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Pets Large & Small


Dr. Kimberly Brokaw, DVM

(1/2013) I confess to eating and enjoying a lot of chicken meat each year. However, I also have a great enjoyment for chickens as pets. Chickens are happy, social, and entertaining creatures, who also happen to produce good food. Chickens have become increasing popular over that last few years. Numerous people are keeping hens in their backyards so they can enjoy fresh, inexpensive, eggs. Every spring Tractor Supply, Southern States, and other feed stores have baby chicks available for purchase for a few dollars. What starts as a few dollar food animal slowly often shifts into a pet. I have multiple chickens myself and find that they make delightful pets. If hens are handled frequently from the time they are small chicks, they are usually pleasant and tractable creatures.

When I first meet the chickens of a family, one of the characteristics I find distinguishes if the chicken is a pet as opposed to totally a food animal, is if she has a name. The first set of chickens I received were named after styles of shoe (Stiletto, Flip flop, Winklepicker, Clog, etc). Then I acquired some guinea fowl who I named after designer shoe brands (Ferragamo, Cavalli, Ugg). Having exhausted the shoe theme, my next set was named after Ben and Jerry's ice cream flavors (Clusterfluff, Chunkey Monkey, Mudslide, etc). A few of my hens have been eaten by hawks. Generally, the two roosters look after the hens. Most of my chickens are still healthy and active. They wander my yard during the daytime and sleep in my barn rafters, leaving occasional piles of chicken manure on the tractor.

Chickens tend to be healthy pets, but even they need veterinary attention at times. The nature of treating a pet is very different from treating a food chicken. While there are no limitations on which medications a pet can use, food animal medications are restricted to ensure the safety of the food supply. Not only are the permitted medications different for a food animal but cost plays a large role too. After all, if a vet visit is going to cost more than the replacement cost of a food animal, then business would dictate that the animal not be seen. A vet visit for a two dollar pet chicken immediately exceeds the replacement cost, yet the owners are often happy to pay for veterinary care for their chickens.

While doing surgeries on chickens is very rare, I have performed a couple of chicken surgeries. One procedure was a toe amputation after a chicken got a piece of baling twine rapped so tightly around it's toe that the toe began to die. Another surgery was an evisceration repair after a chicken was attacked by a dog. As I was cleaning the chicken's intestines and putting them back inside, I remember telling the owner that I didn't think the chicken was going to survive. However, we were pleasantly surprised to find that after a round of antibiotics and a couple weeks of recovery the chicken was back to normal.

Strange as chicken surgery may sound, those have not been my oddest encounters. Only a couple of months ago, one of my clients paged the on call answering service. Her chicken was egg bound and had started to prolapse the vent. I was not on call and she was connected to one of the other veterinarians. As she started explaining the situation, he quickly informed her that “Dr. Brokaw is the only one who works on chickens. I don't know how to help you.”

I don't give out my cell phone number very frequently yet her son had helped out in the spring when we were making hay. The client still had my number and called, leaving a polite message saying that while she knew I wasn't working, if I had a moment to please call her back and advise her on what to do with the chicken. I called her back and told her to put the chicken in the sink with warm water and epsom salts to try and reduce the swelling on the prolapsed vent. While she was soaking the chicken her son was to go to CVS and purchase some OB lube. In hindsight I should have sent him to a farm supply store instead as it would have saved some embarrassment. While farm stores carry OB lube for calving and lambing, apparently CVS doesn't. The son called me and asked what he could use as a substitute and the next best thing I could come up with was personal lubricant. Did you know that personal lubricants come in a variety of flavors, scents, and colors? Well, I didn't, but I do now. I could tell from the tone in my client's son's voice that, while a mature 19 year old, he still felt very awkward about having to ask me which scent I thought the chicken would like best. After further discussion he had a box of latex gloves and unscented, unflavored personal lubricant and was headed to the check out counter. I told him he should just tell the cashier it is for his chicken if he felt awkward with those purchases. That didn't ease his embarrassment.

After successfully arriving back home with necessary supplies, I instructed the mom on what to do. With a gloved hand coated in lubricant, she determined that the chicken was in fact not egg bound. Instead she just suffered from a prolapsed vent. This would prove fairly easy to fix. The vent was lubed up and gently pushed back into the chicken. The mother was instructed to do this every time she saw that it had prolapsed. If that was unsuccessful the chicken would have to come to the clinic for me to suture the vent inside. The chicken was also to be started on a high liquid diet (fruit, melon, etc) to further liquify the excrement. A couple days later, the chicken was back to normal.

While not something that I advertise at the clinic, I have enjoyed the poultry patients that I have treated. The chickens have surprised me with their resilience and cooperation. While I certainly do not consider myself to be a chicken specialist, chickens often get better after very basic veterinary care. Although not everyone is willing to spend money treating a chicken, the reward of seeing a happy, clucking, pet hen, wandering the yard, is worth a lot to many of us.

Read other articles by Dr. Kim Brokaw