Thursday, February 24, 2011

An Itchy Situation

Despite my initial reluctance to having a flock of poultry -- I still wanted my goats! -- it was safe to say that I'd fully embraced the notion of raising chicks and having our own laying hens. I'd read "Storey's Guide to Raising Chickens" in one day, much to J's disgust and envy. I could now identify a chicken's breed by looking at its picture (more stupid human tricks for my repertoire!). I'd attended a meeting about legalizing backyard flocks for downtown residents (to show moral support since, as rural residents, we could legally own dozens of chickens). I'd even become an active member of the forums. J was similarly enthralled, pouring over coop designs and noting that he planned on a laying flock of at least 50 hens eventually (eeep!).

All of this came to a screeching halt when I read that chickens cast off dander.

Dander is to animals what dandruff is to humans: flakes of dead skin, found in hair, fur, and feathers. People with cat and dog allergies are not allergic to the actual animal; they're allergic to the dander, which is so tiny it can permeate the air and coat upholstered furniture, window treatments, and clothing, triggering allergic reactions. According to the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology (AAAA&I), up to 10 percent of the general population and 40 percent of allergic individuals react to the dander of cats and dogs.

And here was a poultry guide noting that people who react to dogs and cats might very well be allergic to chickens as well.

Our four-year-old son, B, is allergic to dogs. And to wheat. And gluten. And milk, peanuts, tree nuts, chocolate, and rhubarb. Possibly coloring additives as well. B's diet is a very restricted one, and an expensive one, since we have to search high and low for specialty foods he can eat. J blames B's multiple allergies on the factory farming of America, where high doses of antibiotics, genetically modified produce, and unsafe agricultural practices have allegedly caused more and more people to develop medical conditions such as allergies and celiac disease. He might be right. I think that, with three older brothers with no food allergies, B was simply the unfortunate winner (or loser) of the genetic jackpot.

I discovered B's allergy to dogs when, while sitting in the customer lounge at the car dealership, waiting for my minivan to once again be repaired, a woman walked in with a dog on a leash. This alone was not immediately alarming; people walking their dogs is rather commonplace, although not necessarily at an auto dealership. Since B also suffers from asthma, I kept a nervous eye on the dog, as the last thing I wanted was for B to begin wheezing miles away from his nebulizer. I wasn't counting on the woman giving her pooch free rein to come over and investigate B, who tried to shrink back from the rather demanding springer spaniel sniffing at him.

"Excuse me, but could you please remove your dog? My son has asthma and I don't need for your dog to trigger a reaction," I asked, trying to keep the anger and exasperation out of my voice. I guess I didn't do too good a job. When the woman's husband came in to join her, she nodded her head in our direction and muttered loudly about dog haters. Whatever... I was in the midst of handling not an asthma attack but, to my surprise, an allergic reaction, thanks to Mrs. Uppity and her pup, Precious.

And yes, that was the name of her dog. I guess I shouldn't have been surprised, seeing as the woman and the dog were wearing matching Burberry coats.

When B has an allergic reaction, he doesn't break out in hives, he doesn't sneeze, and his eyes don't water. Instead, his skin mutinies and, within a matter of minutes, a scaly red rash covers his arms, belly, and face. This itchy rash, called atopic eczema or atopic dermatitis, is supposedly the result of genetic abnormalities in B's skin teamed up with an abnormal function of his immune system. It also spreads when he scratches, which has led to many evenings of our applying a prescription ointment to his skin, then wrapping him up in gauze like a mummy to keep him from scratching. Once present, the eczema can take months to finally go away. B's allergist, Dr. S, is one of the country's leading specialists in skin-related allergy issues, specifically pediatric atopic dermatitis, so over the years and after myriad tests, we've been able to identify many of B's triggers to keep him as ezcema free as possible.

Dog was not one of the triggers on B's list but, other than the time he ate a grilled-cheese sandwish at Big Boy, I've never seen him rash out so quickly before. Before a minute had gone by, B had rashed out all over his face and whatever skin was exposed elsewhere. The poor kid was miserable, both from the rash and from being assaulted by the coat-wearing dog, and in the remaining time it took for my car to get fixed I alternated between cuddling the distressed little boy and shooting evil glances at Spoiled Dog Woman.

The existence of chicken dander threatened to torpedo all our poultry plans. J agonized over the possibility that his days as Gentleman J the Country Farmer were at an end. I didn't help matters much by pointing out that, since B is allergic to both dog dander and to eggs (he can handle them; he just can't eat them), there was a good chance that we might have to switch back to my original plan of raising dairy goats.

Our friend P had the ultimate solution. "Bring him over!" she said. P and her husband, S, raise meat chickens and turkeys plus a small flock of laying hens. The idea was to bring B into the coop, let him handle a hen, then monitor him for any reaction. We had to wait until the rash he'd gotten from his Christmas Eve exposure to his aunt's dog has cleared up to be sure we could clearly see any new reactions, but finally the day was at hand. Feeling like we were driving to our own funeral, we climbed into the car and headed over to P's.

The meat chickens and turkeys were long gone, having graced many a table, but the hens and their rooster were hanging out in their coop. P brought B and me into the coop, then handed me a hen (a Rhode Island Red), which I snuggled close and brought over for B to pet.

B was not at all interested. His eyes were on something else: the rooster. He wanted to pet the rooster.

Now, despite the fact that he was perched comfortably, surrounded by a harem of four hens, P's rooster is quite feisty. When the flock is outside foraging and enjoying the outdoors, the rooster will immediately raise its hackles when P's 3 year old, S, is in sight. The rooster will then charge at S, chasing the poor boy around the yard until it got tired of its game. S is understandably terrified of the rooster.

B wanted to pet THAT rooster.

"Look, honey," I cooed, stroking the Rhode Island Red's back. "See the nice chicken? See how Mommy is petting her? Don't you want to pet her, too?" B reached out a hand, patted her on the rump twice, then refocused his attention on the rooster. I looked at P, my eyes pleading for assistance.

P took the hen from me and crouched down beside B. "Look, B! She's really a sweet, gentle hen," P said. "Would you like to hold her?"

B shook his head, then reached out and started stroking the rooster. The rooster turned his head, eyed B, then returned to being adulated by his hens, apparently deciding B was either yet another admirer or just not worth the effort to chase. P and I exchanged amazed glances, then called our husbands over to watch as B, growing bolder, stepped up beside the rooster, who actually nuzzled into B's hand as he stroked the silky feathers.

Later that night, B happily chirped to his older brothers that he liked the big feathery chicken the best. J and I were pleased that B hadn't been afraid to approach the temperamental bird. However, we were more pleased that B hadn't broken out in a rash at all. Our poultry plans were back on, and the countdown to Chick Days continues!

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