Sour crop and impacted crop, also known as crop binding, although relatively uncommon in chickens, is still something you need to watch out for in your flock. Unfortunately, there is a lot of misinformation on the web about how to deal with this condition; many of the home remedies and solutions are extremely dangerous, and often very cruel for the hens.
Typically, a hen’s crop will become impacted by something the chicken has ingested. The blockages could be the result of the hen ingesting tough grasses, sawdust, straw, hard grains or meat bones that get lodged in the crop.
Chickens may exhibit a large bulge in the crop area, diminishing weight, isolating themselves from the flock, hunching down or protecting their injury. The bird may also jerk their neck around trying to dislodge the blockage. Additionally, the stuck items in the crop may begin to rot, resulting in a sour smell coming from the chicken’s beak.
The Chicken Health Handbook explains that ‘Even if the bird continues to eat, nutrition cannot get through. The swollen crop may cut off the windpipe, suffocating the bird’.
To determine if your chicken may be suffering from sour or impacted crop, gently pick up the chicken and see if you can feel a hard or squiggly bulge in the chest; gently running your hands over the chicken’s breast area should be enough to feel if the crop is distended.
There may be a food bulge in the crop, particularly if the hen has just eaten - the crop is similar to a food storage pouch. However, if the hen is exhibiting any of the other behaviors associated with this condition, such as head jerking or refusing to move, then a blockage in the crop is a distinct possibility.
Carefully open the chicken’s beak and have a sniff to see if there is a sour smell. Although the odor is difficult to describe and may vary depending on what the bird has ingested, it should be obvious that there is an unusual and unpleasant smell coming from the chicken’s beak.
If you suspect the chicken may have a blocked or impacted crop, it is best to isolate the chicken and only provide water or organic vegetable broth (we use kale and broccoli broth) to confirm that the hen is not able to pass faecal waste.
If you determine that the chicken does have an impacted or sour crop, there are several options on how to deal with it. The first option is to contact a qualified veterinarian for advice. Many of the farm vets will have experience with this condition and will be able to offer suggestions on how to deal with the problem.
Our largest, most healthy, hen recently had a combination of sour and impacted crop, and although we were able to help her pass the blockage, our veterinarian explained that often the chicken may have something else going on that causes the initial blockage problem such as tumors, sores or ulcers. The blockage may also be lower down in the hen’s innards and the only evidence you see is in the distended or engorged crop.
An impacted crop will generally feel much harder than a sour crop and a lubricant may be needed to help move the blockage. The application of small eyedroppers of organic vegetable oil (do not use petroleum-based oils) mixed with water into the chicken’s beak may be used to help lubricate the crop contents. However, it is vitally important to ensure the liquid is inserted well past the small hole at the base of the tongue that leads to the hen’s lungs.
Once the oil is added, the crop can be gently massaged in a downward motion to help further lubricate the crop and move the blockage through the hen. This may take several applications over the course of two days.
Keep the hen separated from the flock so you can monitor if she is passing any blockage. Provide her with access to water and/or vegetable broth. See the Recovery information below.
If the crop feels very squishy and there is a foul smell coming from the chicken’s beak, the chicken can be assisted to help remove the sour liquid.
One option is to ‘vomit the chicken’. However, this is a dangerous procedure and should not be undertaken in a careless manner. If the ‘vomiting’ is done incorrectly it may result in the rotten fluid ending up in the chicken’s lungs which could lead to pneumonia. The procedure is best attempted with two people and under the guidance of a veterinarian.
Wrap the bird in a clean towel and gently tilt the bird forward (not backward) so that her body is vertical to the floor and the head is close to the ground while massaging the crop contents gently toward her mouth. You may need to open the beak to allow the vomit to flow out. The chicken should remain upside down for short durations only – 15 to 20 seconds maximum.
Repeat one to two times only. Allow the chicken time to rest and do not handle the bird roughly. When you think the hen has emptied her crop (partially or fully), be sure to keep the hen separate from the flock and give her time to rest. This may be repeated in two days time, though it is extremely important to not overdo this procedure.
Some veterinarians recommend assisting the chicken to pass the contents of the sour crop through the stomach and waste system as explained in the Impacted Crop section.
Surgery should not be conducted at home, and at no time should someone cut into, or expose the innards of, a fully conscious animal as this is a form of animal cruelty, and may, in some states or provinces, constitute animal abuse. There are numerous accounts on the web of backyard farmers cutting open a chicken’s chest and crop and removing the blockage. These accounts are not verified and it is important to consult with a qualified veterinarian before conducting ‘surgery’ on an animal.
If you cannot afford a veterinarian and are determined to perform the surgery at home, it is extremely important that you do not cut into a fully conscious animal as, aside from it being an act of cruelty, the animal’s ability to recover may be greatly diminished from trauma and/or shock. Ask your veterinarian for a sedative to ensure the animal does not experience pain during the procedure.
Use extremely sharp, sterile scalpels, wash your hands and the area where you intend to cut thoroughly with alcohol (not the kind you drink) and ensure that you know where you should be cutting. Carefully clean and close the wound after the procedure and isolate the hen until the wound heals.
Alternative treatment options: Add a drop of Rescue Remedy to the chicken’s water with a pulverized homeopathic Traumeel tablet and/or the remedy Arnica – these supplements will aid the hen in her recovery.
When your hen is recovering, provide her with a clean, quiet and safe environment where she can remain until she recovers. Provide clean, filtered drinking water and/or an organic vegetable broth with the addition of a few drops of organic oil such as olive oil or vegetable oil which will lubricate the inside of the chicken and help her continue to pass any blockages. Ignore all suggestion to use petroleum based oils or kerosene with chickens.
If the hen is droopy, consider inserting small eyedroppers full of blueberry water (mush up blueberries and extract the liquid) with the addition of molasses, honey or brown sugar. You can also add the homeopathic and flower remedies suggested above.
Withhold food for one to two days until you are sure she is able to pass waste again. Once she is passing waste again, slowly reintroduce soft foods – options include soft corn, finely grated apple or lettuce, plain yogurt, overcooked and finely chopped vegetables including chopped broccoli, kale and chard, or favourite fruits like mushy ripe watermelon and honeydew.
Choose food options that you know the hen will enjoy, but that will not lodge in her crop again. Monitor the chicken to ensure she is passing the food properly again and it is not building up in her crop again. Do not allow free access to large quantities of feed until you are sure she is out of danger and the blockage has passed. When the hen is back to normal, always ensure that she has access to oyster shell or grit.
Consider adding small amounts of lactobacillus or acidophilus to the hen’s food to ensure the repopulation of healthy bacteria in her stomach and aid in healthy digestion.
The chicken may need antibiotics if an infection develops from the blocked crop and/or surgery complications. Speak to your veterinarian.
Alternative treatment options: Add a drop of Rescue Remedy to the hen’s water or food along with a ground up homeopathic Traumeel tablet – both these supplements will aid the hen in her recovery.
Do not feed hard treats, grains or table scraps that can lodge in their throats or crops. Chickens should not be fed bones or large chunks of meat that they are unable to break up. Always ensure your flock has constant access to grit and oyster shells.
Valerie Williams is a writer living on Salt Spring Island, British Columbia with several happy and healthy chickens.