Several years ago I had a much loved poodle, Simon, who had a penchant for eating things that got stuck in his gut: bits of plastic, part of corn cob and not once, but twice, fur balls (his own that were put out for wild birds’ nesting material).
He underwent surgery five times to remove the potentially life threatening stuff that is referred to as ‘foreign body ingestion’. We alternately joked that we were building the veterinarian’s kids college fund or that Simon should have a zipper installed because he was such a frequent patient. We were always braced for an emergency from which he wouldn’t come back, but he ending up being taken out by a totally unrelated health condition.
That experience has trained me to kept an eagle eye on potential hazards to my animals knowing the gravity and expense of dealing with them. Most of us probably don’t think about the crazy stuff that chickens can, and do, eat. Some of it passes out of the body; some gets lodged in their gizzards and others have the potential to kill them.
If you watch your birds you’ll see they spend a fair amount of time pecking in the ground for bugs, seeds and scratch. They can also inadvertently pick up all kinds of hazards: staples, nails, screws and fish hooks. I’ve seen a couple of Facebook posts recently of young birds trying to ingest string or thread, which can end up tightly wound around their tongue. One chick’s tongue had the blood supply cut off and it dropped off entirely.
Foreign objects can perforate the digestive tract and metals can cause toxicity. Zinc (e.g. galvanized hardware and wire) is absorbed into the bloodstream and damages red blood cells causing them to rupture. The end result is kidney failure. Lead (e.g. paint chips, gunshot, fishing gear) when ingested often stays in the digestive system and acts as a strong neurotoxin. Over time it is released into the bloodstream, resulting in anemia and interference with the bird’s ability to absorb calcium.
Bird Bird, 13 month-old Australorp x Hen
As a chick Bird Bird incurred a pecking injury and was separated from her brooder mates. For the next couple of months she was raised as a house chicken. Taya has a coop and run, but because Bird Bird was always an outsider she chose to live in the horse barn. They were in the process of building horse stalls and rabbit cages when her husband either dropped some nuts and bolts or the hen found them and ate them.
Taya noticed that Bird Bird was limping (her only symptom) and monitored her for the next 3-4 weeks trying to figure out what was going on. On Valentine’s Day she took her to the veterinarian. Bird Bird’s x-ray revealed a gizzard with some interesting metal bits that weren’t likely to come out on their own.
They opted to have them surgically removed in order to save her life. Due to their veterinarian’s schedule they had to wait five days until her operation.
“Bird Bird presented to Roseland Animal Hospital after about a one week history of not using her left leg. Her diligent owners were not aware of any traumas that could have happened and she did not have any identified wounds.
Her exam was also overall unremarkable beyond the inability to use the left leg. Radiographs (x-rays) were performed in an effort to better visualize the hip joint and the femur as palpation alone is often challenging due to the tight apposition with the body wall. On those radiographs metallic objects were noted in her ventriculus. The soft tissues of her left leg and her bones had no abnormalities.
Given the lameness and the findings on her radiographs, the concern was for a metal toxicity resulting in neurologic deficits/lameness. Bird Bird’s owners made the decision to move forward with a ventriculotomy or incision into the ventriculus to facilitate removal of the foreign material.
Bird bird was first mildly sedated with midazolam and butorphanol to allow easier handling and provision of pain relief. She was then anesthetized with isofluorane. Her feathers were manually plucked from the belly and included her left body wall and left leg. After scrubbing, she was moved into the surgical suite and placed on her right side. Her right leg was pulled down and forward. Her left leg was pulled back and up. The tissues were then cleaned again. A scalpel was used to incise the skin in the triangle between the femur and the coleomic space to the underlying muscle. The underlying muscle was then bluntly dissected through the air sac until the ventriculus could be identified.
Sutures were placed to hold the ventriculus up toward the opening/incision and saline soaked gauze placed around the tissues. An incision was then made at the least muscular aspect of the ventriculus with a scalpel blade. Once entered, the material within the lumen was removed; two screws and a bolt were identified. The ventriculus was explored prior to closure again to ensure no additional abnormalities/foreign material. All incisions were closed with 4-0 PDS suture material. Bird bird did wonderfully through the procedure and recovered without issue.” – Dr Desjeunes, DVM, Roseland Animal Hospital (Indiana)
Remarkably Bird Bird made it through surgery with flying colours. Three weeks later she started laying again, but it took two or three more months for her body to deal with the metal toxicity and to resume walking again without a limp.
Two Screws & A Bolt: $836.14. Saving Bird Bird’s Life: Priceless
Many thanks to Taya Baker-Hardacre for her story and photos. All material used with permission.
And much appreciation to Dr. Desjeunes who was kind enough to give me her written response to my questions. Dr. Desjeunes has worked with chickens since her veterinary internship in 2014. While she does not see them on a weekly basis, she does see a variety of breeds with various issues/abnormalities within a given month. Most of the chickens tended to by Dr. Desjeunes are seen more as family pets and not utilized for food/egg products.
Featured photo: Backyard Chickens
Check out an ingested .22 cartridge that showed up on an x-ray of a pullet with a broken leg here.