Published on 10/12/04

Students help chickens avoid surgical pain

By Chowning Johnson &
Sharon Omahen
University of Georgia

If you go to a hospital to have surgery, you want the anesthesia to work. Two Georgia high school students in a University of Georgia internship program have made sure it works for chickens, too.

Jack Varner and Kelli Clifton participated in the UGA Young Scholars Program in 2001 and 2002. Their research on the effectiveness of three anesthetic regimes on chickens was published in the peer-reviewed journal, "Lab Animal," in May 2004.

The Young Scholars Program was started in 1999. The six-week summer program, matches high school students with scientists in the UGA College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.

Introducing students to common ag surgeries

Roger Wyatt, a UGA professor emeritus of poultry science, helped Varner and Clifton design their experiment. He wanted to acquaint them with simple small-animal surgeries.

Chickens are commonly used in scientific research laboratories, Wyatt said.

"We use chickens in our research at UGA because there are several simple surgical procedures students can perform easily on them," he said. "You can teach a student to castrate a chicken, a common agricultural procedure, and do so in a laboratory. It's analogous to doing the same thing to a steer."

Both students showed interest in pursuing careers in veterinary or human medicine. "So this project was a perfect fit," he said.

Until this experiment, not much was known about regimes that produce a surgical level of anesthesia for chickens and not hurt them.

With the help of UGA veterinary student Stacy Poulos, they found that chemicals commonly used in animal anesthesia didn't put chickens in a state in which they couldn't feel pain.

The toe-pinch test revealed the problem

"We uncovered this in the same way a doctor would with a human patient," Wyatt said. "We put the chicken under, did a toe-pinch test and saw a reaction."

They tested Ketamine-xylazine and ketamine-diazepam, injectable anesthetics, and Isoflurane gas, an inhalant anesthetic. All are used in surgery for mammals.

They checked the chickens' heart rates, respiration, body temperatures, blood glucose and response to moderate toe-pinches at timed increments before, during and after the anesthesia use.

The ketamine-xylazine and ketamine-diazepam didn't achieve a surgical plane of anesthesia for the chickens. Ketamine with xylazine could even kill the chickens.

Isoflurane produced a safe surgical plane of anesthesia for the chickens.

Wyatt, Poulos and J. Roger Broderson, a former UGA director of animal care and use, helped Clifton and Varner prepare the manuscript that was published in "Lab Animal."

Few vets see pet chickens

"During the manuscript's review process, we did find a few veteran veterinarians that knew the standard anesthesia process didn't work on chickens," Wyatt said. "The chemicals that were being used work just fine on rats, cats, dogs and birds like pigeons and parrots. You just don't find many veterinarians out there performing surgery on pet chickens."

In the summer of 2002, Clifton and Varner reapplied to the YSP and were reassigned to Wyatt. That summer their research was applied in Wyatt's laboratory. Isoflurane was used to perform minor research surgeries on chickens.

Isoflurane is expensive to use because you need an anesthesia machine. But it's more humane for the chickens and better for research. "The UGA avian genetics group is doing remarkable research using this method," he said.

YSP can be an invaluable learning experience for high school students, he said. It often helps them decide what they want to study in college.

"The Young Scholars Program gives students an opportunity that takes them from start to finish with a tangible product at the end," he said.

Varner is now a sophomore majoring in math education at UGA. Clifton is a sophomore majoring in health policy and administration at the University of North Carolina.

(Chowning Johnson is a student writer and Sharon Omahen a news editor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)

Chowning Johnson is a student writer with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.

Sharon Omahen is a news editor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.