One of the worst feelings as a chicken owner is when you have a sick bird and you are at a loss on how to help them. An impacted crop in a chicken can be a death sentence if you don’t have the right knowledge or tools to fix the issue. Here on Green Willow Homestead, we’ve had two hens who have suffered from an impacted crop. Thanks to the encouraging words from an avian vet, some YouTube research, and my own grit - we were able to save one of the two through operating on them ourselves. In this post, I want to teach you about what an impacted crop is, the options you have to fix it, and how to successfully perform surgery on your hen in order to save her life.
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What is an impacted crop?
An impacted crop is when your chicken’s crop, or stomach, becomes filled with a mass they cannot digest. The crop can be filled with hay or straw, baling twine, rocks, wood chips, basically anything the hen eats that cannot pass through her digestive system.
What are the signs or symptoms of an impacted crop in a chicken?
Impacted crop is a spring issue for chicken owners. I wish I knew why, but all my research and own experience has proven this correct. So keep your eyes peeled on your girls at this time.
The best way to tell if your chicken’s crop is impacted is by feeling her crop first thing in the morning. If the crop has not emptied overnight and is still a hard semi-malleable mass, she has an impacted crop.
The size of impaction can vary. With the two hens we had with impacted crops, one was the size of a baseball and extremely malleable, while the other was the size of a large softball and was a hard as a rock.
I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but when the mass is the size of a softball it’s best to cull the bird. We learned this with our second hen, Princess Snowball. The reason being the crop has expanded so much so that the hen will inevitably deal with pendulous crop issues for the rest of her life. Pendulous crop is when the crop hangs too low on the anatomy of the bird, keeping it from emptying properly. The bird eats and eats, thinking it’s stomach isn’t full and can wind back up with impacted crop or sour crop (where the food ferments in her crop). Princess Snowball had two months post-surgery where we would put a crop bra on her at night to hold up her oversized crop, but to no avail. I learned my lesson on this one. Fixing impacted crop is only for the baseball and golf ball sized impactions.
The size of the mass can vary widely, but remember to check first thing in the morning to be sure it hasn’t passed.
Once the crop is plugged up, the pH of the chamber changes, causing strange yeasty smells to emanate from your hen’s mouth. Pick up your hen and massage her crop, if a beer-like smell burps up, then she also has sour crop. Keep in mind, sour crop can happen without their crop being impacted. When a crop is impacted though, the hen will most likely develop sour crop because the mass is preventing proper digestion.
Another sign of an impacted crop is your hen’s behavior. We noticed our first hen was dong a strange dance with her chest and neck, as if she was trying to swallow and couldn’t. Hens will also stretch their necks and “yawn” their beaks. They are trying to encourage their crop to pass the mass, but because of the indigestible material, the crop is unable to.
How do you fix or cure an impacted crop?
There are a few options available to you to fix your chicken’s impacted crop, but from my experience thus far there is only one way to truly cure the problem. Surgery. Before you resort to surgery though, feel free to try these first few options. I Remember, the more you wait to cure the impacted crop, the more days go by where your hen doesn’t receive proper nutrition because her crop isn’t emptying correctly.
Papaya contains an enzyme that helps break up a fibrous mass. Angora rabbits are given papaya to help pass serious fur balls. We fed our first chicken, Beyoncé (I know we’ve got some stellar names over here), fresh papaya to see if it would help. The malleable mass went from a silly putty-like texture to absolute goo. It was extremely promising after days of trying various strange concoctions and nothing working. Unfortunately, the papaya was then digested by her crop and we were still left with the impaction
Magnesium Citrate and Mineral Oil or Olive Oil
The thinking goes if you can first relax then lube up the digestive system, anything can pass. This is similar to what humans do for a gallbladder stone cleanse (which does actually work!). This solution is only possible if the impaction is no bigger than a golf ball. You will need a feeding tube that sticks onto a large syringe. Fill the syringe with 5ml of magnesium citrate, then gently feed the tube into your chicken’s stomach. The process is extremely dangerous though, as you can accidentally feed the tube into your chicken’s lungs if you aren’t careful and drown your bird.
This video is one of the best for a visual on how to properly tube feed.
This link is another good option to get you off on the right foot.
Tube feeding is absolutely a two person job. Don’t attempt it by yourself! Once you have the tube properly fed into your hen’s stomach, slowly depress the syringe and let the magnesium citrate enter her crop. Slowly and gently remove the feeding tube and massage your hen’s crop. After 30 minutes fill the syringe with 5ml mineral oil or olive oil and repeat the process. Massage the crop, encouraging the mass to pass.
In my experience, surgery is truly the only successful solution to an impacted crop. With Beyoncé, we brought her to an avian vet to get a professional opinion. The vet was honest with me and said the surgery was simple enough to do at home. She directed me to a few videos and wished me luck. To have the vet operate, the cost of the surgery would have been well over $300. Definitely cost-prohibitive for us. So I put on my big girl pants and decided that if my hen was going to die if I didn’t try anything, it was far better to have her die while I was trying to save her life. Listen, if I have done this surgery twice successfully, you can too!
The surgery itself is much simpler than you would think. The crop is situated just below the skin on the left side breast of a chicken. It is extremely accessible, thus the surgery is not particularly invasive. I’m going to go over the supplies you will need to operate and then the steps of the crop operation.
Operating Supplies Needed
Post-Op Supplies Needed
The Steps To Operate On Your Chicken’s Impacted Crop
Before you operate, know that you cannot do this alone. You NEED a second person to hold down the bird and keep her eyes covered while you operate. It’s also good to have moral support as your venture into surgery!
Also, it’s best to have her recovery cage all set up. Have warm water with a drop of VetRx in it waiting for her when she returns. Make sure to have picked a spot with NO straw or shavings for her to eat. We like to put down cardboard as a floor and then replace it as she starts to poop. If you have an old dog cage or large cat crate with a wire or plastic floor, this works perfectly. Set down a clean towel for your chicken to rest on.
Have your operating area all prepped for the surgery. Make sure the location gets plenty of sunlight or artificial light so you can see what you are doing. Lay out one of your large bath towels on a large table. Disinfect your scalpel, forceps, and medical tweezer using rubbing alcohol. Have your iodine, topical analgesic, saline solution, and warmed VetRx at the ready. Make sure your sutures are within reach. By prepping all of this you won’t have to prolong the surgery, and your bird’s pain, in any way.
That’s all there is to surgery! I promise you that once you do it you will realize how straightforward it really is. As long as you have a second set of hands and the right tools, the process is simple. The mental block is honestly the hardest part, but if you love your birds like I do then I know you are capable of this!
Post-Op Recovery Protocol
Caring for your bird after surgery has some nuance. You will want to provide your hen with nutrition, but not anything fibrous or hard like her typical feed.
With Beyoncé, we gave her water with a few drops of VetRX and 1/2 capsule of FishMox (amoxicillin) for the first 36 hours. With Princess Snowball we did water and VetRX for 24 hours. I would err on the side of caution and do water for 36 hours.
Once that 36 hour hump is done, you can feed her extremely soft and wet foods. Start with 1 tsp of chick starter mixed into 1 tbsp of warm water so it becomes a mash. The crop empties continually throughout the day with a healthy bird, but after an impaction things can get interesting. Gently feel the crop after this first feeding and see how its performing. After 6 hours I find it’s safe to give the hen another round of chick feed in warm water. Chick feed and water is just fine for the first 3 days.
From there, you can add scrambled eggs. Hens LOVE scrambled eggs - remember no shells! Switch between 1 scrambled egg and the 1tsp of chick starter feed in warm water every 6 hours. Again, be sure to monitor the crop and its performance.
After two weeks, I find the hen is ready for her normal feed again. Once she lays an egg - she is ready to rejoin the flock.
Now let’s talk wound management. Change the bandage every day for the first four days. Make sure the incision is clean and doesn’t smell. Dab the wound with Neosporin during the first four days as you change the bandage. Once the hen is feeling better, the vet tape won’t fly. You can leave the wrap off and opt for a medium sized sticky bandaid or let the wound air dry from that point on.
Be sure to change her cardboard bedding daily so she doesn’t get manure on her wound.
Full Recovery Monitoring
Once the hen is back with the flock, check her crop in the mornings to be sure she isn’t dealing with pendulous crop issues. If she does develop pendulous crop issues, put a crop bra on her at night. You can purchase them here or make out out of a large athletic sock (plans at this link, scroll down).
Of course, I hope you never have to deal with this issue, or have to put a bird down. However, I want fellow chicken owners to know that impacted crop can be dealt with and fixed given the right circumstances. Have you ever had a chicken with an impacted crop? Did you have to resort to surgery? Comment below and fill me in!
Thanks for stopping by Green Willow Homestead! From chicken rearing to orchard planting, we've got our hands full and we love sharing what we've learned along the way. Follow along as we strive to live sustainably and turn these five acres from just property to a fully functioning small-scale homestead.
1. Joe Salatin
2. Rachel Carson
3. Wendell Berry
4. Temple Grandin
5. Sustainable Dish
6. Zero Waste Home
7. Allan Savory
Favorite Books of 2018
2. Bringing it to the Table
3. Holistic Management
4. The Small Scale Poultry Flock
5. In The Company of Women