Case Study Emergencies/Illness Health Issues

Case Study: Impacted Crop Surgery

Understanding your chickens’ digestive system will help you navigate any problems that might affect it. The crop is located in the middle of the upper chest of the chicken. If it’s firm it’s full.  A healthy full crop should be about the size of a plum, full at bedtime and empty in the morning. A full crop at night is a good thing; if it’s still full in the morning that’s cause for concern. 

Various crop issues can affect digestion, which can be serious, or even life threatening.

Sour crop: Occurs when the crop empties slowly, allowing food to sit, ferment and develop a yeast infection (candida albicans). The crop feels large and squishy, not firm. You may hear gases or gurgling if you touch it. I don’t have a great sense of smell, but if you do, your bird’s breath might smell bad.  

Impacted Crop: An impacted crop will be firm and large like a tennis ball, may be tender to touch and does not empty overnight.

I have only ever deal with a crop issue once when my Naked Neck hen, Bif Naked, started roosting in the nest box instead of the roost bars at night. I did all the recommended things to deal with sour crop: gentle massage, giving her yoghurt and apple cider vinegar. By day 10 there was no improvement and things had started to go downhill, in that, her crop was now impacted.

The result of a severe impaction is certain death so I started to consider my last resort: at-home surgery to remove whatever was stuck in her crop. It was definitely something I didn’t want to embark on, but I gathered the necessary equipment: scalpel and sutures and crossed my fingers I wouldn’t have to use them. On day 11 I gave her one last massage and miraculously I actually felt something pop under my fingers. Somehow I had broken whatever was encapsulated and she made a full recovery after that.

In dealing with any major chicken health issues, particularly surgery I’d recommend taking your bird to the veterinarian. DIY medical care usually doesn’t stem from a lack of compassion, but is borne out of necessity due to lack of access to an Avian Vet or funds.

If you do attempt crop surgery be as prepared as possible by having all the right equipment for the job: Metacam (painkiller); scalpel, dissolvable sutures, disinfectants, antibiotics and a topical anesthetic, if possible. You’ll also need a helper or two with strong stomachs (and maybe another to document your handiwork).

This is the first-hand account of DIY surgery performed by Kerri, her wife Jen and their son, Delaine from Good Courage Farm. Unfortunately all their hands were kept busy so there are no photos documenting the actual surgery. I did manage to find other images online to give you an idea of what it entails.

Clara, 1-year-old Barred Rock Hen

We tried for 10 days to resolve the impaction, first with mineral oil and then with fluids by tube and regular massage. Nothing worked. We thought about culling her, but she had a lot of strength and we thought she deserved a chance to use that strength toward living.

Setting ourselves up, we reviewed how to do the procedure. (Definitely a 3-person operation from my perspective.) All three of us watched and read several instructional resources online. I ordered a suture kit that included absorbable chromic gut sutures. We gave Clara soft foods and Nutri Drench for a couple days prior to build up some reserves, plus extra massages. Her poop showed that she was digesting it okay. Clearly, though, the mass wasn’t going to move and without daily tube feeding, she’d starve in short order.

We did the procedure on the kitchen table, with lots of bright light. We had towels, gauze, antiseptic wash, hemostats, forceps, a scalpel, a suture kit, Neosporin, nonstick bandages and vet wrap.  We also had a container with soapy water for the stuff we were about to extract, which was key to keeping the stink contained.

Most Avian Vets would do pretty much the same thing we did. The risks of topical analgesics and general anesthesia are serious, so we opted to proceed without one. It was a really hard choice to make, but because so many other chicken owners have had positive outcomes we decided to make the attempt. I have never intentionally inflicted pain like that on another creature. We may not ever make the same choice again, as it was clearly painful for her.  The whole time we were all thinking about the centuries of medical and veterinary care that happened without the blessing of anesthesia.

There was so much more blood than in the You Tube videos, and it made it hard to see what we were doing at the most critical moments. The crop has a web of small blood vessels and we clearly cut through one. It was hard to avoid, but the online resources didn’t seem to have the same problem. Clara may have been in better shape (better hydrated, better perfusion) than some birds with an impaction almost two weeks along. I thought the scalpel would be sharper and cut more readily than it did; it took a bit of slicing to get to the inside of the crop.

The incision in the skin was about 1.5” long and we offset the incision into the crop to the left by a little more than half an inch. If you just cut through both the skin and the crop at the same place, you run the risk of infection getting all the way in. The incision in the crop was about ¾” long.

We had hoped it would be fast, but it was definitely drawn-out. We carefully took only a few strands of grass out at a time, so as not to tear past the incision site. Based on the stuff that came out of her crop, she would never have passed that mass through her system. She definitely would have died, or more likely, we’d have euthanized her before she starved to death. The mass was almost entirely grass, plus scratch grain that sprouted in her crop. It’s winter here in Minnesota. We had a day in the upper 30s and so when I let them free range, she seemed to have found a thawed patch of grass and just went crazy on it. None of the other 19 birds in our flock suffered an impaction from that day out. 

We sutured the crop with three stitches and the skin (separately) with four stitches, using absorbable sutures on both tissues. We put topical Neosporin under and on the skin at the incision site.  Oral amoxicillin was given to prevent infection.

 The whole thing took an hour-and-a-half from prep to bandaging. We hope that this suffering is worth it.

At the time of the impaction, Clara was in a hard molt. I’ve read that some people notice a correlation between molting (especially in Barred Rocks and Spangled Sussex) and impacted crop.

Day 2:  Clara’s alive and feisty, while weak. Her comb is bright but her feet strangely pale.  She hates the vet wrap bandage – she’s falling over backward as she tries to back out of it. We ended up taking it off and just putting on a loose gauze ‘crop bra’. We gave her access to water about 16 hours after the procedure and she drank on her own.

We very carefully gave her 10 cc of warm water, but not all the way down into the crop using mini aquarium tubing from PetSmart and some luer slip syringes from the feed store. Later in the day we gave her 10cc of water with honey and Nutridrench. We also gave 3 drops of CBD oil for pets in her beak for pain relief. Her poops are small, watery and white. 

Day 3: She’s still with us and is pretty perky, but lonely.

About 36 hours after the surgery, we gave her one tablespoon of very soft, wet scrambled egg, watered down with strained blended oat water for its soothing effect, and cooked in lard for extra calories and lubricant. Clara gobbled it up and pecked the plate clean. We gave her 3 more drops of CBD oil. She’s very alert. We’re keeping her warm and dry in a towel-lined crate for the next week. 

The incision site looks very good – dry and light pink. It was worth the two hours I spent practicing suturing on a silicone pad that came with our kit. The skin all around the incision site is blue like a bruise. I think this discoloration may from blood trapped between the crop and the skin, and I hope it will be reabsorbed.  Nothing smells off.  

Our worries are that her poops are still watery and white, with no indication that she’s digesting the soft food. Her crop is very slow to empty, which makes some sense because it was so distended. I think the gauze bra is very important so that there’s no stretching of the incision sites.  I don’t think she’s out of the woods – there’s still a chance that food won’t start moving through at a normal rate, or the possibility of infection so we’re still doing antibiotics. 

Day 5: Clara, is doing better than we’d ever have expected or hoped. She’s back to eating rations and pooping normally. She wants out of the dog crate, but we’re dipping to -14F/-25C here in the coming days, so we’re waiting to transition her back to the coop until this cold snap passes.

Day 14: Clara has made a full recovery. Her supervised reintroduction didn’t go well – the roosters started attacking her so there will have to be a Plan B before she can rejoin the flock.

Tips for DIY surgery

  • Do as much online research as you can prior to the procedure.
  • Ensure you have all the equipment required.
  • Enlist one or two helpers.
  • Use a numbing agent on the site or give Metacam one hour prior to surgery.
  • Post-surgery Metacam/Meloxicam for pain and amoxicillin for prophylactic infection.
  • Don’t use baby aspirin (81mg) – it acts a blood thinner and prevents clotting.
  • Support the crop with a bra to hold it in place.
  • No food, only water, for the first 24 hours.
  • Offer soft foods like scrambled eggs with crumble mash.
  • Once the course of antibiotics is finished give probiotics (i.e. yoghurt, powdered probiotics in water).
  • Check the withdrawal times for any medications that have been given.
  • Have a plan for humane euthanasia if your bird doesn’t make it.

Update: After making a spectacular recovery and reintegrating with the flock, Clara’s crop became impacted again. Sadly the family made the difficult decision to euthanize her. I think one of the complications of recovering from an impacted crop is that the muscles get stretched and make the bird vulnerable to future recurrences.

Many thanks to Kerri, Jen & Delaine for their story and photos, used with permission. Credit for Featured Photo: Chicken Vet

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