As a blogger who has the utmost interest in providing well researched information pertaining to the topics you enjoy it's with great pleasure I bring to you today the story of barfing chickens and a cat vet. You may remember Dr. Mark who although full of chicken information is actually, by practice, a cat vet. So why all the chicken knowledge then? What makes him an authority on barfing chickens? Well Dr. Mark also owns chickens, is a poultry judge and has his own poultry magazine called The Exhibitor.
So when my little Ameraucana chicken Sweetie died of what I suspected was Sour Crop due to a Crop Impaction I emailed photos of my necropsy of her over to the good Doctor Mark to have him confirm my suspicions.
Yup. She most likely died of Sour Crop, he said.
My next question to Dr. Mark was but HOWWWWW??? And there began my Sour Crop lesson from Dr. Mark.
Karen: But she seemed fine! How did she get Sour Crop?
Dr. Mark: Crop impaction happens when there's a physical obstruction preventing food and other ingested material from passing through the digestive tract. Usually the crop will be swollen and hard and full of solid material. Sour crop occurs when there is a disruption in the normal microflora in the crop, usually because of a change in the ph of the digestive system and a resultant yeast infection with candida sp. The crop in this case can feel big and squishy , and often there is a foul smell from the bird’s mouth.
Karen: I had my nose right in Sweetie's mouth checking for bad breath and she didn't have it. But once I cut into Sweetie to necropsy I nearly passed out from the smell. Seriously. I guess that's a symptom that might not always be noticeable.
Dr. Mark: Yes, just like some humans don't show any typical signs of a disease, the same is true for chickens.
Karen: You mentioned when I first told you about Sweetie dying from a Sour Crop that one of the reasons could have been Marek's disease?
Dr. Mark: That's often the cause yes. Diseases that disrupt the nervous system and decrease movement of the gut, such as Marek’s disease, egg peritonitis, or lead poisoning. Also physical damage to the gut from swallowed metal objects, or intestinal parasites can disrupt normal motility.
Some of the reasons for crop problems are not easily remedied. Marek’s disease is fatal and if the bird has other symptoms of the disease such as ocular or leg paralysis then the bird should be euthanized. Other possible causes of sour crop and crop impaction include gorging on long grass, hay, straw, wood chips, or sand, or eating strange things like string, twine, or plastic.
Karen: Yes, it was a little mound of straw that I found in Sweetie's crop. So should backyard chicken owners not use straw as bedding?
Dr. Mark: Some chickens love to eat things regardless what you use. Straw is not particularly attractive to them. But I have some that have even eaten shavings.
Karen: So what can I, or other backyard chicken owners do, if I notice this happening to one of my chickens?
Dr. Mark: An experienced avian veterinarian can help determine the cause and offer surgical options, if it comes to that. If consultation with an avian veterinarian isn’t an option, you can focus on the potentially treatable causes with the following advice. These are some treatments for crop impaction and may help if the crop has also begun to sour.
1 ) Isolate the affected bird in a hospital pen and provide good nursing care. A cage with a wire floor and no bedding is preferable.
2) Feed a commercial mash or crumbled diet and offer poultry grit made of crushed granite. Add two tablespoons of vinegar to each gallon of drinking water, preferably apple cider vinegar with the mother still present, and make sure the solution is fresh and constantly available. The granite grit will help to break up the impaction, do not be tempted to use mineral oil as it could end up in the bird’s lungs and will not break up the impaction.
3) In many cases a dilated crop (dilated is a soft pendulous crop that feels squishy as compared to a normal crop that is enlarged but firm d/t being stretched, full from material inside) is difficult to treat and the prognosis is not good. This treatment involves draining the crop. One method, which I do not recommend, is to turn the bird upside down and let the fluid be regurgitated as there is a real risk of aspiration with this treatment. I would recommend attaining a veterinarian who would use a local anaesthetic and then drain and wash the crop with sterile saline.
Karen: Uh oh. I did exactly that. It was 1 o'clock in the morning and I knew Sweetie was close to death so I did everything I could think of to help her including turning her upside down to try and drain her crop. Which was largely unsuccessful by the way. A lot of backyard chicken owners don't have access to a chicken friendly vet. In a case like mine would you still recommend not trying to drain the crop yourself?
Dr. Mark: I find more often than not it does nothing to relieve the impaction and the bird may die from aspiration as a consequence. Aspiration is not a nice way to die. If the bird is suffering from a physical obstruction (impaction) the prognosis is good with removal.
However if the crop is also soured use of antifungals may be necessary and depending on the underlying cause may only help for a short term. Treatment consists of identifying and resolving predisposing factors if any, and antimicrobial therapy with Nystatin, fluconazole, itraconazole, ketoconazole, amphotericin B, or flucytosine. Some natural remedies to rebalance the gastro-intestinal health would be beneficial as well. Pre-and probiotics may be beneficial to help re-establish the normal microflora.
Karen: Where can backyard chicken owners get the sour crop medications if they don't have a chicken friendly vet?
Dr. Mark: Trying apple cider vinegar is their best bet, the other medications are vet prescribed (karen's note: some feed stores carry basic veterinary medications for chickens). Prevention is an important part of controlling the disease process for both disorders. I would recommend keeping the grass mowed short where your chicken will be foraging. Providing plenty of feeder space and clean water at all times so birds are not stress eating and gorging. Sweeping the pens with a magnetic pick up tool** will decrease the risk of metal foreign bodies. Ensuring the birds do not have access to old peeling paint as it could be a potential source of lead toxicity. Keeping wild birds from access to feed and preventing feed from becoming mouldy may prevent sour crop. The use of apple cider vinegar in drinking water has also been associated with general gastro-intestinal health in poultry.
After talking with Dr. Mark, I felt like I had a bit of sour crop myself. A lot of stuff in me that hadn't been digested yet. I was hoping to get a simple 1, 2, 3, Sour Crop is cured answer.
But that didn't happen because that never happens with chickens because chickens are part bird, part dinosaur, part murder mystery novel.
And our job as backyard chicken owners is try to figure out who the killer is before the end.
** I just found this GREAT telescoping magnetic pickup tool on Amazon for $20. It's apparently really powerful and would be great for sweeping a chicken coop for metal.