, and the infection can interfere with her crop’s ability to empty its contents into her stomach. This can lead to an impacted crop.” (The Frugal Chicken) and “Sour crop may also be associated with fungal infection, although there is some question about whether the fungus causes the poor emptying of the crop, or is a result of it.” (The Chicken Chick).

OK, let’s put the root cause and the order of sour crop and impacted crop aside and move to the more important issue of how to treat.  Again, there’s a lot of conflict. 
  •  “If you suspect sour crop, isolating your chicken in a warm, quiet area, holding her upside down, gently massaging the crop in the direction of the head and carefully trying to induce vomiting, encouraging yogurt,[my emphasis] olive oil [my emphasis] and water with apple cider vinegar is a great way to start. Apple cider vinegar [my emphasis] is an anti-fungal, and often avian vets will recommend it for cases of sour crop, since sour crop is basically a yeast infection.”(Fresh Eggs Daily)
  •  "Sour crop can be helped by holding the bird face-down, at about a 60 degree angle, and massaging the crop toward the throat…the stinky mess should come out like vomit, and reduce the swelling.  Be sure to let the hen breathe between bouts of massaging, and keep her inside for a couple of days after, feeding soft foods and adding a little bit (1 tbsp/gallon) of baking soda to the drinking water to combat the acidity.  Do NOT use cider vinegar to treat this, as it only adds to the acid burden.[my emphasis]  (The Chicken Chick)
  •  “A popular—but risky—method is to massage the crop to loosen its contents while briefly…turning the chicken’s head downward to try to drain out the contents…The chicken, however, runs the risk of inhaling regurgitated crop contents.” (The Chicken Health Handbook)
  • “Be advised, if you attempt to burp your chicken, there is a chance she will aspirate some of the vomit, which can lead to death.” (The Frugal Chicken)
  •  "Copper sulfate is commonly used to treat a chicken with sour crop, but an overdose is toxic.  To avoid overdosing, first prepare a stock solution…Feed as usual while using the stock solution to treat the chicken’s drinking water…Avoid using antibiotics which will make the condition worse…Adding vinegar [my emphasis] to the water at a rate of 1 tablespoon per gallon…can help prevent a recurrence of this infection.” (Chicken Health Handbook)
  •  “I feed them eggs with a tablespoon of plain yogurt. [my emphasis] I just smash the whole egg… shells and all - and stir in the yogurt.” (Natural Chicken Keeping)
  • “Dairy products including yogurt, [my emphasis] milk and cheese can give chickens diarrhea since they aren't designed to digest the milk sugars, so go easy on the dairy if you notice it's having a negative effect.” (Fresh Eggs Daily)
  • Give your chickens yogurt? Why? [my emphasis] First, it's scientific fact that chickens do not have the necessary enzymes in their gut to properly digest dairy. Too much can and will give them diarrhea. So, why are you giving your chickens yogurt?...For those of you that are going to post, "I've given my chickens yogurt for 50 years with no problems," keep doing what your [sic] doing, but for those of you that want to actually help your chickens, think about using probiotics that are actually for chickens!" (The Chicken Whisperer)
  • "Sprinkling a bit of cinnamon over some plain yogurt [my emphasis] and adding a drop of oregano oil might be an option you would want to consider. (This is a good option for the oregano oil since it's already diluted in olive oil.[my emphasis]) (Fresh Eggs Daily)
  •  "You may be tempted to give mineral oil or other liquid lubricants by mouth to break up an impaction. However, force-fed mineral oil or other liquids may end up in the bird’s lungs, with a fatal result. Mineral oil doesn’t help much to break up an impaction anyway (granite grit is more helpful than anything else you can give [my emphasis]).(Chicken Health for Dummies)
  •  The best way to prevent impacted crop is to offer granite grit,[my emphasis] free choice, and limit your chickens’ access to long dry straw or grass.” (Purposefully Simple)
  •   "Impacted crops are not caused by your birds needing more grit.[my emphasis]… Birds use grit in their gizzards to grind food; but the gizzard is far "downstream" from the crop. The crop is a kind of foyer into which all the food packs before moving into the digestive system. (Brown Egg Blue Egg)
So you see my confusion.  This huge bolus of contradictory information presented as verified fact really stuck in my craw (and that would be impacted crop, right?).  In the end I digested (phew, all better!) all of the information and just followed the course of treatment that made the most sense to me.  Here’s what I did:
  •    First, I dumped out the antibiotic solution I made.  If this was truly a yeast infection, antibiotics would only make it worse.
  •  Then, I went to my local farm store and bought copper sulfate.  I live in the country and the nearest farm store is 15 miles away.  The only copper sulfate they had in stock was for treating swimming pools—but copper sulfate is copper sulfate, it was just that it only came in 15 lb. containers.  Since it was almost closing time, I bought it.  I have enough copper sulfate to treat a gazillion chickens for a bazillion years!
  •  I made a stock copper sulfate solution following the formula in the Chicken Health Handbook.  Then I added a tablespoon of stock solution and a tablespoon of vinegar to a gallon of water.  I gave this to Roxie in a small plastic water font as her only source of water.  Several days later, when the gallon of copper sulfate water was gone I switched to water mixed with vinegar at a rate of one tablespoon per gallon.
  •  I did not ever give her yogurt.  I will never give a chicken yogurt, ever!  I've already stated that I won't dispense advice since I'm not a vet or a chicken expert but come on! Mammals drink milk.  Chickens are birds.  Chickens are lactose intolerant.  While yogurt contains less lactose than many dairy products, it still has waaay more lactose than a chicken can handle.  I believe that probiotics are important for chickens that are suffering from gastrointestinal illness, but the bacteria in yogurt aren’t necessarily the best choice for chickens.  There are probiotics designed for chickens at most stores that sell chicken feed, and I believe in the probiotic benefit of good, clean dirt.  I am pretty sure that there will be a future post on this very subject.
  • I tried to get Roxie eating again by offering small portions of a variety of soft treats such as mashed boiled eggs and oatmeal.  She wasn’t very interested.  Finally, on a nice, sunny day about a week and a half after I first brought her into the basement, I took her outside and let her wander on the lawn.  She loved that! She happily stretched out on the grass and spread her wings to soak up the sunshine.  Then she started scratching and pecking at the lawn and actually started eating bugs and worms and bits of dirt.  That’s what she was craving!  It definitely is not the sort of diet normally recommended for a chicken recovering from sour crop, but it was long past time for Roxie to get some nutrition into her system, and she was not just tolerating pecking around the lawn--she was relishing it!  That was the day I finally became sure that Roxie was going to get better.

Roxie scratches, pecks, and regains her appetite
I continued her daily baths and Veterycin treatments until finally, on the first day of September—two weeks after entering the basement infirmary, I decided her lesions were nearly healed and I moved her back to the pole barn.  She’s not back in the coop yet, but is living on her own.  Every day I put her outside in my small “chicken gazebo” so she can peck and scratch at the dirt to her heart’s content.  I put Willow the Buff Orpington in the gazebo with her so she can have some company.  She’s still not eating normally, but she’s improving.  She actually started eating scratch grain a few days ago!  And, good news, her poop looks like normal chicken poop again!  It’s getting to be that time of year when chickens go through their fall molt.  So soon her lesions will be covered by a layer of new feathers.  Long before that happens she’ll be back in the coop with her friends.  Roxie has proven herself to be one tough little red hen, and life for Roxie goes on!

Roxie and Willow get some outdoor time in the gazebo

Epilogue:  Exactly a week after I published this post, Roxie had a sour crop relapse that she did not survive.  I was sad and very frustrated that this little hen eventually succumbed after her weeks-long brave fight against two devastating illnesses.

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