Today was supposed to be a Five Things Friday post, but I couldn’t bear to think about the five things that made my week when one terribly sad event overshadowed them.
On Wednesday, we made the very difficult decision to euthanize our Easter Egger hen, Gisele. She was two years old.
It’s hard to prepare for the death of a pet when death comes so suddenly, and I certainly didn’t expect to be as affected as I was/am. People without backyard chickens might think, Oh, she’s just a chicken, but Gisele had become such a special part of our family — and this blog — that the loss has been very hard for me.
Losing a chicken is like losing a family member, and not an hour goes by that I don’t think about her. I hear the other chickens squawking in the yard and I think of Gisele. I prepare food for the other chickens and I think of Gisele. I look at our pugs, who are also our family members, and I think of Gisele. I have her feathers all over our house as decoration (they were even tied on to the God’s eye we wove at our wedding) and seeing them brings tears for that cheerful little chicken that had brightened our lives for the last two years. We are thinking about tying a bundle of her feathers together and hanging it in the attic space of the coop, her favorite roosting spot, as a tribute… but I don’t think I’m ready for that yet.
We had Gisele euthanized at the vet, who then submitted her body to the UC Davis School of Vet Med for a necropsy. We’re supposed to have her results back by the weekend, and though I want to know what happened to sweet Gisele, in some ways I’m dreading the report because of the guilt that her death may have been my fault.
We came home from a long road trip on Sunday night and all was well according to our house- and pet-sitter. On Monday afternoon, I walked down to the coop with some treats for the chickens when I noticed Gisele standing apart from the flock, tail down. She didn’t run up to me like she usually does when I’m holding a handful of greens, and wouldn’t eat any that I offered her. I tried to entice her with dried mealworms, but she refused them. She walked away and into the stand of banana trees, her face tucked into the corner. Our other two chickens were still active and up to their usual antics, so I didn’t think too much of it.
Gisele had started molting last month so while her behavior was odd, I attributed it to exhaustion and stress from an early molt. She was happy and eating well before we left, and happy and eating well all weekend, so I didn’t think she could do a 180 so suddenly. I left her alone and when I came back before sunset, I found her up on the roost, away from the other chickens, still with her tail down. Her crop was barely half-full.
I brought her into the house and examined her vent… all clean and clear with no egg obstructions that I could find. She had no mites or lice. Her claws looked normal. Her new feathers were growing out as they should. Her comb was a little pale, but often every chicken’s comb turns a bit pale and dry during molting season.
I gave her a warm Epsom salt bath and a blow-dry, which she enjoyed immensely, and all her droppings that evening looked normal. But she wouldn’t eat or drink, and I had to use a medicine syringe to administer coconut water into her beak so that she wouldn’t be dehydrated. (I used coconut water for its nutrients and electrolytes.) Since she usually liked the company of her sisters, I brought her back outside to the coop and let her rest for the night.
The next day, I noticed her odd behavior again — standing away from the flock, tail down, crop completely empty even though it was mid-afternoon. I decided to bring her inside the house so I could keep an eye on her, but she seemed tired and listless. She sat down most of the day, instead of wandering around like she loves to do. She seemed off-balance when she tried to stand up, and when she did stand, she’d look for a corner where she could be alone. Her head stayed mostly tucked into her chest and again, I had to feed her with a syringe.
I gave her some Epsom salts dissolved in coconut water. Epsom salt is a natural, all-purpose remedy for when your chicken seems weak but you don’t know why. It’s a detoxifier (in case your chicken eats something she’s not supposed to) and a laxative (to help flush out the system).
After a day of hanging out in the house, her tail moved up a bit… not all the way up and perky, but not all the way down either. I hoped the Epsom salt treatment had helped a little so I put her back outside in the coop, to alleviate the stress of sleeping somewhere unfamiliar.
On Wednesday, Will told me that when he opened the coop to let the chickens out, Gisele remained inside. He didn’t want to disturb her, so he waited for me to wake up and try to coax her out. When I finally made my way down to the chickens, I was surprised to see Gisele sprawled on her belly outside, by the stairs, several feet from the coop. Somehow she had willed the energy to hop down the ladder, so I thought she was finally feeling better and dust-bathing in the sun. But when I reached down to pet her, she didn’t turn to look at me. I picked her up and though she’s always been easy to handle, she didn’t even open her eyes. She was in the worst state I’d ever seen her in.
I tugged on her toes but she didn’t grasp my fingers like she usually does. I held her soft, limp body in my arms and tried to nudge her with butterfly kisses. I ran inside the house and administered more coconut water, but she was motionless on our table except for a few pecks to push aside the syringe. She couldn’t even stand on her feet or lift her head. Every time I turned around to refill the water, or to find a towel, I was worried I’d come back to her not breathing anymore. It was horrifying to think I could lose her so soon.
We decided to take her to an avian vet near our house, but I had a sinking feeling that it might have been too late. From Monday until Wednesday, her condition deteriorated drastically. The vet gave her oxygen and said her prognosis was very poor. We were then faced with one of the hardest decisions we’ve ever had to make.
Should we keep her at the vet for a couple of nights, where she’d be force-fed and injected with antibiotics, all the while not knowing what was causing her symptoms? The vet didn’t want to do blood work until she appeared stronger, for fear of traumatizing her further, so a two-night stay could easily turn into three or four nights.
We learned that chickens are often sick well before they start showing symptoms. They mask their illness as a survival mechanism, since a weak bird is the first to be preyed on or picked on. They’ll peck at their food and pretend to eat, but by the time you notice how much weight they’ve lost, it might be too late. Once they start looking sick — but have actually been sick for a while — they go downhill fast. So we were left to wonder if Gisele had been disguising her illness, and for how long.
Even if she did respond to treatment and we were able to bring her home, we’d have to keep her inside our house in a makeshift recovery coop, away from her sisters. By the time she was reunited with the flock, it could be a week or two or more. She was already the lowest hen in the pecking order, so we worried that our other two chickens would not accept her again.
With Gisele being so weak and no obvious signs of disease, the vet wasn’t confident we could save her. We weren’t completely comfortable putting her through days of treatment in that state. And though it sounds callous, we weren’t sure we could spend the money on that type of vet bill if, in the end, we still had to put her down.
I hate that money was even a factor in our decision-making. I hate that I had to make a decision at all, since I’m much more attached to our chickens than Will is. I’d never had a pet get this sick before. I’d never been more terrified in my life to make the “right” call.
We spent the last 20 minutes of Gisele’s life stroking her smooth, silky feathers and telling her how much we loved her. She opened her eyes a couple of times, and I think she really could hear us, but it was apparent that she was ready to move on.
We will never forget our sweet chicken. May she have all the mealworms and dust baths she wants at the Rainbow Bridge.
We will never forget the day we picked her up from the farm, and specifically picked her out of hundreds of other pullets.
Gisele was the first in the flock to give us an egg on March 1, 2012. (Looking back, I realize now that her eggs used to appear more green.) Every week, five or six times a week, she’d give us perfect, pastel blue eggs with brilliant orange yolks. She nourished us and kept us healthy. She also nourished our friends and family who were fortunate to share in her eggs.
She had beautiful bronze and blonde plumage, and the cutest little muff and beard. Her pea comb was pink and delicate and feminine. She was my girlie girl and loved spa days in a dust bath or Epsom salt bath. She often stretched out luxuriously in the sun.
She loved the breezy attic in the coop and would claim her roost before the other girls settled in for the night, but she didn’t mind sharing either.
She was always eager for a treat and loved to hop up on my feet or in my lap. She purred when petted and loved human interaction. She came when called, and had the most endearing and loving personality. She was gentle and shy; I’d often sneak her extra treats when her sisters weren’t around.
It’s hard to look at my flock now and not see The Three Amigas, the trio that always traveled together in the yard and crowed for each other when one was lost. I don’t know if Kimora and Iman miss their sister, as a chicken’s life seems so programmed for loss. But when I finally went down to hug them, after a difficult day of avoiding them because it meant I’d have to be reminded of Gisele, I think they empathized. I think they’ll look at the attic at night and wonder why their little sister isn’t there. But at least they’ll still have each other.
At this point, I don’t know what we’ll do with our flock and whether we need to be cautious with the other two. All we can do is await the necropsy results and try to make a good call from there.
This week has been a tremendous learning experience as a chicken-keeper, and one that I hope we won’t have to repeat any time soon.
If you have a chicken that passes away, the California Animal Health & Food Safety Laboratory System, run by UC Davis School of Vet Med, offers a free necropsy if you submit the body. The local lab for Southern California is in San Bernardino, so you or your vet can send the carcass (frozen and shipped with an ice pack) by FedEx Overnight for a preliminary report within 24 hours, and a full report within 4 to 6 weeks.
If you don’t have an avian vet, I recommend you try to find one now in case an emergency ever arises. I was so fortunate to find one near our house. Dr. Teresa Micco at Point Vicente Animal Hospital (on the Palos Verdes Peninsula in Los Angeles) is a very knowledgeable and compassionate chicken vet. From what I understand, all of the vets at this hospital have experience with chickens (as well as other birds). The office was large, bright, modern and clean, and they were able to see Gisele right away when we called them, squeezing her in between appointments. Despite its location (a rather ritzy area right on the coast), the vet cost was very reasonable. Our bill was $64 for the office visit, $33 for euthanasia, and $65 for packing and shipping to the state lab.
It saddens me that this type of useful information had to come by way of this story, but I hope it will help all the other chicken-keepers out there who have not yet been through an illness or loss.
Writing about Gisele’s passing, and reading the words over and over again, has been hard but healing. It was the first time I’d ever lost a pet. One day I hope I can simply smile at her memory and realize that I did the right thing.
Hug your pets extra tight today, and truly treasure the short time that you get to spend with them.