Yorkshire vet Julian Norton's mission to cure chickens' blindness

I'd finished a big batch of TB testing on a family farm, helped by most of the family. As it was half term, there was a selection of children on hand, all farming fanatics and all keen to get involved.

One of the Silkies, suffering from a severe case of sinusitis.
One of the Silkies, suffering from a severe case of sinusitis.

It was Ben’s tenth birthday, so I’d given the young farming enthusiast the job of writing down numbers for me in my notebook. It was a useful job to do and a perfect one for a young assistant.

As I was washing my wellies, I chatted to Ben about his interest in farming. He told me all about his fledging hen enterprise – how he was building up his small flock, how he sold his eggs to passers-by and how he had a selection of special hens called Silkies.

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I asked him about the health of the birds and how he looked after them. The knowledgeable young lad knew lots about his birds and was very aware of the problems they might face.

“There are a couple that have gone blind though,” he said, “Dad says there’s not much to be done. They don’t seem too ill, but they aren’t getting any better.” He looked puzzled.

“There might be things that we can do,” I suggested. “Are they on the farm? I can have a look at them if you’d like?”

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They weren’t on this farm, which was his grandmother’s, but Ben (well, Ben’s mum) offered to bring the affected birds into the practice so I could have a look at them.

I was optimistic (I always am) that I could help – I thought it was possible they might have a condition called sinusitis which had glued up the eyes with gunk, pus and mucous.

If this was the case, then treating the infection, opening the gummy eyes and relieving the pus might solve the problem.

Two days later Ben, his mum and his three hens arrived for their appointment. I called them into the consulting room, anxious to examine the birds to see what I could do.

As I expected, the birds had pretty severe sinusitis and five out of six eyes were stuck together.

Some gentle bathing, with moist cotton wool and cotton buds, allowed me to coax open up the gummed up eyes and things looked much more promising.

I gave each bird an injection and prescribed powder to mix in the water.

The next thing I prescribed was not a medicine. But it was a treatment, of sorts – one that I thought would help, but not one I’d ever suggested to the owner of some chickens before. I advised Ben (and more importantly his mum) to take the three chickens and put them in a very steamy bathroom.

I suspected I would need Ben’s mum to be in agreement for this to happen.

I could just imagine my mum’s reaction if, when I was ten, I said: “Mum, I’m just bringing in three hens and I’m going to put them in the bathroom and turn on the shower so that the steam can decongest their sinuses.”

An animal-lover as she is, I am not convinced this would have met with approval. Luckily for Ben and his chickens, Ben’s mum was game, and keen to help sort out the snotty silkies. Ben promised to give me an update on the progress of the birds.

As I waved Ben, his mum and his birds goodbye, I sensed that not everyone was as confident as I was that there would be a favourable outcome. I felt sure however, that the three blind hens would be back running around the farm in no time at all.