Diagnosis of Croque Madame

Hi (veterinarian running friend),

When we saw you last at (local running race), you said that we could ask you any chicken questions that we have as we bumble along and learn as we go with our tiny flock of 6  (5 hens and 1 nasty rooster). Now we have a sick hen and I’d appreciate any advice you can give.

Background: She is a White Chantecler hen, hatched in March 2013, and has been laying for about one month. She has been very healthy and happy up until 10 days ago. I isolated her from the rest three days ago and she has food, water and a quiet place to rest.

Symptoms: 10 days ago, she began stumbling while walking. It was less noticeable when she ran but worsened towards the evening each day. She was unable to stand on one foot (to scratch her face) and began to tumble over while preening. Otherwise she had regular energy, was able to escape the hassles of the rooster and wander with the other hens. She had trouble hopping up to the roost but was able to sleep there, perhaps balancing against the others. She was still eating, drinking, laying and pooping normally. She has no signs of mites or worms upon visual inspection. Her condition seemed to stabilize and improve.

3 days ago, her balance seemed to be fully restored and she no longer staggered or tumbled, but her colouring changed and she became listless. She is quite grey on her face, comb and wattles. Before I separated her, she would set down and drift off to sleep even when offered scratch. Now that she is isolated, she stands most of the time with her wings out and her tail down and she pants most of the time. Occasionally she drifts off to sleep (she seems exhausted) but wakes within 30 seconds, in need to pant again. She rarely lays down. It seems that she is overheated all the time, although the room is comfortably cool. She is eating a little bit and will drink but her poop is now watery and bright green, with almost no solids at all.

Wild Conclusion: About two weeks ago, FM was brewing a new beer and he lay the freshly boiled grain our for the chickens who loved it. 3 days later, it started to smell sour so I composted it, but they had been pecking at it until them. It was around that time that I noticed this hen’s symptoms of stumbling. I joked that she was drunk on beer grain! In my reading about symptoms on the internet, others have talked about hens getting sick from fermented grain so I wonder if it is a botulism, salmonella or some such. This might just be a silly conclusion from reading too much internet diagnosis.

I would appreciate any help you can give.

Many thanks!

Our little flock gorging themselves on brewing grain.

Our little flock gorging themselves on brewing grain.


I will write more later but in short, not much you can do. It’s probably a bacterial septicaemia and these are hard to reverse. If you have antibiotic, give her that by gavage.

(veterinarian running friend)

And so it is. Croque Madame is terribly sick. Bacterial Septicaemia is an immune response to an infection which results in inflammation which can cause organs to shut down and, ultimately, death. Gavage simply means tube-feeding and we will be attempting this today, but she is declining rapidly and I am losing faith. She stopped laying 3 days ago and her breathing is wheezy and raspy. She only eats and drinks when strongly encouraged (ie by me putting her beak into the food and water dish). I am trying to wrap my brain around losing her and it is a sad place to be.

Beak open, wings held out, tail tucked and panicked panting

Beak open, wings held out, tail tucked and panicked panting

Our little patient in the brooding box in our computer room

Our little patient in the brooding box in our computer room

Addendum: Croque Madame died a few days after this post. We had been giving her two doses of antibiotics by gavage each day for 4 days – one crushed up Cipro pill was divided into 16 doses and diluted in 15 mL of Pedialyte (our dosage was too high. Use only 0.1g/1kg of body weight) – and initially it seemed that she was improving. But on Thursday, she became worse again. (Here is a step-by-step description of how to give antibiotics by gavage)

Our vet friend told us that she must have laid an ‘internal egg’, which is when a young hen’s body pushes a formed egg up into her abdominal cavity, rather than pushing it along the oviduct for laying. From inside the abdomen, the egg starts to go bad, producing gases and liquids which play havoc with her digestion and eventually starts restricting her lung capacity (hence the endless panting), and then death. In chickens, there is very little you can do. By the time she shows symptoms, it is probably too late to help her. If she does pull through, she will never lay again.

On her final day, she wouldn’t even eat her favourite treat – grapes – and was unable to stand up anymore so, at that point, I held her for about 45 minutes while she went through spasms of pain and died.

I am relieved that her sickness was NOT related to the fermented, mouldy grain that we left out, but we learned our lesson on that front as well. She was a working bird, not a pet, but it was difficult to see her in so much discomfort during that week or in so much pain just before she died.

As she was Roo’s best girl, I don’t know how he will handle the news.

Croque Madame, in better times

Croque Madame, in better times

2 thoughts on “Diagnosis of Croque Madame

  1. We live and learn, and chickens do die, but I feel your pain. We didn’t protect our Cornish enough from weasels, and lost them all. You won’t leave brewer’s grain out again too long…and if we raise meat birds again, it will be in a more secure enclosure, but still big enough to not be a cage. It helps to do things differently next time…

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