Emergencies/Illness Health Issues Pathology

Avian Pathology Cases: 20

I get together with Dr Vicki Bowes, avian vet/pathologist on a regular basis to pore over files in my memory stick loaded with interesting chicken health issues that I have collected for her expert opinion. She refers to it as ‘Show and Tell’ or ‘Best Guess’ and has done a good job at making diagnoses given the information we have at hand, usually a paragraph from the owner.

This go round was a bit more challenging. I stumbled across an old computer file of cases in which I saved interesting photos, but for the most part no notes. I presented them to Dr Bowes with no backstory, no symptoms or information on the birds and hoped she could make some sense of them. This really was a game of ‘Best Guess’ but she rose to the challenge to explain what were the most likely diagnoses based on the photographs/x-rays alone.

Ascites (Water Belly)

Bitchin’ Chickens: Ascites is not an illness or disease; rather it’s a symptom of one. Also known as Pulmonary Hypertension Syndrome or Water Belly, Ascites can occur as a result of dietary, environmental or genetic factors, which create physiological and metabolic changes, leading to abnormally high blood pressure causing heart failure and excessive build-up of fluid in the liver, which then leaks into the abdomen.

Dr Bowes: This is indicative of congestive heart failure past the point of no return. Draining some of the fluid would be a short-term fix for a terminal condition. Recommendation: Humane euthanasia


Dr Bowes: This in an injury to the blood supply with devitalization to the area around both the top and bottom of her beak. The white colouration around the face and comb look like Favus, a fungal infection. Antiseptic and cleaning solutions could be applied but I think they would be insufficient. A vet could culture it and if it was fungal then topical medications could be prescribed. I would like to know if she was behaving normally and if any other birds had similar symptoms. The integrity of her beak has been affected. I suspect this is a case calling for humane euthanasia.

Bitchin’ Chickens: I noticed the black spot on her eye and asked Dr Bowes what it was. She had never seen anything quite like it and wondered if it was an iris bleed. It would be interesting to know how long her eye has been like that.


Bitchin’ Chickens: Cyanosis is the bluing of the extremities – lips and fingertips in people and combs in chickens – due to lack of oxygen. Folks often discover their dead birds with discoloured combs and assume they had a ‘heart attack’.

Dr Bowes: Chickens have heart failure, not heart attacks. They are both types of heart disease, but are different conditions. Heart attacks occur when there is a loss of blood supply to the heart, while heart failure is when the heart is unable to pump blood around the body efficiently. The colour of the comb indicates poor oxygenation of the blood, but was not the cause of death nor was it a case of sudden death. A necropsy would be required to determine the underlying pathology and cause of death.

Eye Infection

Dr Bowes: I suspect Mycoplasma Gallisepticum or Coryza. In the case of MG you might see more severe symptoms and fever.  You would need to confirm the diagnosis through culturing a sample: either from the caseous debris that was removed from around the eye, a swab of inside the eyelid or choanal slit on the roof of the mouth. An accurate diagnosis is necessary because these pathogens have different implications on flock health and treatment: both remain in the latent state in recovered carriers. MG can be vertically transmitted from hen to her chicks via the egg. They can be treated with antibiotics, but different ones which is why it’s important to have the correct diagnosis. If you have birds carrying either of these pathogens you should keep a closed flock (i.e. no new birds in, no existing birds out).

Beak Injury

Bitchin’ Chickens:

Beaks, nails and spurs are all made of keratin, a type of protein. A normal beak is comprised of two parts that fit together, so that the top slightly overlaps the bottom. The hard outer portion protects the inner soft tissues, skin and bone. Think of a beak like your fingernails. The tips are not attached and have no blood supply if they were broken. However, injuries to the nail bed itself can be painful and suffer permanent damage (i.e. some nails can’t regrow). Similarly, injuries to the tip of a beak are considered relatively minor and are usually easy to fix, whereas those at the base can result in damage to the bone and a permanently amputated beak.

Dr Bowes: There is a significant hemorrhage and total loss of the lower beak. It’s hard to determine if the tongue is still there. Unfortunately this type of damage means that the beak will not regrow and if the tongue is still there it will be exposed to the elements and pathogens and become necrotic. Recommendation: humane euthanasia.

Beak Injury

Bitchin’ Chickens: Both Dr Bowes and I concurred that this was an easy fix: clip the fishhook before the barb at the top of beak and slide the hook out. Apply topical antiseptic, monitor for infection and the bird should make a full recovery.


Bitchin’ Chickens: Frostbite is an injury to skin and underlying tissues caused by freezing, often in windy and damp conditions. The skin becomes very cold and red, then numb, hard and pale. In people, it most commonly affects our extremities: fingers, toes, nose, ears, cheeks and chin. Unlike people, chickens can’t wear winter apparel like hats and boots so their exposed combs, wattles, fleshy parts of the face, legs and feet are vulnerable.  

Dr Bowes: Once the comb has become necrotic and fallen off treat as an open wound with an antiseptic. Monitor her feet and wattles and other birds in the flock for any signs of frostbite. This is a call to action: people assume that chickens can endure all kinds of extreme weather and clearly they can’t. If your water container is freezing then you might need supplemental heat overnight. Avoid heat lamps or if using, secure them well to prevent a coop fire. Make sure your coop is an appropriate size for the number of birds you have and that you have enough ventilation (not drafts) so there is no condensation inside.


Bitchin’ Chickens: In people, pica is used to describe compulsive eating of non-food items, such as ashes, clay, and flaking paint. It’s mostly seen in young children or adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Pica involving eating dirt may be related to an iron or zinc deficiency. Poultry that eat foreign objects can suffer impaction, perforation of the digestive tract or metal toxicity.

Dr Bowes: This is a case of pica which has several implications: punctures from the sharp nails and screws, and zinc or lead poisoning from the metals. It’s great that the owner had an x-ray done to determine what was going on, but this issue won’t be remedied without surgical intervention. I would be curious what the environment was like that the duck had access to that many metal objects, why it was attracted to eating them and what were its symptoms that required a visit to the vet?


Caseous: cheeselike, especially in appearance, smell, or consistency

Devitalize: to lower or destroy the vitality of; make weak or lifeless

Keratin: a fibrous protein forming the main structural constituent of hair, feathers, hoofs, claws and horns.

Necrotic: Necrosis is the death of body tissue, which occurs when too little blood flows to the tissue. Necrosis cannot be reversed. When large areas of tissue die due to a lack of blood supply, the condition is called gangrene.

Many thanks to Dr Bowes for sharing her time and expertise helping to solve another round of chicken health mysteries.

Featured photo: IStock

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