Case Study Emergencies/Illness

Case Study: Foreign Body Ingestion

Chickens explore their world beak first and often peck at things that aren’t edible or healthy. I don’t eat my own birds, but I’ve heard a number of stories from folks who’ve found an interesting array of metal, rubber and glass in their birds’ gizzards when butchered.

It’s obvious that some birds can live a long and healthy life without being adversely affected after having consumed foreign objects, however, the ingestion of metal objects can lead to poisoning. Once inside the digestive system metal begins to corrode and, if it contains zinc, can be absorbed into the bloodstream causing damage to, and rupture of, red blood cells. Sharp objects pose a risk of damaging internal tissues and organs.

Ashley is a first time poultry keeper with a flock of three hens and five ducks. This is the story of her pullet who ate metal bits not once or twice, but three times!

Etta, Golden Comet pullet, 5 month old

Day 1: Ashley had installed a bird kebob –a metal skewer of fruits and veggies for her birds to peck at – in her pen. There were no issues for several months until she noticed that the nuts had come loose and were missing.

Concerned that one of her birds ate them she took all three chickens to the vet for X-rays to determine who it was. The radiographs revealed that Etta had a hex nut in her gizzard, but the wing nut was still missing. None of the birds showed any signs of illness.Etta was crated so Ashley could monitor if, and when, the nut passed.

The Avian Vet was concerned about hardware disease and wanted to get Etta started on calcium EDTA to prevent lead or zinc poisoning. After more research it was decided that since the toy was made for birds, the hex nut most likely was made of stainless steel and wouldn’t cause metal toxicity. 

Day 5: Etta returned to the vet for a follow up X-ray and the nut had now gone from her gizzard back up into her crop. They wondered if she had attempted to regurgitate it, but the unanimous decision was she passed the nut then, attracted to the sparkle in her poop, promptly ate the nut again.

The x-rays also showed what appeared to be a massive egg in her oviduct that could be difficult to pass causing her to become egg bound.

The X-ray was sent to the Avian Vet and they discussed what could happen if she didn’t lay the egg in the following 24 hours and the option of giving medication for a possible infected oviduct, as she had previously laid a soft-shelled egg that morning. Ashley decided to hold off on the meds as Etta was a new layer and occasional soft-shelled eggs (as well as other weird eggs) aren’t uncommon while hens get used to producing eggs. Luckily, Etta laid it later that evening with no issues.

She was returned to an elevated cage with a mesh bottom to prevent her from ingesting the nut for a third time.

Day 8: No sign of the nut. “I never thought I’d be checking chicken poop, yet here I am. I keep telling myself, at least she’s cute. The good news is she laid the egg.”

Etta laid another egg during her visit to the vet (which was bagged up for Ashley).

Day 16: After another week of waiting for the hex nut to pass and not finding it, Etta went back for another x-ray. It was still in her gizzard, but appeared as though she had not reingested it. She was given Lactulose, a chicken laxative, and more fibre in her diet with the hope that it would assist in excreting the nut. The concern was that it could become embedded in her gizzard, possibly requiring a surgical intervention to remove it.

Week 5: After several more days of laxatives and lots of snacks to try to flush out the nut, today’s x-ray revealed not only was it still there, but it appeared that Etta had found something new to eat.

Ashley works as a dental assistant and it appears that her work followed her home in the form of a carbide football dental bur, which is a tool that attaches to a hand piece, used to cut and smooth teeth and composite, a tooth-colored material.

“I’m like a little kid and shove so much crap into my pockets. I’ve had floss, articulating paper, burs and notes. You’d think by now I’d know to check my pockets before I do the laundry. I let Etta out of the crate to stretch her legs and explore while I was cooking dinner and she came across the bur and ate it. I bet it fell out of my pocket and she picked it up by my washing machine. I feel bad, as this one is clearly my fault.”

The ¾” long bur was a risk for damaging her intestinal tract. If it didn’t pass on its own by the end of the month she was scheduled for surgery. Ashley planned to ask for the return of the ingested bur and hex nut so she could mount and frame them.

Week 6: I kept in touch with Ashley, waiting for the gripping finale to the story: gizzard surgery with what I hoped was a happy ending. Etta’s saga ended with a whimper rather than a bang: her final X-ray showed she passed everything and not in the crate, but outside in the yard. After four weeks as a house chicken, Etta had been returned to the flock the previous week. Ashley used both a magnet sweeper and a metal detector to sift through poop and dirt in her pen, but couldn’t find any of the metal bits.  

I asked Ashley a couple of follow-up questions:

Were your birds sedated for the x-rays? No, they were compliant patients that were easy to hold for the procedure.

Did you get a group or frequent flyer discount at your vet’s? Unfortunately not.

Both my regular Vet and her Avian Vet worked together in this case, with the former taking the X-rays and emailing them to me so I could forward them to the Avian Vet for their opinion, which saved me two hour’s travel time. I took Etta to the specialist when they deemed it was required. 

The first visit with all three hens was $195. Etta had three follow-up x-rays at my regular small animal vet and two additional visits/X-rays with the Avian Vet. The total bill was a painful $949.70, which is considerably less than the whopping estimate of $2500-3500 for surgery.


I think this story demonstrates several things:

  • The need to be aware of the many potential risks and dangers in your coop, pen and yard and work to minimize your birds’ opportunity to get into trouble. Think of it as the chicken equivalent of baby-proofing your house.
  • The level of commitment that many small flock owners have for their chickens, who are seen as pets rather than livestock.
  • It also illustrates the cost of veterinary care, which would be out of reach for some folks and not an option for others.

I applaud Ashley for her level of dedication. I might have foregone the initial veterinary intervention and waited to see if any of my hens showed signs of illness before taking the next step of having X-rays done. Etta may have passed that nut without intervention or, on the other hand, experienced significant distress and pain if she hadn’t. Let’s just hope she’s learned her lesson and put that phase behind her.

Many thanks to Ashley Happ Garrison for her story and photos, used with permission.

2 comments on “Case Study: Foreign Body Ingestion

  1. Wow.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I say WOW too. So glad it worked out for your hen. Learned a lot from your story.
    That’s a lot of dedication and work for you, I resonate with your absolute love of your “girls”. At the same time, it is even MORE expensive here with Avian vet in N. CA. It’s always a dilemma for me as to how much I’m willing/can spend. For ex, one x-ray for my hen with lung issues cost nearly $300! I wish there was pet insurance that covers backyard chickens.

    Liked by 1 person

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