Many people dread taking an airplane trip to a distant city. It’s not the flying they’re afraid of. It’s sitting in an enclosed metal fuselage filled with coughing and sneezing fellow passengers. Sure enough, healthy passengers often come down with a cold a few days after being cooped up in an airplane.
Microbes have many techniques to move from a sick individual to a healthy one but most require close proximity. The closer people are crammed together the more likely a disease will spread.
The same goes for chickens. When crowded together, as sometimes tens of thousands of layers or broilers are in commercial operations, a sickness can quickly spread from just one ill bird and infect the entire flock. Commercial growers are well aware of the threat and practice careful biosecurity to keep disease away.
Small flock owners tend to be less aware of biosecurity. In many ways the keepers of backyard chicken flocks are fortunate. Their birds are protected by isolation. Even though thousands of families have started raising chickens in recent years they still are a tiny minority of households. Typically, a family flock lives in a small coop miles from the next chicken. Given nutritious food, a clean place to live, plenty of space for exercise and privacy, and protection from predators, backyard chickens live healthy lives. Many families have kept flocks for decades without ever experiencing a sick bird.
Isolated flocks make it hard for a germ to spread – as long as chicken owners exercise caution. Recently growing interest in backyard chickens may be a disease’s best friend.
People love their chickens and often enjoy keeping several breeds in a small flock. There’s always the temptation to add a new bird or two to the flock. Swapping chickens is common and sometimes a family needs to disband their flock and is happy to give the birds away.
That’s a concern. A new bird may bring hitchhiking microbes that could quickly infect an otherwise healthy flock. Here are some ways to reduce the odds that newcomers will bring a disease with them:
- Before accepting a new bird ask the owner if the flock has had any evidence of disease or if any birds have died or gotten sick recently. If so avoid taking a bird.
- Inspect the living conditions of the donor’s flock. It should be clean, tidy, and have good ventilation. All the birds should look healthy.
- Carefully examine the new bird to be added to a flock. Does she look healthy. Some signs of a healthy hen include clean feathers, an alert and active temperament that resists being captured, and no sign of discharge from the eyes, nostrils, or vent.
Even the healthiest appearing hen can carry a disease. Most poultry experts recommend keeping a new bird or birds in isolation from the flock for about a month. If no sign of disease appears the bird probably is healthy enough to integrate into the flock. Unfortunately, quarantine isn’t feasible for most backyard flock owners since isolation requires keeping the new birds in a separate coop a distance from the original flock. Few people have two coops. Still, it’s good advice.
Diseases don’t always move from chicken to chicken. Germs can hitchhike on the clothing or shoes of a coop visitor who inadvertently delivers them to his healthy flock. After visiting a distant flock change into clean clothes and disinfect shoes before entering the backyard coop.
As a general rule here are some tips for keeping chickens healthy:
- Start the flock with chicks from a reputable hatchery.
- Always provide chickens with quality nutritious food and clean water.
- Keep the coop dry. Dampness enables disease.
- Give the birds plenty of space. Cramming many birds into a small area fosters aggression, odor, and disease. Just like humans, chickens are healthiest when they have access to fresh air, sunshine, and room to exercise and stretch.
- If a chicken dies immediately remove its body from the coop and dispose of it properly. Most municipalities allow the body to be placed in the trash if it is in three layers of plastic bags. Then watch the rest of the flock for signs of disease. If others sicken consult a veterinarian immediately.
Good Practices Also Keep People Safe
A sick chicken can spread disease to other birds but generally people aren’t susceptible to bird diseases. There are a few scary and rare exceptions. A common human health threat that can come from chickens is salmonella.
After being in the coop it’s always a good idea to clean up. Thoroughly washing hands before eating is essential to reduce possible human illness. Adults need to make sure that children also wash well after being in the coop.
Fortunately, most owners of small backyard flocks never have to contend with a sick chicken. When well cared for chickens are amazingly healthy animals, but careful attention to sanitation and biosecurity reduces the odds of disease outbreak.