Backyard chicken owners urged to practice biosecurity

The Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services is asking owners of backyard chicken flocks to practice vigilant biosecurity after a wild duck in Montana was recently discovered to be infected with the H5N2 strain of avian influenza.

The virus, which cannot be transmitted to humans, can be spread to birds through contact with various wild waterfowl as well as through contact with their droppings.

Elaine Lidholm, director of communications for the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, said that while prevention can’t be guaranteed, there are practices that can greatly reduce the transmission of the disease.

“There are a few simple steps,” she said. “Isolate your chickens from visitors or other birds. … Keep it clean. Clean your shoes, your equipment. Have dedicated clothing but don’t wear that back across the yard into the house. Cleaning your vehicles if they’ve been on a farm or a backyard that has birds wouldn’t hurt. Clean any cages that might have come in contact (with chickens).”

She also recommended not to introduce chickens to strangers unless proper measures are taken, such as the removal of shoes and the covering of clothing. A news release suggested keeping a designated set of coveralls and boots at the entrance to the chickens’ area to wear while tending to the poultry then changing back upon leaving.

Lidholm said that infected poultry will exhibit symptoms not unlike those associated with human influenza – drainage from the nose, coughing and diarrhea among others.

She said that those with sick birds should report the case to a regional animal health diagnostic laboratory. There are two such laboratories in the region: in Harrisonburg, the phone number is 540-209-9130,  and a facility in Warrenton can be reached at 540-316-6543.

Lidholm said that backyard chicken owners, rather than commercial operations, are the target of this announcement because commercial poultry operations hear from the Ariculture and Consumer Services on a regular basis. Lidholm said it’s harder to reach backyard farms that come and go.

She said that since many species of waterfowl are migratory, contact with infected birds could occur anywhere they choose to land or defecate. She recommended that those in a migratory flyway should consider fencing in their chickens, especially if there is a body of water on the property, which migratory birds often use as places to rest on their long journey.

“I think a lot of people with backyard chickens are very fond of their birds and they want to protect them,” Lidholm said. “They become almost household pets. … We wanted to say to people, particularly backyard folks, that you need to be very careful about biosecuirty.”

Contact staff writer Nathan Budryk at 540-465-5137 ext. 155, or nbudryk@nvdaily.com