Wednesday, March 31, 2010

For the love of chickens

Some of you already know this, but if you don't, you will by the end of this blog. I like chickens. I REALLY like chickens. So much so that I share my farm with anywhere from 30-50 laying hens not to mention the 100 or so meat type chickens that live a happy (I think) but short life on my farm every summer. Those crazy birds add so much to my life. I get to go out the barns to feed in the early morning light. This time of year, the songbirds are all returning from their winter homes and they sing their songs while I do the morning chores. The wild turkeys across the road sound off with their yelping and gobbling. There is a woodcock that sits in the pasture behind the chicken coop making his little "peent" call as dawn is breaking. During the afternoon, the chickens wander the yard. They are pretty social too. A few of them like to hang out on the porch with the cats. If I walk across the yard, they will often follow me. Well, at least until they are sure I am not going to feed them a tasty morsel or until they spy the movement of a tasty worm or bug. In the evening as the light is fading, I get to walk outside to the barns to close the pen doors for the night. The spring peepers are now announcing that they have awoken from winter slumber. But anytime of the year, I am more than happy to collect sunsets as I go about my final evening chores. Sunsets are kind of like snowflakes in that no two are exactly alike. I truly treasure them.

Now the chickens on my farm work for a living. The meat chickens are expected to look very cute as day old chicks and make cute little peeping noises. Then, when they get feathers, the are required to go outside in the fresh air and sunshine where they eat bugs and grass and other tasty treats they find out in the yard. Of course their last job is being supper, but it is after all the end of their job on the farm. The laying hens have a longer course of employment. Sometimes 3 or 4 years. They are, of course, required to lay eggs. But their other duties include making soothing clucking noises out in the yard and providing an endless source of entertainment as they chase after moths and grasshoppers in the pasture. They do a good job of scratching and turning over the soil in the flower beds too although they do sometimes leave holes that the dogs insist on trying to make larger. At the end of their employment contract, the hens also become supper.

People sometimes ask how, as a veterinarain, I can eat the chickens that are so lovingly raised on
my farm (and I mean that sincerely when I say that I love raising my chickens). For me, it goes back to the circle of life. As a scientist, life fascinates me. Just think about a chick developing inside an egg. On the second day of incubation, the blood vessels begin to form. By the 44th hour of incubation, the heart starts beating. At the end of 21 days, out hatches a fully functional baby chick ready to go. Just amazing. But I also understand that it takes life to perpetuate life. Everyone who knows me will be poking fun at me after I say this, but I love this quote and I have to give credit where credit is due. A few months back, an animal rights group got on the country music band Zac Brown Band's case about their song "Chicken Fried". There was a suggestion to the guys in the band to abandon their meat eating ways and eat tofu instead. I love the band's response: "Plants are living creatures too ... Bacon had a mother, but so did Pickle. It takes life to support life -- welcome to the planet". I couldn't say it any better myself.

I would be amiss though without a paragraph about chicken pets. While most of the chickens on the farm end up in the freezer, there are special circumstances. My very first chickens were a small flock of golden comet laying hens. When they were about 2 or 3 years old, we had a stray dog come into the yard just at dark when the chickens were going to roost in the coop. I had gone for a short walk in the woods and when I got back to the coop to lock the pen door for the night, I saw the dog run out of the coop and across the road. Then I found the carnage. There were dead chickens everywhere. Of the 14 chickens that lived in the coop, 10 were dead, 2 were injured so badly that I had to put an end to their suffering right then and there. The last two had severe bite wounds on their backs, but no internal organs appeared damaged. Poor Doc Curie got to listen to me bawling my eyes out the next morning as I recounted what happened the night before. I brought the two injured hens to the clinic where they lived for a couple months while they healed from their wounds. It was summer and no way could they live outside with open wounds (can you say maggots!). They
learned to walk up the clinic steps every day to go outside and come back inside in the evening. They both acquired names. Eagle because she had lighter colored feathers around her head and neck in a pattern like a bald eagle. Thumper because she used to kick with her feet when I would clean her wounds every day. I don't blame her one bit though as the dog did a lot of damage. I'm sure it hurt. Eventually Eagle and Thumper healed and made their way back to the chicken coop. It was quite obvious to everyone that those hens had an extraordinary will to live. Their ordeal paved their way to pet-chickendom. They both died a few years later of old hen reproductive problems. My current pet chicken flock consists of the four "porch" chickens. You know, the ones I mentioned that hang out on the porch with the cats. They did not achieve their status by tragedy, but rather by personality. Whitie, Brownie, Blackie and Mama Chicken now occupy a special place on my farm. Ok, not very original with the names I know, but least I can remember who is who. So while most of my chickens live a typical barnyard existance, there are a few exceptions.

I highly recommend getting a few chickens of your own if you live someplace where chickens are allowed. So if anyone out there has always thought about adding a few chickens to their yard, but doesn't quite know how to get started, feel free to ask. I am more than happy to be spreading some chicken love. And if any of you want to share your favorite chicken or egg recipes made from fresh ingredients, that would be great too. I admit that I am a fresh food and recipe junkie.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

National Poison Prevention Week

Spring has definitely arrived in Ohio this past week. How can I tell? The clinic has turned into our own version of Emergency Vet. Dogs hit by cars, in dog fights, cut legs, impaled on stick (I'll share the pictures of this one later), gunshot wounds. Warm weather = dogs running loose or sometimes just playing in the backyard a little too exuberantly. That all adds up to dogs getting into trouble. Believe me, my dogs are not immune to cut pads or sliced open tails. The word is that the E.R. at the local human hospital is going crazy with trauma cases too. Like I said, spring is here.

With all the dogs and cats outside exploring for the first time after months and months of snow, there sure are a lot of ways for them to get in trouble. Then this morning I open my Internet news feed and find that lo and behold this week is National Poison Prevention week. What a good time to remind ourselves to be on the lookout for things that can poison our animal buddies. / CC BY 2.0

I chose the common toad to represent this topic because some toads are known to be poisonous and because toads make a much cuter picture than a bottle of pills or a box of rat bait. Now the toads in Ohio are not the real dangerous variety, but they certainly cause some irritation in the mouth if a dog gets hold of one. I find it quite interesting to watch my dogs and toads. Young dogs will taste a toad once. My dogs now know toads. They will be trotting down the sidewalk, see a toad and make a w-i-d-e path around the toad. Quite comical actually.

As far as more common and much more dangerous poisonings, the ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center has published their top 10 poisonings for 2009.

  • Human Medications
  • Insecticides
  • People food (yes people food! Follow the link above for more information)
  • Plants
  • Veterinary Medications
  • Rodenticides
  • Household cleaners
  • Heavy metals
  • Garden products
  • Chemical hazards

Check out this handout on Poison Proofing Your Home. Very well written and helpful information.

After you follow all the steps to prevent poisonings, we all know that animals will be animals and sometimes accidents happen. The Pet Poison Helpline provides a 24 hour service to help both pet owners and veterinarians in cases of potential pet poisonings. There is a small fee for the service, but these folks are well worth the information they provide.

So happy spring everyone! It sure is nice to see the sun shining for a change!

Friday, March 12, 2010

The power of observation

Change of plans. This really is the norm for daily life at a veterinary clinic. I was going to blog this week about some really great indoor cat information that I found at the veterinary conference last month. But alas, it has been crazy busy this week at the clinic courtesy of sunny days and warmer weather. (Just remember to be careful with your puppies and kitties when outside because I have treated quite a few animals that have been hit by cars this week. Happens every year with the first warm weather.) Anyway, the indoor cat project has a LOT of information I need to organize so that I can at least somewhat coherently blog about it. Plus I have a whole bunch of great pictures that were sent to me just for this topic and I have to organize them too. Thanks Vicki! I am so grateful to you for sending me the pictures. So stay tuned for more on the indoor cat blog.

Instead I am going to tell you about something that happened at the clinic this week that I think is just so cool. I don't mean it's cool about animals being sick of course, but, oh, here is the story.... Earlier this week I saw the sweetest little black and white cat named Broccoli. Is that not a cool cat name? OK, maybe it's because I really like broccoli (the vegetable), but everything about Broccoli (the cat) is likable. Well, Broccoli came to see me because her "mom" noticed that her hair coat was just not very shiny and well-groomed like it usually was. There was a little bit of hair loss under the tail too, but not very bad. Broccoli was eating, drinking and acting fine, but something was not quite right. First I must tell you that Broccoli was 6 years old and not spayed. There never seemed the need since she was an indoor only cat, perfectly behaved and never had those awful symptoms of being in heat that make owners call me on emergency asking to spay their cat NOW! After the physical exam, I had my suspicions and the rest of the tests confirmed that Broccoli indeed had pyometra - aka an infection in her uterus. In case you don't remember, I blogged about pyometra in dogs a couple times back last fall. Those blogs can be found here and also here. Pyometra is a little different in cats than in dogs, but the result is pretty much the same. It makes cats really sick and the treatment of choice is surgery to spay. Fortunately for Broccoli, her owner realized something was wrong very early in the whole disease process before Broccoli got too sick. Here is a picture of the little kitty's not so little cat uterus at surgery. The little tiny arrow (do you see it?) points to a cyst on one of the ovaries.

Here's cute little Miss Broccoli snoozing under the "covers" at the clinic shortly after surgery. So kudos to Broccoli's owner for paying such close attention and realizing that something was not quite right. Remember, Broccoli was eating and drinking just fine. Her only real symptom was the tiny bit of hair loss around her private parts (from licking the discharge coming from her vulva) and that her hair coat didn't look normal. That is what I call good power of observation! Just a reminder of how important it is to pay attention to our furry family members because although they cannot speak to us in words, they often can tell us when they are sick if we are only willing to "listen".

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

A dog is a dog is a dog

I was going to start off this blog with the statement "I love animals". Well that's probably obvious, but I don't think it says enough. I could say I love life, which is also true. But more what I want to say is that I am amazed by life. Perhaps that is why I am in medicine. Just thinking of all the chemical reactions and electrical impulses that occur in every living thing fascinates me. So as time goes by, I'm sure you will see me celebrate everything from elephants to amoebas, but today I am celebrating dogs.

Why dogs and why now? Well get ready folks because the Last Great Race on Earth starts this Saturday.
The Iditarod! I love this event. It intrigues me to no end. And this thing we call the internet makes it entirely too easy to follow the journey. Nothing like sitting snug in a warm house reading about the Alaskan wilderness. If I had better cold tolerance, I would really consider being part of the volunteer veterinary team. Instead, I'll just follow along from home. / CC BY-SA 2.0

The race pairs a human being with a team of dogs. It requires great athleticism from both (the closet athlete inside me loves this!). It requires physical and mental toughness. And to do it well and succeed, it requires a musher that is so in tune with the needs of his or her dogs that they are almost one.

Unfortunately, the race is not without its critics mostly in the form of animal rights groups talking about inhumane treatment of sled dogs. Does this happen? Yes it does. Does that mean that those who do it right should have their pastime, their livelihood, their passion taken away from them. I think not. Not any more than driving a car being banned because of the few who drive drunk. These comparisons are endless.

Instead I choose to celebrate the working dog. There is nothing I enjoy more than watching and reading and hearing about dogs at work. The dog is a remarkable animal. In only 10,000 years give or take, man has created such diversity in the dog through selective breeding. From the sled dog to the hunting hound to the herding shepherd to the retriever and on and on. The bond between man and dog runs deep. And dogs seem to be at their happiest when they are at work. They are happiest when they have a "job". I think that is where we fail our dogs sometimes. We don't give them something to do. We don't let them do what they are bred to do. We don't let them be dogs. / CC BY-SA 2.0

So go hug your dog today. Let him or her snuggle in your bed if you wish. Spoil them. Love them. But please give them something to do with their life. Take them for a long walk. Play Frisbee. Find an agility class. Enter a dog show. Hunt. Herd. Retrieve. The list is endless. Celebrate your dog's life.

And I hope you enjoy following along online on the Iditarod Trail for the next two weeks as much as I am going to enjoy it. The stories. The journey. The wilderness. Dogs and man together. As it should be.