Saturday, December 5, 2015

Avian Influenza and Small Flock Biosecurity

Whether we belong to 4 Chesapeake Hens, Hampton Roads Hens, or some other group, regional chicken keepers want to keep our backyard micro-flocks healthy. My husband, Don, and I attended a presentation in Suffolk on Wednesday with information on how to do that. The presenter was Dr. Tom Ray, DVM, MPH, VMO/Epidemiology, a veterinarian  who specializes in livestock. Aaron Miller, an AHT veterinary technician from Virginia Beach, assisted him. Both work with the USDA, a government agency, to raise public awareness to prevent the spread of communicable diseases in poultry and livestock.

A major concern right now is Avian Influenza or Bird Flu. It thrives in cooler temperatures and in humid environments and survives freezing. Wild birds carry it, particularly waterfowl, often without showing symptoms. It then gets spread by people and equipment, particularly on shoes and vehicles. There are two kinds: "low path," and "high path," depending on how pathogenic  the disease is. Low path is common, and an owner might not know their bird(s) have it unless they are tested, but the viruses mutate easily and can mutate into the high path type.

High path spreads rapidly, has a high mortality rate, and has a severe impact on trade, pets, backyard flocks, and exhibition birds. A recent outbreak of high path avian influenza was first detected in the U.S. in December of 2014 and ended in June of 2015. It affected 211 commercial flocks, 21 backyard flocks, 5 captive wild-bird facilities, and 100 wild birds in 21 states, mostly in the Mid-West, and cost over one billion dollars plus the lives of almost fifty million turkeys and chickens. Egg prices spiked last spring because of a resulting national shortage of commercial eggs.

Dr. Ray showed slides of turkeys infected with the disease. They suffered terribly, and all died within 24 hours of contracting the disease. The birds practically liquify; he says they are all feather and bones and liquid after 24 hours. (Eww!)

The scary part is there's a possibility the disease could hit the East Coast as waterfowl migrate this year. Officials are testing waterfowl like crazy and so far have only found low path, but flocksters need to keep in mind that can change.

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. The official term for prevention is "biosecurity." The main ideas are to keep a line of separation between your flock and possible vectors of disease, prevent contamination, and maintain cleanliness. The USDA has a fantastic website with all the details for backyard poultry keepers, so I won't repeat it here, but I urge readers to visit the site for more details.

Dr. Ray recommended cleaning all hard surfaces like shoes to remove mud or organic debris and then using a bleach solution or even Lysol to disinfect. Follow the recommendations on the Lysol can and read labels carefully: some types of Lysol work faster than others. A separate set of clothes and boots for visiting the hen house is also a good habit.

The USDA urges us to report sick birds. Due to the threat of high-path bird flu, the agency is taking calls of a dead chicken or two even more seriously than in the past. Please realize that pathologists prefer freshly dead or almost dead animals for necropsy and testing. Symptoms of avian influenza include swollen and purple-looking wattles and combs. Other symptoms are almost identical to Exotic Newcastle Disease. Watch for:
  • a sudden increase in deaths in a flock;
  • sneezing, gasping, coughing, and nasal discharge; 
  • watery and green diarrhea; lack of energy and poor appetite; 
  • a drop in egg production or soft- or thin-shelled, misshapen eggs. 
Report sick birds to:
  1. Your local Cooperative Extension Office,
  2.  Your local veterinarian or State Veterinarian, or
  3. The USDA Hotline at 866-536-7593. The USDA will come out for free and test your birds and take information from you to keep in a government database in case of future outbreaks.
 Speaking of the government, here is what the investigators will do if they first find a confirmed positive case of high-path avian influenza on a farm or other premises:
  1. Set up a control zone for a ten-mile radius and a buffer zone outside of the control zone.
  2. Set up movement restrictions into and out of the control zone with extra biosecurity measures
  3.  Test everything within it. 
  4. Depopulate infected flocks; see below.
 In the buffer zone, the government will test birds for free with your permission, but within the control zone, the government will test birds (again for free) with or without the owners' permission. This is allowed under Virginia state law.  Inspectors will go door-to-door looking for flocks. If a bird turns up positive for high path, they will "depopulate," meaning kill, the flock using fast and humane methods. Large factory-farms and large backyard flocks are suffocated en mass using a foam; backyard micro-flocks of five to ten birds are preferably wrapped in a towel to keep them calm and gassed with CO2 for ten to fifteen minutes. The incubation period for the disease is five days, so the last 5-10 day's worth of eggs must also be sought out and destroyed.

I know this idea is stressful for those of us who love our birds, but please realize the flock will NOT survive the high-path virus, the birds will suffer terribly dying, and while they die they will shed massive amounts of the virus. They will increase the risk of contaminating other flocks the longer they live. What seems cruel is actually an act of mercy and a prudent course of action. The government tries to depopulate the flock within 24 hours of receiving a positive result to minimize both suffering and the spread of disease. There is an indemnity process through which the government will pay for the death of live animals. The best way to avoid this awful scenario is to practice good biosecurity. Read these 6 Simple Steps we all can follow to keep our birds safe and healthy.

 We asked about the safest way to dispose of a dead chicken in general. Dr. Ray said the virus and other chicken diseases do not survive heat very well, so he recommends disposing of them in a burn barrel.

We should all follow good biosecurity practices. Even if we trust that nature and good care will protect our flocks, we should have a plan to "step up to" if high-path avian influenza is reported on the East Coast in the coming months.  As a public service, Wendy Camacho of Hampton Roads Hens has promised to make USDA-approved materials available at workshops and other events in coming months.

Thank you, Carol Bartram of PeCK, for organizing this important presentation for us.