Seleta Nothnagel takes her pet chicken with her to run errands, bringing the bird into places like Home Depot or Joann Fabric. The 2-year-old Blue Maran chicken regularly dresses up for the outings, often sporting a heart-covered dress and matching diaper.
Nothnagel, 37, bought Blue at a feed store for about $12, but she doesn't treat the chicken like some simple farm bird. Blue lives with Nothnagel inside her Wellington, Colo. home, and has a place to sleep on Nothnagel's bedside table. The 5-pound bird loves cheese, Pop Tart crusts, strawberries, and watermelon.
"She's awesome," says Nothnagel. "She really enjoys being held. She would just lay in my lap and close her eyes and start purring – And just kinda melt."
But in March, Blue didn't seem like herself. She seemed tired, short of breath, and didn't want to cuddle.
"She couldn't breathe," Nothnagel says. "It was scary."
A former veterinary tech, Nothnagel knew to act on her concerns over Blue's health. She took Blue to multiple veterinarians for blood tests, X-rays, ultrasounds, and echocardiograms trying to discover what was wrong with her beloved bird. One vet thought the chicken might have cancer.
Eventually, Blue was seen by vets at the Colorado State University Veterinary Teaching Hospital in June and again in October. The school's specialists did not detect any cancer in the bird, but a CT scan did find that Blue had a congenital heart defect.
Blue was diagnosed with Patent Ductus Arterious, a defect that affects the development of the heart and its surrounding blood vessels. The connection between two major blood vessels leading to Blue's heart never closed, the chicken's veterinary cardiologist said of the defect, eventually leading to the bird's respiratory distress.
Repairing this defect is a common procedure in children and now routine in dogs and cats – but it had never been done on a bird, veterinarians explained to Nothnagel after Blue's diagnosis. The surgery was risky, and expensive – about $4,000.
But without it, Blue would go into heart failure and die.
"She is my soulmate," Nothnagel, who started as a medical laboratory scientist at Colorado State University's Veterinary Teaching Hospital in September, tells PEOPLE. "I told my husband, 'If Blue doesn't make it, you might as well dig a hole big enough to put both of us in.' I just don't know if I can't handle life without her. She's just the coolest bird."
On November 10, veterinary cardiologist Brian Scansen performed the 30-minute procedure on Blue. Traditional open-heart surgery wouldn't work on a chicken, he explains, since they have air sacs surrounding the heart. But, less invasive procedures worked to her advantage.
Colorado State University Veterinary Teaching Hospital
Scansen placed a catheter in the vein of the bird's neck to get to her heart. He deployed a wire mesh through a small catheter which caused the vessel to form a blood clot and close off the hole.
"We got right to where we needed to be pretty quick. She was not terribly stable, her heart rate was erratic, her blood pressure fell," Scansen, an associate professor of cardiology at Colorado State University, says. "It was touch and go for a time."
But 12 hours after the surgery, Blue was walking, eating and acting more normal.
Blue's vet bills for the successful procedure and the doctor's visits leading up to it totaled around $10,000. Nothnagel does have pet insurance for her chicken to help pay some of the expenses, but since Blue was diagnosed with a congenital heart defect – about $7,500 is not covered by pet insurance.
"It's a lot of money. But you'd do it for your kids, you'd do it for your dog. You wouldn't even bat an eye if I said I spent $10,000 on my dog to have his heart repaired. But when you say it's a chicken, people say, "Oh my God, you spent HOW MUCH on a chicken? You could just put her in a crockpot and go get another – or send her to freezer camp.' "
Blue is back at home and thriving. Now that she has recovered, the bird has returned to her personable self that adores hanging out in the garden with Nothnagel and watching documentaries together inside.
"I'd totally do it again," Nothnagel says. "You want the best for your pets. She's family."