Emergencies/Illness Health Issues Physiology


Teasing Stories From The Dead

How many of us have had unexpected and unexplained deaths within our flock? Over the years I’ve had a few and been left wondering what happened and if there was an underlying issue that might affect my other birds down the road. Most of us just bury our dead, or put them out for scavengers, and are still left wondering.

A couple of times I’ve had my friend Thomas euthanize ill birds. He’s done rudimentary necropsies and taken photos of abnormalities. Since both of us aren’t very experienced in pathology we still weren’t sure of the diagnoses.

Last spring, I took a day long workshop on Small Flock Heath Management with two veterinarians who work as pathologists at the Animal Health Centre. I’d heard of them and the work they do and decided that when I experienced the next unexpected loss I’d send the bird off for a necropsy.

In the interim, I sent the necropsy photos I’d been holding on to and asked Dr. Vicki Bowes if she would give me a diagnosis on one, and a confirmation of my opinion on another. She kindly provided me with the information I’d been waiting for: ovarian adenocarcinoma in the former, and salpingitis, as a result of vent prolapse, in the latter. Mystery solved.

A few months later, I had cause to send a bird off to the Centre and Dr. Bowes performed the necropsy, the post-mortem examination of an animal to determine cause of disease or death.

For those of you who wonder what it entails it may differ from place to place, but this is what her lab provides:

  • dissection of an animal and detailed examination of all organ systems
  • macroscopic and microscopic tissue examination
  • diagnostic tests
  • full report on their findings

The pathologist can also, at their discretion, do up to 10 histopathology slides, routine bacterial culture of 5 tissues, fecal floatation, and analysis or viral culture of tissues.

There is a standard submission form which I needed to fill out giving my details and any information about the symptoms of the deceased bird. You can check off boxes for further testing: bacteriology, virology, toxicology and histology. Of course, wanting my money’s worth I checked them all. They don’t do everything imaginable, but select the most likely tests applicable to the specimen they are working on.

Serology & Virology Tests Available

They are able to take live birds, which they will euthanize, or you can send dead specimens fresh (well packaged) or frozen. I packed up my frozen hen in a small styrofoam cooler and sent her via courier for $18. I later learned that, if possible, they prefer fresh samples as the freezing process makes it more difficult to determine the test results.

I was surprised to get part one of the necropsy report on the next day, when they received the body. It contained a description of the exam, notations of abnormalities and cause of death: gout. Never having heard of avian gout I, then,  busily researched it. The final part of the report, which included histopathology and virology, came a few days later. She was negative for both Infectious Bronchitis and Mycoplasma gallisepticum (MG).

As this was my first submission in the calendar year it was subsidized: the whole thing only cost $25. Had I seven more chickens, who I suspected had died of the same cause, I could have sent them all for the price of one. No matter, I think I got great value. (Subsequent submissions would be charged at full price.)

Reportable & Notifiable Diseases

One of the things I was concerned about was the potential for my birds to be infected with a transmittable pathogen, which required reporting. As we all know, when there have been outbreaks of particular illnesses often the response is to cull birds. In 2005, 553 small flocks living in close proximity to the commercial growers in British Columbia’s Lower Mainland, were euthanized for fear they might contract and spread Avian Influenza. Sadly, none of those birds tested positive for A.I.

The guidelines may be different in your area, but you should be informed about what they are prior to the necropsy. Just because your bird tests positive for a viral infection doesn’t mean they will be culled. More likely you will be advised to keep a closed flock: no new birds in, and your birds can’t leave your property, in an attempt to curtail the further spread of transmittable pathogens.

In British Columbia reportable diseases include:

  • Fowl typhoid caused by Salmonella gallinarum
  • Any strain of H5 or H7 avian Influenza A virus
  • Infectious Laryngotracheitis (ILT)
  • Newcastle Disease
  • Pullorum diseases caused by Salmonella pullorum
  • Avian influenza A viruses, other than strains of H5 or H7, when accompanied by specific symptoms (e.g. respiratory distress; swelling of the sinuses or head; cyanosis; lack of coordination; high and rapidly escalating flock mortality)

The following are notifiable diseases:

  • Avian Chlamydiosis caused by Chlamydophila Psittaci
  • Avian Influenza A
  • Fowl Cholera caused by Pasteurella Multocida
  • Fowl Pox

Every province and state will have a government program or university that offers a necropsy service for chickens. Do your research now, before you have a death, so that you have the relevant information on hand when the time comes. You’ll need to know how they want the body packaged and if it can be frozen, or not. I happened to have had the perfect sized styrofoam cooler just when I needed it. If your specimen isn’t frozen you may have to wrap it with freezer packs.

If you are unable to send your bird to a lab, learn how to do a simple DIY necropsy yourself – there are online tutorials to guide you, including this step-by-step manual with photos. If you are used to butchering chickens and see something odd, take pictures. You can post them online or find someone who might be able to help with a diagnosis later. This doesn’t replace the lab tests, but it could give you pertinent information about what your bird was suffering from.

It’s never easy when we lose a member of our flock, but having a necropsy, with a confirmed diagnosis, can bring some peace of mind about what might, or might not, be affecting our birds. In my case, the outlay of $43 was well worth it and provided me with a diagnosis I had never heard of. Thankfully, it was an isolated condition that did not affect any others in my flock.

  • For complete details on getting a necropsy done for a farm or companion animal at the Animal Health Centre in British Columbia click here.
  • This is a list of places in the USA that offer necropsy services.

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