PHOTO: DGLimages/Shutterstock
Maurice Pitesky
January 2, 2020

As companion animals, pets, show animals or production animals, chickens require constant care, and they deserve to be in a safe and clean environment. While this might seem obvious, sometimes people don’t provide clean, nutritious food and water as well as proper shelter because they lack knowledge, not because they are indifferent.

Our birds can become ill in many ways, and there is no 100 percent guaranteed way to prevent our birds from getting an infectious disease. Therefore, we want to create an environment for our chickens that reduces the risk of disease transmission. The following article highlights the basics of how to prevent disease transmission with a focus on biosecurity.

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In short, biosecurity is the implementation of various practices to reduce the risk of your hens becoming exposed to infectious diseases. This includes bacteria such as E. coli and salmonella, parasites such as coccidia, and viruses such as Marek’s disease.

A simple way to keep your hens in top shape is to implement a few simple protocols when caring for them. These practices require dedication and are probably the most crucial components of poultry health and food safety. The more energy and effort you contribute to biosecurity, the more likely you will have a healthy flock.

biosecurity infographic
California Department of Food & Agriculture

Reduce Wildlife Contact

Your hens can pass pathogens and parasites to each other and also acquire them from surrounding wildlife. Therefore, keeping wild animals such as wild birds and rodents away from your hens is essential to reduce the potential for exposure.

Some basic ways to keep wildlife separate from your flock include fencing, harborage management close to your coop (tall grass and bushes can provide habitat for wildlife such as rodents) and making sure feed is not spilled inside the coop, which can attract wildlife.

With respect to fencing, consider hardware cloth as opposed to chicken wire. Chicken wire is very weak and can be easily breached by rodents and raccoons, among other wildlife. Don’t let a desire for perfection stop you from doing anything. Implement what is practical for your coop and lifestyle. Do the best biosecurity you can do.

Protection From Humans

Believe it or not you, your family members and your neighbors are often the most likely sources of infectious disease transmission to your flock from the outside environment. Specifically, because of our lifestyles, which often require travel to multiple locations on a daily basis, humans move diseases from the outside world to poultry.

We need to implement many simple solutions to protect our flocks. First and foremost control movement of guests to your flock. A good general guideline is not to allow any human to have contact with your flock for at least 48 hours after interacting with another flock of birds. In addition, having a separate set of clothing and shoes is imperative to prevent infectious disease transmission from the outside. For example, don’t go to the feed-supply store and use the same clothes and shoes when you get back to your coop. Consider buying some cheap coveralls and boots that are dedicated to your flock.

Finally, wash your hands before and after coming in contact with your hens or their eggs. In addition, consider using a footbath with a combination of water and a disinfectant that you change daily. Footbaths are great if you take care of them and change the disinfectant daily. However, if there is dirt in them, the dirt inactivates the disinfectant.

Make the Environment Safe

If the goal of biosecurity is to protect our flocks and prevent them from exposure to infectious diseases, we should also think a little about our birds’ general health. Being vigilant to their stressors also decreases the risk of them getting sick. Just like us, if our birds are stressed or not getting proper nutrition, they are more susceptible to infectious diseases. Therefore, it’s important to make sure your flock has access to clean water continuously and a proper ration.

In addition, it’s important to mitigate things such as heat stress. If you live in a hot environment, make sure your birds have access to cool water, make sure there is good ventilation and consider providing misters or giving them cool water baths in extreme heat.

Finally, if you have dogs or other pets, make sure they aren’t able to stress your chickens. While this is not specifically biosecurity monitoring, your hens’ well-being is fundamental toward maintaining a healthy flock.

Other Precautions

To prevent the transmission of new diseases from passing through your flock, you should quarantine new hens for at least 10 days before you integrate them into your flock. Quarantining is simply putting the birds in a separate area as far away from your current flock as practical to prevent potential disease transmission. Doing this for new hens, pullets or chicks that you would like to add to your flock prevents any active pathogens from passing from your new arrivals to the rest of your birds.

If any of your new birds show any clinical signs (diarrhea, wheezing and so on), don’t integrate those birds with your flock. You should instead consider having those birds necropsied (the animal version of an autopsy) to see whether they carry any infectious disease. At the minimum, a veterinarian who can help you consider treatment options should examine them. This type of approach is fundamental toward preventing new diseases from entering your existing flock.   

Keep your waterers and feeders clean. The best way to get a chicken sick is to have it ingest the infectious bacteria, virus or internal parasite. Bacteria buildup can occur in many receptacles such as waterers and feeders. Washing the waterers weekly with soap and water is an essential precaution.

Store feed away from animals because feed can be contaminated. Putting feed in a large metal bin with a latch or in a sealed container if it is outside is a primary line of defense.

Biosecurity is different for each flock because of differences in the environment. However, the basic concept of keeping your birds safe from disease and disease-
carrying organisms is the broad goal of biosecurity. Adhering to a bio-security mantra is the single most important thing we can do for our birds’ overall health. Unfortunately, waiting until your chickens are sick and relying on drugs including antibiotics, vaccines and other treatments are often not efficacious, especially relative to biosecurity. As with humans, preventing disease in chickens is better than treating it after it arrives.

This article was written by Sarai Acosta, who is a research assistant at the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, and Dr. Maurice Pitesky from the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine-Cooperative Extension. It originally appeared in the January/February issue of Chickens magazine.

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