Avian flu makes the news whenever outbreaks occur in the United States, like a recent
ones in Kansas, Arkansas, Missouri, Minnesota and Washington. People who keep backyard chickens should be aware of the risks, as it is a disease that can devastate a flock and potentially spread to people. Fortunately, taking simple precautions reduces the odds that either chickens or humans will contract it or many other infectious diseases.
According to the World Health Organization and the Center for Disease Control avian flu is caused by one of several viruses. Most don’t infect humans but some strains can jump from birds to people and be fatal. In most human cases a person contracted it by handling a diseased or dead bird and came in contact with bird saliva, nasal secretions or feces.
There is no evidence that the disease can be is a threat when eating well cooked eggs or meat. Initial human symptoms can include fever, coughing, muscle ache and eye infections. The disease can lead to other medical complications.
Although avian flu is fairly common in Asia, the Middle East, Africa, and parts of Europe it’s rare in North America. According to the World Health Organization one of the most effective ways of limiting the spread of an outbreak is to control the movement of chickens. Usually a government will prohibit importing chicken or chicken products from an infected country and state or local governments usually ban any movement of chickens in or out of infected areas.
Large chicken farms and hatcheries practice strict biosecurity procedures to reduce the odds that their flock will become infected. People with a few birds in a backyard coop often are too casual about preventing disease.
Avian flu is unlikely to strike isolated backyard flocks. Disease transmission in humans and chickens is similar. People who have minimal contact with others are unlikely to catch a contagious disease. Cram them together in an airplane, classroom or theater and just one sick person can spread the disease to others. Chickens are normally very healthy and the family that buys a few chicks from a disease-free hatchery and raises them isolated from other chickens reduces the contagion threat. Unfortunately, many backyard flock owners visit other people’s coops. Sometimes they adopt a friend’s surplus birds. Both actions could bring a disease into a healthy flock.
To reduce the odds of infection by many diseases and the chance that a person could catch avian flu follow these basic safety precautions:
Keep the flock isolated. Don’t bring in outside birds that may be exposed to disease.
Invite anyone who keeps chickens to wash and change clothes before visiting your birds. Better yet, share pictures instead of providing direct contact with birds. Don’t adopt stray or orphan chickens. Be cautious and use good biosecurity measures when attending “coop tours” and poultry shows, which can spread diseases quickly.
Keep the coop clean and dry. Moisture breeds disease.
Keep the chickens healthy by always providing a balanced diet, clean water and fresh air.
Isolate ill birds from the rest of the flock.
Wear rubber gloves when butchering and dressing chickens, and thoroughly clean knives and other tools used in the process. Dipping tools and soiled gloves in a bleach solution kills pathogens.
Limit the flock’s access to migratory wild birds, especially waterfowl, which can move germs from place to place.
Avoid direct contact with dead or diseased birds. Wash thoroughly and change into clean clothes after any contact.
If a family member develops flu symptoms tell the physician that chicken contact was likely.
Chickens are normally wonderfully healthy and millions of people worldwide live in close proximity with them without ever suffering a health problem. The chance that someone with a backyard flock will catch avian flu from is remote but possible. Understanding the disease and practicing simple preventative measures reduces the odds even more.
Sometimes chicken observers see birds do odd things… and few seem stranger than when a hen transforms into a rooster. It’s not common, and a backyard flock owner may never experience it, but it happens. Automatic, or spontaneous, sex reversal has been studied by many scientists including Dr. Jacqueline Jacob and Ben Mather, and Richard Blanchford. The change doesn’t happen overnight but a person could have six hens in the spring and five hens and what appears to be a rooster months later.
Roosters crow, usually have pointed feathers, grow long spurs, and sport a larger comb than females of the same breed. Hens generally have softer and more rounded feathers and a tiny spur. They never welcome dawn with enthusiastic crowing.
Unlike mammals, which have two ovaries, female birds have only one functional ovary on the left side. The right ovary is an incomplete organ and doesn’t develop in a healthy bird. But, if a hen’s functional ovary is injured or develops a cyst or cancer the tiny right one becomes what scientists call an ovotestis. It can contain tissues common in ovaries, testes, or both. An ovotestis may secrete androgens that cause the birds comb and wattles to grow and feathers to change to the male pattern. She may crow. Crazy, right?
So, is she now a rooster? Dr. Jacob and F. Ben Mather, in an article on the topic, state that she’s genotypically female but phenotypically male. Big words that sound like the poor bird is a blend of both genders. There are reports of these birds producing semen capable of fathering offspring but most will not do so, nor will they lay eggs. The reverse switch doesn’t seem to happen. Roosters don’t automatically become hens.
One thing is certain. Most ordinances specify that roosters may not be kept in suburban or urban back yards. Scientists may not consider a crowing chicken with male feathers and a spur a total rooster, but whoever enforces the ordinance will almost certainly declare the bird illegal. Any neighbor woken up by predawn crowing will agree. So, a hen that seems to transform into a rooster may be a candidate for rehoming.
We emphasize the importance of good sanitation practices in many parts of our every day lives. But what about good sanitation practices with your poultry? Specifically, keeping you and your family healthy and safe can depend quite a bit on how you interact with your poultry on a daily basis.
Salmonella is a disease that can be transferred from poultry to humans. Even birds that look healthy and clean can spread Salmonella germs to people; in addition these germs are shed in the feces and quickly contaminate any housing, equipment, etc. Salmonella can result in diarrheal illness in people that may range from mild to life threatening.
Wash your hands!
One of the main ways to help prevent the spread of this disease is to wash your hands. A phrase coined by the CDC can help you and your family stay healthy: “After you touch ducklings or chicks, wash your hands so you don’t get sick!”
Wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water after interacting with livestock.
Supervise children to ensure proper hand washing techniques.
If water and soap aren’t immediately available, use hand sanitizer until you are able to wash your hands properly.
Handle with care!
Don’t let poultry in the house, especially in areas where food is prepared, served or stored.
Don’t kiss, nuzzle, or touch the birds to your mouth.
Don’t eat or drink around poultry.
You can access the CDC’s fact and tip sheet on Salmonella here and contact their listed resources for more information.
The shell of each egg that your hens are laying is made up of nearly 95% calcium carbonate by dry weight. To produce hard eggs, your chicken will be consuming up 20 times the amount of calcium in one year than the amount of calcium that is contained in her actual bones. As their keeper, it is your responsibility to make sure each chicken is consuming a steady supply of calcium in her diet.
DON’T Feed Egg Shells
There are some chicken owners who swear by reusing eggshells and feeding them back to their flock. Some people may crush these before feeding. Feeding your chickens their eggshells may seem like a convenient way to recycle them, but there are several health risks that will be brought upon them.
1. Risk of salmonella for hens. Salmonella can be found on the inside and outside of eggs. The kicker? Salmonella can be on eggs that seem to appear completely normal. Feeding your hens eggshells infected with this bacterium can cause this sometimes fatal illness. Some people prevent this by baking their eggshells before feeding, however, that is not always effective and is a time-consuming process
2. Risk of salmonella for humans. This is where the “domino effect” comes into play. If a chicken is eating eggshells with salmonella and becomes infected, this affects the eggs they are producing, and any human consumption of those eggs.
3. Can teach hens to start eating their own eggs. When chickens start to recognize their food as eggshells, this runs the risk of them eating and destroying the eggs they lay.
DO Feed Them Oyster Shells or Limestone
Though this may seem like a higher investment up front, feeding your laying chickens oyster shells or limestone instead of their own eggshells with pay off in the end. By cutting out serious health risks to your chickens and to those eating the eggs they produce, feeding oyster shells or limestone is a cost effective and safe alternative. In addition, a little bit of these products go a long way – a 50 lb. bag of oyster shell or limestone will last the average flock an extended period of time – up to several months for a flock of 6 – 8 birds. Feeding these products is easy – simply put the oyster shell or limestone in a separate container and allow birds access free choice. Your girls will take what they need.
Just keep in mind that when it comes to calcium supplementation for your flock, ground limestone or oyster shells are safer options than feeding eggshells back to your girls.
The health and success of your chickens lies in your hands. Knowing what diseases they’re at risk for is critical for you to allow them to lead healthy lives. Bumblefoot, or plantar pododermatitis, is caused by introduction of staphylococcus bacteria and is found on the toes, hocks and pads of a chicken’s foot. It is characterized by a pus-filled abscess that is covered by a black scab and is paired with lameness, swelling, and the infected bird’s reluctance to walk. To keep this becoming a fatal problem in your flock, learn the causes, treatments and prevention methods.
How did they get Bumblefoot? Knowing how your birds can get Bumblefoot will help you to catch it early and even begin to prevent it. The disease enters through breaks in the skin caused by:
Sharp wire ends
Jumping repeatedly from a perch (heavier breeds are at a higher risk doing this)
Skin irritation caused by poor litter management
How do I treat it? The best treatment is catching it early, so you have a higher chance of beating it. Once you find it, use the following treatment methods:
Administer proper antibiotics for a specified amount of days, as prescribed and instructed by your veterinarian.
Soak the lesion in warm water filled with Epsom salts to soften the exterior. This will allow you to drain the lesion with hydrogen peroxide, filling it with antibiotic ointment once the pus and debris is cleared.
Keep the bird separate from the time you find the disease and until treatment is complete, and provide them with adequate bedding.
Can I prevent it from happening in the future?
Keep infected bird separate and disinfect the area where your healthy flock is housed.
Provide clean and proper bedding on a regular basis.
Have your perches less than 18 inches from the floor.
Eliminate all rough and sharp edges.
While you are treating birds infected with Bumblefoot, remember to be careful and to make sure you are protecting yourself from the infection with gloves and proper disposal of materials so it does not pass on to you and others.