• Dr. Jessica Fox

Protecting Your Small Flock from Avian Influenza

Highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) was unfortunately confirmed earlier this spring in the United States and has already devastated many large and small poultry flocks throughout the East Coast and the Midwest Region. Avian influenza is a viral disease that affects domestic poultry, including chickens, turkeys, pheasants, quail, ducks and geese. It spreads through migrating wild birds, particularly waterfowl and shorebirds. Highly pathogenic avian influenza is especially devastating because it is rapidly fatal for poultry.


Normally HPAI does not negatively impact the wild bird “carriers” of the virus. However, the particular strain that is currently spreading across the U.S., is also causing mortalities in wild bird populations.


How to Protect your Flock

This is an especially important time to put your flock into lock down and tighten biosecurity measures. This disease is 100% fatal. You can protect your flock by implementing and closely following a biosecurity plan. Biosecurity literally means “life-protection” and is a set of processes designed to protect the life of your flock from infectious diseases like HPAI. In cases of disease outbreaks like we are experiencing right now, it is important to review measures you are already taking and add additional measures even if only temporarily during periods of high risk.


The following measures are steps you can take to decrease risk and protect your flock:


Avoid contact with wild birds

My #1 recommendation is to lock down your flock, keep them in their coop and restrict outdoor access until this threat has passed. This disease is 100% fatal. This may not be possible for all small flock owners, but I highly recommend doing everything you can to limit any contact with wild birds during this migratory season.


Avoid attracting wild birds

  • Cover or enclose any outdoor feeding areas for poultry. Ideally keep your flock indoors, even if you have a free ranging flock. If possible, create an indoor shelter for them and feed birds indoors until this immediate threat has passed.

  • Clean up any feed spills immediately and thoroughly.

  • Avoid visiting any ponds or streams. Footwear, children, and pets can inadvertently track virus found in wild bird feces that is particularly concentrated in these areas back to your premises. Water can also carry the virus and pets and children love to splash and play in water.

  • Consider measures to reduce large puddles or other standing water on your property that may encourage migratory birds.

  • If you noticed wild birds are attracted to your property, re-evaluate feeding practices, feed storage, standing water or other practices that might be encouraging the presence of these birds.

  • Discontinue feeding of wild birds, including songbirds, on your premises (and remove any bird baths!).

Avoid travel with your birds to sales, shows and swaps

  • To protect your flock, the best practice (for right now) would be to halt any travel with your birds. Many states are already implementing temporary bans on poultry exhibitions to limit the spread of HPAI.

  • If you feel halting travel is not an option for you and it is not banned in your state:

  • Ensure you have clean and sanitized hands, clean clothes and clean footwear before handling your birds if you do attend any poultry events .

  • If your birds travel to events, best practice is to quarantine (separate completely) these birds for 30 days before reintroducing to the rest of your flock and have a veterinary exam prior to introduction. With these measures, if the birds were to contract HPAI (or other infectious disease) while at a show, you would decrease the risk of introducing the disease to the rest of your flock.

  • Do not allow others to handle your birds.

Limit visitors to your flock

  • It is highly recommended to avoid any visitors to your flock at this time.

  • If someone else must visit your birds:

  • Talk to them about what bird contact they have recently had.

  • Ask them to wash and sanitize their hands .

  • Ensure they have clean clothes and footwear that have no had contact with other birds.

  • Preferably visitors would have run their vehicle through a car wash, showered, and changed clothing and footwear before contact with your flock.

Review and evaluate your cleaning protocols and practices

  • Use dedicated or clean clothing and footwear when working with your flock. Ideally you would have boots (and coveralls) that you put on upon entry to your coop.

  • Dedicated gloves, hats and other cold weather gear is best.

  • An additional step you can take is a wash tub and disinfectant (remember for disinfectants to be effective, the item you are disinfecting must be clean).

  • Clean and disinfect any equipment that comes in contact with your birds such as shovels and rakes, pails, etc.

  • Clean and disinfect poultry housing and equipment often.

Avoid inadvertently bringing disease home

  • If you choose to bring new birds into your flock at this time, best practice is to quarantine (separate completely) these birds for 30 days before reintroducing to the rest of your flock and have a veterinary exam prior to introduction. Birds should be in a separate location with separate airspace from your current flock. Avoid the wearing the same footwear or clothing when interacting with the new birds and your current flock.

  • Ideally you would feed, water and have any contact with your current flock (“clean flock”) before you would work with quarantined birds (new or birds that had traveled).

  • Avoid flock contact with any clothing, footwear, equipment or dogs that are used for hunting.

Avoid inadvertently spreading disease between neighbors and friends

  • It is best practice to not share equipment with your friends and neighbors.

  • Keep you flock separate form any neighbor birds.

  • Do not have your fellow flock owner friends contact your flock especially during this period of high risk. If you feel they must use the visitor guidelines previously mentioned to protect you and your neighbors’ flocks.

Additional Measures

If you find deceased wild birds on your property, contact your state Department of Natural Resources or Fish and Wildlife to see if they are monitoring wild bird HPAI mortalities. Preferably an individual that does not have direct contact with the flock would dispose of the bird, use gloves and thoroughly wash hands and footwear after disposal.


The following situations are of particular concern:

  • Five or more dead wild birds of any kind found in one location during the same timeframe.

  • One or more raptors or waterfowl alive but exhibiting signs of sickness (inability to fly, drooping head, swimming in circles, trouble standing, tremors, loss of coordination).

  • One or more raptors or waterfowl with no apparent cause of death.

If an individual that contacts your flock must also dispose of the birds (given your state wildlife agency does not want to investigate) remember to wear gloves to dispose of the carcass, shower, and change clothing and footwear before contacting your own birds.


Signs of Avian Influenza

Remember that HPAI is 100% fatal and highly transmissible. If we can detect the diseases early, we can do our part to limit the spread to other flocks. Unfortunately, the most common sign of HPAI in poultry is sudden death.


One sign that large and small flock owners are reporting with the current strain, is a drastic decrease in water consumption before death.


Other signs of HPAI include:

  • Extreme depression

  • Very quiet

  • Difficulty breathing

  • Decrease in feed or water intake

  • Swelling or purple discoloration of head, eyelids, comb, wattle and hocks

  • Decrease in egg production

If you have sudden unexplained deaths in your flock, or see other signs listed above contact your veterinarian or state board of animal health agency. It is extremely important to catch this disease early to avoid spread to other flocks.


protect your flock from avian influenza

How You Can Help

Preventing HPAI is the best way to keep your flock healthy. Implementing a biosecurity plan and following the steps outlined in this post are the first steps to decrease risk and protect your flock. For more information, please reference the resources below or reach out to your veterinarian or state animal health agency.


Resources

USDA APHIS HPAI: https://www.aphis.usda.gov/aphis/ourfocus/animalhealth/animal-disease-information/avian/avian-influenza/hpai-2022


MN Board of Animal Health HPAI: https://www.bah.state.mn.us/media/HPAI/


University of Minnesota Extension: https://extension.umn.edu/poultry-health/avian-influenza-basics-noncommercial-poultry-flock-owners


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