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Arts & Life

A $10,000 Vet Bill For A Chicken May Seem Eggs-travagant, But Owner Says She's Worth It

A chicken perches on a fallen log in the sun outdoors.
Courtesy Seleta Nothnagel
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Blue, a Blue Splash Marans, accompanies her owners on hikes in the mountains.

There’s still a solid layer of snow on the ground when I meet Seleta and Mike Nothnagel at their Wellington home. Wiping my boots on a mat that says “Welcome to the Farm” doesn’t seem to help much and I ask if they’d like me to take them off before coming in.

“Oh lord, no,” Seleta Nothnagel said. “We require shoes in this house.”

That’s because in addition to three dogs and two cats, the Nothnagel residence is also home to a half dozen chickens. Right off the kitchen, in what usually would be the dining room, sit two indoor coops for the birds, who are roaming around the living room wearing cloth diapers.

“Yeah the cleaning is pretty intense,” Nothnagel said. “It’s a never-ending job. There’s no question about that. It’s bird laundry and dusting and it’s vacuuming.”

Blue, a Blue Splash Marans, was the first of the family’s flock to make her way into the house.

A woman wearing a pink shirt and face mask feeds chickens inside a house.
Stacy Nick / KUNC
Seleta Nothnagel feeds Blue some cheese. Nothnagel admits to spoiling her favorite hen, even creating a special place for her to sleep on her bedside table.

“She was kind of the underdog of the flock and so that kind of endeared me to her,” Nothnagel said. “But then her personality was just really cool. She enjoyed cuddling and she would sit on my lap while I watched TV and she would just purr and coo at me. And she would kind of tell us when she was ready to go to bed.”

Blue even has a special spot to sleep on her bedside table.

“Most people would do the same thing for their dogs or cats or whatever, and so I guess I just don’t see it as a whole heck of a lot different,” Nothnagel said.

We love who we love. That extends to our pets as well, said Erin Allen, a social worker at Colorado State University’s Veterinary Teaching Hospital’s Argus Institute.

“It’s probably the one relationship in our lives that is unconditional,” Allen said. “They don’t judge us. If we don’t brush our teeth they’re still gonna give us kisses. It’s a safe relationship, and it gives so much.”

Allen says she’s seen people bond to every type of animal.

“I’ve worked with families who have had the same type of relationship that I have with my dog with their rabbits, their guinea pigs, their ferrets, a duck,” she said. “When you say ‘pet,’ we automatically think dog or cat but really there’s this whole broad spectrum.”

For Nothnagel, that bond is with Blue, who goes everywhere with her — including the feed store and Home Depot. It was on one of those trips a year ago that she noticed something was wrong.

“I kinda started noticing when we would go out that she would start open-mouth breathing a little bit and her comb would start to turn a kind of mauve color instead of a red,” she said.

Nothnagel took Blue to four different veterinarians to see if they could figure out the problem.

“There were so many theories that were thrown out,” she said. “They thought that maybe she was just fat. They were like, ‘You know she’s a little fluffy. Maybe she’s just fat enough that it’s pressing on her air sacs and she’s not able to get a good breath.’ They thought maybe it was cancer.”

At the CSU Veterinary Teaching Hospital — where Nothnagel now works as a medical laboratory scientist — a CT scan finally gave an answer.

It was a patent ductus arteriosus, or PDA. The hole in her heart is actually somewhat common in humans and animals like dogs. In birds — not so much.

CSU veterinarian Dr. Matthew Johnston, who specializes in avian, exotic and zoological medicine, had never seen one in a bird in his more than 20-year career. After a lot of research, he only found one other recorded case in a bird — a parrot. And that was discovered during an autopsy. Undeterred, he took the case.

BlueOnCathTable.jpg
Courtesy Colorado State University
Dr. Matt Johnston, left, observes Dr. Brian Scansen with Blue in the CSU operating room.

“We do things at CSU all the time that have never been done before, so why not give this a shot,” Dr. Johnston said.

And the fact that it was a chicken and not a more “traditional” pet never made a difference, he said.

“My thing is the human-animal bond exists regardless of the species,” Dr. Johnston said. “I can tell you stories of — a woman who had a therapeutic hermit crab. And her hermit crab meant the world to her and she was in tears when I saved her hermit crab. She had dropped it and its shell had broken.”

For Blue, Dr. Johnston worked with the hospital’s cardiac team to create a new technique going through the jugular vein to close the hole in Blue’s heart. They even practiced it on chicken carcasses to make sure it was possible to make the hairpin turn necessary for the procedure.

And the cost?

“The surgery itself was I think right around $4,200 or something like that,” Nothnagel said. “I went through all of the invoices that I have from the veterinary clinics that we had taken her to, trying to get her diagnosed and the heart medications we had tried and all that kind of a thing, and added everything up and we were at $10,245.46.”

Blue_RecheckFilmPostClosure_RLat.jpg
Courtesy Colorado State University
A radiograph of Blue after her surgery.

Nothnagel knows exactly what many people think after hearing that. Twenty years ago, while working as a vet tech, she thought the same thing after a woman paid $500 for stitches for her chickens after a fox attack.

“Why in the world would you pay that kind of money — for chickens!” she said. “I never put the thought together that they would have personalities or likes and dislikes. They were just food. So it just seemed silly to me. It was like, why wouldn’t you just stick ‘em in a crock pot and call it good?”

In general, grief over a pet is pretty disenfranchised by society, Allen said. Often people don’t acknowledge it to the degree that they feel it.

“I don’t know if it’s a judgement or just a hesitation — 'cause it’s not the norm they think, but it really is. Because it is very natural for someone to be as upset over the loss or an illness of a pet family member as they would be over a human family member.”

A chicken with black feathers wearing a cloth diaper stands on hardwood flooring indoors.
Stacy Nick / KUNC
All of the Nothnagel’s flock are now “indoor chickens” and wear chicken diapers when not in their coop.

But slowly over generations, Allen says the role pets play in our lives has changed, going from the barn to the house to even sleeping in our beds.

“Each time they start to get a little closer and so our relationships have the opportunities to be even bigger and deeper than what they were generations ago,” she said. “I think that’s where all those kinds of doubts come from and it’s from the historical perspective of the place of pets in our lives. But I also tell people that it’s OK to change that perspective.”

During the pandemic, Allen says that perspective is likely to shift again. Animal shelters are being cleared out of adoptable pets and people are leaning on pets more for emotional support, further deepening that bond.

And with that bond, Allen believes there will be improvements in how people take care of their pets — from keeping up on veterinary wellness checks, to getting pet insurance, to hiring trainers to handle behavioral issues.

Blue’s team is even writing up her case for publication in a scientific journal. The hope is that the advancement in techniques will help other veterinarians with their patients.

Three people stand in front of indoor chicken coops; the woman in the center is holding a chicken in her arms.
Stacy Nick / KUNC
Joy, Seleta and Mike Nothnagel pose with their chicken, Blue. The family got its start with chickens when Joy, 12, learned about backyard chickens from a teacher and asked if the family could get a few.

Nothnagel also hopes that her story helps make it a little less taboo for owners to decide to go the extra mile for their “non-traditional” pets. She’s already making in-roads. Blue and the rest of her flock were the first chickens covered by Nothnagels’ pet insurance company. But in the time since she signed them up for a policy, more families with chickens have followed suit.

As for Blue? Since her surgery, Nothnagel says she’s back to her old self.

“She likes to be held and cuddled and she’s back to crowing, which is just nuts because, being a hen, she really wasn’t supposed to crow in the first place,” she said.

Apparently, Blue is doing a lot of things chickens aren’t supposed to do.

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