Monday, April 27, 2009

protecting urban chickens from avian flu (Part 1)

With all the talk of swine flu in the last couple days, it's a great reminder that, as keepers of small flocks of chickens, we MUST pay attention to bio-security practices not only to protect our own urban chickens, but our community at large.

This past weekend, I had a chance to attend a Meetup of the Santa Cruz Pet Chicken group hosted by Cheryl Potter where we learned how to protect our flocks from infectious diseases and, more importantly, how to draw blood from our birds to provide to the authorities for screening should an outbreak occur near us.

The class was taught by Mark Bland, DVM, a very knowledgeable poultry veterinarian who consults with small- to medium-sized poultry farms in California from the Mexican border to Santa Rosa, and then in Oregon, Washington and British Columbia.

Believe me when I say Bland's seen a lot of things happen to chickens in his days on the farm(s). Even better, he's a great story teller and really knows how to talk to us backyard chicken folks in a way we'll understand. Sure, he's used to dealing with flocks of thousands if not hundreds of thousands of birds, but his knowledge applies directly to our own scale of urban chicken farming. What we lack in numbers, we more than make up for in care (dare I say love?) for our few hens.

But, you say, the closest I get to a big chicken farm is when I buy a shrink-wrapped bone-in breast at the supermarket, why should I care what they do at the big farms? My girls will never get close. They don't have to because you just might without even realizing it.

Backyard flocks get infected from human cross-contamination. Full stop.

Whenever you visit other chickens in your neighborhood, at a store, at a show or on a farm, there's a chance you'll pick up a strain of a virus and take it back to your own flock.

Yes, when you visit another friend who's an urban chicken owner, you're putting your own chickens at risk of contracting whatever disease the other chickens might have, whether it's manifest itself in recognizable symptoms or not. And if you don't transfer a virus, you might just be transferring mites, instead.

All kinds of invisible goodies can make the hop to your flock via you as a human carrier, so here's what you do to reduce the risk:
  1. Keep a set of chicken clothes to use exclusively to interact with your flock: in the picture above, you can see Mark's got one of those great blue overalls getups to wear. You should have something similar (or a complete set of clothes, including shoes) that you wear when tending to your chickens and ONLY when tending to your chickens.
  2. Assume all other chickens are infected: If you find yourself in the company of other birds for whatever reason (they're at the local feed store, you see some at a farmer's market, you stop by a neighbor's coop), assume you've picked up something on your clothes or person that's danegerous to your own flock. Don't rush home and out to the coop first thing. Take precautions, as in...
  3. Clean up well (self, clothes, tools): Just as you wouldn't dream of leaving the restroom without thoroughly washing your hands, you shouldn't dream of getting near your birds with your street clothes on. Believe it or not, it's possible to pick up mites/viruses from contaminated delivery vehicles that have been out to a processing plant and parked next to you while delivering the goods to a store.
  4. Keep a closed flock: no co-mingling of chickens. And if you introduce new chickens to your flock (either to expand or replace), quarantine the new birds in a different part of the yard for a couple weeks just to make sure they aren't sick before introducing into your existing flock. Even if you got a new chick from the same store you got your others just a few weeks before, they came from different flocks and you'd do well to protect the ones you have by taking this quarantine precaution.
The good news in all this? It's rather difficult for chickens to get the flu from coming in contact with it (they're low on the totem pole, well below ducks and turkeys and other fowl). Couple this fact with the knowledge that our backyard flocks have very low stress levels (out in the elements, enjoying their lives scratching around our backyards) compared to their agri-business-raised sisters, and it'd be difficult for our birds to get a high-path flu.

In the next post, I'll explain the difference between high-path and low-path avian influenzas and what to do if you suspect one of your birds is sick.

1 comment:

Josh Elliott said...

OK, that's scary, though my chicks haven't left the house yet.


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