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Poultry - 2013 Avian Influenza and Backyard Poultry

2013 Avian Influenza and Backyard Poultry

By Anne Lichtenwalner, DVM, PhD, University of Maine Extension

Question: As a small flock owner, should I be worried about avian influenza?

Answer: It’s something to have in mind, should you see respiratory disease in birds, but it’s far from the most likely cause. There are several forms of influenza (AI) in birds: relatively non-pathogenic (low path AI; LPAI) and the more dangerous form (high path AI; HPAI). While it’s not common, it doesn’t hurt to review your management to make your birds “safer”; we call this biosecurity.

Question: What is biosecurity?

Answer: For the poultry owner, it’s keeping chickens away from germs and germs away from chickens. Good fencing, clean coops/hen houses, hand washing/boot cleaning before and after handling birds, quarantine for new or re-entering birds to a flock are examples of biosecurity for any flock. We can learn from the recent losses due to AI in Mexico’s poultry industry. Here are some of the things that have been pointed out as potential reasons that they have had multiple outbreaks of AI in the last few years.

  • Lack of biosecurity: AI was detected at broiler breeder farms, which should have the highest standards for biosecurity. It takes constant vigilance to keep a farm free of wild birds, rodents, or dirty boots from visitors.
  • Selling infected poultry litter to fruit and vegetable growers: Poultry producers need to be sure that they are not spreading disease by treating the litter OR burying it.  In the case of some diseases, like parasites or salmonella, composting is not a reliable means of disinfection. Many people suspect that this is the reason for repeated AI outbreaks.
  • Selling live “spent” hens: Sometimes these birds are “recycled” by molting and keeping for another egg-laying cycle. This practice can perpetuate a disease problem.

Question: How can I find out where this disease is showing up?

Answer: If you would like to see an up-to-date review of AI, go to the CDC site ( There have been cases of highly pathogenic AI in Mexico, and most recently (summer 2013) in Italy.

Question: What can I do to protect my birds from AI?

Answer: Great biosecurity is the best protection.

  • Be careful to house your birds where other birds- especially wild birds- don’t have easy access.
  • Use a small size mesh to keep small wild birds from visiting your poultry.
  • Place feed and water containers where they don’t “tempt” wild birds. For instance, place them inside a structure or away from the borders of the coop.
  • If you free-range your flock, don’t let your birds gather around wild bird feeders.
  • Try to keep wild turkeys away from your poultry: use double fencing for your perimeters (birds can reach through a single fence) and create a “roof” for your coop (turkeys can and do fly).
  • Don’t use poultry litter on your land unless it’s been well-composted.
  • Buy chicks from NPIP-certified hatcheries. Try to have a uniform flock: same age, same source, same vaccination status.

Question: Are there AI vaccines for birds?

Answer: Experimental vaccine of poultry against some types of avian flu has been tried, but was not very effective. There are human vaccines in development for high risk situations.

Question: What about other farm animals — can they get AI?

Answer: In general, flu viruses have a way of “jumping” between certain species: notably humans, birds and pigs. While this is not a common event, it’s still important to be aware of this possibility. For this reason, it’s important to avoid mixing poultry and swine. It’s also very important to isolate sick pigs from poultry or people, and to avoid visiting livestock fairs if you have a cold or the flu.

Information in this publication is provided purely for educational purposes. No responsibility is assumed for any problems associated with the use of products or services mentioned. No endorsement of products or companies is intended, nor is criticism of unnamed products or companies implied.

© 2013
Published and distributed in furtherance of Cooperative Extension work, Acts of Congress of May 8 and June 30, 1914, by the University of Maine and the U.S. Department of Agriculture cooperating. Cooperative Extension and other agencies of the USDA provide equal opportunities in programs and employment.

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Image Description: free range chickens; photo by Edwin Remsberg

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University of Maine Cooperative Extension

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Cooperative Extension: Livestock
5741 Libby Hall
Orono, Maine 04469-5741
Phone: 207.581.3188, 800.287.0274 (in Maine) or 800.287.8957 (TDD)E-mail:
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Orono, Maine 04469
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