In the summer of 2017 I spotted an online post in which a new chicken owner was looking for someone to catch his broody hen and her chicks that had been hatched in the woods on his 5-acres. Ever one for an adventure, I offered to help and brought along my friend Tracy and two nets.
It wasn’t long after we arrived that we saw a black hen with a number of fluffy hatchlings moving in and out of the underbrush. We caught the hen quite easily and crated her. The chicks were only a couple of days old and not independent enough to hide without her. As she called for them they came out to find her and we were able to net them, sometimes two or three at a time, until the mother was reunited with 10 littles. The owner was overwhelmed with the birds he already had so he asked if I would take them. One of those chicks was Ruby and I had her for almost 4 years.
Ruby, Easter Egger (F2 Olive Egger), 4 years old
Day One: In August I heard a slight ‘snoring’ sound when I was in the coop one night. I pinpointed it to Ruby and watched carefully over the next days, and weeks, to see if it continued and how it progressed.
Month 8: Ruby continued to make the snoring sound, mostly at night, but occasionally during the day. When I picked her up she made loud rattley noises. There were no other signs indicating a respiratory infection: coughing, sneezing, gaping, swollen or teary eyes.
I separated her from the flock (with another hen) for monitoring. She was very active, eating, drinking and pooping normally, however she continued to make those sounds.
Ruby laid the first couple of days, and then stopped for two weeks, leading me to think her condition might be declining.
I’ve never given a bird either VetRx or Oregano Oil; both are used to treat the symptoms (but not the cause) of a respiratory infection, but I tried them with her. I’m not sure if they made any difference, but she did appear to be getting better.
Month 9: After almost three weeks of separation I returned Ruby to the flock. Her rattley breathing had improved and she was now laying regularly.
Month 10: Ruby was quite active; her rales had gotten louder and although still intermittent, more often. When it was warm I noticed her open mouthed breathing.
After months of watching her and debating if she was getting better or worse, if she might be contagious and wondering what might be going on internally that was causing her rattling I decided to euthanize her.
I posted online for someone who was skilled in cervical dislocation because I wanted to keep her respiratory tract intact. Margaret, who I’d never met before, offered to help. Her first job at age 13 was on a chicken farm. Her experience there, and as a lifelong subsistence hunter, meant she wasn’t squeamish and valued the lives of animals. I left Ruby in the flock, enjoying her day right up until Margaret arrived. She took Ruby in her arms and walked around my property saying a prayer for her and ended her life humanely. Fifteen minutes later, Ruby was bundled up and sent off to the Animal Health Centre for a necropsy.
When I got the preliminary report back I was disappointed as it spoke about her good body condition and an exam of her internal organs showed they were normal. I began to second-guess my decision and wondered if there was more I could have done or if it was her time to go.
The final report was a different matter: there was a conclusive diagnosis of Bacterial Tracheitis and Bronchitis with a focal granuloma, chronic, mild to moderate.
“The cause of this bird’s respiratory signs is bronchitis with a focal granuloma, with secondary bacterial infection of the upper airways. Granulomas are small areas of chronic inflammation typically against foreign material, or other microorganisms not present in the sections (i.e. fungi, bacteria). Inhaled particles from the environment are usually the cause, and likely the origin of respiratory signs only in this one chicken from your flock.
The trachea has significant necrosis of the mucosa with mixed bacteria embedded. Bacteriology test yielded large numbers of mixed bacteria.”
I called the lab and spoke with the Veterinarian/Pathologist who completed the necropsy for an explanation in lay terms.
Although Ruby’s lungs were in good condition there was inflammation in her upper airways. Dr Marron thought it might have been caused by a fungal infection, but couldn’t find conclusive evidence in the specimens. She explained that the infection initially gets walled off, but can become triggered under stress. Over time the mucosa becomes necrotic and as tissue is lost it exposes the blood stream to bacterial infection and septicemia. In Ruby’s case it was a mild, slow progressing condition, but her prognosis wasn’t good.
I asked if antibiotics would have helped and Dr Marron said they may have helped with the secondary infection, but wouldn’t have saved her. She concurred that I hadn’t chosen to euthanize Ruby too early as I prevented future suffering due to her terminal diagnosis.
Many thanks for Dr Fany Marron for working on Ruby and for explaining the cause of her illness in terms I was able to understand and pass on to my readers. Necropsy photo credits: Dr Marron