In the 14th century quarantines were imposed in coastal European communities to protect their residents against The Plague. The word came from the Italian ‘quaranta giorni’, meaning 40 days, which was the length of time that ships and their occupants were held in isolation before being allowed to enter. The idea was to separate and restrict the movements of those people in order to observe any symptoms of potential illness.
Every poultry flock has its own culture: the things we can see, like social structure, and those we can’t, like microbes. There are billions of microorganisms that typically inhabit a particular environment: in soil, water, our coops and most importantly, inside our birds. We often assume that a bird is healthy if it has shown no signs of illness and then are surprised when it up and dies without warning.
A necropsy might reveal a whole host of things invisible to the naked eye: intestinal parasites and viral, bacterial or other infections. There are always things lurking in the bodies of our birds, whether we are aware of them or not. Many pathogens and parasites are relatively harmless, especially in low numbers, but when their numbers explode they become problematic for their host.
I think we can all relate to the times we’ve gotten sick when we’re feeling run down or our immune systems were compromised. We need to extend that understanding to realize that when birds are stressed they, too, are most vulnerable to getting sick. Moving birds into, or out of, a flock is stressful for all members because the pecking order will need to be re-established. By bringing a sick bird into your flock, not only is that bird at risk of becoming sicker, but vulnerable birds within your flock will now be exposed to a potential pathogen from a carrier. Young birds are particularly at risk in a multi-age flock when exposed to diseases they have little, or no, resistance to.
In an ideal world you would get all your birds at once and not add any new ones until your original flock was gone. Notice I said ideal? Most small flock owners aren’t big into the ‘all in, all out’ practice of chicken keeping. The philosophy behind that reasoning is that you aren’t introducing any new pathogens into your existing flock.
When one of your birds dies, invest in a necropsy which will not only determine the cause of death, but often includes further tests (bacteriology, histopathology, internal parasites etc.) that give you some insight into what might be going on within your flock. (In B.C. birds can be sent to the Animal Health Centre.)
If you do add birds incrementally it helps if you know where your birds are coming from: Have they been vaccinated? What have they been fed? Has the flock experienced any contagious diseases? Do the birds appear healthy? Is the pen and coop clean?
When you buy a bird examine it for mites (scaly leg and body), lice, bumblefoot, overall condition (including weight, feathers, eyes, comb and wattle colour). Never buy a bird showing signs of illness. If you knowingly rescue a sick bird, be prepared to isolate it and practice strict biosecurity (i.e. not use the same footwear, water and food containers, between pens, wash your hands thoroughly between handling birds).
We’ve all heard the term quarantine bandied about when it comes to getting new birds, but I have a sneaking suspicion that most folks don’t actually follow the best practice recommendations.
So what does quarantine look like when it comes to chickens?
Every chicken keeper should plan their set up with the thought that, at some point, you will need an isolation area for sick or new birds. The best case scenario is that it’s located 30’ from your flock. That’s not always possible, but set up something that is physically separated from your coop and other birds. Respiratory infections are spread through aerosolized particles when infected birds cough or sneeze. If you don’t have a separate coop place a predator proof dog crate in a shed or garage or place them in a mobile chicken tractor away from your flock.
Don’t bring a new bird into your flock if you have sick birds or know that your flock carries infectious pathogens.
Once home, segregate new birds – most folks say for 21- 30 days (Poultry DVM suggests 10 days) – to observe for any signs of illness and to acclimate the newcomers to their surroundings.
Take a poop sample to your vet for a fecal float test, which can indicate the presence of intestinal worms or coccidiosis.
Spend time with the newcomers and observe them for any signs of illness: coughing; sneezing; bubbly eyes; lethargy; not eating/drinking normally; diarrhea or bloody poop.
Don’t routinely give antibiotics as a preventative and, if required, make sure you are administering the recommended drug and the right dosage.
Always work in your main pen first (cleaning, putting out food and water), then your quarantine area last so you are not tracking pathogens between the two areas. Use dedicated shoes and equipment for each coop.
Many of us know what the best practice might be, but feel that it’s impractical. Strict quarantine is difficult to manage, so if you know you’re not going to follow with that, decide what is feasible. The important thing is to keep your new bird separated for at least a few days while you are observing for signs of illness and treating for lice, mites and worms. Use dedicated feed and water containers for the newcomers.
Full disclosure: I have never followed a strict protocol of an extended quarantine, usually for reasons of time or space. When I first had birds and one coop I popped the newcomer into the coop at night and hoped for the best. Luckily, that always worked out – often they woke up in the morning like they’d always been part of the flock.
That has also worked, in part, because I have never had, nor seen, any respiratory illnesses in my, or my friends’, flocks. I also don’t live in an area affected by virulent diseases such as Fowl Pox or Newcastle Disease.
The downside to that method is that the worst case scenario can be borne out. There are plenty of online stories in which a new bird, carrying an unseen illness, was added to the flock and ended up infecting, and wiping out, the entire group.
If birds do survive a serious virus like Mycoplasma Gallisepticum (MG), Marek’s Disease or Infectious Laryngotracheitis (ILT) they will become carriers for life. In that case, you’ve got two options (neither one of them is pleasant): assume that all your birds are infected, euthanize the entire flock and start from scratch; or keep the birds you’ve got and never transfer any birds into, or out of, your flock.
Many people are unknowingly (and a few, unscrupulously) transmitting pathogens by selling or buying infected birds. At the first sign of illness always isolate a sick bird.
When the quarantine period is over the next stage is integration into the flock. Remember this is a stressful time, so instead of just adding the new birds and hoping for the best, try a ‘look, but don’t touch’ strategy first. Try to house your new birds in adjacent pens or in a wired crate within the run, in order to ease the two groups together.
More on integrating new members here.
Graphics Credit: Poultry DVM