Just to warn you, this is not a sad tale of loss, but one with a very happy ending. I am posting it in the hope that it will help others who have a poorly hen, and want to help her get better. Second warning: it contains pictures of chicken poo. Sorry!
I first noticed Ethel was not herself one Wednesday morning in February; I had gone to let the hens out before going off to work, and Ethel was very reluctant to leave the house. I tried to entice her with some of her favourite sunflower seeds, but she showed no interest, and just stood in a hunched manner looking depressed, with her comb completely flopped over onto one side almost covering her eye. I was late for work, so had to hope that she would regain her appetite during the day. She was in the nestbox huddled up to Gracie that evening when I returned, so I left her as she seemed comfortable. The next morning she was the same, but this time she refused to leave the house. Again, I had to leave for work, there was no one I could leave her with, so I had to hope that she would still be there when I got home. Thankfully, she was huddled in the nest box again, so I extricated her and took her into the warmth of the kitchen, where I fashioned a cardboard box into a nestbox for her. I tried to get her to eat and drink, but she took only a little water and went to sleep. I was due to work from home the next day, so I was able to look after her, but she showed no sign of wanting to eat or drink. When she suddenly produced what looked like lightly whisked egg from her rear end, onto the kitchen floor, I became very alarmed and consulted Twitter trying to seek the cause. I was referred to a fascinating page full of pictures of chicken poo – what it should look like, and what it should not. Chicken poo is a very valuable tool in diagnosing the health or otherwise of your hen, and it is well worth becoming familiar with their droppings. Ethel’s continued to be runny-egg like, with small lumps of bright green semi-digested grass. I gave her a gentle examination of her stomach and vent areas; she did not have any lumps around her rear, I had a quick feel up her vent but could not detect a stuck egg. Her crop was completely empty and her stomach felt pretty flat too, so she had not eaten in some days, poor girl.
She slept under the kitchen table that night, but on Saturday she was still producing the yellow diarrhoea and looked if anything even peakier, so I decided enough was enough she was seeing the vet. The vet we saw did not seem to know a lot about pet hens, but she did her best, feeling for egg binding, sour crop and so on. All the time the vet was examining her, Ethel was leaning against me, as though she couldn’t really stand on her own, and I stroked her and chatted to her reassuringly. The vet prescribed a broad-spectrum antibiotic, Baytril, and a wormer, Panacur, and showed me how to use a syringe to force feed poor Ethel with the drugs. She said come back if there was any change, but I could tell by the look in her eyes that she didn’t think Ethel would make it past the weekend. We took Ethel back home and settled her in the box under the kitchen table. Occasionally, I would take her out of the box, and stand her on some newspaper, with food and water bowls, and she did walk a few steps, drank a little, and looked at the food. I tried mashing the layers pellets with some warm water, and she ate a little of that, but showed no interest in anything else – porridge, yoghurt, grapes, seeds, all were left on the newspaper. She looked thin, depressed, and very mucky, as she had not cleaned herself in days, and the diarrhoea had given her filthy feathers. That is another sign to watch out for, a hen that doesn’t keep her feathers in good order, combined with the depression, is a sure sign that something is not right.
Every morning and evening we wrestled her to get the drugs into her – it took two of us, so she still had some fight left in her. Every evening she watched me prepare and cook the evening meal from her nest under the kitchen table. She got lots of cuddles too, and at one point I attempted to carry on typing whilst simultaneously stroking her on my lap, but that didn’t work (too distracting). One afternoon, I sat with her on my lap and cried into her feathers “please Ethel don’t die!” She looked pityingly at me, as only a hen can!
She did not improve on the drugs, and on Tuesday morning, I took her back to the vet with more samples of her poo. This time, we saw Kat, who kept hens of her own, and didn’t seem to think I was mad spending money on vets bills for a chicken. She gave Ethel a very thorough rectal exam, which Ethel bore with great fortitude, leaning against me once again, until Kat went just that little bit too far, when Ethel then turned around and pecked Kat’s hand! Once the hand had withdrawn from Ethel’s vent, she released a huge gush of icky liquid all over the examination table! Luckily, Kat had a good sense of humour about the mess! She seemed to think that Ethel had eaten something that caused a severe inflammation in her gut; since Baytril was not working, she instead prescribed Tylan injections and gave it into Ethel’s rather scrawny breast. Ethel didn’t seem to feel the needle at all. Again, I took her home and stood her on the newspaper with water and various bowls of tempting tidbits of food. I was working on my laptop on the kitchen table a couple of hours later, when I heard tap-tapping on the floor – Ethel was eating something! She was definitely tucking into the seed mixture and the layers mash, not with great gusto, but more enthusiastically than she had been. She accepted some scraps of butternut squash from me, which she appeared to really like. I felt we had turned a corner. Her poo was still runny, but it was a bit more solid than it had been.
I worked from home for the rest of the week, and Ethel kept me company in the kitchen. Each day she grew a little stronger; she started taking an interest in her surroundings, and wandered around looking up at the dresser. Once, she stood listening to the radio on the dresser shelf and then tried to fly up to it! She must have found John Humphries voice very soothing! She watched me prepare the evening meal each night, with a curious expression on her face – like she was watching an episode of “Humans do the Funniest Things” on HenTV! And each night she hopped back into her box and settled down in her nest quite contentedly. Each morning, when I came down to make breakfast, she popped her head out of the box as if to say “About time! Where’s my breakfast?” I took her back to the vet for two more injections, and each time, Ethel seemed quite happy in her travelling box, strapped into the front passenger seat. Kat the vet was very happy with her progress, and said that unless she had a relapse I didn’t need to take her back. That was very good news.
It was sunny on the Thursday afternoon, so I opened the kitchen door and Ethel looked out at the other hens on the grass. She seemed keen on going out, and so I took her outside and let her have a wander and get reacquainted; it can be difficult putting a hen back into her flock after an absence, even of only a week, but Doris, Ginger and Gracie seemed not to mind at all. Gracie went over to Ethel, and got pecked in a grumpy way for her pains. Ethel was still not completely well, so I only left her outside, closely supervised, for half an hour but in that time she was able to walk around, have a scratch in the dirt and eat some grass. It was sunny but not very warm in the breeze, and she was not moving very fast; she looked small and poorly still, so I took her back into the warmth of the kitchen, and she seemed relieved to be out of the wind.
I repeated the experiment the next day; it was warmer on Friday afternoon, and as soon as I took her outside she walked over the the sunny/shady area and had a scratch and a brief dustbathe. She was definitely feeling a lot better. When I let the rest of her flock out of their run, Gracie and Ginger wandered over to see her, and stayed close by her, mooching in the sunshine for a couple of hours, until I again took her inside.
Saturday was even sunnier and warmer, so Ethel went outside after lunch. I kept a close eye on her all afternoon, but she seemed to be settled and happy. When it came to dusk, she went with the others into their pen, had some pellets and water, and then went up the ramp to the henhouse. I fancy she glanced back at me as she went into the house as if to say “I’m OK now”.
She continued to improve slowly; whenever the hens were let out of their pen, she moved around fairly slowly – scratching, dustbathing, eating grass – but always with either Ginger or Gracie in attendance, as though they did not want to leave her on her own. It was heart-warming to see. Three months later, she has glossy well-kept feathers and a bright red (almost upstanding) comb, she is a nice rounded shape, she eats well, and she is quite active. She and Gracie glide around the field like a couple of friends having a chat while they are walking.
So the moral of this story is: don’t give up on your poorly hen. Yes, sometimes there really is nothing you can do to help, but most of the time you can, by being observant, seeking advice from the huge company of internet chicken experts, and consulting a vet quickly if the situation is not resolvable with the resources you have.