Do Chickens get PTSD?
Until last week, I never thought to ask myself this question. My hens live an idyllic life filled with a spacious, secluded backyard lined with high fences, shrubs to rest under, trees to shade the coop, a big mud hole I regularly fill with water (on hot days), and enough interesting places to explore to keep them sufficiently entertained.
My hens are a happy lot. If I were a chicken, I’d want to live in my backyard, too. It’s a stress-free, great place to live.
At least it was until last Thursday. That was the day a friend came over to play with one of the kids and left the chicken gate open (this is the fence I built between the ‘dog yard’ and the ‘chicken yard’ to keep everyone safe and allow both sides to have unlimited recess time).
I was out on the deck (on the 2nd story of the house) when I heard the commotion. I knew instantly it wasn’t good. Shoving shoes on, I ran out to the chicken yard as fast as I could. There I saw the chicken gate wide open and Curly (one of the kid’s teenage dog) having a hay day with the hens. Feathers were flying through the air, only one hen in my sight, and Curly racing and barking in circles.
I ran and scooped up Hattie, the only bird I could see. She acted drunk, unsteady, in shock. Curly gleefully raced around the yard, barking, searching for chickens, stirring up the neighbors two small dogs into a frenzy behind their fence, barking along with her.
I called for back up, yelling for kids to corral Curly and help me find the chickens. I found Olivia under the Rhododendron bush. She wore the same dazed look as Hattie. I gathered her up with my free arm and stuck her and Hattie into the coop, out of danger.
Feathers puffed in the wind from random locations all over the chicken yard. The feathers the strawberry blonde color of Harriet, my most favored hen. I tried not to panic. Rounding the corner of the coop, I found Harriet covered in dog slobber, missing some tail, and completely disoriented. I gathered her up and gently deposited her into the coop.
Three hens. Three to go. By this time I had a back up kids helping look for the MIA chickens. We looked high and low. We looked in the neighboring yards. Up in trees. Under every structure, tree, shrub and plant. No chickens to be found. One of the kids re-counted hens in the coop and found Jessica. Her black feathers blended her into the darkness of the coop and I’d missed her the first time through. She found the safety of the coop all on her own.
That just left Goldie and Ruby. They, too, matched the piles of feathers strewn about the yard. And they were nowhere to be found. I braced myself for bad news. Finally a kid called out that he’d found a chicken in the dog side of the yard. I went over and my heart dropped. Goldie laid there, motionless, on her side, covered with leaves. I gently reached down to pick her up and she jumped up, squawking! She was ALIVE! Scrambling, Goldie desperately tried to climb the tree she’d hidden under. I caught up with her and tried to calm her down as I walked her to the coop.
Another careful examination of the coop (going in the side door this time) revealed Ruby, squished under a beam in a tiny space in the far back corner of the coop. She, too, looked to be dead. But she wasn’t! (I can’t believe the small space she’d smashed herself into!)
All the hens were understandably stressed and in shock so it was hard to tell if any were truly hurt. I didn’t see any blood. That was a good sign. But I worried about damage on the inside. Several of them were so traumatized they stayed crouched on the coop floor, refusing to jump up onto a roost for the night.
I found some scraps of material and applied several drops of lavender essential oil, hanging them randomly in the coop to help calm the girls down for the night. And we all went to bed, exhausted.
The next day, I took stock of the damage. Harriet, Goldie and Ruby were missing feathers, but that seemed to be the worst of it. All of them still acted shell shocked. Some of them refused to come out of the coop. The others huddled around me, jumpy and skittish. And the dogs, remembering the fun from the day before, carried on from the other side of the fence, whining and barking to be allowed in.
I decided to cut a tarp into strips and attach it to the bottom 2 feet of the fence. Since the offending dogs were short, as were the chickens, I hoped that blocking them from view of the other would help simmer things down.
It took four days for the hens to return to normal. Until then, if a blade of grass blew crooked, they’d head for cover. If sweet little song birds chirped, they’d freeze, craning their necks, listening for danger. But on day four, I walked out and found them wandering freely around the yard, seemingly unafraid.
If chickens get PTSD, it’s a very short-term affair requiring little to no counseling. Yet I find myself stopping to listen through the window for sounds of foul play throughout the day. I walk out to check on them a little more often. I sit out in the chicken yard longer than I used to. Each day, I relax a little more, but not as easily as the chickens.
Today, I was gifted with my first egg since the incident. Thank you, girls. Life is back to it’s normal idyllic space in the backyard. I think I will breathe a little deeper and go pour myself a big glass of iced tea.