If you’ve ever watched any kind of detective show you’re probably aware of a cause of death termed blunt force trauma. BFT is an injury to the body by forceful impact, falls, or physical attack with a dull object. Penetrating trauma, on the other hand, involves piercing the skin, causing an open wound. BFT can be caused by a number of things such as increased or decreased speed of a moving object, slipping and stretching of organs and tissue in relation to each other, or crushing pressure.
BFT is classified into four categories: contusion (bruise), abrasion (scrapes), laceration (tearing of skin), and fracture (broken bones).
Chickens can experience those types of injuries from predator/dog attacks; hard landings; flying into structures and rough handling. I often see people in Facebook chicken group talk about kicking their unruly rooster as a way of managing aggression. I recently read a post in which someone had to euthanize their rooster ‘to put him out of his misery after he took a boot’ for his behaviour. Needless to say, most chicken keepers are more concerned about the welfare of their birds, but it’s impossible to prevent some accidents from happening.
Marie first contacted me the week before Christmas. One of her young hens had died unexpectedly and she wanted information on where to send her for a necropsy. Unfortunately the weather was uncooperative and the postal service was backed up due to the holidays, so I advised her to freeze her hen to avoid decomposition. Then in January, the local courier plant was hit with a Covid 19 outbreak and were far behind schedule and couldn’t guarantee a timely delivery.
Marie got into the habit of calling the courier every Monday to find out if guaranteed shipping was available until they finally told her to quit calling. She ended up using an alternate courier, which mean that it took her more than two months to to ship her parcel to the Animal Health Centre and get the answer as to what had happened to Lucy.
Lucy, 8 Month Old Rhode Island Red Hen
Lucy was a healthy young hen who was laying regularly until the day she died.
“She wasn’t yakking at me when I went out to feed the flock, which was unusual. She was just laying down by the treats and didn’t eat any. Lucy finally got up and ate a bit while I cleaned the coop, but was laying down again by the time I finished.
I brought her in the house where she laid on her side with her eyes closed. She could stand if she had to. I thought Lucy might be egg bound, so I put her in an Epsom salt bath. She laid there for five minutes before starting to flap, kicking her feet, swinging her head and then abruptly died. All that – which I’m assuming was her central nervous system shutting down – lasted about 15 seconds.”
(FYI: Unfortunately the lab doesn’t provide photographs and I wasn’t able to find anything comparable online.)
Final Necropsy Report:
The 2.4 kg carcass was well-muscled and had adequate subcutaneous and visceral adipose stores (good body condition).
Kidney: There are rare, mild infiltrates of lymphocytes in the interstitium.
Liver: There are multiple fractures of the capsule and parenchyma, with abundant hemorrhage and fibrin clots attached.
There are no significant findings in the lung, liver, sciatic nerve, spleen, heart, trachea, ova, oviduct and brain. There was no evidence of significant underlying disease.
The submitted bird had evidence of traumatic injury, with fracture of the liver and hemorrhage severe enough to cause death.
Marie sent the lab report to me and we tried to brainstorm what could have caused liver damage so significant as to cause Lucy’s death. I immediately thought she might have made a hard landing from high roost bars; was attacked by a dog; or hit something hard within the coop or run. I suggested she contact the lab for further clarification and here’s their correspondence.
“I’m wondering if you have any idea what may have caused her liver to rupture? Did this happen due to some type of blunt force trauma? I’ve wracked my brain trying to think what may have happened. The only thing I can come up with is she may have flown out of the coop when the automatic door opened in the morning and, in an attempt to land on the perch 15’ away, miscalculated the landing and hit her chest on the 2”x4”. I can’t think of any other place she could have had such a hard landing. Their roosts in the coop are only 18” off the floor.
Could you explain what the kidney problem is and if I should be doing something different with my remaining chickens so this doesn’t happen to them? I know that lymphocytes are white bloods cells, so does this mean she had a disease in her kidneys that she was fighting?
Thank you so much for letting me know that she was basically in good body condition. That was a relief. This is my first time having chickens and I worry about whether they are a healthy weight and in good condition or not.” – Marie
“Yes, some sort of blunt force trauma. I think your suspicions are probably correct, missing or falling from a perch would be most likely. Sometimes layer chickens can have a more fragile liver if they are obese as they can have increased fat stores in the liver, but your chicken appeared to be a good weight and the liver did not appear to have abundant fat stores, so I don’t think that was the case here. The lymphocytes in the kidney are just an incidental/non-significant finding, but you’re correct that they are white blood cells and can indicate inflammation. The inflammation was very mild in this case and it’s not uncommon to find a small amount in some of the organs of healthy animals, so I don’t think it’s cause for concern here.” – Dr Tony Redford, DVM
Marie’s story is a sad reminder that although chickens are often resilient, they are also vulnerable to accidents. Despite our best care we can’t always protect them. What we can do is – like baby-proofing our house – is to think of the potential dangers within the coop, run or surroundings where birds might get injured. Some strategies, like lowering roost bars or making sure the coop floor is well padded are easy fixes. It’s also a reminder that a small investment in a professional necropsy can give you answers and peace of mind.
Many thanks to Marie for sharing her story and photos, used with permission, and to Dr Tony Redford, DVM for helping us solve the mystery of Lucy’s unexpected death.
I don’t know the lab where Marie’s hen was examined but in general we are told by UConn not to freeze birds prior to necropsy. We are supposed to refrigerate and send them right away so that they get there within 2 days. It could be that lab work cannot be done on a frozen chicken, but I would think that necropsy would be difficult after freezing, especially for that long. Since all seemed fine except for the liver bleed, this was a pretty straightforward necropsy, but in general I would not tell anyone to freeze a dead bird that is going for necropsy. Its worthwhile for people to ask their local lab if it matters and if labs can be done on a frozen chicken. Labs are important if you are getting a necropsy because you can find out vital information about what may be going around your flock.
I have had some interesting blunt force traumas here, but they involved things like a sheep pushing a rabbit hutch over onto a favorite rooster of mine, crushing him. In that case it was clear what happened. It often isn’t all that clear and sometimes a hen just falls from the roost and dies for any number of reasons. Its always good to know why and to get as much information as you can when you get to interact with the state vet’s office.
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The lab does prefer a fresh specimen but it wasn’t possible in this case. The body should be refrigerated immediately and then sent in a way that will ensure delivery within 48 hrs. If that isn’t possible they do ask that specimens be frozen.