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.


Read the Chicken Necropsy post here to learn how to do a chicken necropsy.


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.

 

110 Comments

  1. Teresa lathan says:

    I had 2 chickens to die recently just like ur Sweetie.

  2. Teresa lathan says:

    Please send me the video. I had 2 chickens to die with diarrhea and starving. I think it was the same way ur sweetie died.

  3. Carol says:

    Karen, I am so sorry you lost Sweetie. I love that you worked so hard to save her, and then investigated to confirm what was wrong to protect your other hens. Thank you for braving the unknown, and the stink, to persevere, and even record it to educate your readers. I have long harbored the desire to raise chickens. Spent a fair amount of time trying to mentally engineer and design the perfect coop, run, protection combination. Your posts are wonderful, including the joys, tribulations and sorrows in a delightfully salty, irreverent, and entertaining way. Sweetie – even if she was a chicken for a chicken – may she rest in peace.

  4. Heather B says:

    So sorry to hear about Sweetie! We lost our girl Georgie just a couple weeks ago, it was our first loss in 3 years of having chickens, so it was a tough one… Though we’re not 100% sure, the vet thought that it was either a reproductive tract cancer, or egg yolk peritonitis, so there was nothing that could have been done for her, but it was still hard.
    I’ve been following your blog since you first got your “urban” chickens and you were the main inspiration that I pushed for YEARS to get ours! We love them and they’re our little pets!

  5. janpartist says:

    That’s just about the saddest story ever. Except I haven’t cried, but I sort of want to. So sorry you lost Sweetie and glad you appreciated her idiosyncrasies, we have a freaky dog like that. How you had the ability to take your doctoring to that level, I’ll never know. I think that’s a compliment. I’m still shaking it off. Now I’m sad.

  6. Meg says:

    Sweetie will live on! Because of her, you were able to learn what happened to her and that knowledge will save others. I had to give away my hens and still miss them. Don’t be sad any longer – Sweetie would not want you to be.

  7. Marti J says:

    I’m so sorry for your loss, Karen. I know I make a lot of jokes about chicken and dumplings, but I also know you love these birds and care about them a lot. I’m so busy lately that I check in 1-2 times every 7-10 days, so I feel a tiny bit left out and like I dropped the ball on your grief. So I’m sorry about that, too.

    But oh gosh, thank you for the chicken necropsy warning. I’m pretty sure I don’t need to read that one. Grew up on a farm and know exactly what we called “chicken necropsy” (which after the first try, did not happen much) but that’s for another day.

    • Karen says:

      Thanks Marti! She was a cute little thing. She wasn’t a “Cuddles” who I *never* could have performed a necropsy on but she was a good little chicken. ~ karen!

  8. Heather MacDonald says:

    Sorry you lost Sweetie. Admire your gumption at performing the necropsy and sharing with fellow chicken lovers.

  9. Jen says:

    You.Are. Badass.

    I am anxious to see this because I worry about the health of my 4 hens and check in with them every day to make sure all is well. So far I’ve only had to save one from a hawk attack and so far so good, she’s fine but has not laid a single egg EVER and she’s 10 months old. So I do worry that she is full of eggs and will die from it, but I can’t imagine doing surgery on her during or after death. Thanks for your service!

  10. Liz Douglas says:

    OH Karen,
    I am so sorry. I know how close we get to our chickens. Thank you so much for letting us know about this. My thoughts and prayers are with you

  11. Shelagh says:

    I’m so sorry Karen,

    I do not have fond memories of chickens as I am allergic to chickens and was forced to fight a neurotic if not psychotic rooster every day to collect the eggs when I was a teenager but the death of any animal who is even nominally under your care is horrendously painful and good on you to pursue the reason so as to protect the rest of your flock!!!

  12. Amanda says:

    poor Sweetie! What a gentle personality too. So sorry for your loss.

  13. Sandra says:

    Even for a sad story, you made me laugh in the beginning. Sweetie reminds me of my oldest grandson. No way would he run to anything first when he was young (he’s 3 now). He was scared of everything. The rides in the mall, touching a horse, anything different. Even meeting people, he’d say “Noooo”.

    My friend said he was “cerebral”.

    He’s still very cautious, but a very imaginative child; I think my friend is right.

    Sorry for going on a different slant.

  14. Elaine says:

    Wow! Karen, you constantly amaze me! Talk about being brave!! I couldn’t believe my eyes when I came to the part where you intend to find out why Sweetie died! You are so brave and will help many other chicken lovers out there! I applaud you!

    I’m very, very sorry you lost Sweetie and can only imagine how hopeless you must have felt those last few days and hours; it’s the worst feeling in the world. You did your very best, Karen!

  15. Lisa Dart says:

    So sorry to hear about Sweetie. She was a beautiful looking girl and from your stories a true character. The thing is – you tried and you tried damn hard to help her. That’s all we can all do…doesn’t make the loss or self recriminations go any easier though. Take care. x

  16. Marian says:

    I am so sorry. Hugs. xoxo

  17. Gayle M says:

    Oh, Karen, I’m so sorry. As “parents”, we can only do what we feel is best at the moment, and hope that it is the right thing so in the end all is well. If only. Those are condemning words that have no place in a loving relationship, which you and Sweetie had. It is evident in that you were strong and loving enough to necropsy Sweetie to learn exactly what happened to her, to use her life and death for the benefit of your other chickens; and also to benefit others reading your blog who also may be learning on the go raising chickens. It’s not zoned for livestock where I live, but if I could, I would try chickens. Because of you, and those like Sweetie.

  18. Sheila says:

    I’m so sorry that you have lost Sweetie. As a pet lover, I know of the heartache that accompanies such a loss. You are a real trooper for doing the necropsy to share your experience and knowledge with others. I’m still teary-eyed and it wasn’t my chicken. Hugs!

  19. Lori says:

    I am so sorry for your loss!! I know how much your chickens mean to you, and how much you love them!
    Hope you find your answer as to what happened.

  20. jaine kunst says:

    Karen, I’m so sorry you lost Sweetie. And I agree with Thandi about you having steel ovaries. Doing a necropsy…you never cease to amaze me. You are my hero!

  21. Amber says:

    My condolences.

    I think it is a bird problem in general. I raised finches and canaries when I was younger with the same sort of experiences.

    Such delicate little dinosaurs

  22. AmyinStL says:

    Karen you are very brave. I can’t imagine having to do a necropsy on my pet if it died – but it was the right thing to do. Hopefully, your day then involved some wine.

  23. Angie S says:

    Poor Sweetie, I’m very sorry. I started to read the replies but had to stop cuz when I cry my face swells for two days.
    May 8th will mark one year of us having chickens (9 now). My favorite girl, Peaches, died because I believe I poisoned her. She was always the first to come for some love and we were putting Blue Kote on their combs and wattles to treat Pox. Not having used it before, I started with too much on the dabber and she ended up ingesting it. She died on New Years day.
    We didn’t do a necropsy and none of the other chickens ingested any, but if another would have died we would have. I comfort myself by reminding me that these girls are living a dream life – we liken it to being adopted by Brad and Angie (WE are the original Brad and Angie) except now we need to find a different couple for comparison…
    Thanks for this post and allowing me to share Peaches.

  24. J says:

    Oh Karen I’m so sorry. Hurts so much to lose a furry/feathered baby. Thoughts are with you.

  25. Linda in Illinois says:

    So sad,very sorry for you and Sweetie.. I can’t even speak thru the tears..

  26. Melissa Leach in NC says:

    I am truly sorry about Sweetie. I will not be viewing your video, just sayin…

  27. Sondra says:

    Karen, When i had a sick chicken, it was your post about “lash egg” that I found your blog in the first place. it was VERY helpful. Miss Henny Penny became a “house chicken” for about two weeks, being lugged back and forth to work in a cat carrier so that I could dose her with herbs twice a day. HP passed some nasty stuff in the first few days, but she went from not being able to stand to running around with her pals in two weeks. It took two more weeks to get her to go back to the coop, but she is well and raising hell, and laying again. I enjoy your blog so much, and am grateful for your thorough chicken research!

  28. Safetydog says:

    I’m so sorry to hear about Sweetie, and sorry to hear all that you went through. How brave and determined of you to do the necropsy to find the cause of her illness. Beating yourself up with “what ifs” can’t change what happened, but maybe you’ll be armed with more knowledge for the future.

  29. Mary says:

    Ah – the giant “if”. Animal people the world over who’ve lost their friends ask that “what if I’d….” question over and over. We do the very best we can with the information we have at the time. Like knowing that helps any! 🙁 I know she knew she was loved. I’m so sorry for the loss of your friend. 🙁

  30. Jennifer says:

    I’m so sorry for your loss, Karen.

  31. Lynn says:

    Sweetie has gone oh no ! So sorry to hear of her untimely passing, she was like the underdog chicken in your coup . Sorry for your loss Karen.

  32. Meg says:

    Very sorry to hear about Sweetie. I had almost the exact same experience with one of my pullets, Boodie. Interested to see your upcoming post.

  33. Sam Kerwood says:

    aww bless poor Sweetie. WE lost all our chickens a few years by the ghastly fox digging an underground tunnel to get to them… i wowed never to have chickens again as it scarred me for life! albeit i do miss proper fresh eggs. My husband now keeps bees! no comparison but none the less

  34. Deirdre says:

    Condolences and thank you. For being brave and willing to show us what to do. I am anxiously waiting for my property to have my own chickens. Sometimes with our own animals we have to do what is right even if it unpleasant. So thank you again Karen

  35. Kathy says:

    Teared up for your efforts and pain. Hand feeding her treats was heartwarming.

  36. Shirley Walker says:

    OH NO! So very sorry. I am a chicken owner and I know how fast things can go bad. I had to make one of my hens vomit once and it was not fun. She died later that year anyway. Maybe something was off with Sweetie right from the start. She was so beautiful 🙁 We never know what is going to happen. Don’t beat yourself up over it!

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