• Nick Zacharias

Chicken vigilance


PHOTO BY TRISTIN LOVETT

This cute backyard bird in the Hudson area, and many others like it, can continue to enjoy a safe and happy home with a little bit of vigilance to protect against common illnesses.

With many municipalities opening up to the possibility, backyard chicken coops are gaining in popularity as more homeowners are deciding to try their hand at raising hens for the pleasure of it, and for the sake of securing a source of fresh eggs that literally could not be any more local. While by-laws in your area must be respected, so too must basic care and hygiene principles for the safety of your little backyard flock and those of others in the neighbourhood.

Disease that can decimate hobby chickens

There is a particularly virulent infection called Marek’s disease that can be deadly for chickens and is present everywhere, including a confirmed case in Hudson. It is not transmissible to humans or other animals, but it is highly contagious amongst poultry, and wild birds can be carriers.

“It’s awful” says Hudson resident and backyard chicken enthusiast Itzel Vazquez, who has lost several birds to the virus. The disease causes tumours to grow, frequently on the bird’s spine, which leads to paralysis. “Tumours can also grow on the internal organs, so you can’t see a problem from the outside, but the birds just waste away and die.”

Difficult to diagnose

“We didn’t know what was happening” said Vazquez. Diagnosing is far more expensive than buying a new chicken, but after several deaths she felt the need to seek answers for the sake of the other hens. “I had a necropsy done and they confirmed that it was Marek’s. The problem is that it can spread very easily from one hen to another through their dander, and it can stay active in the soil for up to six months, so even if you have no sick chickens now, any others that are in the same environment can easily catch it.”

Prevention is key

While there’s no cure, birds from large-scale commercial producers are routinely vaccinated against the disease within hours of being hatched. The heritage breeds that are preferred by backyard hobbyists however, chosen for their unique looks or for their ability to lay in the winter months, are not. Once a flock is infected it takes months before the owner can know if it is safe to introduce new birds. “You can buy vaccinated chicks, but I’m told that even if they are vaccinated, with the high concentration in an infected chicken coop they can still catch it. You really have to be clean for six months before you can start replacing birds.”

For those who keep chickens at home, basic biosecurity becomes a matter of habit for protection from Salmonella. “Hand washing and changing boots after you visit the chickens is something I’ve always drilled in at home” says Vazquez. When Marek’s strikes a hobby flock, vigilance is key, especially if visiting friends who also keep chickens. Taking simple steps to prevent spread will help ensure that you and your neighbours can continue to enjoy fresh eggs and fun just outside the door.

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