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.

Isolation Helps Keep Small Flocks Healthy

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. Here’s how to help keep small flocks healthy.

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.

Backyard Poultry Biosecurity In 6 Steps

Backyard Poultry Biosecurity? What exactly is it? As a poultry owner, you know how important it is to keep your birds healthy.

By practicing biosecurity, you can help reduce the chances of your birds being exposed to animal diseases such as avian influenza (AI) or exotic Newcastle disease (END).

“Biosecurity” may not be a common household word. But, for poultry and bird owners it can spell the difference between health and disease.

Practicing biosecurity can help keep disease away from your farm, and keep your birds healthy.

Backyard Poultry Biosecurity

Recommendations provided by the USDA, for more information on this and other topics, visit www.ahls.usda.gov/.

Biosecurity for Poultry Shows

Biosecurity for Poultry ShowsBiosecurity is always an important consideration for your feathered friends, but especially when attending poultry shows. Here is a list of some considerations to take into account when preparing, attending and returning home from shows.

  1. Pre Show: Pay close attention to the birds that you are planning on bringing to the show. It is a good idea to monitor birds at least 14 days in advance to the show. If your birds are lethargic or have any signs of illness, those animals should be left at home to prevent spreading disease to other animals at the show. We also recommend giving your show poultry electrolytes about a week before the event. The electrolytes can give a boost to the bird’s immune system, which will help the bird fight off disease.
  2. Shoes: Have a pair of shoes that are dedicated to your flock. This means that you only wear these shoes on around your flock at home. There are many poultry diseases that can be spread to your flock by wearing shoes in public places. There are potentially numerous avian diseases at poultry shows and you could carry those diseases on your shoes and bring them back to your flock at home.
  3. During the Show:
    • Make sure to clean water and cages daily. Do your best to prevent wild birds from eating or drinking from your feed and water. Wild birds are a primary culprit to spread avian diseases to poultry and your birds may have a higher chance of exposure to wild birds during shows events.
    • Make sure to separate different species of poultry. You should never have chickens, ducks, and turkeys co-mingled.
    • Do not share equipment with other exhibitors. It is a nice gesture to help your competition, but sharing equipment dramatically increases exposure to avian diseases.
    • Always wash your hands after handling animals.
    • Make sure to thoroughly clean your cages and equipment after the show. You can disinfect cages and equipment with household bleach and water at a ¾ cup of bleach per gallon of water ratio.
  4. Post Show Isolation and Best Practices: It is good to keep your show birds isolated from the rest of the flock for about 30 days after a poultry show. The show birds may not initially demonstrate any signs of illness or disease, but an outbreak could occur a few weeks after the show and cause an infestation to your entire flock. The stress of traveling and the show environment can weaken the immune system of birds and make them more susceptible to illness. For this reason, we also recommend that you wait at least 30 days before you show the same birds at the next event.

Good luck and take time to enjoy the showing experience!