Backyard Chickens / Health

A Heartfelt Thank You and Gisele’s Diagnosis

Sympathy card from Gisele's vet

It’s been three weeks since the passing of our Easter Egger hen, Gisele, and while I’ve finally accepted her death, her memory is still a little sad to process.

I think the situation struck me especially hard because she was the first pet I ever lost and I know she won’t be my last; the unfamiliar experience of caring for (and eventually euthanizing) a terminally ill pet was scary, to say the least.

And afterward I cried for Gisele, cried for her sisters, and cried for my pugs (who will soon be 11 and 12 years old) over the inevitable and uncontrollable. I know this is all part of the circle of life, and I think (hope) I’ve become stronger as a result of all this… one of our many lessons in life.

I want to thank you from the bottom of my heart, truly and deeply, for all the beautiful, thoughtful, heartfelt, compassionate, and uplifting emails and comments I’ve received since my original post. I read every single note. So many of you shared your own stories about losing furry or feathery children and offered the most amazing support I could ever hope for.

Your emails gave me strength and in some ways, even made me smile.

I know it’s often difficult to find the right words to comfort someone, especially a virtual stranger, but please know that even a small sentiment means a lot. I am so grateful to those of you who reached out this past month.

After Gisele’s passing, we (our vet) sent her body to the California Animal Health & Food Safety Laboratory System at UC Davis, which offers a free necropsy (an autopsy performed on an animal). The service is meant to monitor the health and well-being of backyard flocks and make sure backyard-spawned diseases won’t affect the state’s poultry industry.

The preliminary results came back within a day or two as inconclusive. The final report (sent a week later) listed the cause of death as lymphoid leukosis.

Lymphoid leukosis is an avian viral disease typically transmitted from an infected mother to her unborn chick.

The vet believed Gisele became infected while she was still inside the egg. The virus has a long incubation period (four months or more), so she was sick for some time before she started showing symptoms.

Initially, the vet suspected Marek’s disease as the symptoms are quite similar, though Marek’s usually runs it course within the first six months of life.

Lymphoid leukosis manifests itself in older chickens around the time of sexual maturity (Gisele was two years old).

Chickens become pale (on their combs and in their beaks), emaciated, depressed, and progressively weaker to the point where they lose full mobility. It’s a devastating disease to watch unfold.

Unlike Marek’s disease, lymphoid leukosis is not spread by air. In a flock, the virus can spread by bird-to-bird contact and by physical contact with contaminated environments. Infected chickens lay infected eggs and produce infected feces.

If a healthy chicken eats the infected egg (or feces) and she’s genetically susceptible, she could contract the virus.

I have never seen my chickens eating each other’s eggs or feces, and I keep the coop and surroundings fairly sanitary on a day-to-day basis, so I hold out hope that Kimora and Iman were not infected. At present, they appear peppy and happy and hungry and curious… all good signs of healthy chickens.

I have to wonder, though, if Gisele was lowest in the pecking order because the other two knew she was sick. Their bullying became a bit more intense in the last few months; they often tried to keep her away from their food and I had to give her a separate dish to make sure she was eating.

Was it like World War Z, where they had a sense she was terminal and stayed away from her?

Currently there is no vaccination and no treatment for lymphoid leukosis. Once a chicken becomes infected, it’s a terminal disease that’s not easily diagnosed until after death.

In a way, I’m sort of relieved to learn this, only because it assures me that her death occurred naturally.

For a while I was torn on whether I should’ve kept her in the hospital longer or whether I did the right thing in putting her to rest. Knowing that her cause of death was genetic — and not an airborne contagion, or something I could have prevented — eased much of my worry and guilt. Only time will tell with my other two hens.

Thank you, again, for keeping me — and all of us — in your thoughts.

About Author

I'm a plant lover, passionate road-tripper, and cookbook author whose expert advice and bestselling books have been featured in TIME, Outside, HGTV, and Food & Wine. The No-Waste Vegetable Cookbook is my latest book. Garden Betty is where I write about modern homesteading, farm-to-table cooking, and outdoor adventuring—all that encompass a life well-lived outdoors. After all, the secret to a good life is... Read more »