Notes From a First Time Farmer – Disease

This week has been one of those times when I seriously question my abilities as a keeper of chickens.  It’s Friday night, and I had to cull a hen and two chicks.  Why you ask?  Well, I suppose it all started at the beginning of May when my kids and I went to the local animal swap and bought three little chicks.  They were cute, and looked healthy.  Just as I had done in the past, I raised them in the house in their brooder until they got old enough to go outside into their section of the chicken coop, and their own little run.  They seemed to be doing well until the middle of June.  My oldest son had been outside looking at them, and he told me he thought Old Crow might be sick.  I went and took a look, and it was true he didn’t look healthy.  Up to this date, our only experience with chicken disease had been coccidiosis.  It did seem odd to me there was no bloody poop, and the chick’s comb was still bright red, but I thought we had caught it early.  My son suggested we segregate the chick inside in a brooder until he got better, which I thought was a good idea.  I started Selmut in Old Crow’s water, and the chick’s outside as a precaution, and made sure everyone had medicated chick feed.  I added dry milk to their feed for some probiotics for good measure, and hoped he would be better in a couple of days.

The two chicks outside were acting healthy, but Old Crow only got sicker.  By day two I was pretty sure it wasn’t coccidiosis, but didn’t have any idea on what it could be.  After perusing the internet and my chicken book, I started to think it was the one disease no chicken keeper wants in their flock – Marek’s Disease.  But I wasn’t sure.  Old Crow didn’t have all the symptoms – maybe it was worms.  My husband went to the feed store to get their opinion.  They didn’t know what Old Crow had, but were pretty sure it wasn’t worms, and gave us some vitamins to give to the chicks.   Old Crow died, but the other were looking fine  I gave them the vitamins, cleaned their coop out, and hoped it was an isolated incident.

This week my kids and I were letting the various flocks of poultry out when my son came running.  Hennessy, one of the chick’s, was not looking right. His head was turned so he was looking up at the sky, and he couldn’t un-turn it.  At first I thought he had hit his head when he was trying to perch in the rafters of the coop, or he had gotten his head stuck in the chicken wire, and twisted his neck trying to get it out.  Back to the internet.  At first it seemed my two thoughts were the likely cause of his predicament, or he could have wry neck, which is caused by a vitamin deficiency.  Okay, I can fix that.  I added vitamins to their water, and watched to make sure Hennessy could still eat and drink (he could).  He didn’t seem to be getting better though, and after consulting with several books and websites, Marek’s Disease came up again.  Looking at the chicks, I noticed they both had droopy wings, and weren’t as big as they should be for their age.  Then, one of my adult hen’s was suddenly sick.  She looked fine on Monday, but by Wednesday she couldn’t lift her head to drink.  I euthanized her that night. Tonight it was Hennessy and Collins.  Hennessy couldn’t stand up and his neck was still twisted. Collins wings were dragging.

So…Marek’s Disease, what is it, and can you do anything about it? As an aside, I was telling my dad all this over the phone this morning, and he was telling me about my Grandma Shafer, and all the chicks she raised.  He said the only mortality they ever had was from chicks getting trampled in the box during shipping.  It would have been really nice to call her this week, and get her suggestions about the problem, and what to do.  In lieu of that, I got this great book called “The Chicken Health Handbook,” by Gail Damerow.

According to this book, and other sources, Marek’s Disease is caused by six different herpesviruses that affect the nerves of growing birds.  Damerow says Marek’s kills more chickens than any other disease.  On page 127 she says, “It’s so common you can safely assume your flock is infected, even if your chickens don’t show any symptoms.”  The virus attacks different parts of the chicken’s body, resulting in a variety of symptoms – droopy wing, paralyzed leg, head held low, twisted neck, blindness, and sudden death.

Marek’s Disease is highly contagious.  It is spread from bird to bird through the small flakes of feather follicle or dander that a chicken sheds constantly.  The herpesviruses that causes the disease can be spread through contaminated equipment, dust, bedding, down, and bird dander, which can be carried everywhere by the wind, mice, and wild birds hanging out around your chicken coop.  Marek’s has a long incubation period where a bird sheds the virus and remains contagious for up to two weeks before showing any signs of the disease.  Luckily, it is not spread through hatching eggs or on their shells, and cannot be spread to people.

To prevent Marek’s you can try to breed for resistance, practice good sanitation, keep turkeys with chickens, and vaccinate.  The best treatment is to cull the affected birds, unless you are breeding for resistance.  There is no cure.  Chickens can have Marek’s Disease and never show any symptoms.  Their meat and eggs are still safe for human consumption, however.

So…where do I go from here?  Tomorrow I will be cleaning out the chick’s coop, and their run.  The big chickens area will also get a thorough muck out.  I’ve been meaning to do it and now I have incentive.  I am also going to monitor the remaining chickens.  If they start looking sick the whole flock will have to be culled.  While the animal swap is fun, I will no longer be getting my birds there.  From now on I will get them from a hatchery where I can have them vaccinated, and I may think about a turkey or two.  I’m also going to make sure I am better educated on the more common chicken diseases.  As GI Joe always said, “Knowing is Half the Battle.”

If you want to read up on this on your own, I highly recommend “The Chicken Health Handbook,” by Gail Damerow.  If you haven’t been to backyardchickens.com yet, you should.  They have a great page called, “Marek’s Disease Fact Site” that is very informative, and brings in information from many different sources.

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