Monthly Archives: August 2011

Avian Influenza….How scared should you be?

Avian influenza….the bird flu…has been making news again, with a report of spread of a new strain of flu in Asia, and increased numbers of infections in these areas.  The term pandemic is being mentioned again.  Should we be worried?  How much?  Are chickens dangerous?  Are factory farms going to be the end of us all?

The fear is that somewhere, a person is going to get “bird flu” from a chicken, and the strain will have mutated enough to become infective through aerosol transmission.  It will then spread from person to person until it spreads worldwide.  The new strain will evade our immune systems, and virtually everyone will get sick at once, crippling the worlds ability to cope.  There is no doubt that this is a risk….it has happened before….but often not as dramatic as all that.  There have been major pandemics in 1918, 1957, 1968, and 2009. 

Now, I’m not a public health official, an international disease specialist, or a soothsayer.  However, I understand the disease better than most people, and I have this public platform, so…here’s my opinion. 

Since 2003, Avian Influenza has infected 565 people worldwide, 331 of these infections have been fatal.  To compare….since 2003, 304 people died from lightning strikes, 480 people have been bitten by sharks, 400,000  people have died from snake bites, and 16,000 people have been killed by crocodiles. 

Since 2003, over 400 million birds were destroyed during the outbreak in 63 countries, either from the disease, or to control the spread.  Influenza is INCREDIBLY contagious from bird to bird, and the disease spreads like wildfire.

Influenza is a bird disease that occasionally crosses species.  Humans, pigs, cats, horses, zebras, and ferrets all get influenza, and there is evidence that all these viruses originated in birds, somewhere in history….the transfer of viruses between species is natural, and not new.

There is NO evidence that influenza can be transmitted to people from prepared chicken meat or eggs.  Transfer of the virus is from intimate contact with live chickens, or their immediate environment.  This most often happens in rural, poor areas where chickens (and sometimes other small farm animals) share the human home, especially at night.  In this way, professional farms actually decrease the risk of transfer of influenza between people and birds, since the number of people intimately involved with hens is decreased.

Don’t get me wrong….the billions of dollars and man hours expended by officials across the world are not wasted, or even poorly spent.  Avian Influenza is a devastating disease of poultry, and is a theoretical risk to human health, and controlling it is a major undertaking.  Our modern technology and information is quite effective however.  The recent bird flu outbreak at its peak was present in 63 countries in 2006, while last year, it was contained to 6 countries…..a huge accomplishment.  The people who look after this are really good at what they do.

Here is my final point…..people ask me if they should be worried about chickens or eggs with respect to influenza.  Think of this….how many live chickens have you ever seen that originated in Asia?  How many chickens are imported into Canada from Asia?  None, and almost none.  If a person was to get sick with influenza in Cambodia and get on a plane, how long would it take to spread the disease?  If bird flu ever does cause major human illness, it will be a very few people who ever get sick from chickens….the rest of us will get sick from other people.  Ironically, there will almost definitely be more chickens who get sick from people than vice-versa.

So, don’t be concerned with chickens causing bird flu.  The virus has never been in the western hemisphere, and likely never will be, unless a pandemic is already underway.  The international health organizations are doing great things to control the virus in the areas where it already is, and spread is containable….although at great expense and effort.  If bird flu comes to Canada, it will be in an airplane, and there won’t be a chicken for miles around.

Mike the Chicken Vet

What you probably don’t know about laying hens

I drive a lot.  Really a lot.  85,000-90,000 km per year.  Because I drive so much, I splurged on a hybrid vehicle to drive.  It makes a lot of sense….the gas savings more than make up for the extra cost.  I’d like to think it is environmentally friendly, too.  I had a discussion with a friend of mine around the campfire the other night, and was told that the net effect of hybrids is not good…due to carbon footprint of battery production and destruction, etc, etc.  The point was, I didn’t know what I didn’t know about the environmental impact. 

As people have become more and more busy and specialized, we have all been forced to become really good at a very narrow scope of expertise….whether its fixing cars, organizing an office or producing food.  The flip-side of this, unfortunately, is that we are all horrifically ignorant about the vast majority of things we use everyday.  On the drive home from camping, in my theoretically eco-friendly vehicle, no less, I started a list of things that almost nobody outside of professional laying hen farming circles would know.  In no particular order, here they are:

  1. It takes almost 22 hours of continuous input to make an egg…first the yolk, then membranes, then albumen (white), then water, then shell, then cuticle.
  2. Modern commercial laying hens on high quality feed in Ontario will produce 325-335 eggs per hen per year.
  3. Feed conversion is often less than 2kg of feed for each kilogram of egg produced. (this means that each pound of feed will result in more than 4 eggs).
  4. Chickens only have 1 ovary (the left).
  5. Chickens tongues are triangular. 
  6. Yolk color is determined by what the chicken eats.
  7. It IS possible to produce green eggs.
  8. Shell color is determined by breed of hen….almost always, brown eggs come from brown hens.  Spotted eggs, bluish eggs, and pinkish eggs are possible.
  9. When a chicken sleeps, her feet relax in a closed position (thats how chickens sleep on perches)
  10. Chickens eat stones to help grind up their food (they don’t have teeth)
  11. Chickens recognize each other primarily by facial features.
  12. Chickens can recognize and “know” approximately 20 mates.
  13. A rooster’s testicles are inside his body, near his kidneys.
  14. A neutered rooster is called a capon.
  15. Egg size changes throughout the hens life….they start out small, and get bigger as the hen ages.
  16. It takes 21 days to incubate a chicken egg to produce a chick.
  17. Roosters maintain a “harem” of around 12-15 hens
  18. Chickens have no external ears….just holes in the sides of their heads.
  19. The amount of calcium that covers a single egg is all the calcium that can be dissolved in the blood at any time.
  20. Chickens can run up to 9 miles per hour, but not for very long.

If you have any other questions…the wackier the better, I will try to find out for you, if I don’t know it off the top of my head.

Mike the Chicken Vet

Fun with Eggs!!

I have been in touch with the good people at Auburn University.  Their poultry team has worked on a project for the past 6 years on something called “The Auburn Virtual Chicken”.  They kindly sent me a DVD which shows a 3D depiction of the entire production process of an egg.  The days leading up to the release of the ovum (yolk), and the 24 hours that it takes for this yolk to become a fully fledged, membraned, shell-covered, egg-shaped package of yummy goodness is fascinating!  With the risk of branding myself a chicken geek, I think it is amazing.  I am hoping to get permission to post the video.  The standard request when they send the DVD is not to distribute it, but I hope when I explain the use (and pour on the charm 🙂 ), they will agree. 

With the package are several teaching modules and fun classroom activities that they suggest.  These, I am allowed to share, and will show a few of them here.  Some of the ideas are really cool…..why is an egg “egg-shaped”?  What makes an egg strong enough to hold the weight of several hundred pounds, if it is applied gradually?  How does a chick breathe before it hatches….etc, etc. Stuff you never think about, but when you do, they make perfect sense.  Try some of them…especially if you have kids….they might learn something, and if not, the quiet time while they are working on it is priceless!

Where IsTheShell         ShapedForAReason             Egg In A Bottle        Amazingly Strong

Hope you like ’em, and I will post the video as soon as I am able.

Mike the Chicken Vet

Chickens Need Rest Too!

I just got home from my summer vacation.  I imagine my brief hiatus in blogging has left a huge void in many of your lives, and for that I apologize.  It makes it easier to come back to work and I feel more productive.  It’s amazing what a little rest can do for you.

Many people forget that chickens that are laying eggs regularly are working hard too.  They need rest periods as well, or they burn out, the same as us.  Problem is, high producing hens don’t like to take breaks, and need to be convinced.  I was going to make a comment about them being “bird-brained”, but my wife insisted we go to a place where I couldn’t even use my Blackberry, and I didn’t like the implications.

I was sent a question by a vet friend of mine on behalf of a friend with a small flock of hens.  I was sent a few pictures, and was asked why the hens were balding.  They looked like this:











Upon further questioning, I was told that the hens had been laying for over a year, and had been acquired as mature birds.  They were fed feed from the feed store, and whatever they could scrounge (horse manure, scraps, tomatoes, etc).  There were other, younger hens in the mix, and their feather cover was good.

Because there were no wounds, the distribution of the feather loss, and the fact that there were no roosters in the mix, made me think that these hens needed a rest, and were in the process of partially molting.  The way to achieve this in a flock of hens is to fully molt them.

The way to do this is to feed a low-calorie diet (such as alfalfa, wheat shorts and barley hulls), decrease the calcium level, and enclose the hens and give them a lot of darkness each day (20 hours if you have the ability to put them in a light-tight enclosure).  Once the hens stop laying (or decrease to negligible amounts), replace the normal feed, give 12 hours of light, and increase the amount of day length by 1/2 hour per week until the hens come back into production.  They will look like new pullets, and will have a new lease on life.  Molting is a normal process for hens, and allows them to “reset” their metabolism and gives them a chance to regain body stores and rebuild bones.  One word of warning though, the hens will look worse, before they look better….they will lose more feathers, and look really scraggly until they start to rebuild.  Most birds, including wild geese, swans and others will stay on their nests while they molt….this gives them lots of feathers to line their nests, and since they are sitting on the nest a lot anyway, it is a great time to re-boot.

Mike the Chicken Vet

Environmental Considerations

This is the last installment in my series of advice blogs on coop design and function.  From my “Scoop on Coops” post, I laid out the following topics that were important considerations when setting up your coop:

  1. Provide access to fresh food and water
  2. Protect the hens from excess cold, heat, predators and vermin
  3. Provide a place for hens to lay their eggs
  4. Maintain hygiene for both the hens and the eggs

Now, I want to mention some things about the environment.  Not global warming and carbon footprint so much….something a little closer to home, and much more in your control.  I’m more interested in the environment in your backyard and inside your coop.

There are 2 things about chickens that make them a little tricky to manage. 

1 – they EAT EVERYTHING….and anything they don’t eat, they scratch up and denude

2 – they CRAP EVERYWHERE…..birds have evolved all their facilities for flight…no teeth, hollow bones, don’t carry their young inside them, and don’t hold their excrement for a nanosecond longer than necessary….ie, where a bird walks, there will be poop

These 2 factors result in the major environmental problems caused by hens.  They will destroy the ground cover of any area you keep them in unless you a) have a lot of land (think acres), or are able to periodically move the coop (think every week or 2).  Chicken manure is an excellent fertilizer (professional egg farmers do a good business selling their manure to other farmers), but in too high a quantity, it will burn grass to death.

So….removing the manure is necessary so that the area the chickens live in won’t become fouled (sorry).  The problem is, unless you have a good size garden (or very small flock), there will be more manure than you can use.  Composting it is often unsuccessful, since the high nitrogen and phosphorus content will kill small composters (remember each chicken will produce around 2 lbs of manure per week).  Some plan needs to be developed to deal with the manure that is produced.  Some municipalities allow it to be disposed in municipal compost, but some don’t.  I’ve talked with some backyarders who collect the manure and flush it down the toilet….your call.

These habits need to be dealt with individually….a large lot, small flock, big garden situation is very different than the flock that uses up most of the lot in a static coop.  But think about your situation, and plan for the pollution….because, trust me, you can’t stop it.

Mike the Chicken Vet


The Dangers of Backyard Chickens

So…you want to have backyard chickens….

You’ve done your homework….checked bylaws, prepared your yard, set up your coop, got some good feed, and are prepared for avian bliss in the city.  Or are you?  Are you sure that your chickens are safe?

I just saw this article in the newspaper…

Cheeky chicken attacks postie

The Edmonton Sun
Sat Aug 6 2011
Page: 86
Section: News
Byline: QMI AGENCY SAULT STE. MARIE, Ont. — It was a wing special one postman could have done without. A mail carrier in the border town of Sault Ste. Marie, Mich., was attacked by a chicken while on his route Wednesday. According to police, several chickens were wandering around the front yard and bushes when the postman approached the door to deliver mail. That’s when one chicken appeared from under the porch and attacked him. It’s not known if he was injured. The postal carrier left before police arrived. The county’s animal control was contacted, but it is not known if there will be any follow-up investigation.

© 2011 Sun Media Corporation. All rights reserved.

PLEASE don’t let this happen to you…..vicious chickens are a scourge we can all do without….if you have backyard hens, it is crucial that you socialize them well, and keep them on a short leash.  If not, this may be a solution:

The Chicken Muzzle 2000

If these types of attack continue, we could outfit our public servants with these, to give them a fighting chance:

Mike the Chicken Vet

Inside a Real Egg Farm

Here is a small peek inside a modern egg farm.  I apologize for the poor video quality….I’m a vet, not a media guy (obviously)!!  Hope you like it!