I mentioned in my other post on maggots, that we had a chicken named Brownie heal from a serious injury using mud. It was much too long to include in my last post. Brownie actually had been hurt years before Lucky, but as I am simply writing as I remember them, Lucky’s most recent injury is more fresh in my mind. Brownie is a Golden-Laced Wyandotte, a big rounded hen, with the darkest underskirt of feathers in the group of chicks we had purchased. She laid eggs reliably, and as she was fertile, she often attracted the attention of our rooster, Sunny. One day Sunny must have broken off part of his spur (we don’t remove spurs, we just file them down with a nail file until they aren’t sharp, usually). This is not unusual for Sunny. He breaks a spur off quite frequently when it gets long enough. The problem: Sunny mated with Brownie with a sharp spur, sometime in the morning before we came to the garden, and the injury to Brownie’s side was devastating.

When a rooster mates with a hen, sometimes his feet slide down her body, and this happened with Sunny, but as it did, his broken and therefore sharp spur, split the skin over Brownie’s ribcage and sliced it cleanly. We took a picture of the injury and showed it to one of our vets who said that he was fairly certain the injury was caused by a rooster. At first, we had no idea how Brownie had gotten so injured, and were worried that there had been an unknown predator visiting injury upon our hens that we had yet to detect. Nope, not a predator, a rooster. An inevitable part of having animals is that they can sometimes hurt one another unintentionally.

When we found Brownie’s injury, she was holding her wing at an unnatural angle, and she had filled the injury with mud, packed it in to the point that dust fell off her as she walked around the garden. My first instinct, to wash the injury, meant that I brought Brownie home with us, certain her demise was imminent, because after all, how could a chicken sustain such a severe injury and still survive? I have never been of the opinion that I need to “put an animal down” or kill it under the guise of being humane, because I don’t understand why being human makes it ok for us to kill an animal based upon our own justification that it’s life is no longer worthwhile. (I have only done it once, with a chicken that had been attacked by a dog and whose rib cages were exposed and when I found her had maggots falling out of her lungs because she was in extreme pain. I don’t know, still, if it was the right decision and found myself so conflicted that on the way out of the vet’s office I backed into a cement pillar and had to center myself before driving home because I was crying so hard.)

Brownie, injury packed with mud, came home with us. My daughter held Brownie gently under her arm, with Brownie’s head covered with a Kleenex, enough to cover her eyes to calm Brownie but not interfere with Brownie’s breathing. Upon further inspection, the injury was not infected. There were no maggots, no tissue necrosis. She just had a 4-inch by 3-inch section of her body covered with mud and a skin flap hanging off the side of the injury.

Once again, I used a little sterile saline to rinse the wound. If the skin is terribly raw, sterile saline should be used as a rinse because our bodies are really a salty mess. We don’t have plain water in our veins, nor water treated with chlorine, as most municipal water supplies are, or flouride, generally added to water, too. You know how it stings if you blister your hand doing something like raking the yard, and then that big flap of skin can pull off and it burns like fire when you just get water on it? Or, perhaps, if you get too much tap water in your eyes and it burns? It’s because we don’t have plain water in our bodies, a balanced saline solution is much more comfortable, so if my birds are injured, that’s what I use to rinse. It can be bought at all major retailers, comes in a squirt or spray bottle and is perfect for flushing a wound.

Rinsing didn’t get the dirt out of the wound, and in fact, it appeared that the dirt pack had stopped the bleeding, formed  lattice to help the body form a scab. Removing the dirt would have meant removing a scab that covered Brownie’s side. I decided that the chicken must have had a reason for dust bathing an injury and off I went to research mud. Guess what? Brownie knew what she was doing. I, clearly, had not.

Science says that mud has abilities to kill bacteria, all kinds of nasty bacteria.

The colloquial medical advice “rub some dirt in it” appears to have some merit. Researchers at Arizona State University’s Biodesign Institute have been experimenting with different clays, and it appears in research presented in the journal PLoS ONE that they’ve come across a family of antibacterial clays capable of killing pathogens ranging from E. coli to methicillin-resistantStaphylococcus aureus, otherwise known as hard-to-kill MRSA.

It turns out that’s probably because some clays–particularly clays rich in a certain group of metallic ions–work as antibacterial agents. In their study, the ASU researchers tested a variety of different clays with similar mineral composition but ranging compositions of metallic ions against E. coli and MRSA. They found that five metal ions–iron, copper, cobalt, nickel, and zinc–could fight the two bacterial strains, both of which are increasingly difficult to kill using standard antibiotics and antibacterials.

Chicken knowledge surpassed my own? Not surprising since we human children are taught that mud is bad, dirty, needing to be washed, and generally not a household welcome guest. Chickens, on the other hand, live in dirt. They need it, require it to eat, to digest food, to poop. They have an instinct to dig that can’t be stopped. Brownie knew how to heal herself.

I didn’t test our mud to determine the concentration of metallic ions, but it makes sense that bacteria can’t grow on a metal like zinc. Zinc is used in many over the counter antibiotic ointments, like bacitracin zinc ointment. Zinc is used in sunscreen with a zinc oxide formulation and in diaper ointments to help soothe skin. Zinc consumption has been proven to help shorten the duration of common viral illnesses.

Bacitracin zinc, itself,  is made from a group of organisms that compete with bacteria, possibly for food sources ( I really don’t know why), and so these organisms secrete antibacterial agents. Voila! Antibiotic ointment is born. Dirt, or mud, heavy in minerals and in agents that are designed to naturally compete with pathogenic bacteria form their own “antibiotics” and so kill off bacteria that are harmful in wounds. This could be why I have never gotten an infected wound from the myriad of scratches and cuts I get while working in the garden, even if they get dirt in them, neither has my husband, nor our daughter.

Brownie never did have any infection. As her skin healed, a little at a time, I kept her home, away from any of the other birds who might curiously “groom” her injury by pecking it, and as the skin healed, the mud flaked off on it’s own, and Brownie is now a happy 5-year old hen who continues to lay during the bright sunlight of summer.

Am I suggesting packing your own injuries with mud? Nope. I will admit to using a mud pack on my own scrapes, on my daughter’s scrapes, too; however, I don’t know that all mud has these healing properties. I do know our garden mud seems to, because we don’t get infections when we use mud. Actually, there are multiple antibiotic allergies in our family, so as a general rule, we don’t use antibiotics either. They just are safe for us. I do know that when my father-in-law lost his leg in a gas field explosion he landed in some mud that packed the wound from his missing leg, and he didn’t bleed to death, even with missing a leg.  I don’t advocate mud packs for everyone else, but it has worked for us and our animals.

I am just suggesting that Nature has some incredible healing mechanisms of her own, mechanisms that our animals generally understand. Consider that wound packing supplies are being developed for the U.S. Military to use an animal product, chitosan a blood-clotting, antimicrobial substance that comes from shrimp shells, and sterile wood pulp as an emergency treatment to stop bleeding  on the battlefield. I wouldn’t advocate packing a wound with shrimp shells either, but the bandages with natural ingredients are the most efficient at stopping hemorrhage. The bottom line is that if an animal is showing an instinctual response to an injury, don’t immediately work to undo it. Pay attention, because sometimes the animal knows more about how to heal itself than we do.