Saturday, December 21, 2013

Athena the Hen Visits the Vet

When you have backyard hens, one of the things you need to decide is to what extent these animals are for  food, and to what extent they are pets.

If you have hens mainly for the meat or even the eggs, then you will by necessity take a rather hard-nosed attitude towards birds that are aging, injured or sick. You will treat what you can with the help of extension agents or possibly veterinary diagnostic laboratories. You will want to treat birds as inexpensively as possible and will plan to cull (kill) birds that are old or otherwise beyond home treatment. If a bird dies suddenly, you might even perform your own necropsy. If the bird is healthy at the time she is culled, you will probably eat her. Hens that are past their prime as layers often make great soup, or so I'm told.  But truly sick birds need to be humanely culled and disposed of quickly and in a way that will minimize not only suffering but potential transmission of disease to the rest of the flock or to other animals.

If, like Don and I, you keep backyard hens  for not only eggs, but fertilizer for the compost pile, help with gardening tasks, and hours of entertainment, you may decide, like we did, that the hens are more pets than livestock. Ours have not only names, but personalities, too. We aren't competent enough to doctor them ourselves, so if our hens are sick, we plan to take them to a veterinarian.

 Athena, our Delaware, developed chronic loose stools ever since she molted back in late October or early November. I also feared she might be losing weight. My husband and I both thought she'd seemed lighter than last summer, and I noticed her breastbone stuck out more prominently than our other hens'. Because they are prey animals, chickens, like other birds, tend to hide signs of illness instinctively as a way of discouraging potential attacks by predators. By the time they actually show obvious signs of illness, they are usually extremely sick.

We decided not to risk this with Athena. Luckily, we have a great veterinarian  in Dr. Tony Poutous of Midway Veterinary Hospital  in Chesapeake, Virginia. He treats exotic animals including various types of birds and even chickens. When we brought our first three chickens home back in February, we made an appointment with Dr. Poutous for an initial exam and health check, so I knew he could tell us if she had lost weight since then.

The staff at Midway Veterinary Hospital in Chesapeake is ready to check us in

My husband, Don, waits with our hen (in a pet carrier) for our turn in the examining room

Even though Athena grew up on a farm, she is, like most chickens, an extremely good patient. It is particularly easy to get a stool sample from chickens, for example, because they poop a lot. Besides weighing her and taking a stool sample, Dr. Poutous gave her a careful physical exam. He did note that her stools were loose, although not alarmingly so.

Dr. Poutous' assistant takes down details for Athena's records before she weighs her.

Athena seems to like the scale and spent quite a bit of time there after being weighed.

Dr. Poutous arrives with a smile.

The doctor gets to work examining the patient; Don looks on.

Athena's loose stools were easy to observe (on the scale and on the examining room floor)

Much to our relief, Athena had actually gained a little weight since last spring, about 1/4 pound. Dr. Poutous still feels she's a little underweight, and he suspects she may have gained over the summer and then started losing weight again, since our impression was that she was heavier last summer. Her overall health and respiration seemed good upon examination. There were no parasite problems from the stool sample.

But she did have signs of a slight bacterial infection with clostridium. Dr. Poutous said that these bacteria are plentiful in soil. Since chickens live low to the ground and scratch in soil a lot, they tend to get exposed to it. He said it usually doesn't cause problems in them unless their immune systems are weakened or they suffer from stress. We had mentioned that Athena seemed to have a hard molt and that she'd been working harder than usual to maintain her status at the top of the pecking order in our flock. He suspects that these might be the kinds of stresses that could have allowed the bacteria to multiply to the point that they are giving Athena trouble.

Unlike other family pets, chickens produce food (eggs) and are potentially food (meat). Because of this, a veterinarian needs to be mindful of laws regarding use of medications in chickens. Luckily, Dr. Poutous knows his stuff. He said Athena needed an antibiotic, and he prescribed one (Metronidazole) that is safe and legal for use in chickens. He also gave us a withdrawal (discard) time of one month for Athena's eggs. This means nobody is allowed to eat her eggs for a month after she finishes her antibiotics, just to be on the safe side.

This is not a problem, because none of our girls is laying right now. They are heritage breeds, we do not supplement their light in the winter, and so they are taking a natural and much-needed break from laying. By the time they resume in the spring, we are hoping Athena's bout of poor health will be far behind her. Besides, we suspect Athena does not lay, anyway.

 By the way, according to Chicken Health for Dummies, "extra-label drug use in food-producing animals by anyone other than a licensed veterinarian is illegal. Some drugs are completely prohibited for food-producing animals--even veterinarians can't prescribe them for chickens. Examples of drugs on the no-no list are popular dog and cat antibiotics enrofloxacin (Baytril) and cephalexin (Keflex)." This is under U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) rules.

Dr. Poutous had already warned us never to use Baytril in chickens, and I assured him that I would never give our hens an antibiotic without checking with him first. It really helps to have a diagnosis rather than playing guessing games with drugs and antibiotics, which can do more harm than good if misused.

So we feel his services are worth the money.

Sometimes friends or neighbors want to buy our eggs. I just laugh when they ask. The way we treat our hens, there's no point in charging for the eggs. We give eggs away or freeze them when we have extra. Competent veterinary care like what Athena gets from Dr. Poutous is not inexpensive. The examination, fecal analysis, and medication cost $129.00. He also wants a call if Athena does not improve, or if the loose stools come back.

Will do! We enjoy our birds and want to do right by them.

Update on 1/12/14: Athena seems back to her normal self, bossing the other hens around. Her stools are much better, so we are hoping she is cured for the long run. Thanks, Dr. Poutous!

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