With interest in backyard chicken production during COVID-19 increasing the number of small flocks in Texas, experts are advising producers, especially beginners, to focus on the health of their birds for sustainable success.

Backyard chickens in producer's coop.
Protecting backyard chickens from diseases and parasites is critical for poultry production success. (Texas A&M AgriLife photo by Laura McKenzie)

There are two preventative measures backyard producers can practice to protect their flocks – basic but consistent biosecurity and buying vaccinated birds, said Martin Ficken, DVM, Ph.D., resident director of Texas A&M Veterinary Medical Diagnostic Laboratory’sTVMDL, Sam and Sally Glass Poultry Diagnostic Laboratory, Gonzales.

Chickens face many common diseases and pests, including internal and external parasites, that can negatively impact a flock, he said. But buying vaccinated birds and practicing biosecurity – or procedures and practices that can protect the flock from outside pathogens and pests – can greatly reduce potential problems.

Ficken said he strongly recommends backyard producers establish a relationship with a local veterinarian for consultations regarding diagnosing problems and treatments within flocks.

“We’re here to help but having a local veterinarian who can diagnose the problem and talk you through the options for any number of situations is a valuable component to any backyard producer,” he said. “They can also give you tips on preventing health problems specific to your operation, which is always better than reacting to a problem.”

Vaccinations prevent disease in backyard chickens

Ficken said flocks should only be started and/or expanded with vaccinated birds from reputable sources.

Buying birds vaccinated for Marek’s disease or inoculating chicks upon hatching is the best way to prevent more than 90% of opportunities for the disease to spread. Marek’s disease can devastate flocks, and Ficken said it is everywhere.

Birds with Marek’s disease become lame or suffer neurological damage that continues to deteriorate, he said. Unvaccinated birds typically become infected within a few weeks of hatching.

“In my mind, every bird is infected within the first few weeks, and you can’t keep it out,” he said. “It’s going to be an issue unless the birds are inoculated, and the inoculations are good for the life of the bird. They’re not 100% effective, but it’s close and it cuts down on problems.”

Ficken said backyard producers can vaccinate their own chickens, but he recommends inoculations within the first day of hatching.

While Marek’s disease is a common and serious threat to backyard flocks, the most common problem is respiratory illnesses typically related to mycoplasmosis, Ficken said. With mycoplasmosis, birds become sick, but infections are not typically fatal unless the animal has or develops secondary issues that compound the illness.

Signs of mycoplasmosis include coughing, nasal discharge, swollen sinuses, conjunctivitis and secondary bacterial infections, Ficken said. Infections are treatable with antibiotics.

Ficken said a common scenario for a mycoplasmosis outbreak is the introduction of asymptomatic birds to an established flock. The birds are introduced without quarantine and shed the disease through bodily fluid and waste for other birds to become infected.

Backyard producers should also monitor for pox lesions, Ficken said. Vaccinations can prevent or put an end to pox outbreaks. The disease is spread by vectors like mosquitoes.

Backyard chickens best practices

Backyard chickens.
Backyard chickens in Franklin, Texas. (Texas A&M AgriLife photo by Laura McKenzie))

Ficken said biosecurity is the best way to protect a flock from an outside pathogen, but that it takes diligence. Exposure to outside pathogens can happen in many ways, including contact with new chickens or wild birds, vectors like mosquitoes or even contact with a pathogen brought in on the bottom of a shoe, clothing or hands of the person tending the flock.

“Biosecurity principles are easy to understand but hard to practice because you can’t make a mistake,” he said. “It’s so easy to walk something in on the bottom of your shoe if you don’t maintain a high degree of scrutiny when it comes to what the flock is exposed to.”

Backyard producers should have dedicated clothes or a pair of coveralls and shoes that are strictly for entering the coop area. They should also practice good hygiene like washing hands before and after entering the coop.

Cleaning the coop and other areas frequented by chickens will also reduce the risk of a pathogen establishing within the flock.

“You have to scrape the litter out eventually because chickens aren’t discriminatory with their droppings,” he said. “A buildup can help amplify problems if birds are shedding a pathogen, and pretty soon you have a full-blown problem. Cleanliness on the ground, perches and nests should be considered part of the biosecurity to maintain the health and welfare of your flock.”

Quarantine new chickens and monitor flock

Ficken also suggests quarantining new chicks and adult birds for three weeks before introducing them to the flock. Monitoring and physically inspecting them for signs of pathogens and tag-alongs like mites could prevent a small problem from becoming a big problem.

External parasites like mites, fleas and lice are easy to catch and treat during quarantine, but also easy to miss if you are not looking, Ficken said. Sulfur dust is a cheap and easy way to keep chickens and frequented areas clear of mites. Topical parasiticides for birds and treatments or pressure spraying the coop may be required for lice, fleas and ticks.

“Treating one bird is much easier than dealing with an infestation that requires treating the whole flock and the areas they frequent,” he said. “But I’ve also seen a lot of examples of how detrimental external parasites can be to bird health and production, even birds dying of anemia due to severe blood-letting.”

Internal parasites are another health issue that can spread through a flock, Ficken said.

Coccidiosis is a common gastrointestinal disease that occurs due to an internal parasite, Ficken said. The pathogen is a single-celled organism that is typically introduced to the flock via the producer’s shoes or equipment used in the coop. The infection spreads as the host bird sheds the disease via fecal matter.  Signs of coccidiosis are diarrhea, listlessness and stunted growth.

A bird that eats heavy rations but still loses weight is a good indication of internal parasites, he said. Diarrhea is another potential sign. There are a number of treatment options for internal parasites, including coccidiosis, available. 

More resources

Ficken said Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service and TVMDL have numerous resources to inform backyard producers and help them navigate potential problems, but he reiterated that building a relationship with a local livestock veterinarian is one of the best ways to manage your flock.

“The health of your flock is a responsibility from an animal welfare point, but it’s also critical as it relates to the backyard producers’ expectations and goals for the birds,” Ficken said. “Maintaining basic but diligent protocols and procedures when it comes to biosecurity and reducing health risks among the birds is the best way to sustain a flock and ultimately find success.”

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