|Tilly and I|
The digestive tract of birds, including chickens, is entirely different from that of humans. Just like us, they can run into problems with digestion that can lead to a very ill bird and even cause death. Crop issues in chickens are something every chicken keeper should know about.
When a chicken eats, all food makes it’s way from the beak, down the esophagus to the crop. Food eaten remains in the crop where it is stored and moistened. The crop functions as a sorting and holding tank. From the crop, the food is sorted into one of two “stomachs” either the proventriculus or the gizzard. The proventriculus is where the “easy” to digest food goes. Here it meets hydrochloric acid and digestive enzymes that do all of the work. Food that requires mechanical breakdown with muscular contractions and the use of small stones (grit) is sorted to the gizzard for processing. After the proventriculus and the gizzard have completed processing the food it all goes into the small intestines and continues processing through the remaining digestive tract. Sometimes, problems occur in the crop causing digestion to cease or not function properly. These are called impacted crop, sour crop and pendulous crop. A chicken that is experiencing a crop problem may show all or some of these symptoms including weight loss, lethargy, difficulty turning their head side to side and isolation.
The crop is located in the middle of the upper chest of the chicken. If it is firm it is full. A healthy full crop should be about the size of a plum and non-tender. Crops should be full at bedtime and empty in the morning. An impacted crop will be firm and large like a tennis ball and may be tender to touch.
Eating long grasses, straw and hay
Eating foreign found objects such as plastic, rubber bands, metal
Infection (bacterial or fungal)
Ingesting large pieces of tough food such as meat/corncobs
Be sure the crop is emptying by feeling it first thing in the morning before the chicken eats. If the crop is firm, tender and the size of a tennis ball, then the crop is most likely impacted.
The treatment is to empty the crop. Try gently massaging the crop with your fingers as if you are kneading dough. Sometimes, this is enough to get things moving. It may require you to do this a couple of times per day for a few days.
During this time, feed your chicken soft bread (no crust) soaked in olive oil. The olive oil is thought to act as a lubricant and may help the crop to empty. Be sure that plenty of grit is available and do not feed this chicken any treats, seeds, scratch, fruits or vegetables during this time. These are the most difficult to digest. A clean source of water should also be available at all times. If all is better in a couple of days, then try some scrambled eggs and then in a couple days more, move onto just plain chicken feed.
However, after a couple of days, if you see no improvement, I highly recommend seeking veterinarian help. There are many articles on how to empty the crop on the internet. However, an inexperienced person doing this can easily kill a chicken by causing suffocation from the procedure and/or aspiration of crop contents into the lungs. In some cases, the crop even requires surgical emptying. Please do not attempt this on your own. Some states view this as animal cruelty without having proper surgical training and being able to administer pain medication and proper sedation of your animal.
Finally, if the impacted crop was caused by an infection, then it will needed to be treated.
Sour crop is caused when the emptying of the crop is slowed or delayed. If food sits in the crop for too long, it can ferment and a yeast infection (fungal) can develop. A chicken that has a sour crop will have a large boggy feeling crop that is squishy and enlarged but not firm. You can hear gases as you move it around as well as gurgling. The chicken’s breath will also smell yeasty and fermented. Often the crop is tender to touch.
Improper emptying of crop
Impacted crop-partial or complete
Recent antibiotic use (causing secondary infection)
Worms affecting rate of digestion
Sour crop is incredibly difficult to treat without medication from the vet. Chickens with sour crops require a one week course of prescribed antifungal medication (Nystatin). You can purchase it here. Be sure to treat the underlying cause as well. These include ensuring your flock is wormed, off recent medication and that their crop is emptying properly.
Adding probiotics and apple cider vinegar to their drinking water may also help as well.
Sometimes the muscles in the crop can become damaged. Damage occurs from a previous impacted crop and/or eating heavy food. In this case, the chicken’s crop will be full and enlarged and dangle toward the ground and can sway from side to side. It is important to confirm that this chicken’s crop is emptying overnight. If not, this can lead to an impacted crop. Pendulous crops are usually treated with putting the chicken on water for a 24 hour period and letting the crop rest. It is recommended to reintroduce regular food with plenty of grit afterwards. Treats, seeds, scratch, fruits and vegetable consumption should be avoided until the crop has returned to normal functioning. If you discover the crop is not emptying, then it may require veterinarian assistance.
Promoting a Healthy Crop
~Be sure your chickens have access to grit at all times.
~Avoid feeding your chicken large hard to digest foods.
~Clean up your yard from any foreign objects that chickens could potential ingest.
~Add apple cider vinegar (1 tablespoon per gallon) to their water supply. This helps to keep yeast levels balanced. Use plastic waterers, this will cause metal ones to rust.
~Feed your flock plain yogurt with live and active cultures to help promote the good gut bacteria.
~Adding probiotics in feed.
~Avoid feeding your flock sugary human food.
~Inspect your flock’s crops now and then.
~Keep grasses short where the chickens free range (2 inches max)
~If your chickens eat straw and hay, avoid giving it to them.
When Tilly was 10 weeks old, she had been dining on long strands of grass in the yard and woods surrounding her coop. The girls and her loved free ranging and eating fresh goodies in the yard. She also developed a habit of eating straw from the bedding. Long pieces would hang from her mouth as she tried to swallow them down into her crop. Not long after, she had an impacted crop that required veterinarian treatment including emptying and at the same time treatment for a sour crop. With the vet’s help, she made a full recovery. Her crop did lose most of the muscle tone and with large meals, it does become pendulous at times. I am glad, because from the beginning she has been and still is our head hen. Tilly is almost 2 years old.
Photo Credit: 4JPhotography