Sunday, September 29, 2013

Chickens: Hard-to-Diagnose Balance Problems

Monday will mark our fall batch of chicks' third week of existence (time in the egg notwithstanding), and all seventeen are still alive and kicking.  And flapping and scratching and pooping.  Sixteen of the seventeen are in good spirits, but starting on Monday, one of the rangers started having balance problems.  Assuming he wasn't drunk, we started looking for other culprits.

There are no discharges from the eyes or beak, and the chick is still eating and drinking (and pooping) well.  It's smaller than the other rangers, but is alert and peeps.  Not the shrill 'I'm-very-uncomfortable-right-now' peep, or the 'Help! I've-been-caught-by-a-human!' squawk, but normally the 'I'm-a-chicken-and-I'm-ok' peep. It seems a little front-heavy, and has an easier time moving backwards than forwards.  It can sit on its haunches and stand up tall just fine.  Half the time it can walk ok, but it limps.  After a a few minutes walking around, it will fall over as if its shoelaces were tied together.  Then it can't get up.  It kicks and kind of flaps, but can't right itself unless there's a wall or helping hand nearby to nudge its body back over its feet a little.  It's definitely not spaddle-legged, and the feet actually seem to be aligned pretty well.  There are no cuts or bruises or anything.  It's just sometimes one foot doesn't take a step when it's supposed to.  The problem also just showed up this week.  We concluded, therefore, that it doesn't seem to be a disease or a birth defect, but rather a muscle, tendon, or joint problem, and must have happened during an acrobatic maneuver malfunction involving the trough feeder.  (That's the chickens' only toy, other than an occasional bug with the misfortune to wander by.)

Fortunately, muscles, tendons and joints are Katie's specialty.  She normally works with humans, but how much different could a chicken be?  Katie eval'd the chick, but couldn't discern any differences between the chick's two legs, or between the legs of this chick and other (healthy) chicks.  Remaining puzzled, we turned to the internets.  It seems that many fowl experts suggest keeping birds with such problems off of their feet for a few days to a few weeks, usually with some kind of sling or hammock thing.  The Poultry Podiatry sites here and here were the most comprehensive we could find, although our chicks' symptoms didn't quite match up with anything there (except for maybe toxoplasmosis, but we haven't seen any cats--the only natural carriers--around here since we moved in, and we're not willing to spend a visit to the vet and/or drug store for a bird that won't see its eleven-week anniversary, anyway).  A couple sites specializing in other types of fowl (here and here)were also helpful in some aspects.

We tried a variety of slings (hence the missed post on Thursday), but failed to construct anything that the little guy couldn't wriggle out of (remember that he can do most standard chicken maneuvers fine a good fraction of the time).  The poultry podiatry site noted that an alternative to a sling is a chicken donut, or a chicken cup type thing.  We also noticed that the chick was comfortable supporting its own weight and didn't make a stink (figuratively, anyway) if stabilized on the sides.  Although we didn't get to the point of making a 'kick stand' shown in the second-to-last link above, we found that if we had a tall-enough pail with a wide-enough base, that the chick would stay fairly relaxed and vertical.  It made many fewer escape attempts.  And so, our solution for the short term is this:

The container is a trimmed-down plant pot from the grocery store with an old sock coiled in the bottom.  (Yes, we caved in and bought a live, full-grown basil plant that we planted in the ground.  We know it's kind of cheating, but we were desperate for fresh herbs from our garden and it was already August when we moved in!)  And since we kept asking the chick what his symptoms all mean, it made sense to name it Basil.  It's the only ranger with a name, and guess what it will also be seasoned with when we cook it in a few months!
The thing most driving Basil's attempts to escape from his donut is his desire to range with the other rangers.  We also only have one heat lamp, so we set him up in the brooder box with a sort of sky box thing so at least he can see the other chicks and stay warm, or survey his minions from his donut-throne.  Perhaps his full name should be King Basil the Gimpy.  Hopefully he's not a hen.  That would be awkward.
On a side note, Saturday was the chicks' first day outside.  We set up a few pallet-type things for free from a mattress company (via Craigslist) as a fence to expand the coldframe, and let them go for a few hours in the afternoon.  Final tally (that we saw): six slugs, two worms, eight dandelion leaf bits, and a grasshopper.

Have your chickens had similar symptoms?  Do you know what caused them?  How did you treat them?  Let us know in the comments section below!

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