Case Study Emergencies/Illness

Case Study: Strangulated Tongue

It doesn’t take long for new chicken keepers to find out that birds 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. My flock have been housed in a 30’x40’ pen for the last seven years and have unearthed broken glass, screws and nails, a deer antler and a collection of things that could be dangerous, if ingested. I’m always careful to dispose of feed  bag string, elastic bands and bits of plastic that come off produce donations from our local food recovery program, but it’s easy to miss something that could be harmful.

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’ve already written about a strangulated leg and toes involving monofilament; in this article I’ll explore a case of an injury involving a tongue.

Here’s the story of Ashley’s ordeal with her pullet, Sunni.

Sunni, Buff Orpington, 10 weeks old

Day 1: I noticed that one of my pullets, Sunni, was violently sneezing and shaking her head, but then was acting normal, so I didn’t think much of it. Two hours later, she was huddled in a corner of the pen with her head down, eyes closed, and holding her neck in an S-shape with her head tucked close to her body. I found yellow mucus coming out of her beak and she was making gurgling sounds. We squirted tiny amounts of water into her beak to shift what might be stuck, but the water just kept coming back up like she couldn’t swallow it.

We then tried olive oil, which seemed to calm her and although it went down okay, it seemed like there was still something stuck. Sunni continued to hold her head in that weird position, no matter what we tried. I gently massaged her throat in an attempt to move the obstruction. She kept gurgling, and when we looked in her mouth she let out a loud scream. That night she was preening and jumping around again, so we let her be.

Day 2: Sunni rapidly declined and we couldn’t figure out why. The only thing that seemed different was that her tongue was way back in her throat. We gave her some moistened mash thinking it would give her some energy to help fight off whatever was going on, but we couldn’t get any food to go down. We thought a wasp might have stung her and that was why her throat seemed so swollen.

We considered puting an end to her misery because she was clearly in a lot of pain. We fed her 20cc pureed boiled egg and yogurt every two hours with a syringe, after which Sunni started to improve and was more energetic.

Day 7: Her tongue was severely swollen and turning a sickly grey color with yellow/brown cheese-looking spots. I did some online research desperate for answers and came across Wet Fowl Pox. Her symptoms seemed a match: sneezing, mucus, swollen tongue, smelly breath and some swelling in her esophagus. I was advised to wipe her tongue with tiny amounts of Listerine on a Q-tip. We did that twice a day for several days, but it didn’t help, and was very painful for her.

Week 2-7: We started feeding her ground up chick starter mixed with water. Sunni spent all day, running around the yard pecking for bugs and trying to eat dirt. Everything she attempted to eat would get stuck in the front of her beak. She couldn’t even drink water on her own because of the massive swelling in her tongue. We started tube feeding because she was having such a hard time swallowing, and that seemed to help. It was frustrating as she never got any better, or worse.

Week 7: We read more on Fowl Pox, and found that in order to remove the lesions from the tongue, you had consistently apply Listerine and iodine daily until they went away. As we were cleaning her mouth, some of the gunk on the side of her tongue came off. My mom said, “It looks like her tongue is being strangled by this stuff.”

A minute later, when she was trying to remove more build up, there was a pop and my mom dropped something. She covered her mouth and said, “Oh my God, her tongue just came off!” I couldn’t believe it, and started to cry uncontrollably. There on the floor laid Sunni’s tongue. 

Once I pulled myself together, we cleaned her mouth with a wet paper towel. We found the string, which had been strangling her tongue, which explained all of her symptoms, and why she never improved. Her tongue had turned grey because it was dying. It never fell off because there was still a tiny blood supply traveling through the part that the string was wrapped tightly around.

Below are some pictures of her tongue to better illustrate what was going on.

You can see where the tissue died and broke off on the back of her tongue; the plaque that her tongue was covered in; and how tightly the string was wrapped around her tongue.

We think that when she tried to eat the string it got tangled around her tongue. In trying to swallow food after that, the string pulled tighter around her tongue, which was why it was so far down the back of her throat the first couple of days, and why she was holding her head in an odd way. The string was already so tight around her tongue that if she moved her head at all it would pull tighter.  

We assume that early on, the part of the string that was down her throat finally broke, which allowed Sunni to suddenly be able to hold her head upright, but why she couldn’t eat. It also explained why after two long months, she never made any improvement. I can only imagine the severe pain she must have gone through. 

After doing more research I learned that chickens could easily survive without a tongue. She may have to eat wet chicken feed the rest of her life, but she should at least be able to eat on her own.

Week 8: I fed her by syringe three times a day (7:30am, 1:30pm, and 7:30pm): three tablespoons of feed, which was ground, then mixed, in three ounces of water until it was the consistency of baby formula. Mash gave her all of the nutrients and water she needed in one sitting.

Each feeding took 30 minutes. Some people wondered how I managed by myself. I sat on the floor with Sunni wrapped in a towel held between my knees, so I had two free hands to use a 10cc syringe to give 2.5cc each meal.  

We tube fed her for about a week, but it was very stressful for her and we had a hard time keeping her from flinging the tube out while we were changing the syringes. She tolerated being fed with a syringe, so that’s what I used.

I was worried about Sunni getting too much water, and all of the extra fluids desalinating her system, so I found a great homemade electrolyte recipe, which I gave her.

Week 12: Sunni moved into the house with me because the flock was picking on her, making her miserable.

She did well eating almost everything on her own, as long as it was bigger than a piece of cracked corn. She knew what the bread bag looked like, and came running every time someone pulled a loaf out of the pantry. I dipped each piece in water because Sunni had a hard time eating dry food.

She spent about 95% of the day around me, and wasn’t happy being on her own. Her crate in my room has a window on the side that was covered with chicken wire. She loved to stand there and watch for me to come and get her.

Sunni’s very small for a Buff Orpington because she spent three months of her life putting all her energy into healing, instead of growing.

Week 40: It was almost Sunni’s first birthday. I’d been through a lot with her and learned from many close calls. I no longer let her out of her coop unless our dog was put away in his crate, and Sunni didn’t go outside unsupervised without me, for her protection. She had the tendency to try to eat everything she could get her little beak around. Living with Sunni was a lot like living with a naughty toddler, but she kept me busy, and for that I’m grateful.

Credits: Many thanks to Ashley for the use of her story and photos. This is an edited version of one that was originally posted in Backyard Chickens. Featured photo (unrelated bird): BYC

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