At almost four, Nigella is one of my oldest hens. When I scan my flock it’s easy to spot her as one of several frizzled hens. I’ve lost two in the last couple of months: her sister Coco, and Nox who mysteriously vanished without a trace.
For a couple of days I noticed Nigella looking a bit fluffed up, but it was hard to tell given that she’s a frizzle and her curled feathers always give the impression that she’s fluffy. Fluffy feathers are good, but not if it’s a sign of illness. A hunched posture is often the telltale sign of a health issue, but is not specific to any particular malady. A quick scan of Poultry DVM’s symptom checker shows two dozen health issues in which ruffled feathers are one of the symptoms.
I was still recovering from minor surgery that I’d had done earlier in the week and despite sleeping an inordinate amount I was out with my birds several times a day. The problem with chickens is, as prey animals, they often mask any signs of sickness until they are seriously ill. Nigella was not isolating herself from the flock and was still eating, drinking and pooping normally so I chalked it up to my worry-wart imagination.
That changed when at bedtime on the second day I found her roosting in the nest boxes and not on the bars with the rest of the flock. Now that I had two symptoms I took it more seriously knowing that by the time she exhibited those signs she’d probably been sick for longer than two days.
Day 2: It was after dinner and dark and the last thing I felt like was dealing with a sick hen, but I know how important it is to catch, and deal, with these things early on. I grabbed a dog crate from the shed and set up a sick bay in my livingroom beside the woodstove, ran a kitchen sink full of hot water and went outside to fetch the patient. I put Nigella through a health check: her eyes were bright and her weight was good; her feathers were slightly ratty, but that’s to be expected at the end of a long winter. I had no idea when she last laid an egg.
I had covered my kitchen counter in a sheet and swaddled Nigella up in a towel. Once her head was covered, I laid her on her side and she easily submitted to the undignified examination. The stink hit me before I even saw her vent. Even with a poor sense of smell I felt like gagging. A closer inspection revealed a swollen red vent covered by a crust of hard poop and feathers caked with sloppy whitish poop. She had a good soak (which she was not entirely happy about) and I was able to work the plug of poop off with my fingernails. I patted the inflamed area with a paper towel and saw a bit of blood. Her vent was so enlarged that at first I thought I might be dealing with a prolapse, but a second look led me to diagnose her problem as Vent Gleet.
What Is Vent Gleet?
Vent Gleet can be caused by a number of stressors that alter the pH levels of the cloaca: fungi, protozoa, parasites, yeast, bacteria, contaminated food or water, intestinal or external parasites, bowel infection, hormone-related uterus issues, nutritional deficiency or stress associated with predator attack, injury or moving to a new flock.
Whatever the origin, stress can weaken the tone and function of cloaca, allowing poop and urine to mix together, preventing the normal recycling of water back into the bowel. Stress also increases pH levels, making the entire cloaca, rectum and uterus vulnerable to infection. Indicators of increased pH levels within the cloaca are larger, more watery poop and Vent Gleet.
I have a well-stocked first aid kit and found one tube of Miconazole Nitrate cream and another of Clotrimazole (sold as over-the-counter remedies for yeast infections in women under brand names like Monistat or Canesten). I smeared some around her now clean vent and inserted an almond sized amount directly into her vent. I was concerned that the applicator was smeared with traces of blood when I removed it. Unfortunately I didn’t have tablets which I could have given to her orally (1/3 tablet once a day).
I live on a small island with one pharmacy which was closed the next day for Family Day, a statutory holiday. I posted an online ad asking if someone had some meds I could borrow for my hen (not a euphemism). I got some laughs including someone who commented that ‘my hen’ should replace ‘asking for a friend’. Unfortunately I had to wait to get to a pharmacy two days later.
I gave her a small dish of Greek yoghurt and another of water with a few drops of apple cider vinegar to help bring her pH levels back into balance.
Day 3: By the following morning Nigella hadn’t touched the yoghurt or water until I gave her a dish of Grower crumbles. That seemed to have perked her appetite and she gladly polished off the yoghurt and had a few slurps of water.
I pulled the soiled newspapers out of the bottom of her pen and was happy to see her poop looked pretty normal, although small, and there was lots of it. Eating and drinking is critical to keeping a bird healthy. When they refuse food and water you’re dealing with something serious.
I got her out of the crate, cleaned her vent and inserted more Monistat internally. Her vent and abdomen still looked enlarged, but were cleaner. When she stood up she produced a small, slightly greenish poop.
She was quiet throughout the day, but would occasionally scratch for spilled feed. I think she enjoyed being toasty by the fire, but each time I went to put another log in the woodstove I was greeted by the smell of not-so-healthy discharge.
Day 4: I went back to work after a week off post-surgery. Hunting for the right product at the pharmacy was a bit of an adventure. I found a variety of yeast infection products with Miconazole Nitrate as the active ingredient, but only in cream form which is what I already had. There were no tablets and the capsules contained Fluconazole. I took the capsule and cream boxes to the pharmacist and asked if they were similar or interchangeable products. Turns out they are in the same class of drugs, so that was good.
Then I had to explain that I was looking for a tablet which I could cut into thirds for my hen. I think he was so used to dealing with human patients he went through the contraindications and asked if she was pregnant. He was totally flustered when I told him chickens don’t get pregnant. There were several suitable products, but they all came in capsule form so that’s what I bought. I assumed that the box contained a few doses so I was shocked when each package only contained one capsule and they ranged in price from $15-$25. Clearly, I took the store brand version which was the cheapest. (FYI: I found out a couple of days later I could have given her a pea sized amount of cream orally which would have been just as effective, but less expensive).
My partner phoned mid-afternoon to complain, er, inform me, that the house stank and might not be fit for human occupation. We have a small open plan house with no garage or basement and having just gone through my own convalescence I knew that comfort is a big part of recovery. I suggested putting her in our only bathroom, as it was one of the few rooms where we could close the door.
First thing I did upon arriving home was to check on Nigella. The wall of smell that hit me was fierce. If you’ve read my bio you’ll remember I was a long-time skull collector and have harvested many bones from decomposing corpses, including a Grey Whale. Let me tell you, my hen could have given that beast a run for its money. Whatever was going on inside Nigella’s gut was nasty and given that she was in a toasty bathroom it felt like something rotten was being cooked.
When dinner was over I hauled her crate out to the livingroom and worked on phase two of her treatment. She’d eaten her yoghurt, knocked the crumbles around and seemed to be well hydrated. I smeared more of the Canesten cream all around her vent that still looked swollen. Then I opened the single, precious capsule and dumped one-third into a small dish, mixed it with water and gave it to her via syringe. I think I got 2cc of water with most of the powder into her. It’s tricky to safely give oral medications to a chicken without aspirating them and she was feisty enough to fight me every step of the way. There was a small amount of the mixture left and I added that to her clean water dish hoping she would drink it.
The newspaper in the bottom of the crate had plenty of sloppy, stinky poop which I rolled up and tossed into the woodstove.
Day 5: Same routine as the night before. I’m not sure if it was wishful thinking, but I thought that although the smell was still pungent it was marginally better. I trimmed some feathers around her vent to prevent poop from caking on them. Her vent was still distended with some yellowish discharge, but was less red. The area around her vent was definitely looking a more normal colour. Her appetite was good: she managed to finished off a bowl of crumbles. I concentrated the meds into less than 1.5cc of water and got that into her with less of a struggle than before.
Day 6: The end of my work week should have been marked by a night on the couch. Instead I put Nigella through the full treatment: an Epsom salt bath, followed by Clotrimazole antifungal cream inserted into her vent, cream smeared outside her vent and 1cc of water mixed with the last third of the Fluconazole capsule given orally.
I returned her to the crate by the woodstove and gave her fresh water containing powdered probiotics. I also added probiotics to her crumbles which she dumped over. I was glad to see there was very little caking around her vent, the smell had diminished a bit and she was perky. I was still concerned that there was yellow discharge from her vent, which was still distended and that the applicator still contained traces of blood when I removed it from her vent.
Day 7-11: The first thing to report was Nigella was back to pooping normally – maybe a bit small, but that was ok, and she was starting to talk more. I continued putting an almond-sized amount of cream into her vent (using the applicator) and now there was no trace of blood; the probiotics were added to her water and not her food because they got tipped over; and because I had finished with the capsule I started giving her a pea-sized amount of Monistat cream directly in her mouth. After the first day, I discovered that she would happily eat the cream from my finger which meant I didn’t have to wrestle with her to open her beak.
I was really happy to see that her vent had not just returned to its normal colour, but also its normal size. She was clearly on the mend.
Day 12: I returned Nigella to the flock by placing her on the roost bars after dark. I waited until the end of my work week so I could monitor how she was doing the next day and if there were any issues upon reintegration. Some flocks are brutal with returning members, but I was glad to see everyone welcomed her back as though she’d never been gone.
She seems to have made a full recovery and is back to sleeping on the roost bars. My only concern going forward is that when her vent was distended and caked with poop it could have put her risk for a secondary infection, like salpingitis (lash egg), to crop up weeks later.
This was my first, and I hope, my only time dealing with Vent Gleet. My advice is to hit it hard and hit it early, and be consistent with the treatment daily until all signs have cleared up. It’s not a pleasant endeavour but it’s certainly one that can be treated.