I’m on a number of Facebook farm and chicken groups and am watching with interest as Virulent Newcastle Disease is spreading across southern California. Mandatory euthanasia has been ordered for all chickens in areas where VND has been found, even for flocks that have previously tested negative. It’s too late for those folks whose birds are slated to be culled, but it’s another wake-up call for all of us to be more vigilant about biosecurity measures to prevent the spread of infection between backyard flocks.
Chickens can get any number of bacterial, viral and fungal infections, and external and internal parasites. Some of them are transmitted through wild birds and rodents; introducing new birds to our flock or even brought home by us after visiting other chickens.
Biosecurity is a combination of all the things we can do – big and small – on a routine basis to prevent the introduction, or limit the spread, of infectious bacteria and viruses into, or out of, our flocks.
We can do that in three ways: ensuring our birds are healthy and have strong immune systems; restricting pathogens’ access to our birds; and if our birds do get sick, making sure we don’t spread those illnesses to other flocks.
This is a quick overview of what we can do, on a regular basis, to keep our birds healthy and prevent illness.
Minimize contact with wild birds and other animals
- Whether you free-range or pen your birds they are going to have some contact with wild birds or rodents. You can help to mitigate those encounters by ensuring their food and water are kept away from wild animals. I keep my feeders inside a rodent-proof coop.
- Clean up spilled feed.
- Keep feed in sealed containers.
- Use snap traps to humanely kill rats and mice. Do not use rodenticides, which move up the food chain and can kill birds of prey, like owls, who feed on poisoned rodents.
- Routinely and thoroughly clean and disinfect everything your chickens come into contact with.
- Don’t share equipment with other bird owners without thorough cleaning (transport crates, used equipment).
- Always wash your hands, clothing and footwear before and after handling birds.
- Dispose of dead birds, litter and unused eggs.
Maintain Flock Health
Spend time with your birds in order to notice individual changes. If you have a sick bird, quarantine it from your flock and contact a vet for a diagnosis and treatment. In some cases, you may have to treat your whole flock. Your bird might recover but be considered a carrier for life, in which case you should not re-home any of your birds to new flocks to prevent future transmission.
- Provide secure housing with ventilation and adequate space.
- Provide a well-balanced, nutritious diet.
- Clean water must be available at all times.
- Clean and disinfect your coop, pen, feeders and waterers often.
- Assemble a good first aid kit.
- Find a vet who is experienced with chickens.
- Learn to recognize symptoms common of chicken illnesses.
- When you experience an unexpected loss make the investment to have a necropsy done by a qualified vet who can provide you with relevant information, not just on your dead bird, but issues that might be affecting other birds in your flock. You may have underlying bacterial/viral/fungal infections that should be addressed. In British Columbia necropsies are done at the Animal Health Centre in Abbotsford. Click here for complete details.
Limit exposure to visitors
People can spread diseases to your birds by carrying them in on their footwear and clothing. I’m increasingly noticing folks not wanting to give tours or allow prospective buyers into their pens, or even on their property. If someone enters your property or handles your birds ensure their footwear is clean. Provide boot covers or use a foot bath to prevent disease from entering or leaving your property. Consider where you allow people to drive on your property as tires carry in soil/feces that might be contaminated.
Quarantine New Birds
- New birds should be segregated and monitored for at least 21 days before entering your existing flock.
- Know where you are getting your birds from.
- Ask questions about the general health of the birds/flock they are coming from. Have they been vaccinated? Have they had any major diseases?
General signs of illness include:
- lack of energy, movement or appetite
- decreased egg production
- swelling around the head, neck and eyes
- coughing, gasping for air or sneezing
- nervous signs, tremors or lack of coordination
- sudden death
If it feels like there is a lot to maintaining biosecurity protocols start small. I attended a Small Flock Poultry Health workshop earlier this month led by two Avian Pathologists from the Ministry of Health. It was suggested the single most important thing you could do to improve flock health was to use nipple waterers – the type where they dip their beaks in the water are greater vectors for pathogens. I’m sure they were hoping we’d do more, but that’s an easy start.
Work on incorporating some of these ideas into your daily routine: maintain the health of your own flock, practice consistent hygiene and be careful about bringing home new birds. Have a pair of dedicated coop footwear and don’t wear them off your property. Be careful about what you track home from other farms.
If you have a sick bird understand that even if it recovers it may have spread a pathogen to the rest of your flock and still be a carrier for future infections. If that’s the case, don’t re-home any of your birds, who may look healthy but can still infect a new flock. Consider investing in a necropsy if your bird dies. Together we can all work towards improving the health of the chickens we keep.