Poultry Veterinarians: How to Find Help for Your Flock

Finding a Veterinarian for Your Chickens is Not Always An Easy Task

by Audrey Pavia
PHOTO: If there are no avian vets in your area, ask local clinics if they are comfortable treating birds. ЮЛИЯ ЗАВАЛИШИНА/STOCK.ADOBE.COM

A poultry veterinarian is your last though when all is well in your coop. Your birds are bright-eyed, active and eating everything you give them. You have little reason to think about what you’ll do if one of your birds gets sick — until it happens.

If you keep chickens, the day will come when you go out to check on your flock and find a bird that’s not doing well. Maybe she’s lethargic and not interested in food. Maybe she’s not walking right. Or maybe she has an open wound that came from another hen or even a predator. If you live in an urban or suburban area, small-animal vets are plentiful, but where do you take a sick chicken?

Chickens Need Vets

Backyard flock owners often opt to try to treat their birds at home and don’t seek out the advice of a poultry veterinarian. This is often not in the best interest of the birds, according to veterinarians who specialize in poultry care.

In a 2014 study in the journal Poultry Science, only 16% to 24% of backyard chicken owners pursued veterinary care for their birds, according to avian veterinarian Nick Kirk of Migratory Avian Services in Nashville, Tennessee. Only 18.8% of owners in the same study sought information from veterinarians, in comparison to 87.4% seeking information on the internet.

Bumblefoot, a painful process within the foot of a chicken, can require surgical intervention that should only be performed by a veterinarian with experience in avian medicine.

“In contrast to those numbers, there was a lack of knowledge of common diseases contracted by chickens,” he says. “These include avian influenza, Marek’s disease and exotic Newcastle disease. Avian influenza and exotic Newcastle disease are zoonotic, or can be transmitted to humans. Avian influenza has just recently been in the news, and owners with chickens should be very aware of the potential effects on their flocks as well as their human family members. This is where an avian veterinarian is important to have associated with your flock. We are aware of multiple diseases outside of these common ones and keep up to date with what is going on locally and nationally.”

In addition to these common diseases, chickens are affected by multiple conditions that aren’t suitable for diagnosis or treatment by someone without a veterinary license.

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“For example, there are multiple websites that will give you ‘at home’ therapies for bumblefoot,” Kirk says. “Bumblefoot is a painful process within the foot of a chicken, and if severe, needs surgical intervention. Only a veterinarian with experience in avian medicine would be able to properly diagnose and treat this condition in a humane manner.”

For Crystal Matt, an associate veterinarian at the Avian and Exotic Animal Clinic of Indianapolis, Indiana, it’s important for chicken owners to use a veterinarian for several reasons.

“The primary reason is that an owner’s assumption about what might be happening with their bird is often incorrect,” she says. “The majority of egg-binding or sour crop cases presented to me end up being far more complicated than that.” As an example, Matt explains that sour crop develops when the crop isn’t emptying normally. Owners assume this is a crop problem when it’s usually something completely different that is simply causing a backup into the crop.

“I’ve seen delayed crop emptying from tons of different diseases, like metal poisoning, reproductive diseases, heart failure and even one chicken that ate an entire towel!” she says.

Matt has also seen dozens of cases of well-intentioned owners trying to treat medical problems on their own — such as cutting open bumblefoot, giving medications from other pets, even trying to pull out an egg — that end up causing far worse damage to the bird.

A vet not properly trained in avian medicine can misinterpret radiographs and X-rays.

“There is a lot of misinformation on the internet that often leads to delayed medical care, worsening of the underlying condition, or additional problems that weren’t present initially,” she says.

Finally, birds are pros at hiding signs of illness, which is why it’s a good idea to have a veterinarian exam your birds, even when they appear healthy.

“As prey animals, they naturally try to act like everything is perfectly fine until they absolutely can’t hide it any longer,” Matt says.

“This means that if an owner is seeing signs of illness, it’s likely far worse than the bird is letting on. Routine health exams are an important part of keeping a healthy flock.”

Poultry Veterinarian: Special Training

If you have a chicken in need of vet care, ideally you’ll take your bird to a poultry veterinarian who is specially trained in avian medicine. Avian specialists are board-certified with the American Board of Veterinary Practitioners as Avian Practice Diplomates, and with good reason. They have studied bird anatomy and know the ins and outs of what can affect the health of poultry.

Board-certified avian and exotics veterinarian Cheryl Greenacre is a professor of Avian and Zoological Medicine at the University of Tennessee College of Veterinary Medicine. She says that it’s important to seek out the services of a boarded veterinarian to treat your companion poultry as birds are very different from dogs, cats and horses, and require knowledge of the avian anatomy, physiology and disease processes that are unique to birds.

Greenacre goes on to say that any licensed veterinarian can legally examine, diagnose and treat a chicken or other poultry, but many veterinary schools don’t teach avian medicine as part of their curriculum.

The average veterinarian in private practice mostly sees cats and dogs and probably has a very limited knowledge of avian medicine.

“Some veterinarians have additional experience most likely advertised as an interest in treating poultry, or they are a member of the Association of Avian Veterinarians and have obtained continuing education on poultry and other birds beyond what they learned in veterinary school,” she says.

Jessica Grodio is a house-call poultry veterinarian with Avian Home Veterinary Care, serving the Duchess County, New York area. She notes that at most — or at possibly all — veterinary schools in the United States, students receive very little avian-specific training, unless they intentionally search for this experience or take elective courses offered on birds and exotics.

“The average veterinarian in private practice who sees cats and dogs, unless they have specifically sought out numerous continuing education opportunities, may have a very limited knowledge of avian medicine,” she says. “Birds have very different anatomy than mammals and often the dosages of medications we use in birds are different than the dosages we use in mammals. So it is important for vets to have a good understanding of avian anatomy and medicine if they decide to offer services to birds.”

Grodio has seen vets not properly trained in avian medicine misinterpret radiographs, prescribe specific antibiotics to chickens that are prohibited in food animals and give birds medications that avian vets may not regularly use.

“For example, steroids can be severely immunosuppressive in birds, so they should be used with extreme caution and only for very good reasons,” she says.

Poultry Veterinarian: Plan B

Given these realities, backyard chicken owners should consult a board-certified avian veterinary specialist when their birds get sick. But what if you can’t find a vet like this in your area?

“If there are still no avian vets in your area, try asking local clinics if they are comfortable treating birds,” Matt says. “Ideally, this should be done before problems arise. It is also important to find a vet willing to see birds on an after-hours or emergency basis, as most dog and cat clinics are unwilling. Universities with vet schools may have exotics programs and are often a reliable source for both emergency and routine care. You can also talk to your local pet store for ideas. If they have birds for sale, they should have a vet willing to see the birds if they get sick.”

If a boarded poultry veterinarian is unavailable in your area, at least seek the services of someone who has a demonstrated interest in avian and poultry medicine. “Always establish a relationship with a veterinarian in your area prior to needing one in an emergency, as many emergency practices are not familiar with birds,” Greenacre says.

When you find a vet who expresses an interest in treating your chicken but isn’t board-certified, inquire about what type of training the veterinarian has received in avian medicine.

“Many veterinarians are members of the Association of Avian Veterinarians, which is great, as that organization provides continuing education opportunities, client education handouts, etc., to its veterinary members,” Grodio says. “But keep in mind, a veterinarian only needs to pay annual dues to be a member of that organization. Being a member is certainly not equivalent to going through a two-to-three-year avian residency, sitting for a difficult avian board exam and becoming board-certified. But being a member does show that the veterinarian at least has an interest in birds.”

Kirk agrees that finding a poultry veterinarian can be challenging for many backyard flock owners but recommends reaching out to the veterinarian you use for your other animals for a referral.

“Get recommendations from your primary care veterinarian on vets in your area who will see chickens,” he says. “You should have an established relationship with a veterinarian, preferably an avian veterinarian, prior to any problems occurring within your flock.”

Grodio recommends also reaching out to a specialist outside your area to work with your local vet. “Some avian specialists may be willing to offer consulting services,” she says. “They may be able to consult with your local vet to review X-rays and lab work, and discuss your bird’s case in more detail, to help your vet develop a treatment plan.”

Find a Specialist

Although board-certified avian vets can be difficult to find, it’s worth looking to see if one is located within driving distance of your home. You can locate American Board of Veterinary Practitioners, Avian Practice Diplomates in the United States by using the AVPB “Find an ABVP Specialist” tool at www.abvp.com/find-an-abvp-specialist.

You can also look for vets with an interest in treating poultry in the Association of Avian Veterinarians database located online at www.aav.org/FindAVet.

This article was written for the January/February 2024 issue of Hobby Farms magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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