Avian Influenza in Chickens and Poultry
Avian influenza, or bird flu, has been around for many years. But with the current outbreak of the virus, backyard chicken keepers should be taking precautions.
The World Organisation for Animal Health is particularly concerned about this outbreak of avian influenza, because it is causing unusually high deaths among wild bird populations. It is also lasting for much longer than previous outbreaks. Millions of domesticated birds have also been culled as a result of being infected with the virus.
In the USA, the past 2 years have had the worst avian influenza outbreaks ever. 47 States have been affected and 514 backyard poultry flocks have been reported to have the disease.
Learn how to recognise the symptoms of avian influenza and how to prevent avian influenza in poultry. It is easy to protect your birds from avian influenza.
What is Avian Influenza?
Avian influenza, also called bird flu, is a viral disease of birds. The virus has multiple strains, which are constantly changing and adapting. The current strain is one of the most infectious and deadly among animals.
Although there have been cases of avian influenza infecting humans, the virus does not seem to be transmitted from person-to-person, only from birds. The virus also does not infect people through eating meat or eggs. Fortunately, the most likely virus strain to infect humans is not the strain responsible for the current widespread avian influenza outbreaks. However, all bird and poultry keepers should take basic precautions when handling their animals.
Symptoms of Avian Influenza in Poultry
In many cases, the symptoms of avian influenza in backyard chickens and other birds are mild. Sometimes, you won’t even know there is anything wrong with your birds. However, some strains of the virus are more severe. The strain responsible for the current outbreak is causing widespread death among infected birds.
The symptoms of avian influenza in chickens can include:
- Droopy, lethargic birds
- Breathing difficulties, including sneezing and coughing
- A swollen head
- Purple discolouration of the head and neck, including the comb and wattles
- Discharge from the nostrils and eyes
- Decreased egg production
- Sudden decrease in food and/or water consumption
- Puffed feathers
The sudden sickness or death of multiple birds in your flock is a potential sign of avian influenza infection.
Treating Avian Influenza in Chickens
Unfortunately, there is no treatment for avian influenza in chickens and, with the current strain, most birds will die.
If you suspect that your chickens have avian influenza, you are legally required to notify the government.
Contact your state veterinarian or the USDA immediately.
Notifying the government is essential to controlling the disease. If the outbreak is stopped early, it protects the lives of people as well as birds. When the virus can’t be quickly controlled, all of the chickens in an outbreak spot, including backyard flocks, could be culled.
How Do Chickens Get Avian Influenza?
Avian influenza generally spreads through droppings, although it can also spread through feathers, saliva and close contact with other birds. Chickens that don't have contact with wild birds and have uncontaminated feed and water are unlikely to get avian influenza.
Chickens most commonly get avian influenza from wild birds, although it can also come from a new chicken that is infected or even equipment that is carrying the virus.
Contact with droppings, particularly through contaminated feed and water, as well as sharing a Feeder or Drinker with wild birds, is a common way for domestic chickens to get the disease. Chicken keepers should also be wary of using rainwater and stream water for their birds.
Any wild bird could have the disease, even if it does not have any symptoms.
How to Prevent Avian Influenza in Backyard Chickens
The most important thing you can do to protect your chickens from avian influenza is prevent interaction with wild birds. Practicing good biosecurity is also important.
You can prevent your birds coming into contact with avian influenza by:
- Securing your coop against wild birds
- Ensuring wild birds don’t share your chickens’ Feeder or Drinker
- Only feeding small amounts of scraps in a dish in the coop, so uneaten food doesn’t attract wild visitors
- Netting or roofing your chicken run
- Disinfecting the coop and any used or shared equipment
- Ensuring visitors to your coop haven’t had contact with other birds
- Quarantining new birds before introducing them to your flock
- Using tap or well water for your birds, not rainwater or water from a stream or pond that could be contaminated
- Keeping a closed flock
If there is avian influenza in your county, we recommend keeping your birds indoors until the outbreak is contained. This is the best way to prevent any contact with the disease.
How Dangerous is Avian Influenza to People?
Although avian influenza has been known to spread from birds to humans, it only does so rarely. Most strains of avian influenza, including the current outbreak, do not easily pass to humans. Furthermore, in most cases avian influenza causes only mild symptoms in people.
In order to contract avian influenza from a bird, you must have very close contact with an infected bird or fail to follow good hygiene such as washing your hands etc. Human-to-human transmission of the disease is very unlikely.
Although there is a possibility that avian influenza might mutate and become more contagious to humans, this is unlikely. However, outbreaks cause billions of dollars of damage to industry and cause the unnecessary deaths of many thousands of birds.
How to Keep your Family Safe from Avian Influenza
The easiest way to keep your family safe from avian influenza is to protect your birds from the disease, as outlined above, and have good chicken coop hygiene.
Good chicken coop hygiene means the same practices you use to protect yourself from any illness. They seem like common sense, but you’d be amazed how often people forget!
- Wash your hands after handling birds or eggs
- Never bring birds in the house
- Avoid close contact with sick birds
- Cook chicken meat and eggs
- Wear a mask when cleaning dry or dusty droppings
Practicing good biosecurity and reporting any symptoms in your flock is also key. If you suspect your birds have avian influenza, wear full PPE whenever you are in the coop, including once the birds are gone. Contact the local authorities immediately and monitor yourself for symptoms.
For more advice on keeping yourself and your family safe from avian influenza by practicing good biosecurity, click here. The USDA also has resources for backyard poultry keepers, here.
Rachael at Dine a Chook