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Poultry Avian Influenza - Backyard chicken keeper's guide

Poultry Avian Influenza - Backyard chicken keeper's guide

Avian Influenza in Poultry 

Last updated 3rd December 2022

The last bird flu (avian influenza) outbreak in Australia was in Victoria in 2020. Thanks to the diligent work of Agriculture Victoria, that outbreak was contained in the Golden Plains Shire.

While Australia has remained outbreak-free since then, 2022 has seen what equates to a bird flu pandemic among bird populations across much of the world. Avian influenza outbreaks across Europe and the Americas have affected wild bird populations and domestic poultry, with thousands of wild birds dying and even more domestic birds culled due to the disease.

These have been the worst avian influenza outbreaks ever in the UK and the USA. The sheer number of wild birds effected have led some to consider the outbreak a possible "extinction event" for vulnerable wild bird species.

Although avian influenza outbreaks are not uncommon, they usually the flare up and are controlled relatively quickly like in Victoria. This outbreak, which has been going since October 2021, is unusually long and widespread, with more than three times the average number of separate outbreaks reported worldwide.

With the current avian influenza crisis, it is time for Australian poultry keepers to refresh their knowledge of this bird disease. 

Learn how to recognise the symptoms of avian influenza and how to prevent avian influenza in poultry. It is easy for backyard chicken keepers to protect their birds from avian influenza.

What is Avian Influenza?

Avian influenza, also called bird flu, is a viral disease of birds. It can be caused by any number of strains of the virus, some of which are more infectious or more harmful than others. The virus that causes bird flu is continually changing and adapting. 

Although there have been cases of avian influenza infecting humans, the virus does not seem to be transmitted from person-to-person, only from birds. The virus also does not infect people through eating meat or eggs. Fortunately, the most likely virus strain to infect humans is not the strain responsible for the current widespread avian influenza outbreaks. However, all bird and poultry keepers should take basic precautions when handling their animals.

Symptoms of Avian Influenza in Poultry

In many cases, the symptoms of avian influenza in backyard chickens and other birds are mild. Sometimes, you won’t even know there is anything wrong with your birds. However, some strains of the virus are more severe. The strain responsible for the current outbreak in Europe, the Americas and Asia is causing widespread death among infected birds.

The symptoms of avian influenza in chickens can include:

  • Droopy, lethargic birds
  • Diarrhoea
  • Breathing difficulties, including sneezing and coughing
  • A swollen head
  • Purple discolouration of the head and neck, including the comb and wattles
  • Discharge from the nostrils and eyes
  • Decreased egg production
  • Sudden decrease in food and/or water consumption
  • Puffed feathers

The sudden sickness or death of multiple birds in your flock is a potential sign of avian influenza infection.

Treating Avian Influenza in Chickens

Unfortunately, there is no treatment for avian influenza in chickens.

However, avian influenza is a notifiable illness in Australia. If you suspect that your chickens have avian influenza, you are legally obligated to notify the government. 

Call the Emergency Animal Disease Watch Hotline on 1800 675 888 if you suspect a case of avian influenza.

Notifying the government is essential to controlling the disease. If the outbreak is stopped early, it protects the lives of people as well as birds. When the virus can’t be quickly controlled, all of the chickens in an outbreak hotspot, including backyard flocks, could be culled.

How Do Chickens Get Avian Influenza?

Avian influenza generally spreads through droppings, although it can also spread through feathers, saliva and close contact with other birds. Chickens that don't have contact with wild birds and have uncontaminated feed and water are very unlikely to get avian influenza.

Chickens most commonly get avian influenza from wild birds, although it can also come from a new chicken that is infected or even equipment that is carrying the virus. 

Contact with droppings, particularly through contaminated feed and water, as well as sharing a Feeder or Drinker with wild birds, is a common way for domestic chickens to get the disease.

Although waterfowl, in particular ducks, are believed to often be the carriers of avian influenza in Australia, any wild bird could have the disease, even if it does not have any symptoms. Although we have been lucky so far, it is possible that migratory birds from the Northern hemisphere may bring the strain of bird flu that is responsible for the current outbreak to Australia.  

How to Prevent Avian Influenza in Backyard Chickens

The most important thing you can do to protect your chickens from avian influenza is prevent interaction with wild birds. Practicing good biosecurity is also important.

You can prevent your birds coming into contact with avian influenza by:

  • Securing your coop against wild birds
  • Ensuring wild birds don’t share your chickens’ Feeder or Drinker
  • Only feeding small amounts of scraps in a dish in the coop, so uneaten food doesn’t attract wild visitors
  • Netting your chicken run
  • Disinfecting the coop regularly
  • Disinfecting any equipment that is shared between flocks or is second hand
  • Ensuring visitors to your coop haven’t had contact with other birds
  • Quarantining new birds before introducing them to your flock

How to Prepare for an Avian Influenza Outbreak in Australia

Hopefully, if there is an avian influenza outbreak in Australia, we will be able to contain it quickly. But if there was avian influenza in your area, would you be prepared?

In an outbreak area, all birds must be kept indoors - this includes free-range poultry. Do you have a plan for how you would contain your birds if you needed to keep them indoors for an extended period of time? Perhaps you already have a sizeable chicken coop or a roofed chicken run, but if you don't, you should think about how you might be able to make a small, enclosed and roofed yard for your chickens. 

Chickens that are enclosed in a small space tend to get bored, which often leads to bullying. Make sure you have a repertoire of chicken amusements up your sleeve and ideally a garden, so you can pick large bunches of greens and other treats for your birds.

Another thing to think about is your water source. Although bird flu is unlikely to be found in rainwater, it is possible if a bird with the disease pooped on your roof. The disease could also be transmitted through pond water where infected birds have swum. This is probably only a risk in the case of a severe outbreak, but do you have a clean water source for your chickens, such as town water or bore water?

How Dangerous is Avian Influenza to People?

Although avian influenza has been known to spread from birds to humans, it only does so rarely. Most strains of avian influenza, including those wreaking havoc in Europe, the Americas and Asia, do not easily pass to humans. Furthermore, in most cases avian influenza causes only mild symptoms in people.

In order to contract avian influenza from a bird, you must have very close contact with an infected bird or fail to follow good hygiene such as washing your hands etc. Human-to-human transmission of the disease is very unlikely.

Although there is a possibility that avian influenza might mutate and become more contagious to humans, this is unlikely. All recorded outbreaks of avian influenza in Australia have been successfully contained and eradicated. However, an outbreak that is not controlled could cause billions of dollars of damage to industry and cause the unnecessary deaths of many thousands of birds.

How to Keep your Family Safe from Avian Influenza

The easiest way to keep your family safe from avian influenza is to protect your birds from the disease, as outlined above, and have good chicken coop hygiene.

Good chicken coop hygiene means the same practices you use to protect yourself from all chicken illnesses. They seem like common sense, but you’d be amazed how often people forget!

  • Wash your hands after handling birds or eggs
  • Never bring birds in the house 
  • Avoid close contact with sick birds
  • Cook chicken meat and eggs
  • Wear a mask when cleaning dry or dusty droppings

Practicing good biosecurity and reporting any symptoms in your flock is also key.

Disinfecting your chicken coop when you clean it is also an effective way to prevent avian influenza in your flock, helping to protect your family.

For more advice on keeping yourself and your family safe from Avian Influenza by practicing good biosecurity, click here.

Happy chicken keeping!

Rachael - Dine a Chook Australia

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