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Building Unity Farm - Animal Healthcare

Posted Nov 01 2012 6:00am

In addition to physical maintenance of the farm (food, water, and manure management), my wife and I are responsible for all the animal healthcare.  We have a traveling vet, Cindy Fuhs, who can manage the major issues (what do you do when your llama has a breech birth?), but there are daily and monthly aspects of care and wellness we manage ourselves.

Here's a summary of what we do by species

ChickensLike all flocks, ours has a pecking order.  Those lowest on the pecking order can develop dermatological conditions when their feathers are pulled out or they are scratched by chickens higher on the pecking order.    Our chickens get along particularly well (even our two roosters), but we have snap on "chicken jackets" we can use to protect exposed skin if feathers become too thin.   All our hens receive supplemental calcium which they can eat freelyto ensure they have enough raw materials to create strong eggs.   Barnyards host moisture loving bacteria and species like pseudomonas can cause devastating eye infections.  Each day when they return to their roost I examine their eyes for discharge or any signs of trauma that could lead to infection.   Our most docile chicken did have a corneal abrasion from pecking and developed a pseudomonas infected corneal ulcer.   I treated it with a fluoroquinolone (ofloxacin eye drops) a few hours after it started and the chicken is now completely well.

Guinea fowlThe guineas are free ranging and experience a wide array of foods, predators, and physical activity as they explore our 15 acres of woodlands.  Each night when they come home to roost, I examine them for any signs of physical injury.  I also watch their eyes for signs of infection.   Finally I watch for changes in their bowel habits as an early sign of systemic infection or parasites that could lead to dehydration or weight loss.

Llamas/AlpacasOne of the clearest indications of overall camelid health is weight loss.  Every month we weigh every animal using a 4 foot long "stand on" platform scale.   Since coming to our farm, every animal has gained 10 pounds, putting them near their ideal weights.   You do not want obese animals so every month we check their "body score", the camelid equivalent of the triceps fat measurement test, to ensure their bodies are fit.   Parasitic infections are a significant issue during warm months in New England, so from April to October we give injections of Ivermectin.   During our monthly herd health examinations, we clean their ears, examine their eyes, and check for fungal infections between their toes.   We do an overall dermatological check and treat any skin lesions with the same approach used in humans per the medical student dictum "if it is dry, make it wet.  if it is wet, make it dry.  always use steroids".   Finally we trim all toenails every month, a particularly fun job with a 300 pound llama.

Dogs/CatsOur veterinary care is very similar to that which many of you do already - control fleas/ticks, prevent heart worm, monitor oral health, and support overall physical well being.   Our Great Pyrenees puppy recently had a corneal abrasion when he accidentally ran under the llama and she stepped on him.    We treated that with ofloxacin.    One of our house cats died of stage 4 pancreatic cancer - we did home hospice care with morphine analogs.

RabbitsWe examine the rabbits for signs of physical injury, skin problems, and eye issues.  Our male rabbit had a corneal abrasion caused by pecking from one of the chickens.  We treated him with ofloxacin.

The number of eye issues this summer seems high but it was likely due to the startup of the farm - we move all the animals into new surroundings and created many new interactions.   Now that everyone is comfortable with their living quarters and each other, I do not expect many future physical injuries.

My emergency medicine training definitely comes in handy while caring for the citizens of Unity farm.   I only wish they were a little more forthcoming with chief complaints and history.  It's hard to deliver care when your patients are non-verbal.  Hat's off to veterinarians everywhere!
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