On the afternoon of March 23, in the midst of a week of South African public holidays, I returned home from the office to the news that one of our hens had been found dead in the coop. This happens from time-to-time; our chickens live a happy free-range foraging life in the paddocks, eventually get old, and pass away. I assumed it was one of those natural events, and mentally noted that it had happened on the day of a lunar eclipse.
I left as usual for the office on the Thursday morning, and when I returned late that afternoon, our groundsman Albert rushed to inform me that there were a few hens that hadn’t come out to eat all day, but had remained in their coop and were breathing strangely. The fact that they were anorexic was an alarm bell – our greedy chickens rush towards any one of us when we enter the paddocks in the expectation of something to eat, and they particularly love their afternoon meal of cooked rice, lentils and kefir.
I accompanied him and found 3 hens sitting and struggling to breathe, their combs losing their reddish brightness and turning blue in undertone. Their eyes were half closed and their necks reached into an extreme upward extension as they literally gasped for breath. There were signs on their feathers of a watery diarrhoea. I’m aware that chickens, like humans, can suffer from colds or the ‘flu, and have observed them sneezing, with diarrhoea or with some lethargy in the past 7 years, but they generally still eat, drink and move about. This looked unusual, quick in onset and severe in symptom. We decided to move them into a ‘sick-bay’ stable on the other side of the property to separate them from the rest of their coop-mates who were still behaving healthily. We tried to give them some Ferrum Phos tissue salts in a water solution via a syringe, which was difficult as it interfered with their troubled breathing – most of the solution just dribbled out of their mouths. I was a little concerned – this was the start of the four-day Easter weekend, and everything pretty much closes down into holiday mode over that time.
On Good Friday we woke up to two hens who hadn’t made it through the night. In the paddocks, about half a dozen hens and my magnificent black cockerel spent the day huddled under a bush looking lethargic. I started feeling desperate at this sinister turn of the week and re-checked my chicken-keeping books and the internet for everything I could find about sick chickens. I had read about Newcastle Disease before, but not seen any local warning of it being prevalent at the time. Since there were no symptoms of torsion of the neck, I thought this extreme disease was unlikely. It seemed most likely to be a nasty ‘flu virus or infectious bacteria.
By Saturday we had lost another two of our girls. I tried calling all our local veterinary offices that were open for the morning, but there was nothing they could assist us with – they deal mostly with domestic pets and had no recommendations or medication available at all. I requested that they order the Newcastle Disease vaccine, as it would do no harm to administer it to the healthy birds although it would not be much good too those already exposed if this was that particular virus. I tried the numbers for the State Veterinarian offices, and even the World of Birds down the road, only to hear ‘closed until Tuesday’ messages.
By the end of the long weekend we thought that we were going to lose our entire flock because none of the sick chickens were recovering. This gasping respiratory illness seemed to take about 24 – 36 hours to finish them off. It felt completely futile and dismal. So many of the chickens were starting to look listless, that we gave up moving them over to the sick bay; I realised that we may be exposing our younger chicks that we keep protected from the hawks in the stable next door with outdoor access to a netting covered area. We have another two smaller hen-houses on the opposite side of the paddocks and those chickens seemed unaffected – but they were likely to be exposed as the flocks mingled during the day, especially during feeding time. On Tuesday 29th March, I finally managed to speak to the State Veterinary offices, who could only send a technician out on the Thursday.
I came to the conclusion that the only thing to do was to try to keep the asymptomatic chickens healthy whilst they were still eating normally. I went to work and brought back a supply of the Immuno Synergy tissue salts that afternoon. We had about 50 chickens including youngsters at the time, so I worked on the idea of one tissue salt per bird, that we crushed and added to their daily rice, lentil and kefir meal. I also added a tablespoon or two of Probiokashi bran to this, as I surmised that the probiotics would help to keep the gut healthy and hopefully also help to counteract the diarrhoea symptoms. We have always added the ProWell liquid probiotics to their drinking water, so they already should have had some level of gut health. Unfortunately our already sick chickens continued on their death spiral, and we lost at least one a day. It was heartbreaking to see this plague hitting our flock.
I stayed home on the Thursday to meet with the State Vet technician, who inspected all our chicken coops, and took a hen that had died that morning away for a post mortem. My black cockerel was looking grim, and we lost him later that afternoon. On the Monday, the technician called with the report. It was indeed the dreaded Newcastle Disease, and a particularly virulent strain. The virus can remain alive for months, is easily spread by air and in the bodily secretions, and in his experienced opinion it would wipe them all out. Our entire flock was placed under quarantine – no chickens to move on or off the property. There was no medication, only the vaccine that could be applied to the unaffected ones in the hope that they hadn’t been exposed yet. And guess what… there was no stock of it to supply, either from our local vet or the state officials.
We continued with our tissue salts and probiokashi regime. It was all we could do with the situation at hand. We observed them closely and I am happy to say we lost no more after April 1st. None of our healthy chickens developed any symptoms thereafter and some that had shown signs toward lethargy but were still eating improved, turned around and exited the Grim Reaper’s waiting room. All-in-all, we lost 11 of our adult flock – 10 hens and our cockerel in a 2-week period. This amounted to a mortality rate of just under 20% – pretty good considering that the expectation is 90 – 100%, and given that I had only managed to start addressing it in earnest almost a week after the first casualty. Eventually our local vet managed to acquire some NCD vaccine, and we sprayed the survivors on April 8th; giving a little peace of mind in case there was any virus lingering longer in the paddocks over the winter months.
How does this relate to boundaries?
The underlying principle of biochemic practice is that an organism such as a virus or bacteria is not the inherent cause of disease; rather it is about the internal environment that allows a particular organism to gain entry, flourish and take hold. Why is it that seemingly everyone around can fall ill with colds, influenza or even malaria, yet there will be one or two people that although exposed to the same organism, don’t succumb? It has to do with the internal environment, resistance and response of the immune system. It is a principle of strengthening the troops (defences) as opposed to trying to find magic bullets to fire at the enemy. If you can keep the enemy out in the first place, you are less likely to become a victim.
In a similar way to the physical improvements to deter intruders at our property (Part 1), the tissue salts I chose to use help to strengthen the cell wall integrity and create an environment inhospitable to the viral or bacterial intruders. I think the key to addressing many viral issues has to do with the cell wall vulnerability – as viruses invade the cell and use its DNA to replicate itself, and thus the disease takes hold. If one can put really strong burglar bars on the cell walls, it stands to reason that the cell will withstand the invasion attempt.