CSU expert: Keep backyard chickens safe from avian flu

photo of hen

A Colorado State University expert is closely monitoring the avian influenza viruses that have been detected in poultry flocks in a number of states, and offering disease prevention tips to poultry producers, including backyard chicken farmers.

Kristy Pabilonia, an associate professor in CSU’s Department of Microbiology, Immunology and Pathology, is coordinator of the Colorado Avian Disease Surveillance Program.

The program is a joint effort with the Colorado Department of Agriculture through funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to monitor infectious diseases, including avian influenza viruses, for the Colorado poultry industry and respond quickly to outbreaks that pose a threat to the industry or public health. In addition to routinely testing thousands of commercial and backyard birds every year, the program randomly tests birds at events such as county fairs, bird shows and swaps.

photo of Pabilonia
Dr. Kristy Pabilonia, coordinator of the Colorado Avian Disease Surveillance Program, studies infectious diseases at the CSU Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratories. (Click to enlarge.)

“Whether you are a commercial producer or a backyard chicken owner, it is important to remember to prevent contact between your birds and wild birds, particularly wild waterfowl,” Pabilonia said. “While this disease hasn’t been detected in Colorado yet, we need to be proactive about taking precautions to control its spread.”

Backyard chickens are allowed in many municipalities and counties along the Front Range, including Fort Collins, Denver and Colorado Springs.

More than 6 million chickens and turkeys are being euthanized in the Midwest to control the spread of avian flu. And the threat has struck close to home: On March 26, federal officials announced that a wild Canada goose in Laramie County, Wyo., tested positive for highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI). Avian influenza viruses are carried globally in wild migratory waterfowl and shorebirds. They can be transmitted to domestic birds and then between domestic flocks, carried on shared equipment or clothing worn by people moving from one flock to another, for instance.

The HPAI virus is of low risk to people, and there have been no reported human infections resulting from the current outbreak of HPAI in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. While the potential for infection in people exists in other avian influenza viruses found elsewhere in the world, most of the viruses don’t infect people, and most human infections have occurred after prolonged and direct contact with infected birds, the CDC says.

Tips for owners

Pabilonia said backyard chickens should be kept in a fully fenced enclosure with netting on top and feed should be kept in the coop, not left in the open, to avoid attracting wild birds. She said open ponds or water pools are also an invitation for wild waterfowl to land and possibly infect domestic flocks.

Backyard chicken farmers should have a dedicated pair of shoes and clothing, such as coveralls, to wear only when in contact with their flocks, to avoid transmitting any pathogens from wild birds or other domestic flocks, she advised. Equipment and supplies should not be shared between flocks.

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Backyard chicken flocks and commercial flocks both require protection and monitoring. (Click to enlarge.)

“Make sure no viruses can hitchhike on your shoes or clothing when you go to take care of your birds,” said State Veterinarian Keith Roehr of the Colorado Department of Agriculture, adding that chicken owners should require that visiting friends and family follow the same procedures.

He also said that the coming summer weather may help; the virus thrives in moist, cool conditions.

Pabilonia said this the greatest regional HPAI threat she’s seen in years.

“The current outbreak is resulting in significant bird and economic losses to both large-scale and small-scale producers,” Pabilonia said. “Backyard flock owners should work to help prevent avian influenza from spreading further.”

As part of the National Animal Health Laboratory Network, the CSU Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratories use state-of-the-art equipment to test for significant foreign animal diseases such as HPAI. In 2013-14, the lab did routine testing for avian influenza on 7,721 birds submitted to the lab by private owners and the state, and none came back positive.

“This is a prime example of our role as a core lab in the National Animal Health Laboratory Network, in closely monitoring diseases like the avian influenza and responding quickly to control outbreaks,” said Dr. Barbara Powers, director of the Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratories.

Threat to egg producers

“The threat of HPAI is concerning to us, and we are closely monitoring the situation in the Midwest,” said Jerry Wilkins, president of Colorado Egg Producers. “As egg farmers we take disease prevention on our farms very seriously. The Colorado Egg Producers association asks that all poultry owners, large and small, across the state, follow comprehensive biosecurity procedures to protect the health and well-being of all poultry and egg layers in Colorado.”

All bird owners, whether commercial producers or backyard enthusiasts, should report unusual bird deaths or birds that exhibit signs of sickness. Those who have sick birds or birds that have died from unknown causes can contact the Colorado Avian Health Call Line at CSU at 970-297-4008. Dead birds may be submitted to the CSU Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratories in Fort Collins for free HPAI testing; the lab can be reached at 970-297-4008 or 970-297-1281. More information is available at http://dlab.colostate.edu.

To report multiple sick birds or unusual bird deaths to state officials, contact the Colorado State Veterinarian’s Office at 303-869-9130 or the USDA at 303-231-5385.

Fast facts

  • According to USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service, Colorado had more than 4.4 million egg-laying hens in commercial production in 2013, producing over 1.2 billion eggs, ranking the state 20th in the country for number of layers and total egg production. According to the Colorado Department of Agriculture, Colorado egg production accounted for more than $100 million in gross income that same year.
  • Highly pathogenic avian influenza has been detected in poultry flocks in Iowa, Missouri, Arkansas, Minnesota, Kansas, California, Oregon, Washington and Idaho. In Iowa, the nation’s largest egg-producing state, officials announced in April that more than 5 million chickens were being euthanized in an effort to control the spread of the disease. And hundreds of thousands of turkeys are being destroyed in commercial operations.
  • During outbreaks, the disease can be easily transmitted between domestic poultry flocks. Vaccines are not commonly used on poultry because no vaccine covers all strains of the virus and because vaccination can negatively affect trade.
  • Highly pathogenic forms of the virus can spread quickly, with potential to cause severe disease and death in domestic flocks. According to the USDA, the virus can travel in wild birds without causing them to appear sick, and people should avoid contact with sick or dead birds. People who have had such contact are advised to wash their hands and change clothing before working with domestic poultry.
  • According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, avian flu is most often spread by contact between birds, as well as contact with contaminated equipment and materials. The virus is found in secretions from the nostrils, mouth, and eyes of infected birds and is also excreted in their droppings. Contact with contaminated droppings is the most common means of bird-to-bird transmission, although airborne secretions are another way it travels, especially in poultry houses.