Dr. Mark raises free-range rabbits, poultry, horses, and sheep at his small farm. He is a veterinarian and also cares for dogs and cats.
Most of us backyard chicken keepers have already heard of the latest avian flu outbreak, a newer version of an old virus that can be mild or even deadly when it affects a flock. If you just have a few birds you may not be that concerned about it yet and probably not worried about preventing it.
The situation is a lot worse for the commercial producers of course. They are scared after one large chicken egg factory in Iowa had to put down five million birds after an infection. That number of chickens is difficult to even imagine, and many families that depended on that income were unemployed.
The most dangerous of these bird flus, highly pathogenic avian influenza, or HPAI, is on the spread and can cause suffering and even death in your backyard flock. If you are not yet taking steps to prevent it, you should.
Recognizing the Avian Flu in Backyard Chickens
Although chickens in backyard flocks get sick and even die occasionally, you need to keep an eye out for symptoms of the avian flu during this outbreak. You may or may not notice symptoms of the flu (1), but here is what you can keep a look out for:
- Less energetic than before
- Drinking a lot less water
- Fewer eggs produced, and more soft-shelled misshapen eggs than normal
- Swollen comb, eyelids, and other non-feathered areas
- Purple changes to the comb and other non-feathered areas
- Runny nose, sneezing and coughing
- Gasping for air
- Falling over or stumbling
- Twisted neck
- Some of your chickens might die without any symptoms. (2)
If your backyard flock is showing symptoms and you suspect avian flu, please report it to your state, county, or provincial agriculture office or extensionist immediately. If you are in the US you can also contact the USDA at 1-866-536-7593.
Preventing the Avian Flu From Getting Into Your Backyard Flock
One of the best ways to prevent the spread of HPAI into a commercial flock is to avoid contact with wild birds, especially migrating waterfowl like ducks. Another good method is to no longer allow any human visitors. (3)
Neither of those are going to work with a backyard chicken flock. Most of us have songbirds and sometimes waterfowl fly over or visit our yards, and if you live close to a school (or on the way) you probably have many young visitors that come by to see your chickens.
There are some things you can do:
- Make visitors aware of the threat. You can hang a sign up that tells kids that this is a biosecure zone, and teach them that it is important to wash their hands and spray the bottom of their shoes both before and after handling the flock. (There are also several types of automatic shoe coverings available since the COVID pandemic. Since the kids can pick up the virus just walking from their homes to your own, using foot coverings before entering the coop area is the safest thing you can do, and an automatic covering machine makes it a lot more fun.)
- Stop going to swap meets that sell birds, or if you have to (like if you sell your eggs at a swap meet) make sure you are completely decontaminated before coming into contact with your flock. If possible, have the person going to swap meets stay away from the coop for three days.
- If you hunt, take a family outing to a river or lake, or even golf (ponds and waterfowl), do not go into your chicken coop for at least 72 hours. You will probably need a neighbor that is willing to feed your birds for a few days so make sure that person is also aware of the threats.
- Keep your birds inside. This is not an easy thing for most of us to do since we want our backyard chickens to be free-range. If you do not want to limit your chickens to a cage, build an attached run and keep it closed so that the birds do not roam. The run needs to be fenced and have a solid roof so that migrating waterfowl do not soil the interior.
- Wash and disinfect before taking care of your birds. You can pick up the virus even walking from the house to the coop so also plan on using disposable plastic booties or keep a pair of rubber boots next to the coop soaking in disinfectant when not in use.
- Do not borrow from other backyard chicken breeders. This can be a common source of infection so has to stop. If you need something for your chickens, you will have to buy new ones.
- Do not borrow any lawn equipment from your neighbors. Lawn mowers, hedge trimmers, and other lawn equipment can pick up wild bird waste and spread it into your lawn.
- Do not spread your feed on the ground. It attracts wild birds so pet chickens should only be fed from a feeder that is hung up above the ground and requires them to put their heads in to eat. Even the best suspended feeders are not going to prevent wild birds from getting to the feed, but if they are kept inside the coop behind wire, the chances of attracting other birds is small.
- Only give your chickens tap water. Most backyard breeders are not going to collect water from a pond but if you do please stop. Ponds attract waterfowl and the water is more likely to become infected with the flu virus.
- Encourage your pet dogs to chase away wild waterfowl. Not all dogs are suited to this, of course, and it has to be done carefully so that your dog does not develop a habit of chasing your chickens. (Many dogs pick up right away which birds are "ours" and which are wild but you need to watch carefully the first few days.)
- If you buy any new birds, keep them in a separate coop for at least a month before adding them to your flock. It is not even a good idea to get new chickens at this time so if you can wait do so.
A vaccine is available in some areas but has to be used with caution. It has been used in some places to eradicate the disease but vaccination can cause new strains to become more prominent and one of them might eventually cross over to humans. (4) There is still a lot of debate about vaccinating since infected chickens still shed the virus but do not show any signs of disease. If the strain becomes more virulent it can more easily spread amongst people.
The vaccine can be given with an eye dropper so it is easy to use where available.
Can Your Chickens Give You the Flu?
At this time, the chances of getting avian flu from your chickens, even if they are infected, are very low. (5) You cannot get the flu from eating chicken.
The greatest risk is to people who work with large chicken operations that have become infected. The sick birds have to be taken out of the housing and the workers can become infected at that time.
According to the WHO, diarrhea can develop about a week before respiratory problems even start, unlike the other flu viruses we are used to.
Can the Avian Flu Become a Pandemic?
Although it is mostly limited to birds, if the avian flu spreads and develops a strain more likely to infect humans, it can become a worldwide pandemic. (6) It has already spread throughout the world but at this time the virus does not spread from human to human. (Some research from an outbreak in Vietnam does show spread amongst families though.)
When it showed up in Italy in the 1800s the avian flu only killed birds but it has already mutated numerous times. The version that first appeared in China in 1997 spread to humans and the greatest worry now is that the virus might mutate even further to become more pathogenic to humans. Southern China is considered to be the most likely epicenter for the next pandemic since there is a mix of humans, ducks, and pigs in the region. The World Health Organization has already declared that this disease is so potentially dangerous that we are on pandemic alert.
It can also affect your cats and dogs, although they shed very little virus compared to birds. (7, 8) Some researchers are worried that the virus is more likely to mutate inside those animals and become a threat to humans.
There is no vaccine available to protect humans against avian flu at this time.
Lupiani, B. & Reddy, S. M. (2009). The history of avian influenza. Comparative Immunology, Microbiology and Infectious Diseases, 32(4), 311–323.
(1) Schreuder J, Manders TTM, Elbers ARW, van der Spek AN, Bouwstra RJ, Stegeman JA, Velkers FC. Highly pathogenic avian influenza subtype H5Nx clade 18.104.22.168 outbreaks in Dutch poultry farms, 2014-2018: Clinical signs and mortality. Transbound Emerg Dis. 2021 Jan;68(1):88-97. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8048556/
(2) Blagodatski A, Trutneva K, Glazova O, Mityaeva O, Shevkova L, Kegeles E, Onyanov N, Fede K, Maznina A, Khavina E, Yeo SJ, Park H, Volchkov P. Avian Influenza in Wild Birds and Poultry: Dissemination Pathways, Monitoring Methods, and Virus Ecology. Pathogens. 2021 May 20;10(5):630. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8161317/
(3) Capua I, Marangon S. Control of avian influenza in poultry. Emerg Infect Dis. 2006 Sep;12(9):1319-24. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3294755/
(4) Guyonnet V, Peters AR. Are current avian influenza vaccines a solution for smallholder poultry farmers? Gates Open Res. 2020 Aug 26;4:122. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7578560/
(5)Peiris JS, de Jong MD, Guan Y. Avian influenza virus (H5N1): a threat to human health. Clin Microbiol Rev. 2007 Apr;20(2):243-67. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1865597/
(6) Horimoto T, Kawaoka Y. Pandemic threat posed by avian influenza A viruses. Clin Microbiol Rev. 2001 Jan;14(1):129-49. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC88966/
(7) Chen Y, Zhong G, Wang G, Deng G, Li Y, Shi J, Zhang Z, Guan Y, Jiang Y, Bu Z, Kawaoka Y, Chen H. Dogs are highly susceptible to H5N1 avian influenza virus. Virology. 2010 Sep 15;405(1):15-9. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2914205/
(8) Vahlenkamp TW, Teifke JP, Harder TC, Beer M, Mettenleiter TC. Systemic influenza virus H5N1 infection in cats after gastrointestinal exposure. Influenza Other Respir Viruses. 2010 Nov;4(6):379-86. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/20958932/
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.