The Winter (and Spring) of our Distress
December 1, 2013 § Leave a comment
I said I’d post about the dramas we experienced over winter, and since we use this blog as a flock diary as well as a riveting source of information and entertainment for all of you out there (she said, optimistically), I figure now would be a good time. I apologise for the length – it’s quite an epic, spanning four months and an entire flock. You might want to get yourself comfortable with a cup of coffee before we start …
It began with Adelaide back in mid July, and then Lola as well, a few days later. The last update I gave you was when we were waiting to hear if his throat swab came back positive for aspergillosis (it didn’t), while dosing him with antibiotic (synermox) and antifungal (sporanox). The pattern of some improvement followed by a sudden (and seemingly random) return to heaving wheezing just kept on and on.
On the 9th of August, I phoned in with the usual progress (or lack-there-of) report. If it was a fungal thing in his lungs, there should have been some response by now. So a new theory came in to play – that it was a slightly a-typical case of infectious bronchitis. A blood test would confirm it, and so we arranged to bring both Lola and Adelaide in on Saturday morning.
About half an hour after I made this appointment, I found Erica looking hunched up. Closer examination revealed that she’d somehow managed to give herself an impromptu debeaking. She’d broken off the tip of her top beak, and now had a 15 mm deep crescent-shaped gap, exposing the nerve and blood vessels. It was obviously extremely painful for the poor girl – she couldn’t even drink without pain, let alone eat. Another phone call, and she was added to the appointment the following day. (Having a third blood sample from the (geographically separate) main flock would also help us see if it was just him, or endemic.)
Saturday morning came around; Erica was pronounced safe to leave alone (just making sure to give her some extra mash, so she could eat without pain while the beak regrew – which it did with surprising rapidity), and blood samples were dispatched to the lab. Back home with yet more synermox for Lola. Hooray.
To cut this part of our very long story short – it wasn’t infectious bronchitis. All three blood samples came back negative. So then we went through a period of treating him as though it were some sort of lung thing, which meant more drugs (hooray) and me giving him the sort of physio that you might give a child with cystic fibrosis – holding him upside down by the feet, and briskly tapping his sides to try and encourage any fluid to drain back out of his lungs.
And no, that didn’t work either. We were, frankly, out of ideas. By the end of August we switched Lola and Adelaide onto Tetravet in their water – it’s a standard antibiotic for generic respiratory problems in birds (once you’ve ruled out the scary ones) and vastly cheaper than the ones we’d been using. Then Neroli died, and we started feeling extremely paranoid about what might be lurking in the flock. But Lola just stayed about the same – some days were more or less wheezy, and always wheezy after exertion. But it didn’t seem to be actually causing him distress … me, plenty. Him, no. So on September 10th we stopped medication, and held our breath (metaphorically) for the next ten days to see if anything would happen, or if he was now actually fine, just with residual damage causing him to sound terrible.
To complicate matters, the new cockerel, Patrick, was sneezing. He was in quarantine way down the back, and with all the stress of the other illnesses and losing Neroli, I hadn’t been paying as close attention to him as I would have liked. He didn’t seem to have any nasal discharge (although his enormous and luxuriant comb made it a little hard to tell) and there were no wheezes or sounds associated with his breathing. He just … sneezed. Once or twice over the course of an hour. So after talking with Pauline, we decided to not take any risks and to put him on a course of Tetravet too.
Then on September 18th, Lily was lame. She didn’t seem to have bumble foot, was willing to put weight on the leg (her right), and even to scritch in the pit, so I was reasonably sure it wasn’t a break. So I dosed her with metacam (anti-inflamatory) and kept an eye on her. The following afternoon she was quite a bit worse, and now had some wheezing as well. It was not a good night. We brought her in, dosed her with metacam and tetravet, phoned the vets, got an appointment for the next day, and turfed Adelaide and Lola outside, back to the flock. (They were fine, incidentally. And reintegrated pretty effortlessly.)
Pauline couldn’t feel anything broken or dislocated, so we worked on the assumption that Lily had managed to really wrench a muscle. Metacam and tetravet for a week, with a progress report on the Monday. So when Monday came around and she was essentially unchanged, so we proceeded as planned. With one addition – given that Lily was the fourth member of the flock to show respiratory problems, we had to assume that the whole flock had some sort of low-level respiratory thing going on, which only became a problem in the older birds if they were injured or in some other way put under additional stress. So we put the whole flock on a two week course of tetravet.
Thursday evening (September 26) I found Lily in the cage, sitting absolutely still, with her right wing out supporting her weight. Every time I’ve seen that before it’s meant a broken leg. I did very nearly lose it at that point. I handled her as gently as I could, and tried to feel what was going on, but couldn’t detect anything. But she was absolutely not willing to put any weight at all on the leg. Another tearful phone call, another first-thing Friday appointment. I think I got about ten minutes of sleep.
Pauline still couldn’t feel any breaks, so took her out to be X-rayed with real dread. Nothing. There was a moment when Pauline though a bit of ghosting on the X-ray could be a break in the actual knee joint, but decided it was just the other leg underneath making things a bit distorted. So we had another five or so minutes of Pauline manipulating the leg and all the joints in every way possible, trying to find what it was that could be causing the pain. We’d exhausted the possibilities with the legs, so we started looking for possible infections or similar – she’d had bumblefoot the previous summer.
And that’s when we found the lump. The central joint of Lily’s middle toe was noticeably swollen, and when Pauline started manipulating her toes, Lily really reacted. So it was yet another set of X-rays, this time of her feet.
And that’s what it was. She has arthritis in both her middle toes, but quite a lot worse in the right foot, with some visible degeneration of the joint. It was both a relief and a real blow. Because the middle toes do a lot of work support a chook. Not to mention how crucial they are in things like scritching. And there really isn’t a cure as such. If it was too painful for her to just live with – more than just the odd twinge, for example, which this certainly seemed to be – then our only real option would be amputation of the toes back to healthy bone. And Lily was a six-year-old hen, with a respiratory illness. Not good.
We decided that there was no point even worrying about the toes until the respiratory thing was under control. She would be inside, kept warm and on soft footing (towels), on tetravet and metacam until her breathing was clear. Then we’d re-evaluate things, and consider the surgical options. The really huge irony? Patrick’s quarrantine would end on Sunday …
To cut this epic tale of misery and woe short, Lily seems to have recovered. She came off the meds on October 9th and gave us a scare by starting to wheeze again within 24 hours. So yet more tetravet was obtained, and she was dosed for a further week. I wasn’t giving Lily her tetravet in water, because she was tending to overturn her water dish and I could never be quite sure that she was actually getting the correct dose. So we’d consulted the Bayer website for what the direct dose should be (19 mg active constituent per kg bodyweight per day – the powder is 10% oxytetracycline HCl, so I let Stewart do the maths), and weighed out daily doses in a series of pill bottles. I’d sprinkle half of the day’s dose over a couple of small bits of break that had soaked in water for a few minutes, and dose her that way (the “hiding it in mince” option only worked for a week this time, and the chip and egg options she rejected completely) night and morning. The respiratory thing came good after a couple more days back on tetravet (although she got a full seven further days, just to be absolutely sure). To really mess with us, she developed crop stasis on October 18th (not surprising given the amount of medication), so came straight off the drugs and on to a day of nothing but apple mush. She wasn’t happy, but it did do the trick. She was also joined by Ella for a couple of days – the giant muppet had managed to really gash her comb, and was absolutely covered in blood. It took me about two hours to get her cleaned up enough to see what damage there was and get it to stop gushing bloody everywhere. It was just a small (but deep) gash on the side of her comb, but y god did it bleed. And she kept knocking it against things and starting it up again. When Stewart got home that night – October 18th – yet another bloody (hah!) (sorry) Friday – I was liberally covered with blood, as were the walls of the shower, three towels, and quite a few surfaces in the hospital room. Three days inside with Lily was enough time for healing to happen, thank goodness, and she went back out to the flock the following Monday.
Back to Lily. By the time she was joined by Ella, her lameness seemed to be largely forgotten – she was being given a couple of hours on the lawn in the broody each day, just to make sure she got enough sunlight (good for immune response), and seemed to be quite happy walking and scritching. I’d brought Patrick inside once or twice for a preliminary conjugal visit, which had seemed to go well enough – he wasn’t pushy or aggressive, and she seemed to quite like his attention. So on October 26th, crossing all available digits, we put her outside with Patrick (who had been co-habiting with Dorothy and Gabby since we shifted everyone into the paddock on October 13th), and breathed a (cautious) huge sigh of relief.
It really was a horrendous winter and spring. I was on the phone to the vets roughly twice a week from mid July to the middle of October, and going in on average at least once a week (although some of those visits, especially towards late September through to mid October, were just to collect more drugs). It was not fun. Or cheap. And of course it wasn’t completely over – Mirri died two weeks later, in mid November. So we’re extremely paranoid at the moment. Looking back at the list of what happened doesn’t exactly make for happy reading. And if it was happening to someone else, I’d be feeling pretty sure that there was either animal abuse or massive incompetence going on. (There definitely isn’t any of the former, and even with 20/20 hindsight I can’t really say there’s been any of the latter either.)
It’s been quite an act of faith to collect eggs from our girls with the hope of brooding some of our own chicks. Part of me has a superstitious dread that we’re tempting fate; that the universe has decided we aren’t allowed any more, and that any attempt to go down this path will be punished. But I know that isn’t true. And I also know that Poppy and Lily are getting on, and have been forcibly reminded (as if I needed it – no-one in Canterbury forgets it) that life is short, fleeting and fragile. If we want there to be any continuation of Poppy and Lil, we need to breed from them now.
Here’s hoping that we’ve finished with drama, at least for a couple of months …