Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Bird flu and you... what you need to know.

tl;dr: 1. Dress up to go to the feed store (or the zoo/farm/etc) and clean up before you go to your coop, 2. Wild ducks are bad for your chickens, and 3. Tell someone if you have a sick or dead bird (your vet at least, or call the MDAR or USDA). 

Longer version: 
I attended a fantastic and very informational seminar on Avian Influenza in Dighton, MA on Nov 5th, hosted by the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources (MDAR).  It was intended to inform any and everyone involved with poultry in our state, and included info on what is currently being done to monitor wild and domestic bird populations, and the risks and possible outcomes of a positive case for everything from the typical backyard micro-flocks I see every day (~3-10 birds), to our largest egg and poultry meat producing farms (which, I found out, are closer to the scale of 100,000 birds here in MA, and not the 1,000,000-bird farms of the midwest).

In short, highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) is transmitted by wild birds, primarily dabbling ducks, and might make it's way to New England with the fall migration.  So far it's not transmissible to humans, but we want to ensure we catch it quickly if it shows up so it doesn't have a chance to mutate into a form that can.

Here's a summary of the points-of-action (highlighted in bold) that I think are most relevant for all of you backyard micro-flock owners.

Ok, maybe not that dressed up...
POINT #1: Change your clothes!
In the words of our state veterinarian, Dr. Lorraine O'Connor, "Get dressed up to go to the feed store".  In other words, the feed store is one of the primary places where you will come in contact with other poultry owners, or more to the point, whatever might be on other poultry owners' clothes and shoes and tires.  So don't contribute to the problem by wearing the same clothes and shoes you just wore into your coop/yard when you go to the feed store, AND don't bring whatever is there home to your girls by walking straight out to your coop when you get home.  (Yes, there may be some residual dust and such on the bags of feed/shavings, and even on the floormats and tires of your car so if you want to go all-out you can dust the bags off before you put them in your car, etc. - the point is that you are taking steps to lessen the risk.)

If you want to take even greater precaution, put a foot bath by the door so you can soak the bottoms of your shoes in a disinfectant that is rated for "Avian Influenza A" (here's a list plus some other great info).  Diluted bleach can work - read the directions to get the appropriate dilution and I believe that bleach needs to be changed every 24 hours to remain effective.  You could also use a lysol spray, or something a bit stronger (e.g. biological disinfectants that are rated for medical use).  For any of these, keep in mind that each has a "contact time" where the surface must be in contact with the disinfectant and remain wet for X seconds (or however long) for the disinfectant to be fully effective.  Read the product instructions to be sure (here are some good tips on how to properly disinfect things).

Oh, and apply the same principles if you go anywhere else where poultry lives: the zoo (oh hey there peacocks), a farm (apple-picking, anyone?), your vet if they see chickens, etc.

POINT #2: Duks r bad.
Avian flu is being transmitted by migratory birds (hence the relatively quiet summer months when birds weren't migrating) and it turns out that dabbling ducks (the ones who feed on the bottom of the water with their bums in the air) seem to be the primary vector.*  So the second most important thing you can do is to eliminate any contact your birds might have with wild waterfowl, even secondary contact from other wild birds in the area.  If your coop is by a lake or pond (like mine currently is), then the best thing you can do is to ensure that your chickens are nowhere near the areas where any of the wild ducks hang out, and vice versa, AND that they are also not coming in contact with any other birds who might have recently been in the areas where the ducks have been.  If this means keeping your girls cooped up for a couple of months in their coop and run, so be it.  Maybe it's time to build that run add-on you've been thinking about...  And it would be icing on the cake if your run has a solid roof on it so the likelihood of any feces from either the wild ducks or any other birds aren't getting dropped into the areas where your birds are (like from the sparrows that like to hang out on top of your run, or in it), so it may also be a good idea to move your wild bird feeders away from wherever your hens hang out, and ensure wild birds aren't attracted to your coop because they can get into your chickens' feed (treadle feeders like this help with that a lot).

The bird version of twerking.
*A good disease vector, from the point of view of the disease, is an organism that can carry the disease around without getting very sick from it, giving the disease plenty of time to replicate and be transported around to new areas/potential hosts.  In Lyme disease it's the white-footed mouse, in West Nile it's corvid birds, I think, and in bird flu it seems to be the dabbling ducks.  That doesn't mean other organisms don't have it and carry it, it just means they either get more sick and so don't move it around (like chickens) or something about their biology means the disease doesn't replicate as well.

POINT #3: Call someone if you have a sick (or dead) bird.
Or, even better, take it to your vet.  Don't have a chicken vet yet?  I recommend Angell Memorial in JP, Countryside Animal Hospital in N. Chelmsford, or Littleton Animal Hospital in Littleton, MA.  If you're not in the Boston area, call around and figure out who your chicken vet is going to be BEFORE you have a sick bird - chickens tend to hide it until they're nearly dead, so if a bird looks sick, it's likely they're REALLY sick.

If your bird is showing signs of respiratory illness, and ESPECIALLY if they show signs of swelling around the face and neck and are carrying their neck/head such that it's hanging down and to the side, please call one of the following numbers immediately:
MDAR - 617.626.1795
USDA - 866.536.7593 (toll-free hotline)

This disease kills quickly - if you have a bird that has died please double-bag it, refrigerate it (don't freeze it!), and call one of the above numbers immediately - testing is most effective if done within 24 hours, and that needs to include time to coordinate and transport the bird(s).

Other notes that could be helpful...

POINT #4: Only get new birds from reputable sources and quarantine for 30 days
Many of us don't have space to properly quarantine, so that makes it that much more important to be sure you know and trust the source before you bring a bird home (and not just your sister's cousin's neighbor... does this person actually know about poultry diseases, and do they know what their flock has been exposed to?  Do they know what their birds have been vaccinated against?  Do they know that their birds are free of external parasites like lice and mites?  That last one requires actually doing a health exam on a regular basis, so if they haven't actually picked up their hens in the past few months and taken a good look, they don't actually know the answer to this question.).

POINT #5: Write down your biosecurity plan.
What the heck is a biosecurity plan?  Scratch that, what the heck is "biosecurity"?  In short, it's whatever precautions you are taking to limit the transmission of possible illnesses and diseases into and out of your flock, thereby keeping your girls a little bit safer from diseases.  For human diseases think of cold and flu season - it's things like not shaking hands with someone who just sneezed or coughed into their hand, or washing your hands a bit more often. 

For your birds, it's the aforementioned Points #1 and #2, plus whatever else you do to limit their exposure.**  So even if it's as simple as "1. don't wear barn clothes to the feed store, 2. keep girls away from wild ducks", that's something.  It might also include the appropriate numbers to call if you have a sick chicken (see point #3), a list of people who regularly interact with your flock and any precautions you ask them to take, your quarantine procedure if you get a new bird, and any other relevant flock information like age, source, and health history for each bird.  Some might consider this overkill, but maybe you even keep a log of average number of eggs you get each week throughout the year, typical molting habits of each bird, or notes on their typical behaviors.

**Caveat: Personally, I believe that typical poultry biosecurity doesn't apply in the same ways in our urban and suburban settings as it has in the larger, production-level farms that a lot of the recommendations were developed for.  Similar to the higher transmission of human illnesses seen in urban and suburban life vs. rural life, our micro-flocks are living closer together in proximity, and owners are interacting with each other a lot more regularly, so the likelihood of overlap between whatever each of our flocks have been exposed to is already much higher.  And that's not taking into account the role of wild birds that are freely moving between houses in urban neighborhoods that may have chickens, etc... And with the exception of the current risks of HPAI, I don't think that's necessarily a bad thing!  In general I think higher exposure = higher resilience.  And it's just the reality of living in a more urban setting.  We don't need to be crazy paranoid and germophobic (which can cause more problems, such as antibiotic resistence), just aware and practical.

And finally, POINT #6: Get your flu vaccine.
I know there's a lot of controversy about vaccines, but in light of the movement of HPAI in the past year it is highly recommend that you get this year's vaccine if you keep poultry because having had the vaccine will reduce the likelihood of the possibility of mutation IF you get exposed to HPAI through your birds or someone else's.  I have also been told by reputable sources that this year's vaccine includes the strains that are currently active in our area, so it is likely to be more effective than it may have been in previous years. 

So... that's a lot of info!  If it seems like too much, start by taking a moment to think about the first three points and go from there: 1. Dress up to go to the feed store (or the zoo/farm/etc), 2. Wild ducks are bad for your chickens, and 3. Tell someone if you have a sick bird.

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