Keeping ‘Em Healthy

In the immediate aftermath of the First World War a vicious flu epidemic quickly spread around the world. Somewhere between 50 and 100 million people died. Centuries earlier waves of bubonic plague swept through Europe leaving death in its wake. More recently an outbreak of measles spread across the United States.

When WWI ended, millions of refugees roamed around seeking a home. Soldiers from dozens of countries boarded ships and trains as they bid the war and military goodbye and looked forward to peaceful civilian lives. Many carried the deadly flu virus in their bodies, spreading it around the globe and infecting people nearly everywhere. It even reached the Arctic and Pacific islands. 

Bubonic plague was also deadly but quite different. Carried by rodents, mostly rats, and spread to humans by biting fleas, upwards of 100 million people died. The disease was deadly because people lived crammed together in filthy buildings and towns, allowing rats and their fleas to thrive.

Lack of sanitation and the movement of microbes enabled diseases to thrive and spread. Lessons learned from human disease can help keep chickens healthy.     

Chickens are amazingly healthy animals. Given good care they rarely get sick. Many people keep a flock for years without ever losing a bird to illness. However, chickens are vulnerable to many diseases. Some are aggressively infectious and can quickly devastate a flock. Wise people heed the lessons learned from human flu, measles, and plagues and work to prevent deadly chicken diseases from sickening or killing their birds. 

The keys to keeping chickens healthy are to provide them a clean place to live, quality nutritious food, clean water and isolation from pathogens.

Maintain a Healthy Flock

Crowding in filthy cities gave The Plague an opportunity to kill millions of people. Chickens crowded together in moist, dirty housing are ripe for disease. Here are simple ways to keep chickens healthy and productive:

Give them space. Backyard flock owners typically have tiny coops. They are often tempted to crowd too many birds together. Crowding encourages cannibalism, egg eating, fighting, odor and disease. Good flock managers give chickens room to roam.  Larger breeds need a minimum of four-square feet of coop space each. Light breeds only slightly less. However, the more space they have the better. Access to a clean outdoor run offers healthy sunshine, fresh air, and lets the hens fluff up and clean feathers as they bathe in the dust. 

Keep them dry. Once litter gets wet, smell follows from enthusiastic bacteria multiplying in dampness. Keep the coop dry. If litter gets wet from a tipped over waterer or a leaky roof, immediately scoop out and compost the wet stuff, replace it with dry wood chips, and fix the roof or secure the waterer so it can’t tip. 

Feed them well.  Always provide chickens with fresh nutritious feed. Commercial rations, such as Nutrena NatureWise Layer Feed, are a healthy complete diet that birds can supplement with occasional tasty bugs and worms they discover in the run.

Protect them.  Make sure the flock is safe from furry predators, biting insects, and winter drafts.

Keeping Diseases Away

Keeping diseases away from a chicken flock helps prevent outbreaks. Fortunately, most backyard flocks are protected by isolation. A common scenario in an American suburb is that only a few families keep chickens. One flock is typically a long way from the next closest one. Microbes have a hard time getting to a flock – unless humans inadvertently bring germs to their chickens either on their clothes or shoes or in the bodies of other infected birds.

Detailed information on biosecurity can be found on many websites and is often printed in chick catalogs, magazines, and books. Some basic tips for keeping germs away from a backyard flock include:

  • Buy chicks from a hatchery that participates in the National Poultry Improvement Plan (NPIP), has appropriate permits, and ensures that their breeding flock and chicks are free of infectious diseases. Many hatcheries print biosecurity information in their catalog.
  • Be wary about adding new chickens to a flock. An easy way for a microbe or parasite to infect a healthy flock is to hitch a ride on a chicken. Backyard flock owners are often tempted to add a new bird or two to their flock. Make sure the bird comes from a flock that has not experienced any recent diseases and has been kept in a clean coop. Putting the newcomers in quarantine for a month removed from the rest of the flock gives time to allow a potential disease to show up in the newcomer.
  • Keep clothing and shoes clean. After visiting a poultry show or another flock change clothing and clean shoes. Even tiny scraps of manure or dirt hitchhiking on shoes or pants can bring disease to a flock. Make sure visitors who have been in contact with other chickens also practice sanitation.
  • Clean feeders and waterers regularly.
  • Limit flock exposure to wild birds and mice that may carry pathogens.
  • Vaccinate if appropriate. It’s not practical or possible to vaccinate chickens to prevent all diseases, but most hatcheries will vaccinate chicks for a few common diseases. Medicated chick feed may help reduce coccidiosis; a common disease caused by a protozoan.

When small, healthy chicken flocks are kept in a clean coop, fed nutritious food, and isolated from disease they’ll likely never get sick. The hens will enjoy a long, healthy, and productive life.