Lethargic Chick

Pete Wedderburn
19th June 2020 - 4 min read

One of the pleasures of being a pet vet is that every patient is viewed as a “non-human person”, deserving of individual attention and care as much as any other creature. This view always has to be tempered with the fact that animals are still animals, without the same level of conscious thinking as humans. We have to accept that sometimes it isn’t appropriate to treat animals like little humans. But the fact that every patient is cherished as an individual makes my job both fulfilling and challenging.

Family Chicken

Bobby, a Bantam chicken who came to see me recently, is a good example. She belongs to a family who have a smallholding in rural Ireland. They just have a small flock of hens, with a few ducks as well. The situation is far more about a hobby than a money-making exercise: the family enjoy spending time with the poultry, and they love having the birds cluck-clucking and quacking around their back yard. The eggs that they produce are a bonus and the fact that they reproduce by producing eggs that hatch every year is an extra bonus. Many smallholders go on to rear a number of chickens, with some being kept and others being sold on to help pay the poultry food costs. In Bobby’s family’s case, it’s only done as a hobby, with only a small number of eggs being hatched each year.

In such small scale operations, most of the birds are healthy most of the time. Occasionally, there’s a health crisis, and this can be a real challenge.

Mrs G was close by when Bobby’s and his siblings hatched out. She always keeps a close watch on hatching chicks: sometimes there are situations where gentle intervention is needed, such as picking off sticky pieces of egg shell, or putting straying chicks back under the hen. Right at the start,, immediately after she had hatched, it seemed that there was something amiss with Bobby’s. She didn’t stand up on her feet like a normal chick, and she seemed to have less vitality. When Mrs G picked her up, she says that she felt odd in her hand, and at first she thought she might be dead. On closer inspection, it was clear that she was alive and alert, but she just had less energy and strength than the other chicks.

Mrs G hoped that she would rally with time, so she put her under her mother with the others. But it was obvious that she was still not right by the next day: she couldn’t stand up properly, and she was holding her head at a tilt.

If she had been in a truly commercial chicken farm, Bobby’s life would have ended there and then. She would have either been summarily dispatched, having her life ended quickly and painlessly by the chicken farmer, or she would have been left to fend for herself, gradually fading away through weakness and lack of proper nutrition over a few days.

As it was, she was lucky enough to be with a family who treated her as a pet. Mrs G was determined to do everything possible for the unlucky little bird. She started looking for help on the internet: there are some excellent online forums where hobby chicken keepers share stories and problems. She discovered that one likely cause of the problem could be a deficiency of Vitamin E and Selenium, so she started to give a daily vitamin and mineral supplement to try to help Bobby. There was an immediate improvement, with Bobby beginning to walk around reasonably well, and even being able to stand on a perch. She still slumped over on her side when sleeping, but she had made good progress.All this time, Bobby was growing bigger, and it seemed that this was not helping: the larger she was, the more weight she had to try to balance. After one rapid growth spurt at around 7 weeks of age, she suffered a marked deterioration, and at this point, Mrs G decided to bring her to see me.

Vet’s View

I always enjoy seeing unusual patients like this, but they present a particular challenge. My job as a vet is based on science: making a specific diagnosis after an examination and by carrying out tests including xrays and blood samples. To find out precisely what was going on with Bobby would require extensive – and expensive- investigations, and in a hobby situation like this, it’s often not affordable. I don’t see many chicks in my daily work, so I decided to consult with experts: I took a video of Bobby and wrote up detailed notes, posting them to a forum for discussion by specialist poultry vets.

The ensuing discussion was interesting. Everyone agreed that a laboratory-based investigation was the ideal answer, with blood samples, biopsies and other such tests. But taking Bobby’s circumstances into account, everyone also agreed that a practical approach was more appropriate and would be likely to produce a similar outcome. They agreed that Vitamin E and Selenium deficiency could cause these signs, so they suggested continuing with the supplements. And they felt that it would also help to add in Vitamin B supplements, as again, a deficiency could have this type of effect.

So Bobby is now on her new vitamin supplements. It’s too early to tell if they are working, but on a day to day basis, she’s a happy chick. Only time will tell if she will start to walk normally. We’re all hoping that one day, she’ll grow into a happy hen.