Tales of the Bird Man: The ‘No Hope’ Vet

The vet was impressive. She clearly knew her stuff about chickens, having not only many letters after her name but also being an author of books about them as well. I was at a meeting of my local poultry club, where she was giving a presentation about keeping your chickens healthy.

I’d already written my own CHICKENS AS PETS, part-guide and part-memoir relating to keeping chickens as pets in gardens and backyards. In that book, I readily acknowledged that I didn’t know everything. Sure, there was a lot I knew then and there’s even more I know now, but chickens are incredibly complex creatures and there’s always new stuff to learn and many different opinions. When it comes to treating a disease or keeping parasites at bay, there are often conflicting views from good people who swear their ways are the guaranteed-to-work ways.

The truth is, there’s often more than one approach and a great deal comes down to choice in the end. I still don’t know everything. I never will. That was one of the reasons I attended the meeting to listen to the lady vet’s talk. I thought she would have valuable insights, and she most definitely did – but there was one thing, one very important question from me, that she answered in such a way as to temporarily drop me into a black hole of despair, only to rise up from it all the more determined to save Roxy’s life.

Roxy had, at that time, been living indoors with me for a couple of weeks. I kept her warm, encouraged her to eat and drink, held her close to me and cuddled her. She appreciated the contact but there was nothing I could do to stop the seizures when they came upon her like raging storms, other than to ensure there were no objects around her that could be banged against and cause injury.

I knew enough to recognise Roxy had epilepsy, although the cause was unknown. I wondered if she’d been pecked on the head, precisely on the little hole in the top of the skull that all Polands and feather-headed breeds share – it’s a design flaw to my mind, being a potentially fatal Achille’s Heel for these birds. One strike and they can be left with permanent brain damage or killed outright. Another possibility was that her tiny size and seizures resulted from inbreeding. I’d bought that batch of Poland eggs from a seller on eBay, and much is taken on trust when you do things that way.

I won’t buy eggs via that route ever again and don’t encourage others to do so, either. For all I knew – and of course I still don’t know – those Polands had been bred mothers to sons, daughters to fathers, brothers with sisters. It’s even a practice some breeders indulge in to keep certain character and physical characteristics to the fore. I think it’s abhorrent and my opinion is shared by a great many other poultry keepers.

Of the seventeen chicks hatched alongside Roxy, three died in the first forty-eight hours. In itself, this is of no particular significance. It’s very sad, I don’t mean it isn’t because it always is. It’s just, well, not all chicks make it to adulthood, for all sorts of reasons. More died as they all grew. I became more concerned. By the time Roxy was eight months old, I was left with a cockerel from that batch of eggs. Including Roxy, that’s just two survivors out of seventeen.

My care was exemplary. The mothers – for two hens shared mothering duties on those Polands, quite happily – were in no way to blame. I had never heard of hens brooding on eggs and raising chicks co-operatively but Dorcas, a Silver Dorking and a real giant, got along famously with my bantam Silkie hen, Holly. Dorcas was already a proven mother from previous years, while Silkies go broody a lot and make very reliable mothers.

No, there was definitely something ‘wrong’ with the eggs and a majority of the chicks that hatched from them. At least Roxy’s brother, Rory, appears perfectly normal and healthy. He’s the right size for an adult Poland cockerel and very happy living outdoors with three unrelated hens.

So, there I was, several rows back in the packed upstairs lounge at a pub I’d never visited before, listening to the vet as she talked of such things as red mite (bloodsucking little vampires that infest chicken coops) and the consequences of using mouldy feed. As I’d suspected, I was already aware of a lot of the things she was explaining to the audience but many of those watching and listening alongside me wouldn’t necessarily have had the same knowledge I did. I understood that, and gave the vet my respectful, undivided attention whether I was familiar with what she was talking about or not. Poultry club events are invaluable aids to improving chicken welfare, reducing mortality and making both owners and birds happier.

The vet herself was very brisk, direct in her manner and typically north Yorkshire. Her voice was clipped and precise, bringing back memories of schoolteachers taking no nonsense from a class. This made her both authoritative and, to my mind, a little too cool and distant. It was nothing personal but I couldn’t warm to her; and, while she invited questions at the end and gave great answers to them all (except for my own question), she didn’t come across as being friendly. Nevertheless, knowing she was a vet and obviously a very knowledgeable one, I wanted to ask her about Roxy.

I thought, maybe there’s hope for this little chick. Perhaps there is a medication. I already planned the next day to approach my own vet, who knew about birds in general but very little about chickens. That said, he’s been marvellous with all my flock. He takes on board that I know a fair bit about chickens. I do research, he follows those leads I give him and he provides me with material facts he’s able to source as well, plus he applies all the general but expert avian medical knowledge he has to my chickens, where and when it can be brought to bear. I guess you could say we work in partnership in some ways.

I didn’t want to ask about Roxy while others had their hands up. I waited patiently while all sorts of questions were fielded by the vet. The audience was mixed, you see – traditional farmers with a smattering of pet owners. I’d already learned, to my annoyance, that, while a majority of poultry farmers have no issues whatsoever with the pet chicken-keeping community, some do – and are very vocal in disparaging those of us who see our birds as companions like cats and dogs, as opposed to meat for the table and egg-producing livestock. Our lack of professionalism, commercialism and reluctance to cull… Our perceived softness, stupidity, sentimentality… These things and more get said and posted online.

I’ve seen those who keep birds for meat actively goading pet chicken-keepers, posting pictures of slaughtered birds to Facebook and slamming kind individuals looking to get help for sick birds, responding with statements like “Neck it!” or “Why are you bothering? If it’s sick, kill the damn thing!” and this sort of vile, antagonistic negativity and brutality was very much in my mind at the meeting. I didn’t want to raise the topic of an epileptic dwarf chicken and what to do to help her, not in front of a crowd I knew at least a percentage of which would take perverse delight in having a go about. Again, it’s a tiny minority who are so nasty. But they do exist, and nobody can deny it.

Hell, you even get crap from people who don’t keep chickens at all when you keep them as pets. I’ve concluded that the act of keeping pet chickens is a direct challenge to some. It’s an almost revolutionary act to take a creature designated as livestock and seen as dumb, and prove to the world that they make great pets and are far from stupid. It’s so much easier, I suppose, to eat an animal you think of as being brainless and uncomplicated, if you don’t like to think about what you eat. There are many who keep pet chickens, though, who are honest, and who do eat chicken – just not their own birds. There’s no rule that says you have to be vegan or vegetarian, although many pet chicken keepers are. Universally, though, pet chicken keepers tend to be so much more ‘food aware’ than a lot of people. Those who do eat meat among us opt for free-range and organic, and eat less of it, mindful of wanting to healthy and conscientious not only in the stewardship of their own birds but the planet as well.

Everyone was getting ready to leave. Chairs were being shuffled, coats put on. I chose my moment. I approached the vet as she stood, now below the staging area, chatting to someone about her books, some of which were on sale, as you’d reasonably expect them to be. She noticed me and gave a look that told me it was okay to speak up.

“Hi,” I said. “I wanted to ask you a question but didn’t want to ask it in front of all the others because it’s about a unique problem I have with one of my pet chickens, do you mind?”

Evidently intrigued, the vet shook her head. “Not at all,” she said. “Go on.”

“Well, I have this Poland pullet,” I began. “She’s epileptic and a dwarf. She isn’t growing.”

(A pullet is a hen not yet laying eggs.)

“Ah,” came the initial response. The expression on her face wasn’t promising.

“I just wondered,” I went on, “whether there are any medications that I could approach my vet to ask about, to help her?”

“I’m afraid not,” said the vet. “There are no treatments for epilepsy. Not in chickens.”

“I wondered if there was something not licenced that could be used, as with other conditions?”

“No,” said the vet, shaking her head firmly now. “Nothing.”

It felt like an ice-cold vice had gripped my heart and was squeezing it like you’d squeeze water out of a flannel.

“What’s going to happen to her, then?” I asked. “Is there any chance she’ll grow out of it?”

“I’m afraid not,” the vet said. “How often are the seizures happening?”

“A lot,” I said. “Every hour. Sometimes more. She’s exhausted. She has them in her sleep, you see, so she’s not getting any respite from them.”

“What will happen eventually is that her brain will fry,” the vet told me bluntly, before adding, “I’m sorry to say.”

“So it’s kinder to put her down?”

“Yes. I’d say so. There’s no hope. It’s just something that happens.”

“Well, thank you,” I said, feeling anything but gratitude for the information, given that it had been the very last thing I’d wanted to hear.

But, I thought, that’s not her fault. You can’t shoot the messenger. I left then, quietly despairing. I got into my car, belted up and started the engine, ready to go home and spend time with that little hen. I’ll have to get my own vet to do the deed, I thought. I can’t.

And then I said something, out loud, with only myself to hear it.

“No,” I said.

I drove home and went straight onto my computer. I opened up the Google home page and typed in ’treatment for epileptic hen’ and variations on that theme – ‘birds with epilepsy’, ‘avian seizures’ and so on. Within five minutes I was reading some very interesting information. I felt angry.

Why? Why did she say that? Why?

I called my vet the next morning. I explained to him all about Roxy. I told him she needed diazepam in the first instance, which would stop the seizures completely and that the dosage was determined by body weight. At the time Roxy weighed 350g. Alongside that, she needed another drug called phenobarbital. This wouldn’t work straight away, which was why the diazepam was needed, but eventually it would work to control the frequency and severity of the seizures. I told him I knew there were risks, that the medications weren’t approved for poultry but that they were routinely used to control epilepsy in a variety of other avian species. I understood that the drugs would make Roxy incredibly sleepy, possibly even comatose, initially. If she was out of it for too long, she could even dehydrate or starve to death without ever waking up.

But I had to try. Would he help me?

“Of course,” he said. “I have the diazepam available now, I’m happy to prescribe. The phenobarbital will be here tomorrow.”

I went that day to collect the diazepam. I went the next day for the phenobarbital.

But that first night, the day after one vet told me there was no hope, thanks to my own vet Roxy got a decent, uninterrupted night’s sleep.

“Sleep well, little girl,” I said, as I cradled her in my arms. “You’re going to live. I know you’re going to live.”

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