I met Seleta earlier this year when she contacted me for advice about one of her sick hens. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to help, but that was the start of our online correspondence about small flock health issues.
If your memory needs jogging, Seleta hit the headlines in 2020 when her hen, Blue, became the first chicken in the world to undergo heart surgery for Patent Ductus Arterious. Never one to be shy about inviting folks to collaborate with me, I asked if we could present a case study featuring Blue. What followed were cases on one of her hens with pica eating disorder and another who was egg bound and required a spay surgery to save her life. She even wrote a post on her great room turned into an aviary for her house chickens.
I enjoy hearing from her, but sometimes a bit of dread creeps in because despite Seleta’s best efforts her flock has experienced a number of health issues – many of them far from run-of-the-mill and often requiring expensive specialist care.
I knew one of her newly acquired hens was struggling with a respiratory illness Infectious Laryngotracheitis.
The virus was first identified in Canada in 1925 and was the first major avian viral disease to have a vaccine.
ILT is a highly contagious upper respiratory tract disease in chickens caused by the ILT virus (ILTV), also known as Gallid herpesvirus 1. The incubation period after exposure is 6-12 days, during which time it replicates in the mucous membranes of the eyes and trachea. The lining of the larynx and trachea are always affected, while the respiratory sinuses, air sacs and lung tissues may or may not be. Symptoms can range from mild to more severe, including death. All infected birds will carry the virus for life, and are therefore at risk of infecting healthy flockmates.
Sadly, I got the news last week that Honey had died. Seleta kindly offered to write up her case as a way of helping other chicken keepers.
In mid-September my family and I traveled up to Wyoming to participate in a poultry show; the only show that we attended this year because of the threat of Avian Influenza. We took five of our birds to show. While there, I hoped to acquire a couple of Orpington pullets or hens for the Orpington rooster I had rescued a few months earlier. It was the Western National Meet for the United Orpington Club so I figured I would have a great chance at some well-bred birds.
I talked to all of the exhibitors and found one who was willing to sell me one pullet. He had not brought any birds specifically for sale, but said after the judging he would determine which bird he’d be willing to sell. I didn’t need a girl that was show quality since I was getting her just for a companion for my rescue Orpington rooster. When the judging was completed, he chose the pullet out of the birds he had brought that had not placed as well as the others. That was totally fine by me. We agreed on a price of $50 for her and I loaded her up in an extra kennel we had brought in anticipation of getting a couple of birds at the show.
My husband and I used to be really, really dumb and naive about biosecurity and without knowing we were screwing it up, we threw caution to the wind. Over the past few years we have gained experience after suffering the stress and heartache that comes with not taking it seriously. Now we take it very seriously. So seriously, in fact, that my husband and I went to the show in separate vehicles. My husband loaded up the five birds we had brought into his Jeep and I put the new girl in my Jeep so they wouldn’t even share the same air space.
At my house, new birds are strictly quarantined for 30 days, and our own birds that return from a show are quarantined for two weeks. On the ninety minute drive home, the new girl, who we had named Honey, sneezed a couple of times. Overall, she looked okay at the show as she had been primped and preened to look her very best for the judges. I hadn’t really had a chance to do a thorough exam of her before agreeing to the purchase. That was my fault entirely, but her sneezing was infrequent so I’m not sure I would have picked it up then or not. I decided on the drive home that I would start Honey on a course of Oxytetracycline administered in her water for two weeks. I figured she, like most every chicken on the planet, had Mycoplasma of some variety and the stress of the show had made it flair up.
Once I got Honey home and had a chance to really look her over, I found that she definitely wasn’t quite right. She had bumblefoot on her right foot, the toes on her left foot didn’t want to bend easily, her toenails were extremely clean but at least 1/4” too long. She didn’t move around much and she walked stiffly and tentatively. She also seemed very, very thin underneath all of those glorious feathers.
Over the two weeks that she was on the Oxytetracycline she began sneezing more frequently. Honey also seemed to be a very picky eater and preferred having her food turned into a mash, but even then she didn’t seem to be eating very much. I started giving her Carprofen twice a day to help with pain and inflammation that appeared to be hindering her mobility. Honey never roosted on the roosting bar, but instead, always slept on a blanket on the ground. It was clear that the Oxytetracycline hadn’t done anything for her, the sneezing was more frequent now, she was not gaining any weight, and she seemed increasingly weak.
One evening when I checked in on her, I found roundworms in her stool. “That’s it!” I thought. The worms were consuming the nutrients from her food which is why she wasn’t gaining any weight and perhaps why she was so lethargic. I gave her a dose of Fenbendazole that night to kill the roundworms and would repeat the treatment in ten days. I decided to begin tube feeding her twice a day with a critical care formula made for sick birds to help supplement the food she was eating and hopefully give her a little more strength.
A couple of days later, I took Honey to see one of the regular veterinarians I use for my birds to see if there was anything more I could be doing and if we could determine what was going on with her. By now, in addition to the sneezing, she had developed a cough and, occasionally, a wet kind of clicking noise when she took a breath.
The veterinarian performed fecal testing and found that Honey not only had roundworms, but also coccidiosis. She gave her a nebulization treatment with Gentamicin, sent out for a PCR test for Infectious Laryngotracheitis (ILT), had me discontinue the Oxytetracycline and start giving her Albon (sulfa antibiotic) and probiotics. She also suggested that I purchase a nebulizer (a device that produces a fine spray for inhaling a medications) and DIY a chamber so I could give treatments at home. I ordered one from Amazon that would arrive at the end of that week.
A few days went by and Honey was continuing to decline. I was going to the veterinary specialist in Denver to pick up another one of my birds who had a salpingohysterectomy (spay surgery) a few days earlier, so I took Honey there as well.
By now, she had developed rales. Basically, it sounds like a percolating coffee pot every time a breath is taken. Honey didn’t make the sound constantly, but when she was stressed by being picked up she would develop the noise. At that point she could usually clear the sound from her breathing with a cough, then her breathing would return to being quiet.
The veterinarian was very concerned about the way Honey was progressing and was eager to hear the results of the ILT testing. We decided to pull out all the stops to see if we could get her feeling better and breathing easier. I was to do nebulizer treatments with Gentamicin and Acetylcysteine twice a day for twenty minutes, administer Carprofen twice daily to help with inflammation, give Trimethoprim Sulfamethoxazole and Doxycycline twice a day, and continue tube feeding her 60ml twice a day.
On Tuesday, I got the news that Honey was positive for ILT. Although I consider myself pretty well versed in poultry medicine, I didn’t know a lot about it. Turns out it is a reportable disease in some states in the US and several provinces in Canada. Each state deals with it differently, and depending on which one it can result in quarantine for the entire farm, depopulation of the entire flock, or nothing at all.
Although it’s not a reportable disease in Colorado, I did report it to the Avian Health Team since they are who do my yearly NPIP certification. I also emailed the director of the poultry show to notify them of the exposure to the virus of all the birds in attendance. I notified the breeder we got Honey from; I got no response from him even though I was very courteous and non-accusatory in my communication.
I called the veterinarians that had seen Honey and talked to the specialist. We knew there were vaccines available for ILT, but did not know which ones would be available for a small flock owner to procure. She contacted a poultry expert from Cornell University and was told the following: “There is no safe ILT vaccine for backyard flocks. All vaccines that may be available are live vaccines with the ability to spread. ILT being a herpes virus will sometimes be latent and can be shed intermittently. For backyard poultry where new birds are constantly being added, it is not a good idea to vaccinate for ILT.”
Basically it all boiled down to Honey never being able to safely integrate into my existing flock. We hoped that if we could get her through the viral flair and went into a carrier state that maybe I could locate another ILT positive flock that would be willing to add her to the group.
On Monday, Honey completely stopped eating anything offered to her. I tried everything to entice her including mealworms, sunflower seeds, wet cat food, anything she would potentially eat. Instead, she laid down in her pile of mealworms and ignored them. That night, I increased her tube-feeding amount to 90ml twice a day since I now had to provide all of her nutrition.
Tuesday night I went down to the barn to give Honey her treatments. The rales were loud and constant. With any stress at all she became panicky and would open mouth breathe for quite a while until she calmed down. I gave her the tablet medications and when she resisted the mucous or sloughed tissue in her trachea completely blocked off her airway. She stretched her neck out as far as she could and gasped over and over again trying to get a breath. There was no air movement heard at all for the longest few seconds of my life. Her comb turned purple and I was certain Honey was going to die right in my arms. Finally, the obstruction cleared and she was able to breathe again. I carefully finished her treatments, watched her breathe for a few minutes, and left her to go to her bed.
This morning I went down to the barn to check on her. She was sitting in exactly the same place she had been when I left the night before. She had not even tried to get up to walk to her bed. Honey was laying on the floor in a pile of fresh poop like she didn’t even have the strength or will to care anymore. I called my husband and told him I thought it was time to let her go. I was able to get an appointment this afternoon. I took Honey to my husband’s workplace so he could say his goodbyes. We may not have had her for long, but we loved her and I hope she knew that. I hope she understood on some level that me shoving pills and tubes down her throat every time she saw me was done out of love.
Her euthanasia went smoothly and I am abundantly glad that she is at peace now. I always keep some feathers from my birds that have passed, but I wasn’t able to do that with Honey because her feathers would have had ILT on them. That little thing – not being able to keep some of her beautiful, soft feathers – made it extra hard. I am going to get a clay cast of her footprint, then at least I won’t have to worry about it carrying disease since it gets baked in an oven first.
The whole experience sucked big time! Honey deserved so much better and so much longer a life than she was granted. Luckily, so far our existing flock has not shown any symptoms so it appears that our biosecurity efforts paid off in that respect.
Three days after she died I spent all blessed day scrubbing the barn. First, I vacuumed the barn countertops and floors. Then I scrubbed the concrete floors with a stiff bristled brush until there was no trace of biological materials. Finally, I set a timer for twenty minutes, made my bleach solution and mopped the floors repeatedly to keep them wet for the entire contact time necessary to kill ILT. I also wiped down the walls, countertops, trash cans, and everything inside the barn with bleach solution for the required contact time.
I also cried. I wasn’t crying because the bleach burned my eyes or because I was hot and tired from having to intensely clean the barn. I was crying because scrubbing the barn felt like I was trying to remove all memory of Honey. I scrubbed the folding chair where I had sat and given her all of her treatments and also snuggled her and stroked her soft feathers. I scrubbed the floor where she had broken an egg she laid and eaten most of the contents, the first thing she had willingly eaten in a few days. I scrubbed the wall next to her bed where she laid, since she didn’t have the strength to get on the roosting bar. I threw away the cardboard box that she laid her first egg in after arriving home. I bagged up the bedding she slept on and the towel that was in the bottom of the nebulization chamber. I vacuumed up the pile of sunflower seeds I offered her, trying to get her to eat something. I vacuumed up the downy feathers that made her so soft and fluffy. And I cried.
Bio for Seleta Nothnagel: I work nights in the Clinical Pathology Department at the Colorado State University Veterinary Teaching Hospital as a Medical Laboratory Scientist. We do blood work like chemistry panels and CBCs, urinalysis, coagulation studies and blood banking for all of the animals seen at the VTH. Before that I worked in the microbiology department in human medicine at a hospital for 10 years and in veterinary medicine as a Registered Veterinary Technician for 10 years.
By the time I got to the end of Seleta’s email she had me crying too. Keeping chickens is not for the faint of heart. Luckily her birds have access to the best of care, even if sometimes it isn’t enough to help them survive. I hope Honey felt loved and cared for in her last few days and that Seleta knows that she did everything she could to give Honey a fighting chance.
Thanks, once again, to Seleta for sharing stories and photos of her flock, used with permission.
Note: I spoke with Dr Vicki Bowes, avian vet/pathologist and she disagreed with the assessment regarding the use of the ILT vaccine in small flocks and would encourage folks to vaccinate their birds without concern.
I also received this from Bitchin’ Chickens follower, Sheena Carlson: “According to a write up from our provincial agriculture department and a conversation I had with a virologist, the vaccine that I and others in Alberta use should not revert to virulence. I’m not sure if they have LT-IVAX in the States, but apparently it’s safe. The Merck LT-IVAX is from a modified live tissue culture origin that a large percentage of people who are regulars in the poultry show circuit (in Canada) use.
I would add a caveat that people should look into which type of vaccine is available where they are located – as what is widely used/available in one country is not necessarily the same in another. I’ve heard that apparently there is at least one CEO (chick embryo origin) vaccine available in the States. A CEO type absolutely can revert to virulence and could cause severe disease in unvaccinated birds. It’s use is STRONGLY DISCOURAGED.”