It doesn’t take long for new chicken keepers to find out that chickens explore the world with their beaks. They peck at the ground for food and often at shiny objects. Along the way they can get into things that can potentially cause injury or death. Other than having a 5 week old cockerel suffocate under a flipped over heavy food dish I haven’t experienced risky situations. I’ve certainly seen my share of online posts: chickens who get tangled in string, eat Styrofoam or peck jewelry from their keeper’s face. I did a case study that involved surgery to remove some hardware from a hen’s gizzard.
In this article I’ll explore a case of an injury involving monofilament.
Strangulation is defined as the compression of blood or air-filled structures, which impedes circulation or function. If you’re a fan of television crime shows you’re probably well versed in the most common form of strangulation: asphyxia caused by hanging, manual or ligature injuries. Don’t worry, I won’t be talking about that kind of injury, rather things in the environment that can cause loss of blood circulation to various body parts resulting in serious trauma.
I first met Sheri when she posted in an online Facebook group about her hen, Hiwa, who required emergency spay surgery as a result of being egg bound. She very generously shared her story so I could write a case study. We’re back collaborating again, to talk about some of the ubiquitous things in your yard that are dangerous to your flock: monofilament, binder twine and feed bag string.
Sheri is a Native Hawaiian & Indigenous Pacific Literature specialist in Oahu and has two hens in her big enclosed yard, which is the maximum allowable under her city ordinance (clearly those folks aren’t aware of chicken math). She lives in an area close to a large ravine and wild area with a stream, pond and forest. In the woods lives a flock of feral chickens, which come to her place twice daily to be fed. Always monitoring for health issues in those ownerless birds, Sheri spotted a hen with monofilament wrapped around her legs.
Flame, Feral Chicken, Unknown Age
Week 1: “I first noticed the hen was hobbling when she showed up to eat. The monofilament was very noticeable because it was bright pink and a tangled mass around both legs, impeding her movement.
It was so hard to catch her. Some of the feral ones are always on heightened alert and don’t want people to get anywhere near them, others are pretty friendly and will jump onto my shoulder or my lap. It took three days of trying a few methods which have worked with other feral chickens – setting out a wire dog kennel with food (she wouldn’t go inside), inching close while she was eating scratch and dropping a towel over her (even with hobbled feet she could still jump/hop/fly fast), and finally, unrolling a long piece (about 15′ x 3′) of bird netting I use in my garden and having a friend hold one side and slowly corralling her with the net (she squawked her head off, but she was safely and humanely secured).
Cutting the binding off took some patience. The cord was tightly wound around and embedded in her left leg, which had already swollen up. I wrapped her in a towel to keep her calm and laid her on her right side, since her left foot/leg was badly tangled. I used small scissors to cut away most of the cord. Then I used tweezers and cuticle scissors – disinfected with alcohol – to slowly and carefully cut the cord, unwind and remove it. I could see raw flesh underneath, which was pink with some pus.
Unfortunately, the part of the cord that had been wrapped around her right foot had amputated a toe. I put Betadine and Vetrycin spray on the wounds, then coated them with Neosporin.
Flame was a bit of a mess: it had been rainy, so the scabs on her feet and legs were thick and crusted with dried blood and mud. The next day I gave her a 15-minute soak in very warm water and Hawaiian sea salt, which she loved. I gently removed all of the mud and crud off her feet and body. Afterwards I wrapped her in a towel and dried her with a blow dryer on low/warm before checking her wounds again.
I could now see that they were at least 2-3mm deep, but her flesh was pink and her feet were warm. My bird rehabber friend, Gaby, said if her feet/toes were warm that was a good sign indicating her blood circulation was not cut off for too long, which could result in necrosis.
Gaby also suggested I put Flame on antibiotics (Ciprofloxacin and Metronidazole) to prevent blood poisoning or a secondary infection. She was on those for three days and never developed any other issues from her wounds. I also added Nutridrench to her food for the first week.
I set her up in a wire dog kennel with a plastic floor I use as a sick bay in a corner of the dining room where it’s quiet. I wanted to make sure I could keep an eye on her condition and ensure she could rest her leg. Flame was quite content.
Week Two: I continued to check her injuries twice a day and treat with Betadine, Vetrycin and Neosporin. It took about two weeks until the scabs healed and fell off on their own, revealing new skin underneath. By this time, the swelling in her leg above and below the wounds had gone down significantly.
I fed Flame the same things as my Marans hens: Layena crumble, a bit of scratch and mealworms, some kind of fresh greens (lettuces, kale, cabbage), bananas, papayas and sweet potatoes.
After the first week she laid an egg, so I added a nesting box in her crate, and she laid daily after that.
Week 3: Her right toe was gone by the time I finally caught her. If this happens to another chicken in future, I’ll work harder to catch it sooner to prevent such a serious injury. It doesn’t seem to bother her and it healed up with no issues.
Her physical wounds were healed, but she was left with nerve damage which caused her to limp. Flame kept her left foot held up high, close to her body, most of the time during the first two weeks in recovery. My mom started calling her Flamingo, so now we call her Flame, for short. When she put her left foot down, she didn’t have any control over the foot, so she’d stand or brace herself on her ‘knuckles’ with her toes curled under.
Gaby recommended I hold Flame and offer a finger for her to perch on to see if she could grab my finger with her toes. She could with her right foot, but not with her left foot. I starting giving her warm water soaks daily for 15-20 minutes, and gently massaging and stretching out her legs. At first she held them up tight against her belly, but after about 5-10 minutes, she’d relax them and just let them hang down as she floated. Soon after, I noticed her left foot down with her toes out straight.
My massage/physical therapist said it sounds like she had ‘dropped foot’, which is nerve damage from an injury, hindering the foot from flexing. This explains why when she tried to walk, she looked like a Tennessee Walking Horse, as she was lifting from her hip rather than her hock and foot. My therapist recommended gently flexing her ankle and then toes, one at a time, in an upward flex to help her stretch the nerves so her mobility could get back to normal.
Flame has always been a talkative girl. I always know where she is outside, because she’s so vocal. Since she’s been indoors, she’s calmed down a lot, and has gone from screaming her head off in fear when I get near her to squatting for me when I come to pick her up. She’s still vocal, singing to herself especially after her spa and physical therapy treatments.
Week 4: Flame couldn’t grip well with the toes on her left foot, but she was now able to put the foot down flat. Her limp was less pronounced. I moved her into a larger kennel on my patio. Flame had access to a dust bath for the first time since her injury. It was great for her physiotherapy and ensured she didn’t get mites.
I never had chickens before Covid and have learned so much about caring for them this past year. I appreciate everyone who has been so generous with sharing their knowledge and experience to help me better care for both my laying hens and the feral flock, and in turn, I’ve been able to help others.”
Many thanks to Sheri Hoomanawanui for, once again, sharing her story, notes and photos, used with permission. And a big shout out for her compassion and dedication to caring for Flame.