THE TRUTH ABOUT CHICKENS. THEY DIE.

I lost another chicken a few weeks ago.    She was a young one and probably the most nervous chicken I’ve ever encountered. That’s the thing about chickens.  Even though their name is synonymous with being nervous, afraid and scared, most of the chickens I’ve ever encountered are pretty bold and badass.

Sweetie was neither of those things.  She was afraid of everything from the other chickens to her food.  She ran away when I threw scratch into the run while all the other chickens ran towards it.  She waited patiently while the other chickens ate their fill of whatever treat I put out for them, whether it was grapes or scratch or leftover mashed potatoes, often ending up with nothing.  Once I noticed this was happening I started to hand feed Sweetie her snacks to make sure she got some too.  On behalf of Sweetie I also gave the other chickens dirty looks.

Every morning it’s the same thing with these chickens of mine.  As soon as they hear me take the lid off of the can that holds the scratch they all come running out because they know they’re going to get fed.  The second I throw the food, they all run towards it, except Sweetie who was always running away as though I was hurling hawks and raccoons at her.  Every single morning she didn’t know WHAT THE HELL was going on, even though every single morning it was the exact same routine.  Lid.  Scratch. Throw. Eat.

Silly chicken.

Then one morning, about a month ago the routine changed.  Everything was the same, except this particular morning Sweetie didn’t come running out only to inevitably run away.  This usually means the chicken is laying an egg, or the chicken is sick.  I checked the nesting box to see if Sweetie had got back to laying eggs after being in egg laying hiatus throughout most of the winter.  Sweetie was an Ameraucana who laid perfect, bright blue eggs.

 

In this case, Sweetie wasn’t laying an egg.  Sweetie was sick.  I opened up the doors to the indoor run and Sweetie was standing still in a dark, back corner with her feathers all puffed out looking slumpy.  It wasn’t particularly cold out, so I knew if she was puffing her feathers out chances are she had a fever.

I picked Sweetie up and immediately brought her inside.  I put her in a sick cage with a towel on the bottom and set the whole thing on my heated kitchen floors and turned the heat up on them.  I gave her food and water which she half heartedly pecked at.  I felt over her to see if I could somehow find out what was wrong but there wasn’t anything obvious.  I checked her bones, her vent, the soles of her feet and her crop.  It all felt and looked normal.  Because I knew she had a fever and may not have had anything to eat or drink for a while I gave her electrolytes and antibiotics to help her feel better. I covered her cage up with towels so she’d feel safe and left her alone.

By that afternoon I still didn’t know what was wrong with Sweetie.  She slept non stop and was obviously very sick.  Finally some time in the evening I felt her crop again and thought something didn’t seem right.  I could feel some food in there that felt like seeds and corn from scratch,  but mainly it felt spongey.  It wasn’t overly huge like an impacted crop would be but it wasn’t right.

I hated to do it because I knew how awful she felt, but I squeezed open her mouth to see if I could smell anything sour coming up from her insides.  Sour Crop is a condition where the contents of the crop become sour and rotten because for some reason the contents aren’t travelling properly out of the crop and into the chickens gizzard where the food gets “chewed” up.

If you’re confused, the image below will help you understand how a chicken digests food.

 

 

 

You know the old phrase “scarce as hen’s teeth”?  Well that’s because chickens don’t have teeth.  They have a beak and that’s it.  A chicken eats all of its food whole and it travels down it’s throat where it’s stored all day in the “crop”.  The crop is close to the centre of the breast of the chicken as you’re looking at it and is basically just a pouch.  All day long the chicken eats and all day long the food sits in the crop.

Overnight while the chicken is sleeping, the food in the crop travels to the chicken’s gizzard which “chews” the food.  It “chews” courtesy of the many little stones the chickens eat that are stored in the gizzard and act as teeth.  Once chewed, the food makes its way out of the gizzard and is pooped out of the hen.  That is the cycle.

If that cycle is stopped for any reason the chicken will die either of infection or starvation.  If the food can’t move from the crop to the gizzard for any reason the chicken will die.  It’s as simple as that.  Sour Crop and Impacted crop are two of the most common things that stop that cycle.

Normally sour crop (according to the Internet anyway) is pretty easy to diagnose because your chicken’s breath stinks like fermenting food.  I kept sticking my nose in Sweetie’s beak and it never smelled of anything.  But her crop was mushy and she was obviously close to death so I did what you’re supposed to do with a chicken who has sour crop.

I turned her completely upside down.

Doing this allows whatever is in the crop to come right back out of the hen’s mouth.  You’re forcing her to throw up basically, but really you’re just draining her crop.  You have to be very careful that the chicken doesn’t aspirate so only hold your chicken upside down for a few seconds at a time and keep her calm.

THAT is when the stink hit me.  Not a lot drained out of Sweetie, but there was enough to let me know things definitely weren’t right in her.  This is proof that not all diseases present the way they’re supposed to.  Sweetie’s mouth didn’t and breath didn’t stink at all.  That’s why I eliminated Sour Crop as the problem right in the morning when I first checked her over.  I did this several times until I thought I’d better stop because I didn’t want to stress her more than I had to.  I was happy that I had probably diagnosed what was wrong with her. By now it was after 2:00 in the morning and Sweetie and I both just wanted to sleep. In the morning I would read everything there was to know about Sour Crop and how best to deal with it.

Around 8:00 a.m. I came down to get a coffee and check on Sweetie.  She was sicker than she was the night before and obviously feeling terrible.  I gave her some water then went back upstairs to quickly do my Sour Crop research.  15 minutes later, I came downstairs again, armed with the knowledge that if I filled her crop with quite a bit of water by force feeding it to her, the contents of her crop would be more likely to flow out easily.

In those 15 minutes that I was upstairs researching how to save her, Sweetie had died.

It was awful.  If I had done the research the night before and implemented it, I might have been able to save her.  If I had woken up half an hour earlier I might have been able to save her.  If I had noticed she was sick a day earlier I might have been able to save her.

But I didn’t.

And I wasn’t even exactly sure why she had sour crop or why she got sick.  I guessed she had some sort of impaction but her crop really didn’t feel full the way it would if she had a big impaction.  I started to worry that whatever caused this in Sweetie was contagious and my other chickens might get it.

It was then that I made the decision to necropsy Sweetie.  A necropsy is an animal autopsy.   I did not want to necropsy Sweetie.  But I felt like I had to.  I wanted to know what killed her.  If she had a crop impaction (where the chicken eats straw and other things that form a knot too big to travel down to the gizzard, essentially blocking anything from moving to the gizzard)  then I’d feel confident it wasn’t something that was contagious to my other chickens.

So that morning, soon after she died (and I was absolutely positive she was dead), I covered up my kitchen island, put on a mask and medical gloves, and cut open my sweet little chicken.

And I videotaped the entire thing.  Next week, for those of you who own chickens I will show that video along with accompanying photos.  It will not be a post for the sensitive, but it will be a learning experience for anyone who owns chickens and as such, has been forced to become their own chicken vet.  That’s just the way it is when you have chickens.

The post will come with ample warnings of graphic content, so don’t worry, you won’t suddenly have pictures of a dead chicken on your computer or handheld device.  I will even link to nicer, more pleasant chicken related posts that day to give those of you who don’t want to watch the grim reality of a chicken necropsy.

The chicken necropsy told me exactly what went wrong with Sweetie and hopefully this post and the upcoming one will help some other chicken owner somewhere along the way.

 

108 Comments

  1. Kim says:

    I’m really sorry about Sweetie. Hugs

  2. Beth says:

    Oh no!! So sorry you lost another beautiful girl! I have chickens and ten
    of them were torn apart on Thanksgiving by a mink or some such animal. It was the worst! Hope the others will be OK. 😞

  3. Amy says:

    Last year my daughter was playing in a state championship, and I had to be out of town for four days. Nine baby chicks and twonducklings, so I rigged up a feed and watering system. It failed, and they all drowned except for the biggest duckling. I firmly believe I’m going to hell for this 😓

  4. TucsonPatty says:

    Karen, you are such a tough lady! Even while this was breaking your heart and you were blaming yourself, you persevered, in order to learn something new so you could teach us the thing! I am infinitely curious, and would have had to do the same thing, and will now will be learning something new. You never, ever know when your (my) little snippet of knowledge might help some other person! Thank you for your bravery.

  5. Stephbo says:

    Oh, Karen. I’m so sorry. Poor little Sweetie. I can’t even imagine having to do my own necroscopy on one of my pets. I know she was special to you, and I’m really sorry you lost her in such a traumatizing manner. Xoxo

  6. Lynne says:

    Ahhh…..that is too bad about Sweetie! 🙁
    And just so you know….I would say that 99% of Ameraucanas are shy/skittish and flighty….just something with the breed!

  7. Jani says:

    So sorry for your Sweetie. You are such an awesome chicken mom to go the extra mile to find out why she died.

  8. Paula says:

    I am very sorry for your loss. I have had chickens for over two years and nothing has happened to them but I know eventually something will happen. A lot of what I know about chickens, I learned from you, and I thank you for that.

    I will read the next post and put the lesson in my back pocket to draw upon if needed. As one chicken owner to another – your bravery just might save more than one chicken. Non chicken owners might have a difficult time understanding the sentiment.

  9. Karen says:

    Uch. That’s much worse to have a massacre like that! Sorry Beth! ~ karen

  10. Karen says:

    Thanks very much Kim. Poor little Sweetie. ~ karen!

  11. Karen says:

    omg that’s so awful. You would feel SO guilty! That’s really the worst isn’t it? I think since it was a State championship it’s perfect acceptable to put the blame squarely on the State though. ~ karen!

  12. Karen says:

    Thx Patty! I’m hoping I don’t have to be quite that curious for quite some time now. At least a month, lol. ~ karen!

  13. Karen says:

    I think (hope) people get it Paula. 🙂 And yes, you’ll have these things happen at one time or another. And that’s why I do put these posts up because I know they do indeed help people and save the lives of animals. Countless people have emailed me to tell me that my post on Flystrike either saved their chicken’s life, or at least taught them what it was they were dealing with and what to do. Flystrike is very difficult to deal with and so in a lot of cases the chicken dies. :/ The necropsy will be next Friday, the 24th. I edited the 16 minute video down to 3:30. Mainly I took out most of my swearing and gagging, lol. ~ karen!

  14. TucsonPatty says:

    Karen – One of the fun things about your posts are the various and sundry and funny comments and replies to your posts. They are not showing up, and the funny strange typing thing is happening again. What’s up with that?

  15. Oh, I am so so sorry for what you had to go through, Karen. It is wonderful to love an animal and pure hell to lose them. I teared up just seeing Sweeties’ face. Warm thoughts and hugs to you, girlfriend. Now, I need the Kleenex. Can never find the damn box when you need it.

  16. TucsonPatty says:

    Okay, now that I wrote that, the comments are showing… strange things at my house, I guess. : )

  17. Susan says:

    Karen, so sorry to hear about Sweetie. Thank you for sharing what you have learned. Caring for others is important life’s work and not always easy. You are a very caring chicken Mom.

  18. I lost one of mine to sour crop a few years back. She died on my lap, while I was still figuring out what I could do. So sorry about Sweetie. It’s hard to lose one.

  19. judy says:

    poor sweetie….life has a lot of hard to it…take it from one whose expiration date is nigh that getting some rest-even of the eternal variety is not to be sneezed at. with a husband with alzheimers sleep seems more desirable than anything money could buy. And I believe that in this age most humans are sleep deprived. Now if I could only get to sleep now,before he goes wandering again……….yawn.

  20. Melissa Stinson says:

    My heart hurts, poor Sweetie. I’m so sorry for your loss. You did all you could do with what knowledge you had and checked all your lists of what it could have been, so it wasn’t your fault. Chickens die, yes, but we can still be sad about it. I would like to know what to look for, so I can learn. We can all learn from sweet Sweetie.

  21. janny says:

    awwww poor little sweetie, verry good information,

  22. Nan Lorenz says:

    So sorry to hear about Sweetie. I grew up around chickens, my kids had pet chickens, they’re just chickens, Not! Hugs

  23. Tina Jeffrey says:

    Oh Amy, I’m sorry they died! Don’t blame yourself, when you do the best you can, that’s it. Love the big duckling X 10!

  24. Tina Jeffrey says:

    Judy, I’m sorry about your husband. I lost my dad to Alzheimer’s 8 years ago. My 84 year old mother would lay on the floor beside his bed (at the Alzheimer’s foster home) so he’d have to step on her to get up. As a consequence, she was with him at the moment he passed. She had such a fit when we put him into the foster home but she couldn’t care for him anymore. Even with 4 kids to help, it was difficult. The blessing is that he was a sweet, gentle guy, right to the end. I hope you sleep. G’night.

  25. Tina Jeffrey says:

    I’m sorry you lost Sweetie. She’s a beautiful bird. I no longer have chickens but I always read about yours, just in case!

  26. Brandy Ballard says:

    So sorry for your loss 🙁

  27. MrsChrisSA says:

    So very sorry about Sweetie.

    Don’t be hard on yourself though – it was obviously her time.

    Looking forward to the next post.

  28. Isabella says:

    So so sorry that you lost Sweetie. I know how painful it is as we’ve lost some of our girls over the years. The hardest is when you try to nurse them the back to health and it’s too late. Don’t beat yourself up over it. The short life she had was an easy and loving one. You gave her a wonderful world in spite of her neuroses. I am certain that she knew you were doing your best in spite of your ” if onlys”.

  29. Haydée says:

    So sorry to hear about Sweetie. I love how she layed pretty blue eggs.
    I’m sure the video will help many, including my daughter who wants to be a vet. She makes me watch all the animal surgery videos, so I suppose we will see this too.
    #dontlookawaymom 😕

  30. Therese says:

    Poor Sweetie! Poor you! I always feel more awful than I think I ought when one of my chickens dies. Sending positive vibes and a big hug.

  31. Thandi says:

    I cannot even begin to imagine doing a necropsy on one of my girls. That takes steel ovaries the size of bowling balls. But when something goes so wrong, you have to find some way of making it right, and that’s what you did with Sweetie. Because you get stuff done, even when the stuff makes you cry. I’m really sorry you lost one of your girls.
    I hope that your pretty girl can help other chickies and make this whole traumatic experience less s#*t.
    Xxx

  32. Emma says:

    Sweetie had a good chicken life thanks to you. Sorry for your loss Karen.

  33. Rene says:

    So sorry to hear about Sweetie’s death. Commiserations xx

  34. SuzyMcQ says:

    She was beautiful, Karen. I’m so sorry.

  35. Nancy says:

    I have a small farm and have always done post mortems on any unexplained deaths. I remember my dad doing the same on his farm. Most livestock owners though just can’t do it. Congratulations on pushing past the sad and the gross and doing it anyway. You are a better owner than most.

  36. Jody says:

    I’m sorry the hear Sweetie died. By doing your own necropsy and sharing that information in a future post I think you have become my definition of a true farmer.

  37. Nicole says:

    I’m glad that you were able to find out exactly what was wrong with her, but so sorry that you had to go through this. 🙁

  38. Leticia says:

    Nancy, you have hit the nail in the head. I was coming here to say that the life of a farmer is tough. You know it first hand. Kudos to you both.

  39. Grammy says:

    So sorry about your dear Sweetie. I’ve never had chickens, but I love my neighbor’s girls, and weep when one of them dies. I’ve had my fair share of grieving over dogs who left this planet too soon (as far as I’m concerned, it’s always too soon), so I know how it always takes a little piece of your heart. I’ll watch your necropsy because, like everything you post, I’ll learn something from it. Your bravery to have done it and filmed it is amazing.

  40. Pippa says:

    So sorry to hear about Sweetie – you do a great job with your chickens and it’s inspiring to read about your experiences and hard work with them.

  41. Cary Wade says:

    Oh Karen I am so sorry. I lost Dorothy last fall and I still tear up when I think of her. They are our babies. You were a good mama.

  42. Diane R. says:

    So sorry to hear about Sweetie. She was so pretty and you are such a good Mom! I love seeing and reading about your chickens.

  43. Barb says:

    Thank you, Karen, for doing the necropsy. As a chicken owner, I am grateful for the education! I don’t think I would have the stomach for it, but then again, since I have become a chicken farmer I have discovered it is a LOT different than being a pet owner, and sometimes you just have to do stuff. I have had only a few die on me, but all have been pretty much a mystery.

  44. Melissa says:

    Judy, my heart is with you. My dad has Alzheimer’s, and I am worried about the advanced stages of the disease, for the destruction of his mind, as well as the physical and emotional toll it will take on my mother. What an awful disease. Take care~

  45. Ann says:

    I had to solve a compacted crop once and I am thankful that it did work….I went and bought a nice papaya and some good quality yogurt. I blended equal amounts and liquified it just enough that I could get it sucked up into a small syringe.

    So for the next 3 days I would feed my hen from the syringe. Not tons and tons, but enough to keep her from starving. Plus I would gently massage the crop, hoping to feel an improvement. I also carefully gave her small syringes of water but again you have to be careful they do not aspirate.

    But finally on day 4, the blockage seemed to finally have “digested” due to the help of the natural enzymes in the papaya and the good bacteria in the yogurt. I watch this hen all the time to make sure we don’t have the problem again.

    I am so sorry that Sweetie has passed on. She probably gained her confidence and swagger as she crossed that rainbow bridge and she is up sassing all the other animals around heaven’s barnyard

  46. Melissa says:

    Sorry about Sweetie. This post is classic “Art of Doing Stuff.” You tell it like it is, but while adding some levity in the form of humor, all while informing your audience of very useful information. I think your karma bank just got a major deposit for your handling of the experience, and what you promise to bring to your readership. <3

  47. Rachel L says:

    Thank you for posting this, I have always heard that sour crop smells really bad and would have ruled that out. I also didn’t know about fly strike until you wrote about it. My chickens thank you for my education – Rachel L

  48. Eliza says:

    So sorry about Sweetie, she was a beautiful bird. I will watch the necropsy. Impressed that you even did it! I am wondering about the other chickens. Maybe a nice update on the rest of them after this sad occurrence. Curious if Cheez Whiz is still around…

  49. Kiara says:

    I am very sorry for your loss.

    I’d like to add I think you’re really brave, performing a necropsy on your own pet. You’re quite the homesteader! I look forward to that post and the education you’re offering on the subject.

  50. Karen,
    I have lost 2 of my hens over the past couple of weeks. One to respiratory infection the other to a predator. Working on the blog post about it now so yours is really timely.
    Sucks….circle of life or some shit. No less upsetting. I will keep my eyes peeled for your chicken autopsy.
    P.S. If you need an assistant (or surgical gloves) I’m a pretty seasoned OR nurse. 😉

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