It’s an unfortunate reality of hatching chicks that some of them are born weaker than others. It’s also an unfortunate reality that some of those weak chicks will die. Knowledge is our best defense against those deaths – knowing when and how to act can make the difference between “I don’t know what happened” and “I did everything I could”.
Last night I noticed that little Humphrey Bogart was having a hard time getting around. Both he and Clara Barton were a little iffy – the weakest and least mobile of the 5 chicks, but Clara was getting around alright for the most part. Bogey, on the other hand, was getting picked on by the bigger and far more mobile chicks. He began to deteriorate rapidly from the sheer energy required to protect himself and to fight back.
I’d moved the chicks to a brooder by this point, so Bogey got put back in the incubator with food, water, and something to snuggle up to. Sometimes this is all that is needed. By morning he was crying for company and sprinting around the incubator.
The problem Bogey was experiencing was a very mild case of a condition known as “splayed leg” or “spraddle leg”. Here I’ll refer to it largely as “splayed leg” for simplicity.
There are several potential catalysts for splayed leg – but what they all get down to is a lack of development. Muscles, bones, ligaments, tendons – a chick uses them all to stand. With broody hens, they hold their chicks against their bodies and under their wings for the first few days. This restricts the chick’s movement, allowing it time to strengthen its muscles. By the time they are out and about, they are strong enough to run.
Splayed leg is far more common in incubator hatches because chicks don’t have their mother telling them to stay put. They’re up and running around the moment they’re able. In these circumstances, the most robust chicks will thrive – the weakest will get worse, exhausted trying to fight the stronger and curious chicks off. Without treatment they can die rapidly.
She was having significant problems even standing up, preferring to sit on her bottom with her feet out in front of her, and was dehydrated – she was getting a bit of pasty butt and her poop (you can learn SO MUCH from chicken poop) was quite thick and dry.
She was exhausted from being trampled by the other chicks and very weak.
I started her on an electrolyte solution (mostly water, sugar, salt – sometimes I just use water and honey in a pinch), put her in the incubator, and let rest. She slept for hours, getting a sip of the electrolyte solution once an hour or so. This afternoon she started to turn around, now taking drinks of the electrolyte solution without my having to dip her beak into it (always a great sign) and trying to eat. But she was still having a hard time standing without falling over.
You can see form this picture that one of her legs is relatively normal, but the other is sticking out to the side. She also has mild to moderate splayed leg – but in her case it was getting worse. Bogey got better on his own.
The good news is that treating splayed leg is actually really simple, assuming you have a basic chicken first aid kit at your disposal (I plan to write a post soon outlining what that ought to contain).
In my case, all I used was a thin strip of self-adherent wrap. This is sold under many, many names. Coban, Vet-Wrap, Medi-Vet Wrap. The products are all essentially the same. It’s a bandage that sticks to itself but nothing else.
Clara Barton, true to her name sake, kept trying to steal the bandage to apply her own First-Aid. Silly girl.
I got Simon to hold her and wrapped one end of the strip around one leg. It isn’t hard, provided you have it cut quite thinly – though it can be very difficult to manoeuvre if you have the strip cut too thickly. 1/4″ (6mm) is plenty.
Once I’d wrapped the bandage around one of her legs, I wrapped it once around her other leg. There are a few ways to do this, but we don’t need it to be clean or perfect, just functional. I crossed under the first wrap and continued around the leg a second time. The goal here is to hobble the chick or to tie both of her legs together, to hold them together until she can strengthen her legs and stand well on her own.
Initially, Clara had a VERY hard time standing up – especially if she fell down. For this reason, it’s important that you watch a chick who has been wrapped for 20-30 minutes after wrapping its legs to make certain that it can get around alright. If the chick falls over and is unable to stand, it may injure itself in its attempt, or further weaken its already compromised system in the struggle.
It took Clara about 5 minutes to really get her bearings and another 15 to be able to get up if she fell. She was, however, immediately more mobile.
We brought out Bogey, who was by now alarmingly fast and kept trying to run off the edge of the table. My hope was that he would spur her to action and get her moving around – either by encouraging her near the food and water I’d put out for them, or by pecking at her and exploring her (as chicks do) to encourage her to move away. I needed to see how strong and mobile she was.
I was not disappointed. Bogey got her waddling around on her newly wrapped legs and they had a feed and a drink together (and a few much healthier looking poops on my table). Clara demonstrated that she could stand up if knocked over, and Bogey was actually quite gentle with her, only bumping into her in his hyper overenthusiasm at her presence (“I AM SO HAPPY TO SEE YOU!”).
Once I was sure that she could avoid him if he hurt her, I put them both in the incubator together.
A chick with a friend will always do better than a single chick, provided one does not harm the other. Chickens are intensely social animals and need the support of their flock for survival. A chicken, isolated from other chickens, will suffer loneliness. Emotional malnourishment for a chicken can be as harmful as physical malnourishment. We must always take a holistic approach to treating our birds – looking at them from every aspect and tending to their entire bodies rather than treating them like little broken machines.
Clara is improving and I believe she will continue to improve. In the meantime – now I have TWO loudly peeping chicks in my bedroom. 😐