28 July 2011

Sad times in Chickenland

Rachel died a week ago this morning.

I'd taken her in for a second cortisone shot, hoping for a miracle cure like the first time. It made no difference. She got weaker and weaker and finally stopped eating and drinking. I had a long conversation with the vet last Tuesday evening, having already made an appointment to bring her for an evaluation on Thursday. But she declined sharply after that, only changing position a couple of times during the day, and falling on her side when she tried to walk.

When I opened the run a little after 8 Thursday morning, she was still breathing, but that was about it. When I went back to fetch her around 9:30 for the trip to the vet, she was stiff, though with terminal paralysis or rigor mortis I couldn't quite tell; I thought maybe I heard a heartbeat. We took her in anyway, and one of the techs confirmed death. As I'd anticipated from our earlier conversations, the vet wanted to do a necropsy to see if it was Marek's disease (which is so common that chicks are routinely vaccinated against it at 1 day of age) or something more exotic. I wanted to know, too.

The doc called back a couple of days later and left a detailed report on my voicemail. Not Marek's, which I guess is the good news. The cause of her presenting symptoms? Inconclusive. We're left with the original diagnosis of some neurological weirdness; maybe she'd had a stroke at some point. But the immediate cause of death was a massive fungal (aspergillus) infection of the right lung, possibly caused by aspirating food. I'm struggling with the realization that my tube-feeding back in May, when her neck was so terribly contorted that she couldn't eat on her own, might have killed her.

Rachel and her flockmates were tightly bonded. The other two, usually reliable layers, slowed way down during Rachel's final illness. They haven't laid an egg since she's been gone. Now, of course, I'm worried about them. They look fine, and I'm hoping they're just sitting shiva, in their poultryesque fashion, for Ray.

This is not what I signed up for when I got chickens. I didn't want to start with baby chicks because of the mortality factor; at 64 I have enough of that to deal with in my human life. I tried so hard to keep my hens safe and happy without being overly obsessive. But right now I feel like I'm living out some kind of Chickenland worst-case scenario. Of course I'm thinking about adding to the flock, but not til I find out what's going on with Max and Shelly. Would new playmates cheer them up, or stress them out further?

11 July 2011

Two and a Half Hens

It's been a roller-coaster ride in Chickenland.

One afternoon at the end of April, Rachel suddenly starting limping. She walked with her left leg held straight out, like a marching soldier. I assumed she'd injured herself and watched her for a couple of weeks, hoping it would improve on its own. Finally I took her to the chicken vet, who prescribed a course of Celebrex. No change.

At that point almost a month had passed. Just before Memorial Day weekend, Rachel got dramatically worse. Her neck contracted to the point where she couldn't eat or drink on her own. Her entire body skewed to one side. Off-balance, she could barely walk. I called the vet and got the first available appointment, on Monday. They'd be open despite the holiday. That evening I found Ray at the bottom of the henhouse ladder, on her side. My heart sank. She couldn't navigate the steps. I lifted her up, carried her down the next morning, and, for three days, syringed as much water and liquid nourishment down her throat as I could. Pilling a chicken, hydrating a chicken: two new skills to add to my resume.

Memorial Day morning I took her to the vet. Rachel was in terrible shape. In the exam room she could hardly stand upright. The doc didn't hold out much hope. She told me that it was probably something neurological, and that chickens -- along with migratory waterfowl, interestingly enough -- have really weird nervous systems. Psittacines (the parrot family) are normal by comparison. All she had to offer was a cortisone shot. We took it. Rather, Rachel took it -- right in the white meat, my sick mind pointed out.

24 hours later, she was walking again. Her neck unkinked. The limp diminished and eventually disappeared. She ate, enthusiastically. The vet had cautioned me that cortisone was a temporary fix at best; its effect might last a week. That was a little over a month ago. I started thinking of Ray as our special needs chicken. Sad, because she had been my most adventurous, inquisitive girl. But still, she was an active part of our flock of three despite her diminished capabilities. The video shows her, the dark brown bird, going at the greens with gusto, and even getting in an alpha-girl peck on Max.

A few days ago I noticed that Rachel's left wing was drooping, to the point where the long flight feathers dragged between her legs, sometimes getting in the way when she walked. This morning, she wasn't pacing the coop floor with Maxine and Shelly, waiting to be let out into the run. She was still in the nest box, but scrambled out when I arrived and stood hesitantly in the doorway, measuring the distance to the ground. I lifted her down and saw that her left eye was closed. Not blinking, but shut tight. Another sign of neurological damage, I'm guessing. So now I have a one-eyed chicken. What will happen next?

To those of you with human children, I apologize: But this weighs on me as I imagine your kids' illnesses and hardships weigh on you. In the days immediately after her injury, Rachel laid the two eggs she already had in the chute; there've been no more since then. But eggs are not the issue. I've taken responsibility for these animals. I can't regard them as livestock, the way a farmer would. Once I named them, they entered the realm of pets.