🐾 Maybe the reason I love animals so much, is because the only time they have broken my heart is when theirs has stopped beating.

Monday, 30 September 2013

Snooky and Avian Botulism

One evening about two weeks ago, when I was closing my girls up for the night, I noticed that one of my hens, Snooky, didn't look well at all. She entered the coop with her wings slightly spread and her tail hanging very low and my first thought was, "Oh no! A stuck egg!" I inspected her, but couldn't feel an egg at all. The next morning, when I opened up for the chickens, I found her in one of the nest boxes, unable to walk. I brought her inside and did a gentle internal examination, using some petroleum jelly on my finger, to feel if the egg was there now, but still nothing. And she was displaying some other disturbing symptoms. She couldn't use her legs at all, they seemed totally paralysed and she also had trouble sitting up straight and kept on falling over, either sideways or backwards. I did a thorough check for any other injuries but found nothing. The funny thing was that she didn't seem sick at all. She was alert and her eyes were bright, her comb was bright red and she ate and drank readily without any coaxing, but I had to hold her up so that she could reach the food and water. Her droppings were also perfectly normal.

Totally perplexed, I put her in a basket next to me in my studio and I had to wedge her in the corner otherwise she kept on falling over. As it was the weekend and a vet not readily available, I started treatment with a general antibiotic (Baytril) which I keep on hand for emergencies, just in case it was an infection of some sorts.

My mind was racing, trying to figure out what it could be. I searched all over the internet for 'paralysed chicken' and 'chicken can't walk' and after a long search I discovered Avian botulism which described all the symptoms I found with Snooky. I was horrified as it stated that there was no cure and that affected livestock had to be culled. 

Avian botulism is a paralytic disease caused by ingestion of a toxin produced by the bacterium Clostridium botulinum - an anaerobic, Gram positive, spore-forming rod. It acts by blocking nerve function and leads to respiratory and musculoskeletal paralysis.  In all cases, illness is caused by the toxin made by C. botulinum, not by the bacterium itself. There are several types of toxin produced by strains of this bacteria with birds being most commonly affected by type C and to a lesser extent type E.

This bacteria is widespread in soil and requires warm temperatures, a protein source and an anaerobic (no oxygen) environment in order to become active and produce toxin. Decomposing vegetation and invertebrates (i.e., insects) combined with warm temperatures can provide ideal conditions for the botulism bacteria to activate and produce toxin.

Birds either ingest the toxin directly or may eat invertebrates (e.g. chironomids, fly larvae) containing the toxin. Invertebrates are not affected by the toxin and store it in their body. 

It struck me that, just two days prior, I had composted my whole garden, never giving a thought that it might harm the chickens. I then Googled 'chickens and compost', and found a widespread consensus that compost is NOT harmful to chickens and that many farms have compost heaps and that the chickens just love scratching around in it. So now I was really puzzled.

Come Monday, I was off to the vet with Snooky and here's where it gets a bit dicey.  Not many veterinarians are knowledgeable about chickens or birds in general and the vet's puzzlement was even greater than mine. I mentioned to her that I suspected Avian Botulism and her vague answer, after consulting with her senior partner, was that it was quite probable that it was Botulism as the botulism bacteria is the only bacteria or virus that produces a (neuro) toxin that causes paralysis. After giving her a vitamin shot and another shot of Baytril, they concurred that I should keep up my treatment of Baytril for a couple of days but that they are positive that it would be better to have her euthanased.

I took Snooky home in despair and kept up the treatment for another two days. It was now almost a week and she showed no signs of improvement. I was on the point of going back to the vet to have her put down when I decided to give her some physio. I know that sounds silly, but I really was desperate. I massaged her back and her legs (the drumsticks) a couple of times a day and also gently pulled her legs in and out, exercising them a bit. I also took her outside to the other chickens in the chicken run three or four times a day, putting her on the lawn where she would just fell over, having to support herself with her wings or rest on her elbows. I also supported her with my hand under her tummy, pushing her forward gently so that her legs "walked", keeping this up for a couple of minutes before taking her inside to rest.

On the third day of her "exercise regime", I took her out to the garden where all the other chickens were enjoying their sand baths and put her in some loose sand. She was totally ecstatic, trying to go through the motions of kicking up sand, but all she could manage was to flick some sand on her back with her beak. But within a couple of minutes she was managing to sit up straight without falling over! After about ten minutes we went back inside and I rewarded her with some of her favourite snacks. The rest of the day she was sitting up straight in her basket without any support, even managing to preen some of the sand out of her feathers and reaching into the food bowl on her own.

The next day (fourth day) when I took her out to the garden and put her down in the sand, she struggled up onto her legs and actually stood! I was cheering her on and after a minute or two she took her first tentative step and proceeded on a very wobbly walk through the garden. I was totally ecstatic!

It soon became apparent to me where she was going - she had seen a lovely spot where Chi-Chi was sand bathing and without further ado she exercised her right in the pecking order by getting Chi-Chi to give up this prime spot, where she immediately got right down to the business of sand bathing, kicking legs and flapping wings and getting a good covering of the good stuff!

After that, there was no stopping her and she started exploring the garden, every now and then stumbling over a rock and falling down, but always getting up and going again. When we went back inside, I allowed her to sit outside the basket and a couple of times she got up, wandered through the house and back out to the garden again.

Going through the kitchen

The first obstacle, the kitchen step, which she managed quite well

Made it to outside on the patio!

Managed to get down the first step

Traversing her way down to the third step

After bringing her back from the garden, I put her back in the basket as it was almost time to put the other chickens to bed. But she wasn't having any of that. She jumped onto the side of the basket, where she sat for a while, jumped off and headed for the garden again. That was the sign for me. She was better and ready to join the other girls in the coop again!

Snooky managed to get to the second rung of the roost!

Everybody settling in for the night with Snooky quite happy down on the second rung

When I opened up for everybody this morning, they all ran into the garden, with Snooky in the lead! Yay!!

Snooky running to catch up with the crowd

Happily grazing together

 Relaxing under the ferns in the garden

Snooky is still not 100% and I often see her stumble or have a slight wobble, and I'm not sure if she will ever recover fully, but I am so grateful that she's improved to the point where she can carry on with her normal life en enjoy the friendship of her companions. As to whether it was Avian Botulism or not I might never know but it has taught me two things - patience is always rewarded and don't under-estimate the will of a chicken that wants to sand bath!



  1. A wonderful story with a happy ending!

    1. I'm not sure she's out of the woods yet Liz, I'm praying and holding thumbs. Thanks for the visit!

  2. And, don't under estimate the power of Momma's love!!!
    Oh, Maree, I'm so happy for Snooky and you! How heart wrenching in the beginning! You win the all time Feather Mom Award! I tip my hat and bow :)

    1. Oh, thank you so much for your lovely heart-warming comment PJ! Only another animal lover can understand the trauma of an experience such as this and I can feel your understanding and compassion in your words, for which I thank you! Have a great day!

    2. I showed your post to my hubby - another animal healer. I said this is one of many reasons why I love Maree. He now loves you too :)

    3. Aaaah, great to meet you hubby! As you undoubtedly know, that healing thing brings both joy and sorrow and not all attempts are successful, something we have to live with. I love both of you too! xx

  3. I am so glad there is a happy ending to this tale! You are one fantastic care-giver!!!

    1. Thank you for your lovely words and stopping by Kathryn!

  4. I'm so glad she's doing better! What breed is she? She's beautiful!

    1. She is a Bantam of mixed stock, with some Silkie in there somewhere. Thanks ever so much Anonymous, appreciate your lovely comment!!



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