Tag Archives: backyard chickens

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

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

Chicken Lungs

Anyone who knows me knows of my hate-hate relationship with running.¬† I have started running in the past year, and have decided that it is the most ridiculous activity known to man.¬† You can’t score goals, you can’t look cool, and you will NEVER make it to Sportcenter¬†(Usain¬†Bolt excluded….I mean….he IS Usain Bolt).

The main reason I hate running is because I suck at it.¬† I’m strong, but my aerobic capacity is lousy.¬† I wish I was a bird.¬† If I was a bird, my trachea (windpipe) would be 2.7 times as large, reducing air resistance.¬† My rate of breathing would be about 1/3 of what it is currently, and I would take much bigger breaths.¬† This is the first part of the system that makes the bird respiratory system much more efficient at gas exchange than mammals (especially this particular mammal).

chicken airsacs

Location of Air Sacs in a hen

Chickens also have structures called air sacs.¬† The way to think of them are a bit like bagpipes…..they act as reservoirs¬†for air so that there is constantly fresh air passing through the hens lungs.¬† A bird’s respiratory cycle is much more complicated than ours….we inhale into a big, complicated balloon, pause, and then push the air out.¬† As the air sits in the tiny air sacs (called alveoli), oxygen diffuses into the blood, and CO2 diffuses out.¬†¬† Our alveoli are like a bunch of grapes….blind ended sacs that expand and contract as air comes in and out.¬† During the pause between breaths, the oxygen concentrations of the gasses change, and diffusion becomes slower.¬†In hens, it goes like this….INHALE – air goes into the lungs and the abdominal air sacs.¬† EXHALE – air leaves the cranial, clavicular and cervical air sacs.¬† PAUSE – air goes from lungs to front air sacs while air is travelling from abdominal air sacs to the lungs.¬† Repeat as necessary.The result of these airbags is that there is a constant, one way flow through the lungs, and every part of the lung is constantly filled with fresh, fully oxygenated air.¬† Chickens have no alveoli…they have a network of tiny tubes where the air never stops flowing.

Diagram of airflow....not simple, but effecive

Diagram of airflow….not simple, but effecive

Hens have other adaptations too.¬† Birds have hollow bones, and the front air sacs communicate with the¬†wing bones and the clavicles.¬† Thus, chickens even use their bones to breathe!¬†¬†At the microscopic level, the point at which the oxygen enters the blood (and CO2 leaves it) is different too.¬† Cross current exchange where blood travels at 90 degrees to the airflow in the tiny lung tubes….makes for much more efficient exchange because the same air crosses blood vessels several times, instead of just once as in us mammals.¬† Also, the thickness of the tissues between the blood and the air is less than half that in mammals of similar sizes.Chickens have no diaphragm, which is the muscle we use to expand our¬†chest cavity downwards.¬†¬†This has major implications if you are handling chickens, especially small ones.¬† Their keel bone (Breast bone) MUST be able to move, or they can’t inhale.¬† Holding or wrapping a chicken¬†¬†too tightly will stop her from breathing.¬† This is really important when children are around the hens, since a hug that would work for Fido will not work for chickens.So, in summary…birds breathe slower, deeper and more efficiently.¬† They have one way flow of air through their lungs through the adaptation of air sacs that act as bellows to constantly supply fresh air to the blood, even when the hen is not inhaling.This is why birds have such an efficient respiratory system, and why aerobic exercise is so much easier for them.When I am about 2 miles into a run, I really hate chickens.¬†Mike the Chicken Vet

Chicken Guts

As promised, I am starting a description of the different systems inside the modern chicken.¬† I thought I’d start with a description of the intestinal tract of a hen. From beak to butt, there are a lot of specializations that allow chickens to magically convert grubs, worms, corn, grains and calcium into eggs…one of the most nutritionally dense foodstuffs in nature.

Not a pretty picture, but shows the tongue and choanal slit well

First off, it is always amazing to me that people are surprised to find that chickens have triangular tongues. What other shape could it be? There is also a slit (called a choanal slit) in the roof of the top beak. It is here that many substances that are eaten and drank are exposed to the immune system. The triangular tongue is very poor at sensing taste. The human tongue has about 10,000 taste buds, cows have about 20,000, and chickens have 25. Not 25,000….25. Chickens, like most birds, rely heavily on their eyes to locate food, and don’t invest a lot of brain space to taste. It explains some of the things they are willing to eat!!¬† You will also notice the scarcity of teeth.¬†(Yes, your grandmother was right….hens teeth¬†ARE rare).¬† ¬†More on this later.

After the food passes through the beak mostly untasted, it passes through the esophagus, a 3″ muscular tube, until it is deposited into the crop.¬† The crop is basically a holding tank for food and water.¬† It is muscular, but weak.¬† If a¬†Anatomy-of-the-chicken-with-text

chicken eats things that are difficult to pass through the crop (like long blades of grass or hay), or the stuff in the crop gets too dried out, you get impacted crops.  If the contents stay there too long and start to rot, sour crop can result.  To help with either of these problems, it is important first to get the offending material out of the crop, and allow the muscles to relax, and the interior of the crop to become normal.

I know, its gross, but I’m a vet…this is what I do. Plus it gives you a good idea how things really look.

The the food is now the consistency of gruel and enters the proventriculus.¬† This stomach is similar to ours.¬† It secretes acids and enzymes and starts actively breaking down the food.¬† The food now enters the gizzard, which is a very muscular organ that is lined with a tough substance called koilin.¬† Inside the gizzard, the hen stores small pebbles.¬† These pebbles get rolled around inside the gizzard through the muscular contractions, and the action is like a grist mill.¬† Remember the part about the lack of teeth?¬† This is the compensation.¬† Stones are lighter than teeth, because you don’t need too many of them, since the feed is already pre-softened by soaking in the crop.¬† In professional farms, the stones are provided as pieces of oyster shell or limestone, both of which also act as a source of calcium for egg-shell and bone strength.

Once through the gizzard, the gut contents are like a very moist paste, very uniform, and still smelling like chicken feed.¬† It enters the small intestine, where the pancreas and the gall bladder add their contributions of enzymes and bile acids respectively.¬† The food is now basically reduced into its components.¬† For the next 30 cm or so, the protein, fats, sugars and other nutrients are absorbed into the bloodstream.¬† This is the function of the small¬†intestine.¬† You can imagine, if there is some problem with the intestine, absorption will be reduced, and the volume of manure will increase…..this is the root cause of many cases of diarrhea.¬† The gut contents are now a darker brown, and more dense and pasty…pretty much half-way between feed and poo.

The food now enters the two cecums (called cecae when plura….great word to remember for Scrabble).¬† The primary functions of the cecae are to absorb

Normal Cecal Dropping
Normal Cecal Dropping

normal dropping

Normal Dropping

water and to act as an immune organ.¬†¬† The contents of these are¬†fairly light….lighter than normal chicken poo.¬† Every couple of days, the cecae empty themselves, resulting in a cecal dropping, which is sticky, somewhat foamy, and lighter in colour.¬† These droppings are very distinct, and completely normal.¬† It also explains why anything that stimulates the immune system can result in diarrhea, since the same organ is responsible for water resorption from the gut contents.The final step in this process is the ejection of the manure (sometimes with a fair bit of velocity!).¬† The interesting part of this is that birds have “vents”.¬† That means that the urinary tract, reproductive tract and gastrointestinal tract all leave the body through the same orifice.¬† Meaning, everything comes out of the same hole…..sometimes at the same time.¬† That is why the normal manure has the white, uric acid cap on it…that is the bird’s version of urine.¬† Importantly, it is also a source of manure contamination of eggs, especially if the hens are sick and have loose manure.¬† I have talked about safe egg handling previously, but I would like to re-emphasize the importance of this.

All in all, it takes around¬†3 hours for a piece of chicken feed to become chicken manure.¬† For humans, gut passage time is around 2 days.¬†This speedy transit time is important for….wait for it…..flight.¬† Birds will actually spend a fair bit of time with almost nothing in their guts….thus lighter and more able to fly.¬† But, this short passage time means that diets that are high in indigestible components will seriously increase the fecal volume, since there isn’t time to break down the more fibrous bits.

So, that is the story of  chicken feed becoming raw materials for eggs and the necessary body processes that support the chicken in everything she does.  Remember that bird digestion is quite different from mammalian digestion, and some of the gut problems you might see in a small (or large) flock will show certain symptoms because of the way the gut works.

Mike the Chicken Vet

What makes a chicken?

I am starting¬† a short series of posts that will describe some of the physiology, anatomy, and behaviour of the modern chicken.¬† This has been done many times before, by people more qualified than I am….in greater detail….likely more accurately….and with far more authority.¬† They are called textbooks.

The difference is, I am going to make it interesting, useful, and hopefully fun.¬† Oh, and it will be in the english that normal humans speak.¬† I also intend to explain some of the reasons why chickens are the way they are….how some of the attributes of “chicken-ness” are useful for the birds.¬† The aim of the series is to give the readers some tools to problem solve¬†issues that may crop up in their flock (pardon the pun…..see, entertaining all ready!).¬† If you know how the guts of a hen works, you have an idea as to what might be going wrong when you see diarrhea or blood in the droppings.¬† At the very least, it will give you another way¬†to think about the way a hen works.

To start, I will talk about some of the striking factors that make chickens the way they are, and why they are that way.

Birds are strange creatures….feathers, eggs, hollow bones, no teeth, don’t produce urine, different red blood cells, all of which I will discuss later.¬† All of these various oddities work together to allow one thing….flight.¬† It seems like the vast majority of adaptations that the¬†successful dinosaurs made¬†revolve around the ability to fly.¬† Feathers are lighter than hair, and insulate better.¬† Bone marrow is heavy, and provides little structural integrity.¬† Teeth are heavy, and carrying around a bag of urine inside your body definitely crimps your ability to soar.¬† Red blood cells that have nuclei (the difference between bird and mammal blood cells) are more efficient at carrying oxygen and are quicker to produces…making bird blood more able to support the high metabolic rate needed to stay aloft.¬† Getting the sugar shakes at 250 feet up is not an evolutionary advantage.

Chickens are omnivorous, able (and willing) to eat almost anything.  They have a very short digestive tract (again, lighter), that is very efficient at extracting nutrients from whatever they put in their beaks.

Birds have lung adaptations, great eyesight, and lay eggs…..all of which make flight possible.¬† (I am saying these like they are facts, but in reality, they might be adaptations that just followed along from their dinosaur heritage, and weren’t lost…..dinosaurs laid eggs and didn’t fly…..but it makes a good story, and is plausible).

Anyways….I will be developing the truly informative stuff over the next little while.¬† I hope it is useful to you, and gives you a different way to look at and evaluate the way your hens interact with the world.

Mike the Chicken Vet

Bird Health Awareness Week

Anyone who has followed this blog at all knows that my two main professional  passions are poultry health and welfare.  Since these two issues are so closely interdependent, anything that improves one will often improve the other.  In this vein, I am forwarding some information that I came across from our friends to the south.

Most agricultural organizations, including all the ones I work with, are very aware of the relationship between small, backyard flocks and professional farms in the area.  The farmers spend a lot of time, effort and money maintaining biosecurity to keep their flocks healthy, but the fact remains that any diseases circulating in backyard flocks is a threat to the people who make their living by caring for hens.  For this reason, most of the poultry groups are willing to extend expertise and advice to the people who keep hens as a hobby.   I hope the following information helps anyone with an interest in poultry, whether their flock is small or large.

The Maryland Department of Agriculture issued the following news release:

Bird Health Awareness Week is Feb. 24 through March 2, and the Maryland Department of Agriculture (MDA) Animal Health Section urges owners ofbackyard poultry flocks – or those thinking of starting one – to make sure they follow our six steps for keeping poultry healthy.

“Poultry is one of Maryland’s most important agricultural commodities, and we want to keep them all healthy, whether they are commercial, or fair and show, orbackyard flocks,” said State Veterinarian Guy Hohenhaus. “Bird Health Awareness Week is a good time to remind everyone of the important but easy steps they can take to have the most positive and successful experience raising poultry. It is also a good time to remind people that they must register their flocks with MDA so that we can contact them and help them if a disease outbreak were to occur. “

The following are MDA’s Six Steps to a Healthy Flock.

Step 1. Select Healthy Birds. MDA urges citizens to purchasechickens only from hatcheries that are certified by the USDA’s National Poultry Improvement Plan (NPIP) and hold a permit from MDA. NPIP hatcheries follow strict biosecurity practices, maintain detailed records of where their chicks come from, and have had their sites and chickens tested for particularly debilitating diseases. Anyone who sells or distributes hatchingeggs, live poultry and anyone who operates a hatchery in Maryland must meet NPIP standards and hold a permit from MDA. Residents are warned not to buy chicks that are sold online and delivered through the mail by uncertified and unapproved hatcheries. The practice is not only illegal but can be deadly to your flock. Find an NPIP hatchery. (www.aphis.usda.gov¬Ľ)

Step 2. Register your flock with MDA.Backyard flock owners, who generally keep birds as pets or for private use of theireggs, are required, by law, to register their location with MDA. In the event of a disease outbreak, MDA will immediately contact all flock owners who might be infected and provide them with information and instructions about the specific precautions they need to take to keep their birds and families healthy. Flock owners not on the registry may never know a disease is rampant until their flock dies. Flock owners who are not registered put their neighbors’ flocks – and maybe even the state’s poultry industry – at risk. The Maryland General Assembly created the mandatory poultry registration program in response to the 2004 avian influenza outbreak on Delmarva. There are currently 3,948 flocks registered in Maryland. The registry is confidential, free and easy. For more information and to register (mda.maryland.gov¬Ľ) .

Step 3. Clean hands, boots, clothes, equipment, and housing to prevent disease. Raising flocks ofchickens, like raising any other pet, requires a certain amount of effort and vigilance if the animals and their owners are to stay healthy. Flock owners need to follow basic bio-security measures from the beginning to ensure their birds and families stay healthy. For more information about biosecurity measures. (www.aphis.usda.gov¬Ľ)

Step 4. Quarantine any new or sick birds. Healthy flocks can be ravaged, even lost entirely, by one sick chick. Keep new chicks quarantined for at least 21 days until you’re sure they’re healthy. Veterinarians who treat pets do not usually treat poultry or livestock, but there are avian vets in Maryland who can be contacted if your flock is sick. To find an avian veterinarian, go to the Association of Avian Veterinarians website. (www.aav.org¬Ľ)

Step 5. Test poultry before exhibition. All animals, not just poultry, that are shown at exhibitions must meet animal health requirements. Some requirements are different for in-state and out-of-state animals. Poultry, for instance, must be tested for PullorumTyphoid prior to an exhibit. For more info on exhibition requirements. (mda.maryland.gov¬Ľ) [1].pdf)

Step 6. Report sick birds to MDA Animal Health. Despite the best efforts of some flock owners,chickens sometimes do get sick and die unexpectedly. MDA urges flock owners to report sick birds to the agency if more than one bird in a flock is ill since that could be the start of a devastating outbreak. Call MDA Animal Health Program at 410-841-5810 to report an unusual disease in a flock. Unusual symptoms that may indicate your chicken is sick and should be reported include:

– Sneezing, gasping for air, coughing and nasal discharge

– Watery and green discharge

– Lack of energy and poor appetite

– Drop in egg production, soft or thin shells, misshapen eggs

– Swelling around the eyes, neck and head

– Purple discoloration of wattles, combs and legs

– Tremors, drooping wings, circling, twisting of the head and neck or lack of movement.

Want to learn more?

– Visit the MDA website (mda.maryland.gov¬Ľ)

– Visit the USDA’s Animal Health website for more information: (www.aphis.usda.gov¬Ľ)

– Participate in USDA’s Animal Plant Health and Inspection Service’s free webinar, “Growing Chicks Into HealthyChickens: Getting Ready for Spring,” on Thursday, Feb. 28 at 2 p.m. Register here. (www.aphis.usda.gov¬Ľ)

– For regular tips on how to keep your birds safe and healthy, follow the APHIS’ Biosecurity for Birds campaign on Twitter @Healthy_Harry

Mike the Chicken Vet

Chicken Cinema

Hi Everyone;

I apologize for the lack of attention I have been giving to my blog lately….things have been busy, but that’s no excuse.¬† I have been very active with chickens, however, and today was no exception.¬† I got the opportunity to spend the morning with Norm Saito at the Ancaster Fall Fair (http://www.ancasteragriculturalsociety.ca/Pages/Fair/fairframe.htm) .¬† Many thanks to the fair organizers¬†for all their help and accommodation.¬† Also thanks to the Egg Farmers of Ontario for putting me in contact with Norm in the first place.¬† I am impressed with the community outreach that the EFO is doing, trying to let people in the province know about poultry of all types.¬† They have the idea that letting urbanites know more about poultry can do nothing but improve the relationships the farmers have with the public, and I couldn’t agree more.

Norm Saito….the depth of knowledge this man has on various breeds and standards for fancy chickens was staggering.

Norm has been a judge of fancy chickens for over 40 years throughout North America.¬† He is the end-all and be-all of knowledge regarding Buff Orpingtons, Barred Rocks, Polish, Wyandottes, Minorcas, and Rhode Island Reds.¬† He also judges turkeys, peafowl, guinea fowl, ducks, and rabbits.¬† His background information on where each bird origionated….both geographically and through history (how bantam chickens were bred to be smaller versions of regular hens, and how many of the sport breeds are descendants of fighting cocks, once fighting became socially unacceptable) was amazing.¬†

We had a great time “talking turkey” for most of the morning.¬† He started his career with fancy chickens when his son was in Cubs, and wanted to get his “pet keeping” badge.¬† Norm and his son decided they wanted a chicken, so they purchased Sylvester, who lived in their basement until they moved.¬† The family loved the bird by then, and couldn’t leave him behind, so Sylvester came along, and became the base for a flock of fancy chickens that eventually numbered in the hundreds.

The creative process…it is WAY more complicated than I ever thought!

For anyone not familiar with video production, it is a LOT more complicated than I ever thought.¬† Worrying about background noises, direction of sunshine, background composition, etc. is really involved.¬† Plus, once I knew what I wanted to say, getting the phrasing right, and saying it in a way that sounded somewhat coherent was tougher than you’d believe.¬† I will be posting the interview video in a little while, once it is edited, and hopefully you will have no idea¬†how many mistakes went into each of the¬†little segments.

Hopefully there will be some information and insights that¬†are of interest to people who raise and show these “beauty queen” chickens.¬†¬†I don’t know how many of you have had the chance to see behind the scenes¬† to see¬†how a fair poultry show is judged, but I sure am glad I got a chance to see it!

Winner in the Polish class….one of the stars of the video

  Mike the Chicken Vet

Bones, Shells and Hen Health

People keep backyard hens for any number of reasons…..for companionship, for comic relief, to fertilize the garden, eat bugs, teach kids about the circle of life or to eat table scraps.¬† But the main reason that most people have hens around is because they do all these things AND produce eggs.¬† Eggs are the lynch-pin that makes henning so popular.¬† You¬†(and your kids) can see how the food the hen eats today becomes your breakfast tomorrow.¬† It is fascinating and awe inspiring….old broccoli into an omelette…..talk a bout a silk purse from a sows ear!

There is an aspect to egg production that puts the health of your hens at risk, however.¬† Each egg is presented to you in its own handy carrying case….the shell.¬† An egg-shell is made up of calcium carbonate.¬† It contains the entire

Hens in lay have “trabecular¬†bone” that allows for the rapid storage and release of calcium when the hen is in lay. If the trabecular bone is depleted, the cortical bone (part that gives strength) will start to be used, resulting in weakness and pain for the hen.

amount of calcium the chicken can carry in her bloodstream.¬† This means that if a hen doesn’t eat any calcium, she will deplete her calcium stores¬†very, very quickly.

A chicken’s bones are made of calcium phosphate.¬† In the currency of egg production, consider this the “bank”.¬† Hens eat feed that contains calcium….it’s her “income”….she deposits egg-shell….this is her “expenses”.¬† The bones act as a storage site (important, since she eats during the day, and deposits egg shell¬†overnight).¬† Simple, right?

Sorta.¬†¬† Getting enough calcium into a hen every day is tricky….the ration needs to be balanced for both calcium and phosphorus, and hens do NOT like eating a ration that contains more than 4% calcium (the amount needed if a hen is to lay an egg each day)…..it is very salty, and hens will back off feed when the calcium level is high in the diet, until they get used to it.¬† Giving oyster shell as a free-choice supplement is not enough if you have a modern laying hen breed.¬† Hens eat oyster shells, and they stay in the gizzard as the acid there dissolves them

The black stuff inside the gizzard is limestone…another source of calcium. It stays in the gizzard until it shrinks to less than 3mm in size, then it goes through the gut. This gizzard is quite full, but the large particles won’t provide enough calcium for the hen, if they are the sole source.

slowly….thus it is a constant drip of calcium for the hen.¬† Helpful, but if it is the only source of calcium, the physical limits of the gizzard, and the slow release of the calcium means the hen won’t get enough.

To further complicate things, the bones are made of calcium phosphate….therefore phosphorus is also very important for bone health (and indirectly, shell quality).¬† The problem is, the phosphorus level needs to be in the proper ratio with the calcium…..too much phosphorus is dangerous to the hen, and she must get rid of it through her kidneys, and will (strangely) result in the same condition as insufficient phosphorus.¬† In a backyard, feeding minerals becomes more art than science.¬† Feed sunflower seeds, edamame, flax seeds and oat bran (foods high in phosphorus), but not TOO much…..and there is no target amount to feed…..it depends on the amount of calcium the hens consume…..the ratio of calcium to phosphorus is the important number.

To further complicate things, if you have a modern type laying hen, her physiology is set to lay an egg a day (pretty much).  She will do this, regardless of the state of her bones, or the balance of her calcium intake vs output.  The result is poorly shelled eggs, weak bones, egg bound hens or chickens that are too weak to survive well.  Heritage breeds are not as physiologically driven to lay eggs, and will just stop laying if the mineral balance is poor.

The answer is to feed hens a ration that is balanced with a lot of calcium in it, and appropriate amounts of phosphorus added.¬† Feed treats and scratch as just that….treats and amusement.¬† Don’t try to balance your hens rations piecemeal….it is all but impossible, and the hens will suffer.¬† Another way to approach the problem is to use heritage breeds, which will go out of lay¬† much more easily, and spare themselves the effects of calcium depletion.¬† You will get fewer eggs, but also less problems.

Mike the Chicken Vet