Coping With "Sour Crop"
By Judy McElveen
"Sour crop" is a familiar used by many people to describe the phenomenon of delayed crop emptying. Thinking of it as "sour crop", though, can lead you astray as this is not a primary condition. That is to say, there is no "sour crop" bacteria or "sour crop" yeast. The delayed crop emptying comes about because of other reasons, some of which may be: brooder temperatures cooler than the chick needs; formula fed too cool, ingestion of bedding materials, a primary bacterial or yeast (fungal) condition, etc.
The time to become alarmed is when the chick's crop is full when it should be empty or almost empty, such as when another feeding is due. Also, when the crop is not absolutely empty of formula first thing in the morning (after the chick was fed no later than 12:00 midnight). When the crop appears not to have emptied any appreciable amount of formula, the chick should go into a warmer brooder immediately (up to 98 degrees F., or slightly less than the temperature where the chick starts to pant). At this point, stop using a bedding product (if you do so) and put the chick on paper towels so that you can check to see if any feces are eliminated. If so, this is a hopeful sign, indicating that the crop has not stopped completely. The second step is to call your avian veterinarian if one is available. The vet can do a gram stain to find out if yeast, bacteria, or some other cause causes the crop problem. They should also be able to empty and flush the crop and give medications to treat the primary cause of the problem, in addition to medications to stimulate the crop to empty itself. If no veterinarian is available to you, the next step is to empty and flush the crop yourself. Leaving the old crop contents in the chick's crop, no matter the cause of the crop slowdown, will allow bacteria and yeast normally present in the environment to multiply in the crop. Even if the cause of the crop slowdown was as simple as formula fed at too cool a temperature, this buildup of bacteria and/or yeast will create another, much more serious, condition.
Some books recommend turning the chick upside down and "milking" the crop; that is, pressing on it until the contents are expelled. I did this a few times before I learned to empty the crop using a soft rubber catheter and my results weren't good. Yes, the crop can be emptied this way. No, the chick doesn't always live through the process. Often, they will aspirate the crop contents and die immediately or within a few hours to a day thereafter.
I always keep soft rubber catheters in several sizes on hand. I use them for feeding sick and/or weaning birds that do not want to eat and, also, for emptying crop contents when necessary. For cockatiels, you might need a #10, a #12, #14, or #16. The problem with the smaller sizes (#10, #12) is that the holes in the end often become clogged with crop contents, especially if a parent has fed too much millet (for instance) and too little water, or if you are trying to remove pine shavings or other bedding materials that don't dissolve in the crop. The large end of the catheter you intend to use is slipped over the tip of a 60-cc catheter-tip syringe. The unattached end of the catheter is then passed into the chick's crop and the plunger of the syringe is drawn up. Often, the crop contents will clog the catheter before you can draw up all the crop contents. In that case, empty the tube into a paper cup (so you can examine contents when all are extracted) and keep going back into the crop and removing more until the crop is empty, or nearly so. At this point, examine the crop contents. If you find pine shaving or lots of undigested millet, you will know what the problem is. If you find white clumps of stuff in with the formula, you probably have a yeast problem (candida). If the crop contents are slimy and/or smelly, the chick might have a bacterial problem developing.
Sometimes, with a very young chick, you simply can't remove crop contents with any catheter that is small enough to go down the esophagus and into the small chick's crop. In those cases, you have no choice but to "milk" the crop to empty it. The chick might die, but it will usually be fast. If the unmoving crop contents are left as is, the chick will die a slow death of dehydration and starvation. After emptying the crop, believe it or not (and you can go ahead and groan), you are going to put something back into the crop, then remove it. If you have some Nolvasan, mix some into water until the water is pale blue, heat to 104 degrees F., then insert from 5 to 15 cc's of the Nolvasan water into the crop, leaving approximately two minutes. Emptying this time should be easier, as most of the big stuff that might clog the catheter has already been removed. If you continue to get some white stuff or some slimy stuff out of the crop, repeat this procedure until all that comes out is the Nolvasan water. At this point, put the chick back into the brooder to warm up. If you have some Nystatin, give the chick .5 cc before putting it into the brooder. Nystatin is the treatment drug of choice for yeast infections (Candida).
If your veterinarian hasn't entrusted you with a supply, ask for some to have on hand. Nystatin cannot do harm, since it is not absorbed by the body. It does its work of killing yeast cells through contact as it passes through the mouth, crop and the rest of the gastrointestinal tract and is then excreted. (Note: the crop must be empty for this medication to work.) After about five minutes, give a small amount of warm, boiled or distilled water (5 to 10 cc's), or the same amount of warmed Pedialyte (or generic equivalent). If this passes through within two or three hours and the crop is again empty, you can feed a small amount of very thin formula next time, gradually increasing amounts and decreasing liquid until you are giving the normal 2 parts water to 1 part dry formula mixture. This process should take about a day. Remember that your chick will die of dehydration (loss of fluid and essential nutrients from the cells of the body) long before it dies of starvation, so the liquid is the most important thing to keep moving through the chick. Water is better than no liquid, but go get some Pedialyte, as it contains necessary electrolytes and minerals needed by the system. (It is a product formulated for the purpose of preventing dehydration in children who are vomiting or have diarrhea.)
If the liquid does not empty quickly, you will need to get the chick to a vet in order to save it, as the chick will dehydrate very quickly. The veterinarian can give IV (intravenous) fluids (usually Lactated Ringer's Solution) when the chick is too far-gone for oral preparations to help or if the crop is not moving at all. Also, a veterinarian can give injections to stimulate the crop into moving its contents along. To go back to (almost) the beginning of this article, if you have only a small amount of food left in a chick's crop overnight, you might try giving a little Pedialyte, 5 to 10 cc's and then massaging the crop. If this is going to help, the chick should produce droppings within an hour. If it does so, even if the crop is not totally empty, there is still hope of heading off a serious problem. At this point, continue giving liquid until the crop appears to be emptying in the normal, followed by thin formula, etc. Never, ever, feed more food on top of undigested food.
If you ever pull chicks from the parents and find that their droppings stink, chances are they have a bacterial infection passed to them by the parents, often E. Coli orClostridium. Giardia can also cause bad smelling droppings. Almost always, the bad smelling droppings indicate a need for treatment with an antibiotic. The ideal at this point is to have a Culture and Sensitivity Test done. (This is a test involving a sample taken from various sites, in this case crop contents and/or droppings, and placed on a growth medium. Bacteria present will grow into a colony or patch on the growth medium, and various methods are used to identify the specific bacteria and any yeast present. The "plate" is then sectioned and a different antibiotic is applied to different areas. The antibiotic that most inhibits the growth of, and/or kills the harmful bacteria is the one that will be most effective against the bacteria when given to your chick.) Without this test, you don't know which bacteria are causing the problem, for sure, or which antibiotic will be helpful. Many veterinarians, mine included, will entrust clients they've known for a long time and who they trust, with a broad-spectrum antibiotic (such as Baytril) to use in emergency situations.
The problem with this, in addition to not knowing if the antibiotic will be effective, is that treatment with antibiotic will sometimes encourage the growth of yeast. For this reason, vets often give Nystatin at the same time they give an antibiotic to unweaned chicks. As agreed with my veterinarian, I will often treat candida infections myself without ever involving her. She knows that I will bring any chicks that don't improve immediately in to see her. I will also usually treat the "stinky poop" problem with Baytril and Nystatin, unless I am dealing with an unusually valuable chick. I must say, my nose has become an important diagnostic tool and I have been successful with this regimen most of the time. The danger here, which I sometimes accept, is that treatment with any antibiotic will make it difficult to get an accurate culture and sensitivity test done if the antibiotic I've used doesn't work.
Do not think that you will go to see a veterinarian for the first time and they will trust you with prescription medications to be used at your own discretion. It took my veterinarian and me many years to build up this level of trust and comfort with one another. Nor was I comfortable, at first, doing the medicating without having the doctor order it, so we had lots of phone conversations where symptoms were described in detail and drug treatment agreed upon. Only after years and years of seeing the same two or three problems quite often, over and over again, did I become confident of my own ability to make some decisions. It's fair to say that the vet had confidence in me before I did! Many times, even today, I will discover a chick in the nest that has such a serious problem, with the crop totally stopped, that it needs professional medical treatment immediately in order to have any chance at all to live. By the way, if you have pairs that consistently produce chicks with bad smelling droppings or who infect their chicks with Candida before the chicks leave the nestbox, the parents themselves need to be treated before being allowed to produce more babies, as following clutches will almost always have the same problem(s).
To those who think large parrots are harder to raise than cockatiels: I say, not so! I find that cockatiels have, by far, the most bacterial and yeast infections during handfeeding. Some breeders tell me they don't have this problem at all and I believe them, but my focus has been on developing the "perfect" pied, and specifically whitefaced cinnamon pieds. Could the combination of recessive traits be causing my cockatiels to have weaker immune systems? Many people do believe that the recessive mutations are genetically weaker.