An Illness Called Shingles

OR The Best Kept Secret

FM was diagnosed with Shingles in his face, ear and head three and a half weeks ago. He has been hit hard and the pain has been nothing short of crippling. Almost a month into it, there is still no end in sight. By that I mean that he has been laid out flat, unable to leave the house and sometimes unable to get out of bed because of pain. A month is a long time.

The funny thing is that, when you mention Shingles, everyone seems to knowingly nod their heads, saying that they have had it or knew someone who had it. But neither of us had any idea about the severity of this sickness or its commonality.

If you have had Chicken Pox or the Chicken Pox vaccine, you are a candidate for Shingles. One in three people will develop Shingles. The Chicken Pox virus remains dormant in your body’s nerves for your whole life and can become active when your immune system is taxed or run down. Usually one nerve is effected, causing skin blisters and pain for the entire length of that nerve fiber. Many people experience pain in their torso or across their abdomen. FM’s is in a nerve through the head and jaw.

FM's  Shingles are effecting the entire length of his facial nerve on the left side of his head.

FM’s Shingles are effecting the entire length of his facial nerve on the left side of his head.

The Shingles name supposedly comes from the scabby blisters as they dry up but the real illness is the pain that the nerves can cause. It isn’t contagious among those who have had Chicken Pox but, while the blisters are weeping, it can cause Chicken Pox in someone who hasn’t been exposed before.

FM had only a brief stint with blisters but his pain symptoms have fluctuated daily and sometimes hourly. He has managed to go to work about four times over the past month but he usually comes home exhausted and needs to rest throughout the next day. We have just learned that Shingles symptoms usually last about 12 weeks (3 months!) but the worst part – the part where you are completely indisposed – lasts around four weeks.  Unfortunately there is little you can do about Shingles. You have to let it run its course and simple manage the pain through prescription drugs – lots of drugs.

For such a severe illness, I find it surprising that people keep so quiet about it. If a third of the population develops Shingles and is off work for such extended periods of time, you would think that more would be known about it. But I suppose that those who have it and survive its rigors never want to speak of it again. And who can blame them?

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The Incubator Death Trap

OR “Why I will never hatch chicks in a classroom again”

The science curriculum includes a large life sciences component so it is a fun idea to bring some kind of animal into the classroom to give children first hand experiences. In the past, I have had butterflies, tadpoles and hamsters in my classrooms and even chicks once, about 20 years ago. This year, my teaching partner suggested hatching some chicken eggs in an incubator. Being a chicken fanatic, I was keen on the idea although I recognized that my recent chicken farmer experience would not necessarily transfer to knowledge on incubation.  Until now, I have left all the responsibilities of incubation up to Tweedle Mum.

We borrowed the big foam incubator and egg-turning device from the school district resource centre and a student’s parent brought in 22 eggs from a local farm. We read the page of instructions and did exactly what it said.

Loaned incubator from the school district resource center - circa 1970.

Loaned incubator ‘death trap’ from the school district resource center – circa 1970.

For twenty-one days, we tried to monitor the temperature (100° C) and the humidity (65%) but this was not easily done. Firstly the incubator temp control is clunky and very imprecise.

This pin spins freely and it is difficult to tell if you have actually changed the temperature.

This pin spins freely and it is difficult to tell if you have actually changed the temperature.

Also, our classroom has many large waist-to-ceiling windows which have a greenhouse effect on every sunny day in the spring. By the time the students are dismissed, the room temperature is easily approaching 28° C. This high temp has some effect on the incubator temperature, which would sometimes exceed its incubation limit by a degree or two despite our attempts to turn down its thermostat. So in anticipation of the long holiday weekend, which was forecast to be hot and sunny, I turned the incubator thermostat down a bit and closed all the classroom blinds. When I arrived back three days later after a cool and rainy weekend, the incubator temp was around 97° C. I was pretty sure then that we had just killed 22 baby chicks.

The students waited and watched as the twenty-first day of incubation came and went. No chicks hatched. On the morning of the twenty-second day there was finally one egg with a pip. By the end of that school day, that chick had emerged and a few others had pips and cracks. The 23rd day had more action with six chicks hatched and a bunch more in various stages of pipping but things were not going perfectly.

One little guy had emerged but his bottom was still connected to his shell with a gummy egg-white string. As he tried to stand up and move around the incubator, the egg-shell restricted him and he dragged it everywhere. Other chicks stepped on him and he seemed very weak. By the end of the school day, his innards had been pulled out of his bottom. You could see his intestines, gizzard and other parts lying on the incubator floor while he still gasped for breath for a short while before he died.

Another chick successfully hatched but was unable to get dry even after a few hours. Her thin down covering stayed wet and sticky and, when I touched her, she was cool. That is when I noticed that the incubator temperature was only 97° C again. I tried cranking up the thermostat again, knowing that her life depended on the accuracy of that dial.

The weekend had arrived so we moved the successful hatches into a classroom brooding box with a heat lamp, chick feed and water and I took the rest of the eggs and the cold chick home in the incubator. The incubator was installed in our computer room and it was temporarily renamed the Sick Bay.

The first order of business was to get the cold chick warm. I placed her on a hot water bottle and wrapped that in a heating pad. When I checked on her a little while later, she was dead.

My remaining hopes were with the 4 eggs with cracks. I could hear them peeping to each other and I could see their cute little beaks with an egg tooth poking out of each cracked shell. One of those was so close to breaking out, pushing the shell apart around a middle seam over and over, and I had trouble tearing myself away to prepare dinner.

All the literature about emerging chicks insists that you shouldn’t offer any assistance at all, no matter how tempting it is. A mother hen simply sits and keeps those chicks warm throughout the process but does not help a chick break out. So there was nothing to do but let nature take its course. Survival of the fittest and all that.

When I came back to see her progress, I could see that she had stopped chirping and moving. The trauma of a low temperature and being moved from school to home had taken its toll and killed her. FM and I peeled back a bit of the egg-shell to find that the two membranes beneath were thick and difficult to break through even for us. It broke my heart to see that a fully developed chick had died because of the environmental conditions that I was controlling. There were 3 more eggs with pips and occasional peeps but as the evening rolled on, two more gave up the fight and we found that they had died as well. I removed the eleven eggs with no pip marks, knowing that they were surely dead after 24 days of incubation.

How many of these dud eggs have fully developed chicks in them? My bet is that they died sometime after 18 days due to the cold temperature inthe incubator.

How many of these dud eggs have fully developed chicks in them? My bet is that they died sometime after 18 days due to the cold temperature in the incubator.

With only one more pipped egg left, FM and I were no longer going to stand by and watch another fully developed chick die. He cracked the last chick’s shell and found that the shell had affixed itself to the dry, crusty coating of the chick’s down. The membranes were so thick – probably do to incorrect incubator humidity – and it was improbable that this chick would have emerged on its own. Even after we removed the shell covering his head, the bottom half of his shell still remained attached to his bottom  - the same problem that another chick had had in the classroom. Without hesitating, I got some scissors and cut the sticky egg-white thread to separate him from his shell.

With bits of cracked shell still attached to him, we named him “Shelled In” (Shelden), let him rest in the incubator and went to bed.

For two days, we were treated to the peeps and chirps of little Shelled In. We kept him in the incubator but held him, showed him how to peck food and drink water and tried to mimic his chirp to keep him company.

Fluffed up Shelled In

Fluffed up “Shelled In”

"Shelled In" was a successful hatch only because we intervened. Poor humidity and temperature control would have killed him.

“Shelled In” was a successful hatch only because we intervened. Poor humidity and temperature control would have killed him.

On Monday morning, I brought Shelled In into the classroom and placed him in the brooding box with the 6 successful hatches. He was the loudest of them all, still traumatized from the car ride and he seemed to stare at the other chicks in disbelief. When I left, he was leaning against a blonde chick and snoozing contentedly.

When I look back on this ordeal of losing 16 / 22 chicks and compare it to the joy of watching Tweedle Mum hatch 5 / 6 chicks, it is apparent that nature does it best. I am quite sure that the incubator became a death trap because of our poor monitoring of temperature and humidity. It breaks my heart to see so much death over the course of two days and to think that any of those chicks could have been full of personality and affection, like Chip. But it is also pretty sad to think that a delicious Angel Food Cake could have been made with those 11 unpipped eggs.

Our eleven unhatched eggs would have been better used this way.

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Chip Chop – Impacted Crop (part #2)

After weighing out all of the options for Chip’s impacted crop, we decided to surgically empty it. I’m sure this comes as no surprise to any of you who know us and especially to those who have met Chip.

Although this procedure should only be considered in extreme cases and when all other options have been exhausted, it had been in the back of our minds for a number of weeks, long before her case had become extreme. We talked about and began acquiring equipment that we would need (headlamps, scalpel, forceps, syringe for irrigating, needle and absorbable sutures). We also began watching youtube videos showing chicken crop surgery (not for the faint of heart and not right after a meal). The majority of youtube videos showed people with very little medical knowledge pulling off successful surgeries. Some of them were ghastly to watch, using dull knives and scissors to open and crazy glue to close the incisions. Most videos showed crops filled with masses of straw or hay bedding that their chickens had consumed. We wondered aloud what was the cause of her impacted crop, since we don’t use straw in the coop. Could it be piece of plastic found in the ‘fill’ around the garden? Could it be a piece of that fraying tarp under the porch? Could it be some of the dry, brown grasses still lingering in the garden from last fall?

We finally decided that she was close to crisis. If we waited any longer, she would be too weak to recover from surgery and too susceptible to infection during the healing process. We set a date for Saturday and steeled ourselves up.

When our operating room and recovery box were ready, I went out to find Chip. As usual, she eventually came out of hiding to visit me and I was able to scoop her easily. Her crop was larger than an egg even though it was morning. We lay her down, covered her head with a tea towel and bound her legs loosely with an elastic. My job was to hold her still and keep her from flapping her wings while FM had the tougher task of performing the operation.

Everything went just as planned.  FM cleared away feathers with scissors from a very large area of her chest and we used a surgical drape to hold the remaining feathers out of the way. The incision was made high up on her crop, avoiding any blood vessels and it was about 5 cm long in both the skin and the crop tissue. There was very little blood.

As soon as her crop was opened, that familiar dark brown liquid oozed out and the smell was nasty. She was full of green grass, clover and barley (from the scratch feed) which are all normal consumables for our girls. But she also had a lot of pine shavings in her crop, the type that we use for the coop floor and nesting boxes. As FM emptied the crop, he found that the entrance to the proventriculus/gizzard was packed with these pine shavings. It was no wonder that she was losing weight.

FM emptied about a 1/2 cup of crop contents into a container.

FM emptied about a 1/2 cup of crop contents into a container.

Using forceps and tweezers, FM pulled out all the contents of her crop, pinch by pinch. There was no solid mass like in the images we’d seen. Instead, it was a long labour of a few leaves at a time. He used the syringe with saline to rinse and irrigate the crop, ensuring that all nooks and crannies were cleaned out. As the crop was emptied, it shrunk and collapsed in on itself, as it should do, making it difficult to see if we got everything out. FM was determined to do a thorough job, knowing that we really have only one opportunity to do it.

Just before he stitched her up, he swabbed her, trying to make sure that the incision would be clean and clear of any remaining crop juices or contents. The swabbing caused her to bleed and suddenly there was a fair amount of blood. I felt myself go pale and FM’s hands began to shake. We both had a panicked minute while we tried to deal with this unexpected twist. With a good amount of gauze and pressure, he got the bleed under control and he was able to close the crop with 7 stitches. The skin took another 7 stitches and a dab of crazy glue at each end. We cleansed the area, put a good blob of polysporin antibiotic ointment and bandaged her with gauze and tape.

Immediately after surgery she was up and alert, but very exhausted.

Immediately after surgery she was up and alert, but very exhausted.

When her feathers were flattened down, her incision was completely covered, so other hens haven't seen it or pecked at it.

When her feathers are flattened down, her incision is completely covered, so other hens haven’t seen it or pecked at it.

Chip held so still throughout it all, flinching and attempting to sit up only 3 times – during the first skin incision, during the final cleaning of the incision area and during one of the stitches. When she was all bandaged up, we helped her up and she just stood there looking at us for minute. I held her on my lap for a few minutes until she drifted off to sleep and then I placed her in the recovery bay.

She had some special treatment. She joined us in the living room for our morning coffee the next day.

She had some unusually special treatment. She joined us in the living room for our morning coffee the next day, spending her time roosting on our shoulders and looking out at the view.

We kept her in the house, in the recovery box for 2 days and 2 nights. She removed her bandage as soon as we put it on every time, but she didn’t pick at her stitches. She slept for almost all of the first day and night and became more vocal on the second day. We fed her dishes of moistened chick starter (high in protein) which she enjoyed although it took her a long time to get through a tablespoon of it. On the morning of the third day, she was squawking and eager to get outside. As soon as I brought her outdoors, the other hens came running over to see her and seemed genuinely content to have her back.

On day 3 we put her out to flock with the girls. It was just like old times.

On day 3 we put her out to flock with the girls. It was just like old times.

 

We have kept a watchful eye on her and are so pleased to see her eating normally, flocking with the others and having no infection near the incision. Her crop has been flat in the mornings and smallish in the evenings, just as it should be.

Thing We Wish We Had Known

1) The surgery from start to end took about 1.5 hours – much, much longer than we anticipated. We were not trying to set any speed records, but it was a long time for us all to be under such stress.

2) It is possible to get anesthetics – either topical or injectable – and I wish we could have used something for her pain. But we did all of this with no freezing at all.

3) We were so busy with the intensity of the moment that we took no photos at all. It was helpful to see others’ photos and videos so that we knew what things would look like. It would have been good to share ours as well.

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Chip Chop – Impacted Crop (part #1)

This is me and Chip, our favourite hen.

A typical scene when you arrive at the Queendom - a chicken scritch in action!

A typical scene when you arrive at the Queendom – a chicken scritch in action!

She is social, affectionate and whiz-bang smart. She enjoys daily lap scritches and has been a consistent egg layer, giving us huge, double-pointed, dark brown eggs about 5 times a week. She is the ruler of the roost among our small flock and, in the absence of a rooster, has taken on all the duties of watching out for potential dangers and alerting all the others.

But in February, a lot of things with our flock went sideways. With the sudden death of Florentine, most of the hens went into a molt. Both Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum had minor molts, losing and then replacing their wing and shoulder feathers within 3 weeks. But Chip’s molt was slow and complete. First she lost all the fluffy feather down beneath her tail, giving her a truly bare ass. Next she lost her face and head feathers and then those on her chest. The molt went on and on for more than 8 weeks, during which we received no eggs. Her comb and wattles went pale – almost yellow – and she was too exhausted to hop up onto the deck to visit.

Once her molt seemed complete, her demeanor did not improve so we began looking for other issues. Sure enough, we found that her crop was enlarged to the size of a tennis ball and was very firm. In the mornings, when a crop should be an empty sack, her crop was smaller – more like a squash ball – and still very firm.

Chicken Digestion

The crop simply holds food before it enters the proventriculus / gizzard where digestion occurs. The crop is full after a chicken eats and empty when they haven’t eaten.

You can see her crop slightly bulging out here. Her comb and wattle colouring also show her level of sickness.

You can see her crop slightly bulging out here. Her comb and wattle colouring also show her level of sickness.

With some quick internet research, we began to try various home remedies:

Try feeding her bread soaked in olive oil and then gently massage the crop.

Chip is a strong-willed gal and there was no way that she would eat olive oil soaked bread. So I tried soaking it in canola oil instead which she did eat a little. I also encouraged her to drink lots of water and then I would massage her crop. I was able to soften her crop a little and it felt like I was breaking up clumps of solid fibers. We hoped that this massaging would allow whatever the blockage was to pass into her stomach/gizzard.

Her weight continued to drop and her listlessness became worse. She would hide under our cars or fall asleep when feed was offered. We could feel her keel bone (breast bone) becoming more and more sharp and prominent. We could even find her hip sockets! I finally called the local farm vet. The next day I brought her in so that the vet could show me the next home remedy:

Hold the hen upside down by the feet and vomit her. While she is inverted, massage her crop, like milking a cow, and she will bring up sour liquid and solids.

I sat back and watched in horror as Dr. Peter and Dr. Alicia demonstrated this technique. It was as awful as it sounds and it released a stinky, black liquid out of her mouth, but no solids.  They told me to try to vomit her at home a few times a day until her crop emptied.

I didn’t think that I could do such a thing to any living creature, but sure enough, FM and I vomited Chip a couple more times at home over the next few days. It felt brutal and mean but, more than that, it wasn’t changing the state of her crop. After about five attempts to vomit her, we decided it was doing more harm than good. Surprisingly, Chip maintained her docile, affectionate nature and would still come to see us whenever we were outdoors. Onto the next home remedy:

In extreme cases, the crop will require surgery to empty it of the contents and the object causing the blockage.

So … we had to decide if Chip’s case was extreme. Our choices were three-fold. 1) We could cull her and make her into the thinnest soup you ever tasted.  2) We could let her carry on with an impacted crop and she would slowly starve to death. 3) We could be pro-active and try to save this cherished member of our flock.

Stay tuned for the big reveal!

 

 

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Desperately Seeking Florentine

Imagine for a moment that you have a twin sister who is your inseparable bestie and together you share a loving Mum who keeps you warm, sheltered and fed. Now imagine that suddenly, without any explanation, Mum turns on both of you in anger, yells at you and makes it obvious that she wants nothing to do with either of you ever again.

As sad and surprising as this is, you manage to get by because you have your sister. Together, you venture into the big wide world to run, play and explore, all the while keeping a keen eye out for each other’s safety. Danger is everywhere, though, and one day you both witness your auntie get mauled and killed by a ferocious beast right before your eyes.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, imagine that this beloved sister suddenly falls ill with an unknown respiratory illness and dies within a week. Now you find yourself truly alone, on the bottom rung of society, trying to make sense of this new, lonely reality.

But each new day still arrives. Grieving and mourning are only possible when all other necessities are taken care of – eating, finding a quiet place to sleep and earning a living – even if your heart just isn’t into any of it.

Just when you think that you have hit rock-bottom, your fickle and moody Mum vanishes. Even though she kicked you out and called you names, she is still your mum and you still seek her affection – but now you can’t find her anywhere.

This is the life story of our 5 month old hen, Benedict. She has endured all of the above and more in her short life.

Poor Benedict has had more family tragedy in her short 5 month life than any of us could handle.

Poor Benedict has had more family tragedy in her short 5 month life than any of us could handle.

“But she’s just a chicken! Chickens don’t have feelings or emotions!”,

I can hear you say. But I challenge you to come out to the Queendom and observe her for a while. You will see that this is not personification on my part.

At least once day, Benedict becomes frantic and begins pacing. She starts to emit low and constant clucks. She runs to each of our out-buildings and stretches up high and crouches down low to look over and under things before moving on to the next place. She will go into the wood storage, then into the tractor bay and then into the trailer bay before running over to the garden shed to continue her search. She will circle the house and then the shop, clucking all the while. She will run into the coop and hop up into  a nesting box, pecking at all the corners then she will exit and hop into the other nesting box. Once the circuit is complete, she will begin again. There is no way to calm her or divert her quest – even scratch has little effect. Eventually she gets hungry or thirsty or simply loses interest for the time being.

When she discovered that Tweedle Mum had not vanished but simply has moved out and is living on her own, Benedict makes sure to visit her every day

When she discovered that Tweedle Mum had not vanished but simply moved out and is living on her own, Benedict makes sure to visit her every day, much to Tweedle Mum’s displeasure.

Another change is Benedict’s egg laying. She had been laying cute little brown eggs, too small for the egg carton. But as soon as Florentine died, she began laying shell-less eggs, double yolkers and even laying two eggs at a time.

Benedict laid these two shell-less eggs in the middle of the grass. They were separate eggs but joined with a delicate membrane.

Benedict laid these two shell-less eggs in the middle of the grass. They were separate eggs but joined with a delicate membrane.

Antoher single shell-less egg. This one was laid on the gravel driveway.

Another single shell-less egg. This one was laid on the gravel driveway.

"One of these things is not like the others"

“One of these things is not like the others”

Even upon discovering Tweedle Mum in the broody pen, Benedict continues her desperate search, so I can only conclude that she is looking for sweet Florentine. Watching her is heart-breaking. She is obviously searching for something or some-chick and is driven to distraction by her absence. I am completely sold on the fact that she is confused and grieving, filled with sadness and anxiety. If you allow yourself to believe that dogs form attachments to their families, is it such a stretch to think that chickens may do it too?

My thoughts today will only push me deeper into that “Crazy Chicken Lady” category but I am willing to take that risk.

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If You Can’t Beat ‘Em….

As reported in The Torture Chamber post, putting Tweedle Dum in isolation for a few days succeeded in getting her back into the routine of laying eggs and flocking with the others. But, one month later, she has become broody again. This hen is made to mother.

With our flock dropping down to an all-time low of 4 hens, it is as if she knows that we need a few more chickens running around.

With no rooster on the scene at the Queendom, FM called in on a work colleague and came home with six freshly laid, probably fertile eggs in a wide variety of colours.

These six eggs came from a farm with many breeds of chicken, resulting in the full rainbow of egg colours.

These six eggs came from a farm with many breeds of chicken, resulting in the full rainbow of egg colours. We may be so lucky.

The weather has warmed up significantly and it only drops slightly below freezing on some nights, so we are able to house Tweedle Mum and the eggs away from the other hens in the coop. To hatch a successful clutch, Tweedle Mum needs to feel safe and secure from predators and other chickens while she sits for the requisite 21 days.

Here she is immediately after we placed her in her new digs. She seems to approve of the dog crate housing.

Here she is immediately after we placed her in her new digs. She seems to approve of the dog crate housing.

The garden shed has once again become her broody pen but this time she is sitting in the lap of luxury inside a large dog crate, rather than under an upturned Costco vegetable box. Although we provide her with both food and water close at hand, she gets up only once each week to eat, drink, poop and preen. I check on her a few times a day and sometimes bring her a fresh garden salad of clover which she eats hungrily. The rest of the time she sits, flattening herself as much as possible to cover all of the eggs.

Tweedle Mum is our smallest bird and it is quite a stretch for her to cover all six eggs. Her wings need to be partly opened and her chest flattened below her.

This photo was taken on day 8.  Tweedle Mum is our smallest bird and it is quite a stretch for her to cover all six eggs. Her wings need to be partly opened and her chest flattened below her.

We couldn’t break this girl so now she gets her way. Go for it, Mum! Our hopes are high and we are trying to come up with 6 more egg-dish names!

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