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Help Your Flock Spring Forward

Spring is springing in Ontario, where I live! I’m sad that skiing is dying, but I saw the maintenance committee at the local golf course starting work, so there is hope! (Plus, I bought a new (used) set of irons over the winter, so my golf excuses are all set for this season! I am also seeing chickens out and about, and “Eggs for Sale” signs getting dusted off and hung.

Probably my last day on the slopes ūüė¶

Spring is an important time for backyard flocks. Weather is variable, runs are muddy, and chickens are starting to lay…..hard. Wet environments cause more stress on your flocks from things like coccidiosis and worms, who will be sporulating and hatching, respectively. Managing the change of season will help set up your summer to be hassle free and keep your chickens comfortable and healthy.

Spring is the season of bumblefoot, egg binding and impacted crops. Wet feet and dirty perches are the main risk factors for bumblefoot. Think of soaking in a bathtub for hours (or getting a flooded rubber boot first thing in the morning). Your skin gets swollen, and more porous, and eventually sore. Now, if you are a chicken with wet litter or wet runs, you settle in to sleep, with your feet locked around a perch….now small wounds occur and bacteria get in, resulting in very painful infections that often require minor surgery to fix the lameness that occurs. Preventing bumblefoot requires good drainage, and coop cleaning, and spring is the most crucial time for this.

Long-time pressure on wet/dirty feet predispose bumblefoot

Egg laying chickens need way more calcium than do non-laying birds. Your hens likely took a winter holiday, but are now coming back into lay with a vengeance as the daylength increases. Since Calcium is laid down on the shell overnight, and lay occurs in the morning, we are asking hens to expend a massive amount of physical effort when their blood calcium levels are at their lowest. Calcium is also crucial for muscle contraction. If you are on a marginal (or deficient) amount of calcium in your feed, you may not know it, since the hens were not laying regularly. But in the spring, you may well end up with a hen that forms a shelled egg, but doesn’t have the strength to push it out. If this happens, giving extra sources of calcium in the form of limestone chips, oyster shell or clean eggshells will help. Dissolving a Tums antacid in water and dosing the affected chicken can help as a treatment. If the egg doesn’t pass in the first 24 hours or so, this becomes a bit of an emergency, since the membranes inside the vent can stick to the shell and make it less and less likely that the egg will pass naturally. Using lube to help the egg come out, and eventually it may be necessary to break the shell internally and remove the egg in pieces. Please contact your vet early if you have an egg-bound hen, since the later we see the bird, the harder it is to help her.

Severe case of bumblefoot. This is very painful, and often needs surgical intervention to help it heal

The other thing to be watchful in the spring ins air quality in the coop. When the day is warm and wet, and the nights get cold, often the first response is to close up the coop to keep it warm. The problem with this is that wet litter (and wet feet….see above) increases the amount of ammonia produced through bacterial respiration. This can cause irritation to the respiratory tract, the eyes and the bird’s feet. Resist the urge to close up your coop….temperature should never trump air quality. Chickens can handle quite cold temperatures, as long as the humidity doesn’t get high.

Enjoy your spring, and eat lots of omelets….you should have plenty of raw materials!!!


Mareks Vaccine Info

As I talk to different backyard producers, and offer vaccines to keepers in my area, the number one issue that causes consternation and confusion is Mareks vaccination. Opinions range from “don’t vaccinate, it will make your birds sick”, to “vaccinated birds pose a risk to non-vaccinated birds”, to “vaccines result in hotter strains of Mareks Disease in the field”, to “don’t vaccinate, just breed for resistance”. When I try to discuss these opinions with the people who promote them, I get half-truths, misunderstandings and different philosophies on health provision. So, to decrease the number of times I explain my point of view on Mareks vaccine, here is a summary of what I know, and how I think the vaccine works. Keep in mind, I have looked after roughly 100 million vaccinated birds that have ALL been housed in places where large numbers of birds have been kept before, and have almost definitely all been exposed to Mareks Disease.

Vaccines work by exposing an animal’s immune system either to a weakened form of a disease causing agent, or a protein that mimics one that is produced by a disease causing agent, thereby tricking the immune system into attacking the agent the first time the body actually sees it. Every foreign protein that enters the body is separated and presented to the immune system by cells called macrophages. It is important to note first off that Mareks Vaccine CANNOT cause Mareks Disease, and CANNOT shed the vaccine to cause disease in other birds in the flock. Unfortunately, not sharing the virus with flockmates means that only the chicks that have been injected will have any immunity to Mareks.

Antibodies that are effective against a virus must be very specific. The common analogy is a lock and key relationship. Creating a key to fit a lock takes a long time, and a bunch of energy, but cutting identical keys is quick and easy. The proteins presented by macrophages are the templates for key production. Once the first key is produced, it is stored in the body for reference (called immunoglobulin M or IgM). If that same protein enters the body, IgM is used as a template to make tons of immunoglobulin G, which meet up with the protein, and cause it to be killed. (I hope you appreciate that entire text books are written on Immune function, and immune stimulation. This is a Cole’s notes version of a Cole’s notes version of immunology).

So, since this process is so INCREDIBLY simple, why the confusion and disagreement on Mareks vaccines? Well, unfortunately, with MD immunology, there is a wrinkle. The IgG that is produced by the body does not kill ALL the Mareks virus that enters the body. Much of the virus dies, and the amount that is available to be shed is very much decreased, but the IgG merely surrounds some of the virus particles, and keeps them from entering the cells of the vaccinated chicken, saving it from disease, but not preventing the bird from carrying the virus, and potentially shedding it. This is why the vaccine is described as “leaky”. Even vaccinated birds can harbour Mareks Disease Virus, if they are exposed to it. Most people have read this somewhere, and form strong opinions around it. Here is what many people DON’T know. The vaccine reduces the amount of virus shed to about 1/1000 to 1/10000 the amount that is shed in non-vaccinated birds. A study by Nair, et al. in 2010 found the following. 9/9 birds who got challenged with MD with no vaccine died. 0/9 birds with one vaccine, and 1/9 birds with another vaccine died. But the authors also measured the shedding rate of vaccinated and non-vaccinated birds:

Triangles are Unvaccinated. Squares are Vaccinated birds.

What I want to point out is the scale. The non-vaccinated chickens shed around to 1 million virus particles per thousand cells while vaccinated birds shed less than 10% as much virus. So the leakiness of the vaccine is less than 10% that of unvaccinated birds. Even though Mareks can be carried and shed by vaccinated birds, the risk is reduced to less than 10% of the non-vaccinated birds….assuming the non-vaccinated birds survive.

In a way, that is probably the greatest risk posed by vaccinated chickens with respect to shedding Mareks Disease….they don’t die as young, so they survive long enough to be a source of virus longer. The problem is, most backyarders will replace the birds that die, and if the replacements are non-vaccinated as well, they harbour and shed vast amounts of the virus they pick up when they join the infected flock.

As for vaccines increasing the rate of mutation and the increase in virulence of Mareks disease viruses present, that is probably true. Anything that makes it harder for any biological being to survive will add pressure to evolve to be more successful. It’s why cheetahs run so fast….the slow ones died out during hard times. (Interestingly, the 3rd and 4th fastest animals on earth are the springbok and wildebeest, 2 of the cheetah’s main prey). But, when you consider the risk of a virulent virus developing in backyard flocks when compared to the evolutionary pressure of literally billions of vaccinated commercial chickens yearly, I think the risk is put into perspective. The odds of having to protect your flock from a virulent strain from somewhere else is astronomically higher than the risk of developing a highly pathogenic strain in your flock.

Finally, the arguement for selecting robust breeds of chickens that are naturally resistant to Mareks, rather than vaccinating. As a vet, I see that as an arguement to let any weak ones die. There is no way to predict what birds will succumb to Mareks. Often it takes well over a year for the tumors to cause symptoms in a chicken. So, is the answer to keep your chickens until they are 2-3 years old before hatching any chicks? By then, you may only have 10% survivability. You need 90% of your chickens to die a preventable death before you can even begin to select for resistance. If that was it, it might be doable. The problem is that the next generation is only slightly more resistant to Mareks than the current one. You have to sacrifices birds for generations to get a noticeable increase in resistance. And then hope the virus doesn’t mutate, and wipe out all your gains. Believe me, all the genetic companies are very interested in increasing genetic resistance to Mareks Disease, but they haven’t made significant progress.

So….there are my views on Mareks Vaccines. There are 2 types of chickens….those that have been vaccinated for Mareks Disease, or those that should have been vaccinated for Mareks Disease. I expect some of you will disagree, and I welcome any questions….I will answer them as clearly as I can.

Oh, and my experience with Mareks Disease in the 100+ Million vaccinated birds I have dealt with? I carry my phone with me, and take pictures whenever I find a bird with tumors….it’s rare enough that it is an event for me to find a bird full of tumors. Make of that what you will.

Mike the Chicken Vet

Mike The Chicken Vet V2.0

Hi Everyone!

Contrary to rumors (and certain people’s hopes, I’m sure!), I have not disappeared, died or been abducted by aliens. I have been busy working my job as a commercial laying hen vet, being surprisingly busy with poultry welfare projects, changing lifestyle (amicable divorce, dating, now re-engaged), raising kids, etc, etc. I know, nobody cares about that stuff. The other thing that many of you MIGHT care about is that I have started a relationship (not part of the dating fiasco…..professional relationship) with a staggeringly competent vet who has built a career doing small animal, exotic, and avian medicine. We bumped into each other on the opposite sides of an animal welfare investigation of a backyard flock. Neither one of us needed to be “right”, and worked together to solve the problems, help the owner and get the birds into a better situation.

Giving ILT vaccine via eyedrop to a Polish pullet

After the investigation, Nickey was telling me about HER backyard flock, and the lack of information readily available for backyard poultry, and the impossibility of getting/providing vaccines for small groups of birds. One thing led to another, and we got talking about both our opportunities, abilities and knowledge. She was competent and confident in all the aspects of individual bird care….surgeries, diagnostics, work-ups and hospitalization. I know disease transmission, vaccines, biosecurity, behaviour, nutrition and post-mortem examination. My new fiance made me watch some romantic movie and somebody said “you complete me….” as sappy music played (I might not have been watching closely). It was sort of like that with Nickey.

Oral vaccines for a chick

So….long story short, we have found a way to provide vaccines, advice and medicine to backyard flocks. With all this exposure to small flocks, I am facing a TON of questions about backyard chickens that I am actually surprised are not more easy to answer. So, I thought I would resuscitate the blog with a bit of a new focus on backyard hens. I will still try to explain and expose what commercial farms are like, and may rant about other things occasionally, but will use this as a space to try to explain some of the misconceptions out there about backyard flocks.

Hope you guys come along for the ride.

Mike the Chicken Vet

Avian Influenza Is Back

As you may have noticed through the news lately, Avian Influenza has been found in North America again.  Tennessee, Alabama, and most recently Georgia have had isolations of Avian Influenza.  In Ontario, the Ontario Animal Health Network is a group of veterinarians who work together to coordinate animal health strategies in Ontario.  We have produced a podcast where Dr. Tom Baker, the director of the Feather Board Command Centre, an industry group that takes charge of disease outbreaks if they occur in Ontario.  The podcast covers information that should be of interest to small flock keepers.  There is a huge amount of expertise in the 20 minute interview that follows.  I hope you find it valuable.

Mike the Chicken Vet


Euthanasia for Backyard Birds

This is a post I have been wanting to write for a long time, but hesitant to take on.  I have done A LOT of work with the professional poultry producers in the past couple years, teaching the best euthanasia techniques and procedures.  It is possibly the biggest contribution I will make in my career to animal welfare.  I believe that it is part of the responsibility of any animal owner to reduce the suffering of any animal in their care, and euthanasia is an important part of that.  I have also been asked by many of you in my comment section for advice, and have seen a LOT of questionable things floating around on the internet.

One thing I will never do is tell an owner WHEN it is appropriate to euthanize. ¬†You need to make that decision based on your values, ethics and experience. ¬†I have my opinion of whether it is humane to try to set a broken leg on a chicken and try to get her to recover. ¬†You have your opinion. ¬†Both of our opinions are based on how we compute pain endured vs the value of extending a life. ¬†As long as we both consider the situation, and make the decision based on the welfare of the animal, we are both right. ¬†Of course, we are both wrong as well. ¬†Nobody, regardless of experience, ever euthanizes at the perfect time….we do our best and have to live with the decisions.

Euthanasia definitely does not have to be a “do it yourself” process. ¬†Veterinarians will euthanize birds in most cases….often they do not feel comfortable diagnosing or treating, but will still perform this important service. ¬†If the cost, distance or circumstances preclude you using a vets’ services, I would far rather see you do the job properly yourself, than botch something as important and emotional as this.

Now, some general information about euthanasia.  I consider these facts, and have spent a lot of time and study convincing myself of these truths:

  1. Euthanasia is an effective tool in improving the welfare of an individual or group of animals
  2. Euthanasia is more often performed too late, rather than too early. ¬†More birds suffer needlessly because their keepers aren’t willing to perform the job than suffer a needless early death.
  3. Euthanasia is NOT about making a bird dead. ¬†The crucial part is making the bird unconscious quickly. ¬†I can soak a bird in kerosene, and light it on fire… will ALWAYS end up dead, but this is NOT euthanasia. ¬†Once a bird cannot feel pain or fear, the method used to kill the body is almost irrelevant, for the bird’s welfare.
  4. The “appetizing” factor in any method of euthanasia is not relevant to the bird’s welfare. ¬†If the bird bleeds, or goes through convulsions, or the act looks violent, the method may still be very humane. ¬†The “yuck” factor is an important component of the effect on the “doer”, and this is something to take into consideration, but doesn’t necessarily affect the well-being of the bird.
  5. Treating an animal with respect will always result in better welfare for both the animal and yourself.  If you are doing the best technique you can, and making decisions based on what is best for the bird, you can feel good about what you do.

With these truths in mind, I am going to describe two methods of euthanasia for backyard poultry keepers to consider. ¬†They should be appropriate for the vast majority of people who raise chickens on a small scale. ¬†I will describe them in gory detail, and will tell you HOW they work, and why they are humane. ¬†There are other methods that are humane….I have chosen the most accessible methods that I think will be most useful for small flock owners. ¬†If you are squeamish, you may want to stop reading now.

Cervical Dislocation

Cervical dislocation ¬†is humane, if done properly. ¬†The benefits of this method is that it can be done immediately after identifying that a bird should be euthanized, and needs no tools. ¬†It causes unconsciousness in around 40 seconds after being applied, and is very repeatable….that is, it works every time it is done properly. ¬†The way cervical dislocation causes unconsciousness is by stretching the neck, dislocating the joint at the base of the skull. ¬†This causes the spinal cord (which is very elastic) to snap, and the resulting recoil causes brain damage and unconsciousness through concussion. ¬†It causes death by breaking the blood vessels (carotid arteries and jugular veins) so that the brain runs out of oxygen.

Cervical dislocation is NOT effective if the dislocation occurs far down the neck (figure 2), if the neck isn’t stretched lengthwise (“breaking the neck” doesn’t make the bird unconscious….it will die, after several minutes), or if bones are crushed in the process. Spinning the bird (referred to sometimes as the “helicopter” method) is unacceptable, and the “broomstick” method is questionable, depending on technique….if you put too much weight on the broomstick, or stand on it too long, you are causing unnecessary pain and discomfort. ¬†The technique that works best, and is recommended by veterinarians¬†and welfare associations is as follows:

  • Hold the bird by the legs, tight to your bodyposition
  • Grasp the bird by the head, either between the two fingers of the dominant hand, or by the thumb and first finger around the neck

hold1                 hold2

  • Tilt the¬†birds head well back, so it points towards the tail of the bird (this position aligns the joints so that it is much easier to dislocate the head from the neck)
  • Firmly push the head away from your body until you feel the head separate (you will definitely feel the joint let go)
  • Pinch just behind the head to ensure that the head has separated from the neck. ¬†You will feel a definite gap, and it will feel like there are 2 layers of skin between your fingers.


  • The bird will convulse and go into spasms….this is normal, and results from the loss of central control over the muscles. ¬†The movements do NOT mean¬†the bird is conscious or suffering.
  • Always ensure that the euthanasia has been effective by monitoring the bird until after convulsions stop and you can observe lack of breathing and that you cannot hear a heartbeat, either by listening to the chest with a stethoscope (if you have one), or by placing your ear against the birds chest.


Decapitation is an effective, humane method of dispatching a suffering animal. ¬†It is NOT instantaneous, but very quick, with unconsciousness usually occurring within 15-20 seconds. ¬†Unconsciousness occurs when the head is removed, and the Cerebral Spinal Fluid (CSF) escapes from the cut spinal cord. ¬†CSF is a fluid that acts to keep the brain and spinal cord “floating” inside the skull and spine… letting this escape, the brain will come in contact with the skull, causing concussion and unconsciousness. ¬†Obviously, death will follow because of loss of blood flow to the brain. ¬†An important factor in this method is that the head MUST be completely removed. ¬†Cutting the major vessels and bleeding the bird out is not humane. ¬†Yes….the backyard slaughter method used by many small flock owners is NOT acceptable. ¬†If you cut all the blood vessels in the neck, the bird will stay conscious until the oxygen in the brain runs out…..3-4 minutes later. ¬†It is called exsanguination (or “bleeding”), and is identified as an UNACCEPTABLE method of killing a bird by the AVMA (American Veterinary Medical Association). ¬†If you want to bleed a bird (ie for slaughter), you must make it unconscious first.

Other things to consider when euthanizing via decapitation, are that the blades used must be sharp, and the head must be removed in one cut.  The blade, or the scissors must be large enough that one motion completely removes the head.  Scissors are helpful as they improve human safety.  Axes and knives work very well, but you must be careful!  A stump with 2 nails driven in about an inch apart is a good way to hold the head safely, and cutting cones are very helpful to hold the bird still and keep your fingers away from the blade.

cutting-cone3              cleaver

There are other humane methods that can be used, but for various reasons, I don’t think are valuable to describe here. ¬†Blunt force trauma is very difficult to do properly, and emotionally disturbing for the person delivering the blow…..the odds of mis-hitting among people who rarely do it are too high for me to recommend it to you. ¬†But, in the hands of an experienced, effective operator, this method is extremely humane, despite the violence of the act. ¬†Carbon Dioxide gas, captive bolt devices, Low Atmospheric stunning, and electrocution are all humane, and you may hear of them, but need far too much equipment, are often too dangerous and need a lot of training to be done right. ¬†Any of these methods, done incorrectly, are inhumane.

Remember….euthanasia is not about making the bird die….it is about how they get there. ¬†I’ve heard of backyard poultry people drowning birds, poisoning them, freezing them and other methods that are NOT humane. ¬†I choose to believe that they didn’t know of better methods, and hope this article helps.

One last point. ¬†Consider what your bird is going through as you are deciding when to euthanize. ¬†Remember that chickens hide pain, even severe pain, very well. ¬†It’s important to realize that it takes a LOT of discomfort for a bird to stop eating and act sick….hunched up in a corner of a coop. ¬†Very often, I feel that more suffering is caused by waiting too long to euthanize than even by people who euthanize incorrectly. ¬†It is part of your responsibility as an owner to care for your birds, and if her situation is painful and seems hopeless, it is time to start seriously considering euthanasia.

Mike the Chicken Vet



I’m Back!

Hi Everyone;

I have been away for too long. ¬†I apologize, but have a good excuse…..well, several excuses, actually. ¬†I accidentally overbooked myself into several projects to do with animal welfare, backyard chickens, advances in commercial egg production, and all the personal stuff that comes from having 2 kids that keep all the rest of the projects in perspective.

I think these past couple years have given me new perspectives on the poultry world that hopefully will make my blog posts a little more insightful. ¬†Many of my projects have been at the national level and have made me think about bigger issues in bigger ways. ¬†Conversely, I have done some projects that involve backyard flocks, which makes me think about smaller issues, in smaller ways…..equally challenging, surprisingly!

The things that sidetracked me from writing here over the past year or so have included being a member of the National Farm Animal Care Council committee to develop that Code of Practice for Poultry (Layers). ¬†This document is basically a set of rules that define what is considered humane treatment for egg laying chickens in Canada. ¬†It is a national standard, that is going to be implemented across the country. ¬†As you can imagine, this was a VERY complicated process, and involved finding a middle ground that retailers, researchers, vets, humane societies and producers could all agree on…..I think we should take on the Palistine situation next….it couldn’t be a lot more complicated. ¬†The code we produced, which will be published this March, is one that I am very proud to be a part of….it truly improves the welfare of millions of chickens, while still being practical. ¬†I will tell you more about the process in a later post.

I have been very involved in developing and delivering a euthanasia course to all the laying hen producers in Ontario (yes, every one), and to a large percentage of the producers across the country. ¬†Euthanasia has been one of those subjects that everyone wonders about but people don’t want to talk about openly (kinda like that funny looking nephew at the family reunion…..admit it…). ¬†All producers, from the small backyard keeper to the largest professional farm need to have a plan in place to deal with an injured or sick chicken. ¬†The decisions around when and how to euthanize are personal, emotional, and difficult, no matter what the size of your operation. ¬†It is a subject that has been poorly communicated historically, and the course we made and delivered has been really successful and well received by the producers that attended. ¬†I hope to explain practical methods of euthanizing to this audience as well. ¬†I hope that you can understand the process, if it is valuable to you, or at least understand what chicken farmers face when they have to deal with euthanasia.

I have been involved with teaching how-to courses to backyard chicken keepers near me in Ontario, and being part of developing a course for non-poultry vets to give them the basics of chicken medicine so that they can be of service to backyard producers or small flock farmers in their area.  It was fun to explain some of what I do to some old colleagues, and it is definitely valuable to get some more vets out there that are willing and able to service small flocks.

I was also involved in developing a hatchery welfare program that is being implemented in the hatcheries across the country. ¬†Again, the hatcheries have somewhat “fallen through the cracks” with respect to programs. ¬†Don’t get me wrong, the welfare of the birds is very important in our hatcheries, but now we have a program that ensures that we are all measuring welfare in the same way, and trying to improve our processes as a group. ¬†There are several new technologies and processes that are improving the welfare of all chicks in the first day of life. ¬†I am continuing to work on these issues, and will share these advances in the next little while in the blog.

Finally, I have been very involved in the health of the laying hens in Ontario. ¬†This means that I was busy helping to recover from Avian Influenza over the past year. ¬†Understanding how the disease is spread, and the things that a country has to do to regain the status of being “free from Avian Influenza”, and the importance of that distinction gave me a new understanding of this devastating disease and the repercussions.

So, in summary….I am back….I have missed writing this blog, and am very glad to have the time to get back to it. ¬†I hope there are still those of you that are interested in what I have to say, and I hope that I can share some things that are of value to you.

Thanks for reading,

Mike the Chicken Vet.





Avian Influenza Hits Ontario

It has happened.¬† The event that poultry vets, suppliers, farmers and supporting industries have been preparing for and dreading for years….Avian Influenza has been isolated in Ontario.¬† As you can imagine, this is a very busy time for those of us in the industry, putting in control measures, routing deliveries, sampling to identify any other flocks, and implementing our emergency procedures.¬† We are working closely (and surprisingly well) with govornments at the provincial and national levels to minimize the impact and the number of birds affected.¬† This virus is also a risk for backyard and hobby farmers as well.¬† Ironically, we had produced an information sheet on Avian Influenza for small flocks because of the prevalence in the US, and concerns it might come here…..well….here it is…OAHN poultry small flock PRODUCER REPORT avian flu FINAL

This is an information sheet with some useful stuff for small flocks.  It will be valuable for anyone in any area where avian influenza is present.  Our group will also be developing a webinar for small flocks in the next little while, to help you develop a strategy to keep your birds safe.  Feel free to share this with anyone who might find it useful.  I will try to keep you updated as I can on things that may be useful to you.

If only they'd keep the darn things ON!

Mike the Chicken Vet

What do you put in those chickens?

There is NO WAY he's all natural!
There is NO WAY he’s all natural!

If I had a quarter for every time I was asked what we put into laying hens to make them lay so many eggs….I would NOT be setting my alarm early so I could shovel my driveway out for the 4th time this week.¬† I can’t keep track of the number of times or ways I have been told about the constant flow of antibiotics, hormones and additives that go into laying hens.¬† It has stopped being a surprise, but it used to be….I always wondered what I was doing wrong as a vet!¬† If everyone else was using all these good drugs on their hens, what was I missing?¬† Then I figured it out….what I was missing was immersion in the internet.¬†¬† The amount of misinformation out there is staggering.¬† I’m sure it’s true when I do a quick search on nuclear energy, or free trade coffee, or Beyonc√©’s plastic surgery history (not that I would….honest).

The difference is, in this case, I KNOW how much is misinformation….on other subjects, I can be convinced by a¬†smooth argument and repetition.

I can only swear to the truth about the birds I look after, here in Ontario.¬† As the vet on record for over half of the laying hens in Ontario, I can state that it is much more common for flocks to NEVER see antibiotics than to be treated.¬† I use antibiotics if a flock needs them to fight off a disease, but that is rare….I used antibiotics less than 20 times last year in the more than 300 flocks I am in charge of.

Professional laying hen farmers spend a lot of time, effort and money in PREVENTION of disease.  This includes extensive vaccine programs, strict biosecurity programs, excellent control of the environment the hens are in, clean barns, high quality feed and water, and protection from wild animals (this is especially important right now, when waterfowl are shedding Avian Influenza in many areas of North America).

If only they'd keep the darn things ON!

If only they’d keep the darn things ON!

That and the fact that laying hens are mostly in cages, separated from their manure, means that it is uncommon for laying hens to get diseases that require treatment with antibiotics.

I think it is crucial for animal welfare to allow for the treatment of sick flocks when medically necessary.¬† I also think it is crucial for farmers to take disease prevention and prudent use of antibiotics very seriously…..and, in my experience, they do.¬† We manage flocks so we don’t have to treat, but will treat if it becomes necessary.

I still wondered if I was running a different practice than my colleagues though.¬† I know the vast majority of the laying hen vets in North America, but they don’t tell me what they are doing on a day-to-day basis.¬† I was in an international poultry expo¬†in Atlanta last month….a who’s-who of the poultry world, and about 30 of us laying hen vets got together for a meeting (we are not a big group….there are more pro sports TEAMS in the US than laying hen vets).¬† The subject of antibiotic resistance came up, as it does in every vet meeting I’ve attended in the past 5 years.¬† One of the most distinguished vets in our group said he thought our industry was doing well in antibiotic usage….his quote: “I belong to a group called AA….Antibiotic Anonymous…..whenever I feel the urge to try to solve a problem with antibiotics, I phone another vet, and they talk me out of it”.¬†¬† That made me feel that we were all pushing in the same direction.

As for hormones, the last time I saw commercial laying hens administered hormones, they were given by a unicorn, and brought onto the farm by one of the giant alligators from the sewers.¬† It’s an urban myth and, in reality:

It. Doesn’t. Happen.¬†¬†………¬†¬†¬†¬† Ever.¬†¬† If I could say it more clearly, I would.¬† There is no hormone product for sale for poultry, there is not a farmer who would want it, there is no way it would make economic sense, and there is absolutely no reason to use such a product.¬† Our hens have been genetically selected so well that they almost lay an egg every day….that is all they can produce!¬† There would be no way to feed a hen enough nutrients to allow her to produce more than that!¬† Besides…many of you readers have backyard hens, who also lay close to an egg a day…..where are you getting your hormone supplements¬†from?


Additives: Not nearly as ominous as “investigative reporters” would have you believe

As for all the additives we use in laying hen feed, there is some truth to that.¬† We add vitamins, lutein, Omega 3 fatty acids and other nutrient enrichments that are passed on to the people who eat the eggs.¬† We also add things to improve the health of the birds….electrolytes (think Gatorade, without the sugar), calcium for bone strength, probiotics (similar to yogurt, but not as gross), and organic acids (similar to vinegar), to help with digestion and¬†keep the gut healthy (actually this is one of the more recent focuses of disease prevention…..gut health).

I hope this makes some sense to readers who are unfamiliar with professional egg production….at first glance, it might make sense for us to use a lot of drugs or even hormones.¬† But once you look a little deeper, disease prevention and good management do more good than either of those strategies.

Mike the Chicken Vet

Avian Influenza Again

Some of you might be aware that there is another outbreak of Avian Influenza in Canada. In British Columbia, on our west coast, a total of 10 barns have been found to be infected (so far). I’m getting quite a few calls asking about information around the disease, so I thought I would share some thoughts with you, in case you are interested.

Avian Influenza (AI) is a virus that is pretty well adapted to ducks and geese. The bug lives in fairly good harmony with waterfowl, not causing too much disease or problems. Then….it gets into chickens (or turkeys). AI gets into cells in the windpipes and lungs, making the birds sick….but not too sick. The virus hijacks the birds cells to make copies of itself, and then destroys the cell, and spread the new viruses into the world. This is what we refer to as “Low pathogenic” AI. Chickens and turkeys don’t feel well, but the severity is a lot like a cold for us…farmers would notice the flock was off, but no alarm bells.

Then….a couple subtle changes happen in the virus, and the bug becomes able to penetrate cells in the windpipes and lungs, but also the intestines, muscles and some other organs. The virus makes many more copies of itself each time it invades a cell, and it invades A LOT more cells. As you can imagine, the amount of virus produced is staggering, and the number of cells damaged by the virus are very high. The virus now has become “Highly pathogenic”. It makes birds desperately ill or dead extremely quickly. So quickly, in fact, that they don’t even seem to be sick….you can check the birds in the barn at 9 am, and notice nothing….come back at noon, and hundreds of birds are dead… the vet, who gets there at 3pm, and thousands of birds have died….it’s that fast and that severe. In the current outbreak, over half the turkeys in one flock had died within a day and a half from when they first got sick.

The other aspect of AI is that it is so transmissible that it sometimes seems like magic. It rides the wind, lives in water, can attach itself to clothes, tires, shovels, manure spreaders…..anything. In one outbreak I was involved with in the 90s, a backhoe was used to dig the hole to bury an affected flock for disposal. The backhoe was washed, and trailered 30 miles back to the owner’s lot. It was parked about 200 yards upwind from another barn, and that barn got infected. Controlling this disease is extremely difficult, and trying not to spread the virus while trying to stop the outbreak is tricky.

There are a small army of really smart people doing heroic amounts of work, trying to stop the spread of this disease. Birds can’t move without a permit showing that the flock has tested negative. Feed is delivered in very precise way, in a determined schedule. Affected flocks are quarantined, and euthanized, and any flock within the safety zone (usually 1-3km around the affected flock) is immediately tested. I am REALLY glad I’m not involved in the clean up, and commend all the farmers, vets, government officials and all the other people involved in the clean up.

You might ask what the human risk is. The risk for human infection is extremely low. Very, very few Influenza viruses can transfer from birds to mammals, let alone people. Also, the only risk to people at all, is through contact with infected live birds, or their environment. If you are not exposed to sick birds, or involved in the clean-up, you cannot get influenza from eggs, chicken meat, or any chicken product. I have no more fear of a human pandemic from this outbreak than I fear California falling into the ocean because of a massive earthquake…..both are imaginable, but vanishingly unlikely.

I hope this helps answer any questions you might have had, and if you would like to know something else, please ask.

Mike the Chicken Vet

Euthanasia Part 1

This is a post I have been mulling around for a while. Euthanasia is a very emotional, controversial, and uncomfortable subject, especially when talking to people with different backgrounds. I have been lucky enough to be involved in a big animal welfare project that is going to focus on agricultural animal welfare….all species. The strategy sessions have one issue in common between cows, pigs, chickens, turkeys, rabbits……euthanasia. Farmers know that one of the most important welfare contributions they can make to their animals is to properly and humanely dispatch sick, injured or unthrifty animals.
I also remember a conversation with a very invested backyard chicken keeper, and her main concern with the lack of accessible vet care for urban chickens was having no-one who could euthanize her hens, or teach her how to do it herself, if it came to it. Euthanasia is a huge animal welfare concern for anyone who lives with any type of animal.
There are two huge questions surrounding euthanasia….when and how. When to euthanize is an emotionally charged, non-scientific, opinion and value based question that will be different for each person. It depends on your opinion on quality of life, and your morality surrounding death. I am NOT going to tell you when you should make the decision that euthanasia is appropriate. I will state that refusing to euthanize an animal no matter the circumstances, is detrimental to animal welfare. Letting an animal languish and waste up to the time when he dies, instead of euthanizing him, increasing the amount that animal suffers. Having said that, the decisions around whether an animal with a specific injury, or a disease at a certain point should be euthanized is a value based question, and needs to be made on an individual basis.

Something I can probably help with is the HOW of euthanasia. Killing an animal and euthanizing an animal are not the same thing….in both cases, the animal ends up dead, but euthanasia has more requirements than the final result. Medically, euthanasia is defined as “the practice of intentionally ending a life in order to relieve pain and suffering“. Other definitions usually include the concept of “painless death“. In reality, true euthanasia is virtually impossible. You are taking a living body and damaging it somehow so that it stops living. You can use poisons, trauma, or take away something the body needs to live. It is our jobs, as welfare proponents, vets and caring owners, to get as close to perfect as we can.

There are 3 aspects of proper euthanasia.¬† 1 – It should cause immediate insensibility (unconsciousness), 2 – It should be irreversible, and 3 – It should cause no discomfort (pain or fear). The issue arises with the absolute statements of immediate and NO discomfort. There is a second, separate, and unfortunately pervasive issue – esthetics. At the end of the day, we are taking a life. It will ALWAYS be distasteful and uncomfortable. It will sometimes be gross. The people it affects most? The people doing it. That is why many “investigative” videos show problems with farm worker’s attitudes around euthanasia….the joking, callousness or disinterest captured on camera are almost always defence mechanisms of people trying to get through a part of their jobs that make them very uncomfortable. It doesn’t excuse the behaviour, but it does explain it a bit. Euthanasia methods need to be accommodating for the persons executing it.

A real, and possibly the most damaging aspect of euthanasia (and the main reason I wanted to write this convoluted post), is the attitude of people watching the euthanasia…..especially the public, who are definitely going to ask agriculture to justify the methods we use to dispatch animals. If you consider the 3 aspects of proper euthanasia, the most effective methods of euthanasia for farm animals are gunshot, blunt force trauma, decapitation and maceration (of appropriately small animals). All of these methods are summarily condemned by people who are only used to dealing with companion animals. Why? Obviously, it is disturbing, violent, and gross. I get that.

But, think about it from the animals point of view.¬† Imagine a piglet, picked up and held, squealing and afraid, while someone holds him very firmly until a vein is found, inserts a needle, and puts him down.¬† It maybe takes a minute, and hurts only a little, but the fear level is pretty high.¬† He then goes into the corner, lies down, goes to sleep and doesn’t wake up.¬† Now imagine the same piglet, held for about 5 seconds, and struck with a hammer.¬† He is instantaneously killed, and there is minimal to no fear.

Which is more humane to the animal?¬† How would you feel if you saw someone euthanize a piglet with a hammer?¬† Would you be upset at the farmer?¬† Would you charge him with cruelty?¬† (NOTE: I am not recommending using a hammer as a proper method of euthanasia….there is too much of a risk of missing, and causing welfare problems….it is simply a thought experiment).

People who work consistently with animals know that euthanasia is an important part of animal care, and realize that euthanasia is about the animal, not the observer