Why aren’t there more Chicken Vets?

I have been asked numerous times why there are no vets around who work on backyard chickens.  It’s been suggested that I should specialize in backyard health and make my millions.  There has been an article in the Wall Street Journal no less, decrying the lack of vets with chicken experience (http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424127887323527004579081812563033586.html?mod=WSJ_hp_EditorsPicks#articleTabs%3Darticle). 

I will try to tell you why there is a lack of vet care available for your chickens.  Like most real-life problems, it is complicated, involves money, attitudes, history and inertia.  Some ways to approach providing backyarders access to vet care include a backyard poultry only practice, professional poultry vets branching out into backyard flocks, or small animal vets branching out into backyard flocks.  All of these have challenges.  I will give you my top 10 reasons why there is a lack of veterinary care for backyard flocks;

     10) Money

I have worked exclusively with poultry for 15 years now.  I’m happy with my income (unless you happen to be my boss, in which case, I’d like a raise), and I like working with the birds.  I visit about 2 – 3 flocks per day, and I earn hundreds of dollars from each visit (sue me, but I’d like to earn more than a plumber….10 years of post-secondary education left me with a small mortgage, and it should be worth SOMETHING).  Since the flocks I visit have thousands of birds, each visit costs pennies per hen.  Many backyarders won’t be willing to pay $50+ per visit, which is about the minimum I’d need to keep my doors open.

      9) Biosecurity

 I know activists would have you believe that biosecurity is just an excuse to keep professional farms out of the public’s eye, but it is a crucial component of the health programs on all commercial sized farms.   This year alone, I am aware of backyard flocks who have been diagnosed with Avian Influenza, Mycoplasma, Salmonella enteritidis, Infectious Laryingotracheitis, Fowl Cholera and Blackhead…..all of which would be devastating in a professional flock…..as in, people losing their livelihood and home, level of devastation.  Believe it or not, the amount and variety of diseases in backyard flocks dwarf the infections on professional farms, and the risk of carrying diseases is very real.

    8) Liability

I have been asked to do things like prescribe medications or sign export certificates on backyard flocks.  The reality is that, as a professional, every time I sign my name to a certificate, it is on me to make SURE it is true.  So, if you want to move a flock across state lines, and I sign a form saying your flock has shown no signs of disease X in the past 3 months, I need to be SURE that they haven’t.  This means that I need to know you and your flock well, and have multiple visits (costing you $$ multiple times).  If the hens are carrying the disease I stated they were free of, it is ME who is charged with negligence or malpractice.  This is not as big an issue for small animal vets, because the impact of a missed case of kennel cough or FELV isn’t the same as moving the hens that are the start of an agricultural disease (the Avian Influenza outbreak in British Columbia cost an estimated $380 million, and almost definitely started in a backyard duck flock). 

     7) Different type of Medicine

For me, as a commercial vet, I concentrate on keeping flocks healthy.  To do that I do what is called “population medicine”, and am more focussed on the health of the group as opposed to each individual hen.  Sick hens will often be euthanized to be examined and samples taken so the rest of the flock can be appropriately treated.  That model does not work for backyard flocks.  Techniques like exploratory surgery, intravenous fluids, severe wound repair or life support therapy are necessary, even crucial when dealing with backyard hens, but I am not used to performing them, and it is an entirely different mindset.

    6) Interest

Very few small animal vets have any experience or interest in chickens.  They like dogs and cats, and think guinea pigs and hedgehogs are cute, but chickens are alien to almost all of them.  Chickens are so different than the mammalian patients my classmates see that they are very uncomfortable in even attempting to deal with them.  This is a wide generalization, but holds true in most cases.  I know of an injured hen that was flatly refused at a vet clinic because the vet said she “wouldn’t even know where to start”.

     5) Lack of tools

Chickens are no longer expected to be in small groups in North America.  Vaccines come in bottles of 1000, 5000, 10,000 or 25,000 doses, and once opened, need to be used within 2 hours or they don’t work.  (One of the vaccines I use can only be bought in a 25,000 dose bottle).  Even though I want to recommend vaccination of backyard flocks, it is difficult to justify buying 5000 doses of Newcastle Disease vaccine for your 5 hens.  Antibiotics are the same….most come in a pouch that treats 100 gallons of water….once opened, the antibiotic starts to lose efficacy, and should not be stored for later use.

     4) Lack of Numbers

Even if there was a way to provide decent care in a metropolis like Toronto, or New York, that would still only help a very small percentage of the backyard hens…..what about the smaller cities, towns, and even rural flocks (cow and horse vets don’t really have any comfort with chickens either, as a rule).  Unless there is a critical mass of hens, it is very difficult to provide care, regardless of the location.

     3) Chickens are weird

Face it…chickens are weird.  They have an odd social structure that can seriously impact their health, they have a wildly different biology that other pet animals (respiratory, digestive, reproductive, cardiovascular, immune, bone and skin systems are all vastly different than other pets).  It means that a small animal vet cannot apply what he/she knows in other areas to the chicken.  A chinchilla is not that different that a dog or cat, and you can logically adapt treatments if one is brought into your clinic, but a chicken does not fit the model.  At all.

     2) Chickens are food

Another aspect of treating chickens that makes small animal vets uncomfortable is that you don’t (usually) eat your pets.  I am very aware of the human health implications of everything I do on a farm.  I only use antibiotics that I am confident will not contaminate the eggs or meat, or else I know how long that contamination will persist for, and advise against eating the eggs for a period of time.  Small animal vets don’t have this background, and are (rightly) worried about causing residues that make people sick.

    1) Inertia

The number one reason that vet care isn’t more available for backyard chickens is inertia.  “It just isn’t done”.  Like giving women the vote, this is unheard of, and might be the end of civilization as we know it.  Keep asking your vet (and other vets) to look after your hens.  Be willing to pay a little, in order to make him/her think about making it a part of the clinic’s business model.  Be patient if they are slow, or unsure.  Keep trying to make it happen, and in the near future, someone will figure out that treating chickens is not scary or dangerous, and a model for this type of medicine will emerge and become commonplace. 

 

Mike the Chicken Vet

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24 responses to “Why aren’t there more Chicken Vets?

  1. It never dawned on me that the rest of the country might not have easy access to a vet that would treat their chickens. I guess I am fortunate to live in Los Angeles county, where there are a dozen vets that specialize in Avian Medicine, if my hens ever need to go to the vet.

    Thank you for all the informative, educational blog posts for us city slickers that are passionate about our backyard chickens.

    • You’re right Lianne…..this is absolutely a micro-cosmic issue. If you lived only 2 hours away, you would be in a situation where you couldn’t get adequate vet service for your hens….be glad that your are in one of the well serviced areas.

  2. Very enlightening, Mike. Thanks for your insight.

    I hope you’re wrong that the interest isn’t there- my sense from the vets with whom I have spoken seem interested in dipping their toes in the backyard chicken waters and I hope that sentiment is shared by their peers. I believe it’s only a matter of time before the fear aspect is conquered through education. There’s a niche for you! Professor Mike The Chicken Vet- it’s got a nice ring to it. I’m pretty sure you can nail down more than a plumber’s hourly rate teaching vets the basics of chicken care. 🙂

    Talk to you soon,
    Kathy Shea Mormino
    The Chicken Chick

  3. Well written Mike!

  4. Thank you so much for this blog! When my wife began out relationship with chickens last year, one of the first things I did was ask our local (neighbor) large animal vet if there was anyone familiar with poultry in our area. The way he shook his head summed up your article! Ever since then I’ve been looking for resources and tools to help with flock health and disease diagnosis, and I don’t feel confident in any resource I have found. Have you ever seen, or considered writing, a book on good management practice for poultry on the backyard scale? I know the marketplace is flooded with comprehensive ” you and your chicken” type books, but what I’d like is a nuts and bolts healthcare book. Is a diagnostic chart possible for infectious disease, at least to the broad level? Antibiotics and their proper uses? The honest answer to hideous things like Myco – eradicate or not?? Recipes for effective disinfectants? WORMS! What now? No eggs – why??

    ( I suppose you ca see we have more questions than answers! )

    Thanks again for your work!

    • Thanks Reece;

      I have considered that type of book, but am a little hesitant to jump in. What you want is a recipe book, or a decision tree that will ultimately give you an answer. The problem is that there are SO many variables in backyard flocks that I will be wrong a lot of the time (like every other “how to ” book). When I investigate a problem on a farm, I use ALL my senses and am constantly weeding out diagnoses. When I take vet students on “ride arounds”, I actually have a hard time explaining all the things I do automatically. I am still trying to figure out a way to effectively organize a process that would work for a layperson to follow and be successful with. I’ll let you know if I decide to go forward.

      Mike

  5. Thank you for the reply! I see what you mean. After re-reading my post it sounds as if I’m asking for vet-in-a-box! I know just enough about poultry now to appreciate the absurdity of “boiling down” serious health issues. I in no way meant to make light of your training and expertise! I just have a gut feeling that most of us are groping in the dark, relying on folk practice or at best sloppy science for the most common of issues. I’m tired of googling “scaly leg mite” and having one person recommend “mineral oil with tea tree”, or “vaseline with sulphur”, or “kerosene with motor oil”, or, or, or…
    Your blog is the first real, honest and authoritative source for poultry information I have found. I just enjoy it and WANT MORE!!
    (maybe I should just go back to school??)

    Thanks again
    Reece

    • I understand where you are coming from Reece. Imagine how I feel, seeing the things on the internet and knowing there are much better approaches out there. I used to wade into a lot of discussions, but it is impossible to argue with most “naturalists”. They always ask you to prove a negative, like “how do you know there will be no long term side-effects”. You can’t prove that. Anyway….my idea for a health book might read as a “choose your own mystery” type of thing….using symptoms and observations to try to navigate through to an answer….It would be complicated though…..

      I think you should go back to school, if you have time. I love school (I just graduated after going back after 13 years out). Learning is a ton of fun….

  6. There are, indeed, many folks that will spend thousands to save a single organism of most any species. In 1984 I watched a woman spend $2500 to save the life of a single toad injured by her gardener. Then she spent $1000 catering a party so everyone could see him released back into the garden.

    The difficulty a veterinarian such as yourself has is, these problems are scarce and spread out enough no one Dr. can make a sufficient living from this phenomenon.

    I hope your blog is rewarding. I love to see it.

    As a small business man is there a market in repacking vaccines into small flock volumes? There is a large and relatively successful backyard flock movement. Even city of LA allows them now..

    • Hi NGR;

      You are absolutely right….there are people who do not put a monetary value on any life. They will spend as much as they have to help out animals….even some they don’t really know. The question of repacking vaccines is extremely complicated. Vaccines are living viruses, and are freeze-dried and vacuum sealed to put them into a state of stasis until they are reconstituted in water. They then only live for a couple hours. Repacking them would take an elaborate lab with specialized equipment and very high quality control levels in order to keep the viruses alive. What might be more possible would be the repacking of antibiotics from the packages that dose 100 gallons at a time into smaller allotments. But that then gets into the realm of how to dispense the antibiotics legally….ie a vet needs to recommend a large number of the antibiotics, but to do it legally, you need to have a relationship with the producer. Thus, the issue becomes circular….no effective treatment, and if you develop an effective treatment, who can deliver it…..

      Any ideas would be welcome.

      Mike

  7. Hi Dr Mike! I’m in the Colorado Flood Devastation Zone in the Northern CO mountains and I’ve inherited 28 chickens (1 polish rooster)…the owners were able to get some food in last week and when I dumped it out, it was solid mass in the bottom and smelled like bread mold. I know these chickens are fed everything from organic feed to rotten garbage (I’ve seen it) and they are free range from 10am to 5pm. But I’m a Certified Veterinary Technician (taking leave from my E.R. job in Boulder, where we’ve NEVER seen a chicken) and feeding ANYTHING moldy or yucky flies in the face of my education…so I’ve not fed the food (and our scraps are fresh and nice for the chicks) and I might be able to get out this week (our roads were obliterated in both directions from our community) and get some un-breadmold smelling food, but in the meantime, dare I feed that?
    I’ve also had to incorporate an additional 7 birds from a Sheriff Deputy who had to evacuate to work, and those birds are not incorporating well. They stick together, hang out in the 5 nesting boxes 3 to a box at night, and stay to themselves in the free range trees/bushes. So I know everyone is stressed.
    (4 eggs a day. I would call that stressed) I didn’t think I should add moldy food to the mix….sorry for the long rant. We get internet connections spottily, we have no phones, but we have our homes, our lives, and the National Guard working 12/7 to get some roads for us! We’re livin’ like kings now.

    • Hi Marcia;

      Best of luck to you!! Mine (and tons of others) thoughts are with you while you deal with this emergency. I admire your attitude! As for the chickens, you are in a position of “lesser of 2 evils”. If you have a source of nutrition for the hens, don’t feed the moldy stuff. If you are getting to the “bottom of the barrel”, literally, then the food that is somewhat off is far better than nothing. If the hens have nothing to eat, no source of protein, they will start hunting for it. Most people are unaware as to how carnivorous chickens are….they will begin to eat each other if they get short of protein or salt. The good news is that chickens are quite resistant to fungal toxins….far better off than pigs or cattle. Try your best to feed the best (least spoiled) feed you can. If you can partition off the 7 new birds, they will be a lot more relaxed…you can keep them as 2 flocks for a little while and let them get to know each other “through the fence”, before trying to unite them again.

      I hope this helps, and I hope everything turns out well for you!

      Mike

      • yawninggreyhound .

        Had a reply all typed out but the android in my phone ate it. Suffice it to say.. ..thank you. Wish us good health and slow foxes. Marcia

  8. Sorry, but I thought I should add: The food on top of the bottom 6 inches was not a solid mass. I separated out the solid mass from the remainder of the food, but it all still smells breadmoldy. It’s LAYENA brand. but I have scads of oyster, grit, dry mealworms, scratch, and our kitchen scraps, so the birds are not going hungry (we’re able to get out occasionally when the National Guard escorts us over the beginning-to-be passable roads and I’ve stocked up on everything mentioned in the Chickens in 5 Minutes A Day (the way I do it, it should be called Chickens in 55 minutes a day 🙂 ) ).

  9. Hi and thank you for explaining the mystery of the small flock vet!. Our horse vet tried but without success to treat our hen. We spent quite a bit and don’t mind (I’m an Animal Health Tech from Ontaio Canada) Most of what he suggested we already had read on the web. Fianlly we had to euthanise her. A heartbreak! I also have two parrots and would treat them if they became ill. I wonder what the difference is? Cockatoo or Columbian Rock – if they are pets shouldn’t they be treated with he same diligence? Just wondering?

    • Hi Kelly;

      Sorry I was so slow to respond….somehow I missed this comment. I hope I didn’t make you think that backyard hens SHOULDN’T be treated often and well, I was just explaining the logistics as to why it is difficult to do so. I agree with your parallell with pet birds, and I have often wondered why avian vets don’t make the transition to chickens more often.

  10. Hi Mike, great blog. Backyard flock owners could try using the find a vet feature on the Association of Avian Veterinarian’s website (www.aav.org), there might be a vet with an interest in birds near them that they didn’t know about.
    This site from the UK (http://chickenvet.co.uk/) is very interesting, they sell products for backyard flocks and provide training and testing services to owners and veterinarians.

    • Thanks Ben, I will post this on the site. I know about the chicken vet from the UK, and he has an interesting business model. It is the one that might actually work in North America, if the training programs and consultation structure are legal.

      Mike

  11. I just discovered your blog via Facebook–it is fascinating! I will definitely be reading much more of it. I have a backyard flock that was fairly small until this year. I also went through a no-vet crisis, and I found 3 solutions: 1) I had a crisis (prolapse) starting on a Friday evening, and couldn’t figure out what to do. I found an expert on JustAsk.com to talk me through it, and with her help reduced the prolapse and got the hen on the mend. 2) The same hen had a respiratory issue and after contacting extension offices in 2 states, going to a holistic vet, and trying everything on the feed store’s shelves, I called the local organic egg farm and asked who their vet was. She directed me to a good, experienced country vet who will see my hens in his office. 3) For major emergencies, I have a working relationship with an emergency exotic vet in a major metropolitan area. They are expensive and a 2 hour drive, but they are open all night and will always try to work with my budget. Unfortunately, most of the time if a crisis is so severe I feel the need to go there, it ends in euthanasia. But I hope one of those suggestions will help some of your readers find help.

  12. I was glad to read your comment. We recently lost one of our girls (from a small flock of 5 carefully chosen hens) We felt heartbroken. Initially there was no help, then through internet research we learned a little. Finally our horse vet tried to be of some help (at a very high cost) In the end we euthanized her. We are still getting over it. The chickens are no less important to us than any one of our other animals, dogs, cats, parrots.
    I’m afraid chickens may not be for us. We like to have sufficient resources to help our animals when they need it..

  13. Great news. Boulder, Colorado, has two chicken dvms! One at a 24 hour facility. I’m so relieved after reading posts on this and other blogs about the scarcity. Maybe now that they are available, we won’t need them.
    We had a wrinkled egg Monday and I was freaking out. Hopefully it was stress event as ppl forgot to cover window on a coldish night plus there were several children playing in the yard after 57 days of virtual silence. Fingers crossed.

  14. Marcia, do you have the names of the chicken dvms in Boulder?

    • Alpenglow on walnut. They’re 24 hour

      And Arapahoe veterinary clinic at 55th and Arapahoe and their other location behind liquor mart in the old Alpine vet location.

      Now whether they’ll see chickens no matter who’s working I haven’t checked out. I w ork at the boulder emergency pet clinic and we just have certain docs who will see exotics (something other than cat and dog).

  15. Thanks! I found one of my gals paralyzed on the floor of the coop this morning. She has been vaccinated for Marek’s, and I’m not sure what else it could be. I called the CSU Animal Hospital this morning and they gave me some good general advice, but couldn’t be too specific without seeing her. I’ll try one of these guys! My pups have both spent time at the Boulder ER Clinic–thanks for all you guys do over there!

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