Keeping Chickens Healthy: What You Need to Know

Backyard chicken-keeping tips will keep your birds thriving.

A boy feeds a chicken from his hand

A boy feeds a chicken from his hand.

iStockphoto.com/Sven Klaschik

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From urban hens in Wisconsin to 4-H chicken projects in Florida, the backyard poultry revolution is sweeping the nation. Whether you keep chickens for meat or eggs, breed show birds or game birds, have a big flock or a couple of hens, health is an important priority. Practicing the fundamentals of offering your birds sufficient space, clean quarters, healthy, uncontaminated feed, and clean water will go a long way to keeping chicken diseases at bay, and if you take it a little further, you can create a zone of biosecurity around your fowl that’s tough to penetrate.

According to Dr. Fidelis Hegngi, senior staff veterinarian with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, in some countries, infectious poultry diseases such as High Pathogenicity Avian Influenza (HPAI), commonly called AI, and Exotic Newcastle Disease (END) can cause serious problems for flock owners. While these poultry diseases are not normally a threat to people, they can make birds sick and even kill them. Low Pathogenicity Avian Influenza (LPAI) occasionally does break out in North America; there is some worry that it could mutate to HPAI – guarding against AI infection of any kind will protect your flock from most other diseases, too.

The best insurance against AI and other infectious diseases involves taking a few precautions known collectively as backyard biosecurity. Hegngi says backyard biosecurity includes a broad range of practices that can protect your birds from contracting disease – cleanliness is critical. His tips for keeping things clean include:

  • Wash hands thoroughly before entering the poultry yard and before handling your birds. For your own health, wash your hands thoroughly when your chores are finished.
  • Clean and disinfect equipment that comes in contact with your birds or their droppings, including cages, feeders, waterers and tools (as needed or weekly). Make sure to remove all dirt and manure before you disinfect.
  • Try to avoid sharing tools and equipment with other poultry owners, and if you do borrow tools or cages, clean and disinfect them before they reach your property.
  • Scrub your shoes with disinfectant before working with your birds. It may seem like overkill, but your footwear easily can carry disease to your chickens. Alternatively keep a pair of shoes or boots near your cages to wear only when working with your birds.

Hegngi also advises chicken owners to practice a “keep it away” policy, restricting access to a flock, especially if visitors have poultry of their own.

Tips for keeping away outside diseases from your home flock include:

  • Avoid visits to other farms or households with poultry.
  • If you’ve been near other birds or bird owners, clean and disinfect your shoes and clothes before going near your chickens.
  • Have your birds been to a fair or exhibition? Isolate them for two weeks before returning them to the flock. When bringing in new chickens, isolate them for at least 30 days, if possible.
  • Control rodents – mice and rats carry disease.
  • Keep wild birds away from your flock because wild birds can transmit diseases. If you raise birds outdoors, when possible, keep
    enclosures covered with wire mesh or netting, and provide feed and water in an area that will minimize contact with wild birds.
  • Properly dispose of dead birds. While deaths are inevitable, if your chickens are sick or dying in rapidly increasing numbers, call your veterinarian, county extension agent or state department of agriculture for guidance.

Look for warning signs

“Bird owners should know the warning signs of bird diseases such as AI and END,” Hegngi says, “because early detection can help prevent their spread.”

Some key signs to look for are:

  • sudden increase in bird deaths in your flock;
  • sneezing, gasping for air, coughing and nasal discharge;
  • watery and green diarrhea;
  • lack of energy and poor appetite;
  • drop in egg production, or soft- or thin-shelled, misshapen eggs (not related to molting and/or first-time layers);
  • swelling around the eyes, neck and head;
  • purple discoloration of the wattles, combs and legs (AI);
  • tremors, drooping wings, circling, twisting of the head and neck or lack of movement (END).

“Early detection of a problem can help protect the health of your flock,” Hegngi says. “USDA/APHIS maintains a website with biosecurity information and a host of free resources to help.”

Check out this free government resource (with sections on poultry, pet birds and wild birds, and specific pages for Avian Influenza and Exotic Newcastle Disease) for informational DVDs, pamphlets, fact sheets, brochures and a downloadable calendar.