by Madelaine Fletcher — Photographed by Dusko Matic
From urban hen adventures in the North to 4-H chicken projects in the South, the backyard poultry revolution is sweeping the nation. Healthy chickens are an important priority if you are raising them for meat or eggs, as breeding show birds or game birds, or if you are keeping a big flock or simply a couple of hens.
Providing your birds adequate space, clean living quarters, healthy feed and clean water will help prevent chicken diseases, and with a little extra work, you can produce a zone of biosecurity around your fowl that will be hard to break.
With the recent avian influenza outbreak in Asia and the coverage it garnered, it’s easy for the public’s fear of an epidemic to be out of proportion with the actual probability of an outbreak’s occurrence. It should be noted, then, that the strain behind that scare was never seen in the United States. And an article published in Mother Earth News magazine pointed out that the poultry industry, rather than folks raising chickens in their backyards, pose the real problem in the instance of such an outbreak. (See “Bird Flu: A Virus of Our Own Hatching.”)
That being said, knowing a bit about potential health threats and the simple steps that can be taken to keep your chicken-raising activities as healthy as possible, just makes sense. Dr. Fidelis Hegngi, senior staff veterinarian with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, explains that in some countries, infectious poultry diseases can cause severe problems for flock owners.
Two of the more notable diseases are High Pathogenicity Avian Influenza (HPAI), commonly called AI, and Exotic Newcastle Disease (END). While poultry diseases are not usually a threat to humans, they have the potential of making birds sick and even killing them. Low Pathogenicity Avian Influenza (LPAI) occasionally breaks out in North America; there is concern that it could potentially mutate to HPAI.
By guarding against AI infection of any kind you can protect your flock from many other diseases as well. The best insurance against AI and other infectious diseases requires taking a few safety measures known collectively as backyard biosecurity. Hegngi explains backyard biosecurity includes a wide range of practices that can protect your flock from contracting disease – cleanliness is crucial.
His tips include:
• Thoroughly wash hands both before entering the poultry yard and before
handling your birds. For your own health, wash again when your chores are complete.
• Clean and disinfect all equipment that comes in contact with birds or their
droppings. Remove all dirt and manure before you disinfect.
• Avoid sharing tools and equipment with other poultry owners, but if you must
share, clean and disinfect the tools before using.
• Clean your shoes with disinfectant before working with your birds or keep a
pair of shoes or boots near your cages to wear only when working with your birds.
Footwear can spread germs.
Hegngi also advises chicken owners to practice a “keep it away” policy, restricting access to a flock, especially if visitors have poultry of their own.
Tips for keeping away outside diseases from your home flock include:
• Avoid visiting other households with poultry.
• If you’ve been in contact with other birds or bird owners, clean and disinfect
your shoes and clothes before returning to your chickens.
• If your birds have been to a fair or exhibition, before returning them to the
flock, isolate them for two weeks. When adding new chickens, isolate them
for at least 30 days.
• Control rodents – mice and rats carry disease.
• Wild birds can transmit diseases, so keep them away from your flock. If you
raise birds outdoors, keep enclosures covered with wire mesh or netting, and provide
feed and water in an area minimizing contact with wild birds.
• Dispose of dead birds appropriately. While deaths are unavoidable, if numerous
chickens are sick or dying, seek guidance from your veterinarian, county
extension agent or state department of agriculture.
Watch for warning signs
“Bird owners should know the warning signs of bird diseases such as AI and END,” Hegngi says, “because early detection can help prevent their spread.”
Key signs to be aware of:
• Sudden rise in bird deaths in your flock
• Coughing and nasal discharge, sneezing, gasping for air
• Watery and green diarrhea
• Low energy, poor appetite
• Reduced egg production, or soft- or thin-shelled, misshapen eggs (not from molting
and/or first-time layers)
• Swelling around eyes, neck or head
• Purple discoloration of the wattles, combs and legs (AI)
• Tremors, drooping wings, circling, twisting of the head and neck or lack
“Early detection of a problem can help protect the health of your flock,” Hegngi says. “USDA/APHIS maintains a website with biosecurity information and a host of free resources to help.”