Preventing Respiratory Disease in Small Poultry Flocks

To prevent respiratory disease, start with healthy birds and avoid introducing sick birds. Learn how to purchase healthy birds and add them to your flock.
Preventing Respiratory Disease in Small Poultry Flocks - Videos


Poultry respiratory diseases can be difficult to treat and eliminate; therefore, keeping your flock disease-free is critical. You need to start out with healthy birds and avoid introducing birds that may be disease carriers. This video describes how to find and purchase disease-free birds, and how to safely introduce them to your flock.


Biosecurity and disease prevention in backyard and small commercial Flocks Poultry diseases and management interactions Avian toxicology Diseases of game birds,pigeons, exotic and pet birds Poultry Handling and Transportation Animal Welfare

More by Eva Wallner-Pendleton, DVM, MS, ACPV 

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- Many people find raising poultry fun and rewarding, but the fun can quickly diminish if your birds come down with a respiratory disease.

Hi, I'm Emily Lhamon, and I'm a poultry educator with Penn State Extension.

Not only is poultry my job, it is also my passion.

I had birds of my own as a 4-H Youth, and also judged poultry competitions all over the United States and Canada.

Poultry respiratory diseases are sometimes difficult to treat and eliminate once your flock is infected.

Therefore, keeping your flock disease-free is critical.

Starting out with healthy birds is the most important first step to ensure a disease-free flock.

Ideally, you should obtain day-old chicks from a reputable hatchery that participates in the National Poultry Improvement Plan.

The National Poultry Improvement Plan, or NPIP, is a voluntary health certification program for poultry suppliers.

To receive the basic NPIP certification, flocks must be tested for fowl typhoid and pullorum disease.

However, there are other NPIP testing programs available, some of which cover important respiratory diseases, such as avian influenza, mycoplasma gallisepticum, and mycoplasma synoviae.

If you can, purchase chicks from hatcheries that participate in these programs, too.

To determine the certifications for a hatchery or breeder flock, either ask them directly or go to the NPIP website, which is, and look for the link, NPIP Participants by State/Territory.

Once you have day-old chicks, ideally, you would keep a closed flock.

This means that you don't add any additional juvenile or adult birds to your flock.

If you are raising birds for commercial egg production, the best way to do this from a health perspective and from an economic standpoint is to practice all-in, all-out management.

This means keeping one age group of hens for one to two years, then removing all of them and starting with a new, young flock.

This optimizes health, egg production, and feed costs.

If purchasing day-old chicks from a hatchery is not practical for you, the next best option is to purchase poultry from a reputable breeder.

Purchasing older chicks and adult birds is more risky because they are more likely to have been exposed to disease.

While birds may appear to be perfectly healthy, they can still be disease carriers.

There are several respiratory diseases that can exist in a carrier state.

This happens when a bird survives illnesses, but is still shedding the infectious agent.

Carrier animals also show no outward signs of sickness, but once introduced to your flock, they may make the other birds sick.

Some diseases, such as mycoplasma gallisepticum, or MG, result in a life-long carrier state.

To make matters worse, MG may also be transmitted to hatching eggs, resulting in infected baby chicks.

This can be devastating if you want to breed and sell MG-free poultry.

There are some precautions that you could take when you purchase poultry from breeders.

Most show breeders are required to be NPIP participants, so you can ask the breeder for their NPIP number and any recent paperwork associated with the flock.

Unwillingness to share this information may be a warning sign that perhaps, you should consider another breeder.

If you can, ask to visit the breeder's flock and observe the birds.

A savvy breeder will often request that you not visit other birds the day of your visit, and that you wear freshly laundered clothing and clean shoes before coming on their property.

They frequently will not allow you into the actual pens, but they may give you plastic, rubber, or cloth foot coverings to wear.

All of these are good signs of bio-security.

When you're visiting, observe the general state of the facility.

Do the pens seem clean and well-managed?

Is the bedding dry and free of mold?

Are there any ammonia smells in the coup?

Do the birds appear in good health?

Is the owner feeding a balanced diet appropriate for the type of poultry?

Feeding birds a diet that is deficient in key nutrients may predispose them to respiratory and other diseases.

For instance, scratch grains provide great energy, but are not a complete ration.

Note the number and type of birds in the facility.

Does it seem crowded?

Are there multiple species of birds present, such as chickens, turkeys, geese, ducks, and upland game birds?

The larger the bird numbers and the more species on the site, the greater the risk for the disease to occur.

While you are visiting the breeder's facilities, you should ask a number of questions about health and bio-security.

Where did they get their animals?

Are they from an NPIP-certified source?

What is the vaccination history of the flock?

Chickens should be vaccinated against Marek's disease in the hatchery or at one day of age on the farm.

Are any other vaccines given?

Some vaccines have the potential to spread and cause disease if vaccinated and un-vaccinated birds are mixed together.

For instance, infectious laryngotracheitis-vaccinated chickens should not be mixed with birds that have not yet received this vaccine.

Have the birds ever shown signs of a respiratory disease?

If yes, was any testing performed to diagnose the problem?

Does the breeder have a local veterinarian who helps with preventative measures and treats the birds if necessary?

Working with a veterinarian who can treat poultry is a great advantage.

What measures are in place to prevent introduction of disease, especially after an exhibition or a show?

For instance, do they quarantine birds upon return from a show, and for how long?

Three weeks is the recommended quarantine time.

If you have decided on a particular bird or birds to purchase, ask if you can have the birds blood test screened before you finalize the purchase.

Most state or university animal diagnostic laboratories can do a respiratory disease panel on one to three milliliters of blood.

You should call your area diagnostic laboratory and ask which screening tests are available.

The tests are often cost-subsidized and reasonably priced for small flock owners.

It is also a good idea to check for external and internal parasites, and if they are present, eliminate them before you introduce the birds to your flock.

This photo shows nits or lice eggs on the base of the feathers.

To successfully eliminate external parasites, such as lice or mites, birds need at least two or three treatments, one to two weeks apart, depending on the medication used.

To check for internal parasites, collect several fecal droppings in a zip-lock bag and submit to your local veterinarian or an animal diagnostic laboratory.

For more information on parasite screening tests, contact a state or university animal diagnostic laboratory near you, or ask your state extension poultry experts, like me.

Reputable hatcheries and breeders are your best sources for poultry, but what about other sources?

Poultry are readily available from mail order websites, online dealers, poultry auctions, and even neighbors and area bird fanciers.

Obtaining poultry from these sources carries extra risk because it is difficult to verify the health of the birds prior to purchase.

Because of this, we generally do not recommend this avenue to obtain birds.

However, if you decide to obtain poultry from this type of source, we recommend that you quarantine the newly-obtained birds away from the rest of the flock for at least three weeks.

Ideally, quarantined birds should be housed in another site with a separate caretaker because we can inadvertently transport disease on our clothing, hands, or shoes.

Using the same equipment between pens can also spread disease.

Always visit the quarantined birds last.

Be sure to use a disinfectant foot pan at the entrance of the pen, and shower and change clothes before going to the other flock.

If there's only one caretaker, he or she should service the main flock first, and then attend to the quarantined birds.

During the three-week quarantine, observe the birds daily for any disease symptoms such as nasal discharge, cough, diarrhea, weight loss, and reduced activity.

If disease symptoms or unexplained mortality occurs, contact your state diagnostic laboratory for recommendations.

Obtain fecal samples for parasite checks and de-worm animals if parasites are detected.

Check for lice and mites, and treat birds if necessary.

Starting out with disease-free birds is key to having a healthy flock.

Keeping a closed flock is the simplest way to prevent illnesses.

If you must add new birds to your flock, purchase them from a reputable breeder or a hatchery that participates in the NPIP program.

If you purchase birds from other sources, such as an auction or a neighbor, quarantine them from the rest of your flock for at least three weeks and consider doing some disease screening tests during the quarantine period.


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