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Education, research and outreach top of mind with backyard chickens

Photo of a person standing among backyard chickens (Photo credit: Istock.com:TommL)Research, education and outreach to non-poultry veterinarians and small flock owners are top of mind for poultry experts in order to provide medical care for these birds and create awareness of reportable diseases such as avian influenza.

Small poultry flocks are gaining big interest, particularly among some urban dwellers.

The move highlights the importance of educating small flock owners and non-poultry veterinarians around care for these birds. There is also a need for surveillance and research to identify the risk of disease in backyard flocks and to manage public health concerns.

The definition of ‘backyard chickens’ technically can refer to anything from six birds in an urban backyard to small flocks of 50 or up to 300 birds on a hobby farm, but small poultry flocks are predominantly an urban issue in Ontario. 

“As communities continue to permit the establishment of small flocks, it is important to ensure animal owners and urban farmers, some of whom have little or no experience with food production animals, have access to appropriate veterinary services for their animals,” says Jan Robinson, Registrar and Chief Executive Officer of the College of Veterinarians of Ontario (CVO) that licenses veterinarians in the province. “While the public may view their chickens as pets, urban companion animal veterinarians may not have current poultry experience or the veterinary facilities to tend to backyard birds.”

Research, education and outreach to non-poultry veterinarians and small flock owners are top of mind for poultry experts at the Ontario Veterinary College, the University of Guelph’s (U of G) Animal Health Laboratory and the Ontario Animal Health Network (OAHN), which is comprised of expert networks across the food animal and companion animal spectrum, including wildlife. 

“Not only is it important to be able to provide medical care for these birds, there is also a need to create awareness of reportable diseases such as avian influenza,” says Kate Todd, veterinarian and OAHN coordinator. 

OAHN recently offered a one-day workshop designed for non-poultry veterinarians. It included information on small flock medicine and Ontario regulations regarding backyard poultry. Pathology lab sessions demonstrated how to complete a post-mortem on a chicken and collect samples if needed. Information was also provided on appropriate and humane euthanasia techniques.

During the workshop, Kim Lambert, Associate Registrar, Quality Practice with CVO, also explained that veterinarians must work from an accredited food animal mobile to treat chickens being used for food production. This accreditation can be obtained by companion animal veterinarians with an interest in working with small flocks.

While the number of small flocks has markedly increased over the past few years, there is a knowledge void about the type of diseases that affect this segment of the poultry sector, says Csaba Varga, Lead Veterinarian, Disease Prevention, Poultry, with the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs and co-lead of the OAHN Poultry Network.

OVC and AHL researchers recently completed an infectious disease surveillance study in small, non-commercial Ontario flocks. Their goal: to establish a baseline for the prevalence of important viral, bacterial and parasitic diseases in these birds.

The good news, no highly pathogenic avian influenza or foreign animal diseases were found. 

The most prevalent conditions were upper respiratory infections. The researchers also focused on potential zoonotic pathogens that can be transmitted between animals and humans.

While Salmonella levels were low, Campylobacter samples were higher than expected, says Varga. Both pathogens can cause gastrointestinal illness in humans, including diarrhea.

The findings highlight why preventative practices are key when working with backyard poultry. Hand washing is one of the simplest strategies to reduce transmission of bacteria or pathogens between birds and people, notes Varga.

A key takeaway from the research is outreach. Study results will be shared through poultry associations, research days, workshops and social media opportunities to raise awareness of common poultry diseases among veterinarians and small flock owners.

Further study focused on the public health aspects of backyard poultry is already underway.

OVC professor Scott Weese, an infectious disease expert and director of the U of G Centre for Public Health and Zoonoses, is working with Public Health Ontario and local public health units to learn more from backyard poultry owners.

The work will help them learn where urban poultry owners are located, how they house their flock, what measures they take to reduce the risk of human disease and how they obtain information about caring for their chickens. 

It will provide needed data to better understand the current landscape and help develop education tools to help urban poultry owners keep themselves and their birds healthy.

Originally published in the Spring-Summer 2019 issue of The Crest, the research, teaching and health care magazine of the Ontario Veterinary College. 

(Photo credit: IStock.com:TommL)