Changing Attitude Toward Vet Visits and Illness
There is a time in every backyard chicken keeper’s journey that we make frequent vet visits whenever a flock favorite becomes ill. It happened time and time again if you’re like me until, eventually, it didn’t. We can’t help but fall hard for these sweet, feathered girls, and we want to do everything in our power to give them the longest lives possible. Unfortunately, the hard reality about keeping chickens is that many ailments, especially reproductive problems, are nearly impossible to cure despite seeking professional medical attention.
In my early years of chicken keeping, I took many trips to the vet. It was often a frustrating experience, to put it politely. I tried several veterinary clinics that stated they treated chickens, but more often than not, it seemed the vet was inexperienced in diagnosing chicken illnesses. I remember the first time I had a chicken with egg yolk peritonitis (diagnosed only after euthanasia and a necropsy). Two different vets diagnosed only the secondary infections resulting from her having a weakened immune system. One vet thought that her discolored comb meant that she had chronic respiratory disease — even though she had no respiratory symptoms — and told me that I might have to cull my entire flock. That is until she called the state veterinary college. On their advice, she conducted a fecal test. She prescribed antibiotics to treat a non-contagious bacterial infection, which did nothing to diagnose or treat the condition leading to her demise. I often left the vet’s office feeling like I was wasting my money.
I finally found a veterinarian who was also a chicken keeper, and she had a practice dedicated in large part to treating chickens. She was the only vet I ever found that truly understood how to diagnose chicken illnesses. Yet on many occasions, she could not diagnose various mysterious conditions. Even with a diagnosis, she could still not prevent the inevitable outcome of what I always knew in my heart. After 10 years of keeping chickens, many vet visits, and multiple necropsies, I understand that the most common cause of illness and premature death in my flock has been reproductive disorders. I also realize that more often than not, the only thing a trip to the vet can accomplish is to give us a few more weeks, or if we’re lucky, a couple more months with our cherished feather friend.
At home, I treat issues that tend to be less severe, such as a slow crop, vent gleet, wry neck, or bumblefoot. There is lots of information available on the internet. You can typically find good advice for home treatments by spending a few hours reading from multiple sources or talking to others in the online chicken community.
There are times when I still feel it’s important to go to the vet for an accurate diagnosis. If someone in my flock experiences respiratory symptoms that cause concern, I will take them to be tested to ensure they don’t have a contagious respiratory disease. It’s important not to administer over-the-counter drugs indiscriminately if you don’t know what you are treating. Treating an unknown condition with an ineffective medication doesn’t do your flock any good, and it contributes to broader drug resistance.
Nowadays, when one of my hens acts a bit off, I isolate her for a couple of days. I give vitamins and electrolytes in her water and her favorite treats to entice her to eat; I’ll watch how much she eats, look at her droppings, and figure out what the issue is. If it’s something I’ve dealt with before and know I can treat at home, that’s always a relief. But if she’s already lost weight and doesn’t have much of an appetite, it’s probably a reproductive issue or a tumor. I like to let her live out her days as normally as possible if she gets along with the rest of the flock without being picked on. When there are more bad days than good ones, I know it’s time to say goodbye via euthanasia at the vet’s office, or you can do it yourself at home. It’s never an easy decision, but it’s the final kindness that you can offer by not letting one of your feathered friends go on living a life that is no longer a good one.
Vet visits have stopped for me on all but the rarest of occasions. I still love my chickens as much as ever. But after 10 years of keeping chickens, love and loss have tempered my attitude toward sickness, vet visits, and even my attachment to the ladies. It’s the hardest part about keeping chickens and a life lesson. Live each day to the fullest and enjoy all of the special little moments along the way.
Originally published in the April/May 2022 issue of Backyard Poultry and regularly vetted for accuracy.