Is My Hen Sick? -by LynneP

I am not a veterinarian or animal tech. I'm a first-time flock owner and as time passes I plan to document any medical experience I have had with my hens. When they were chicks I had two day-olds with pasty butts, cleaned with a wet Q-tip as the chicks were given a slurry of crumbles and water to prevent constipation. Easy stuff. I was lucky to receive the local day-olds at less than 12 hours after hatch and I have raised them in a free-run situation with strong attention to biosecurity. They were handled daily and all of them are a delight to treat. I have not yet seen anything infectious, though I have experienced some physical/emotional trauma in the form of pasty butt, broodiness and impaction. The learning curve is steep, but I'm enjoying the process of becoming more proficient with the hens.
A useful skill: Using the Sipping Reflex

Even though a chick or an adult may not drink when dehydrated or cold/ill, there is a way to stimulate them to drink. It's called the sipping reflex, and it means that if a drop of fluid lands on the beak, they will automatically sip at it. This is very useful for offering electrolytes/liquid meds by dropper or oil for impactions. You must avoid the nares (nose holes) though to prevent aspiration, and be sure to stay there with the bird long enough to administer several mls. It's useful to have a needle-less syringe marked, like baby syringes or vet syringes. 5 ml of most liquids would be a minimum, and remember that when using this method some will be wasted, so have a rag or towel on your lap if that is how you are positioned with the bird. In an emergency though,you could use a plastic straw or eyedropper, sometimes you need to spring into action. The drops should normally land on the curve of the beak. If the bird is restless, try dimming the lights.

Incident 01- Zipfi decides to be broody

When she turned ten months and had been laying almost every day, Zipfi decided to go broody. We don't have a rooster but every morning a ringneck pheasant named Bluster used to dance outside the chicken run, so maybe he got her interested. She began to hog a nest nearest the run door, and self-plucked a circle of feathers between her legs in a perfect circle. In the mornings as I arrived she was often in that nest, presumably gathering the eggs of anyone who might have laid there- sometimes one, or as many as seven. These hens have six nest boxes, but then tend to use two or three at a time. She lost a little weight. I was torn over feeding her in the nest and encouraging the behavior and settled on giving her water on the nest but making her get up for food. I saw Zipfi eat a feather or two, and she spent more time in the box than I liked so I set the coop light to come on half an hour earlier at 5 am so I could gather all the eggs as early as possible and break the cycle. Gradually she spent less time on the nest and returned to normal flock behavior, at least when I was watching. In the nest she was demure, trilled, but was never vicious to me. In fact she liked me to check for eggs under her and pretended they were all hers. She was vain!

Update, November 2009- Zipfi continues to self-pluck but is otherwise healthy and obsessed with eggs. Even though I gather them as soon after laying as possible, she pushes into the nest boxes and shoves other hens out and will settle on the eggs and guard them. I have switched to wood shavings in the nests, finding them cleaner than hay or straw.

Incident 02- Grit impaction, quickly resolved.
When the hens were ten months of age, when I had run out of starter grit, I replaced it with hen grit. This turned out to be a huge mistake. The bag I received had some stone-sized bits in it, and sometime during the first day Maggie must have consumed a considerable amount. She was standing alone at suppertime, waiting for me 'to fix her'. When I palpated the crop it seemed to be loaded at the base, and I was able to lift bits with my fingers, like manipulating a bad of sand. I used olive oil to lube the mass and got it going within minutes. By the next morning she was much better and I massaged every few hours during the day. I found that by using a lifting motion, little bits worked their way down and the olive oil provided calories as she coped. Otherwise she had no interest in food. She's fine, possibly because she was caught early. I didn't even have to force her mouth open, though I could have by pressing gently sideways against the jaw hinge with thumb and forefinger. No she let me drip the olive oil by dropper on the front of her beak and dank 5 mL at a time, gratefully. Hubby punctured the base of a coffee can for me to strain the rest of the grit and I discarded the big bits. Why is there always one in the flock who experiments? I also gave the entire flock water with apple cider vinegar, which is something I now do every day.

Incident 03- Impaction from eating alfalfa (very serious)


Zipfi is a young hen hatched May 15, 2008. Because I used alfalfa hay in the nests and because Zipfi decided to go broody and eat it, I ended up with a severely impacted hen. Now, I not longer use hay for nesting, I use shavings, and I'm surprisingly pleased at how much cleaner the nests are.

When Zipfi first presented with this problem she looked like she was pigeon-breasted and pigeon-toed. She even had a tendril of alfalfa hanging from her mouth, and she was standing alone, slightly fluffed, wings and tail down and looking quite miserable. I did not know at the time if she had been eating or drinking, but her weight felt all right, even though she had been broody for the previous few weeks. If she had done this a few times a day I think I would have overlooked it, but when she remained uncomfortable for several hours and upon examining her I felt the crunch of alfalfa and the tips of her comb were blue and her feet were cold, I knew she had a problem.

I placed her in a dog crate in the coop for a few hours so I could observe her. If I had thought Zipfi had anything contagious, though, I would have moved her to the feed room, which is my 'hospital coop' because it is draft-free, has electricity and water, and is inaccessible to the barn cats.

I made the assumption she was slightly dehydrated by the state of her comb and because the lass felt crunchy and because one wattle when pinched retained the shape of my finger and thumb. I gave her electrolytes in water by dropper and she cooperated without my having to force her beak. In fact once she realized how much better her crop felt, she took what I wanted and began to drink from the plastic waterer in the cage.

She fussed about being away from the others though, she is a very social creature. I traveled back and forth to the barn every hour or so that day and then began to offer olive oil by dropper. She liked that too, and let me drip it down her beak and would sip as it reached her mouth. She would not however, take the tiny bits of bread I offered soaked in olive oil, but I was getting some calories in her and the other hens took the bread gladly.

By evening I felt ready to give her crop a massage- it was slung on her left and looked like she had swallowed a sock. At the base of the mass the fibres were wound in a ball shape and these appeared to be keeping her from emptying her crop. Though reluctant at first, Zipfi allowed me to stand her on a platform and massage. She seeped to know this permitted the oil to get down into the mass, and perhaps into her digestive system. I'd like to add here that if she had swallowed anything that could cut her insides, i would never attempt this on my own. I was confident she had eaten a mass of alfalfa.
I also knew enough to add apple cider vinegar to her water and to make her pellets into a slurry with water and unsweetened applesauce. The general principle is that alfalfa, like most plant matter, digest in an acid environment and that the acidic additions might break down the material more swiftly and prevent the mass from fermenting (turning sour). She smelled sweet but I was aware that could change fast. No droppings at this point.
By the next morning I had consulted some online poultry friends and one suggested I had not been pressing firmly enough on her crop- that it is possible, once the mass has softened, to use a finger/thumb to break the mass into one-inch pieces she should be able to pass down. I confess to being queasy about this, but since I had gotten Zipfi to a better state, I felt I should try. Whew. I wasn't sure if I might harm her, but she made it clear that I was doing something right- less bobbing.weaving, and a genuine kind of straining in which I could feel that I was unwinding the ball in her crop and breaking it down. By that afternoon I had reduced the mass by 4/5 ths and Zipfi was returned to the flock. I worked on her twice that evening and was gratified to see some 'haystack' droppings, tiny and molasses-like. But no bad smell at her mouth, so I had prevented sour crop. By the next morning she was bobbing and weaving only occasionally and I was reasonably sure she was doing some of it when she spotted me, because when I peeked at the flock from a hidden spot she hardly ever did it. She had gone a bit light, I think that she lost body mass that had been replaced by the mass in her crop. She g=began eating with the flock cautiously, selecting tiny bits of the smallest seeds and I continued for three days to offer olive oil by dropper and to gently massage her. I would say that despite the swift progress it was ten days before she completely normal and during that time I offered the entire flock acidic foods like diced tomato and fresh grated apple. I had learned not to use yogurt yet, because even though the sugar is fermented it can trigger fermentation in the natural sugras in the alfalfa itself or in any treats offered.

This is by no means a complete guide to impaction, just a personal experience with one kind, in one hen. For what it's worth.
Incident 04- Ruby gets a Hitch in her Giddy-Up
On the evening of August 8, 2009, Ruby met me at the coop porch door, limping, and occasionally holding her left leg up as she balanced with the left wing partly extended. No bruises or cuts and the underside of the feet seemed all right, though I did notice some extra heat where her three front toes meet the knob at the base of the leg (metatarsals?). Since she is a feisty bird and the others were leqaving her alone, I opted to let her stay with the others in the coop, hoping that after supper and rest she might improve. But the next day I caged her with two floor roosts made of 4x4's and deep bedded her because the limp was worse. She liked the attention and I situated her cage on a platform level with the roosts so she would not decline in status while I treated her. At this point I offered aspirin-treated water ( 1 81 mg table in 100 ml water) which she gladly accepted. She stopped laying or perhaps she has not been. Then another hen came up with a limp and it occurred to me that the hens might have a calcium problem. I immediately offered ground limstone to Ruby and put a dispenser in the coop. I had not been doing this before because my layer ration has grit and calcium added. But in offering a sizeable amount of garden produce I had neglected to offer more to balance the ration. After slight improvement and much insistence from Ruby, I returned her to the flock, and though she still has a slight limp, she improves daily, as does the other hen. This has been a serious reminder about calcium during the summer months. I have researched the medullary bones and learned how calcium is handled by the hen, and I have a greater appreciation of how much is required. One more notch in my belt, knowledge increasing, though I have such regrets about my former ignorance.
Update- It happened again in late October. Evidently Ruby is a hen whose medullary complex requires daily attention to calcium. She is also a pumpkin hog and demands more of her share than anyone and for a small bird this turns out to create calcium problems, despite offering free oyster shall at all times and even sprinkling it with treats and inside pumpkin and squash. She lay some unshelled eggs too but is now back to normal.

Another hen, Golda, is the flock bully. She came up lame in one leg about the same time Ruby had troubles, but oddly she panicked at the pain , tut-tutting at me, approaching and making various distress sounds. She seemed slightly bruised on one toe and where the toes join. Took about six days for the situation to ease and two weeks for her to walk normally, though I suspect she was playing me for attention. All I did was use 1 low-dose aspirin crushed in a quart of water and offered to her several times a day by dropper. Typical trauma, takes time but solved easily because no external wounds.

I have never seen bumblefoot so can't comment on that form of lameness but it involves bacteria. Lameness is often associated with a lack of Vitamins E, D or B. Calcium problems in particular can be connected to a lack of vitamin D especially in fast-growing pullets. It's often safer to offer a multivitamin to cover all bases, in conjunctions with extra oyster shell even if the hens are getting layer feed. Offering too many treats can thrown off both Vitamin D and calcium. It is safe to give a multivitamin, the contenst of a gelcap of Vitamin E and cod liver oil in small amounts (Vitamin D). This is a topic worth researching because lameness is very common in pullets and hens and if not caused by obvious trauma or disease, it is worth a few dollars to go the vitamin and calcium route and see if things improve. Even if disease is detected the vitamins enhance the immune response and may prevent secondary onset of another disease, such as respiratory.

Ruby, who loves to climb and fly