Keeping Show Chickens Healthy

How To Use Biosecurity for Show Chickens

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Keeping Show Chickens Healthy

Show chickens are hugely entertaining. Fun, as they may be, keeping and exhibiting show chicken breeds can be more involved than keeping run-of-the-mill egg layers. One of the big differences is the act of showing your chickens, which opens your flock up to new health risks. Poultry shows are a health hazard by nature, which is why biosecurity is such a big deal. The good news is that by following some basic tenets of biosecurity, you can significantly reduce your risk of infecting your flock.

Get Tested

Most if not all states and shows now require show chickens to be tested annually for Salmonella Pullorum. Some states may require more tests, but expect Salmonella Pullorum at a minimum. Each bird that’s tested is banded with a steel leg band that has a unique number. These bands will be issued to you either by your state testing authority, or the vet who drew the blood. Getting your birds tested will qualify them to enter shows like the Ohio National Poultry Show.

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Leave Sick Show Chickens At Home

Even if you tested your birds this year, it doesn’t mean they’re healthy right now. You know your birds better than anyone else, so spotting a sick chicken should be easy for you. If your show chickens are acting differently than usual, take that as a sign that something’s changed.

Some of the most common sick chicken symptoms are easy to see, such as coughing, weeping eyes, and drippy nostrils. Others can be more dramatic like paralysis, listlessness, coughing blood or gasping. Sick birds may have diarrhea, which leaves the feathers under the vent soiled and loose or watery droppings on the coop floor. Other sick birds may just look depressed, pale, oblivious and unwilling to move. If you see any of these signs in your show chickens, don’t take them to show!

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Poultry shows are great fun, but they are a high-risk situation for disease transmission.

There’s an unspoken code of conduct among fanciers (people who show fancy chickens) and part of that code includes not bringing sick chickens to a show. If you bring an ill bird to a show, all you’re doing is making other people’s birds sick and risking the life of your chicken.

Also be sure to check your show chickens for mites and lice. Fanciers and judges don’t appreciate parasite-infested chickens. Depending on the show, your birds may even be denied entry if there’s evidence of a mite infestation.

Shipping Stress

Being stuffed in a box and carted an hour or so in the back of an SUV is stressful for your show chickens. Your birds may have a sub-clinical disease, which means they are sick but not showing signs of illness. Putting extra stress on these birds will bring these hidden sicknesses to the surface. If you arrive at a show and you have a bird or birds showing signs of illness, withdraw them immediately and take them home if possible.

Take care to reduce shipping stress as much as possible. Use shipping containers that offer ample ventilation, room, and good absorbent bedding to keep them clean and dry. If you have a mated pair, consider shipping them together instead of isolating them so they don’t become stressed over missing their other half. Other than mated pairs, I usually suggest keeping birds segregated so they don’t fight, crowd, overheat, or pick on their fellow crate mate. Also be sure there are no sharp edges or protrusions in your shipping container that might harm your show chickens or destroy their plumage.

Make sure your birds aren’t overheated or chilled. A good target temperature is 55 to 65 degrees in the crate, so do your best to keep them in that range. Don’t let their crate sit in the sun, because they may get overheated even if you’ve got on the air conditioning.

I’ve found that keeping them in the dark reduces stress quite a bit, just don’t sacrifice ventilation for darkness. Also avoid cranking the radio up on the way to the show, since loud unfamiliar noise will stress them out terribly.

Coming Home

By sheer nature of the beast, a poultry show is a biosecurity nightmare. You’re commingling (or cross contaminating) people, equipment, and flocks to an astounding degree, so treat everything you touch as a suspect. If possible, stop by a car wash on the way home to wash any potentially infected debris or dirt off your car, especially the underside and the tires. Professional farms wash vehicles on their way into the farmyard to stop trucks from driving disease in, but a quick stop at the car wash suffices for us fanciers.

Expect your footwear and clothing to be infected as well. Change your clothes, shower, and disinfect your footwear when you get home. Don’t wear the same clothes in your regular coop or around your other show chickens. Cleaning the foot wells and floor mats of your car are also advisable since you probably tracked contaminated material into your car.

All crates should be washed clean of any dirt or foreign materials, then properly disinfected with a quality disinfectant. Bleach does not qualify. I use and suggest Virkon™ S, which is a popular disinfectant among poultry professionals. Virkon™ S is available as a powder and as a tablet. I highly suggest using the tablets, which are conveniently sized for the proper dilution rate in a spray bottle. Be sure to wet all surfaces and let the disinfectant dry, and be sure to use gloves, mask, eye protection or any other manufacturer recommended protective gear.

As a side note, you can forgo disinfecting crates if you use recycled cardboard boxes. I go to my local liquor store and grab free boxes which I use once, then recycle. It’s not pretty, but it works.

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Isolate and Observe

When you get home from a show, you should assume that the birds you just brought home are infected with something. Even if none of the birds you brought home look sick, they could have a disease that is sub-clinical. These birds need to be isolated for three weeks at a minimum since disease incubation can take that long to produce clinical signs of illness. While you have them under isolation, keep an eye out for symptoms of illness.

Many people misunderstand what isolation means when bringing show chickens home. The best example of isolation done right would be having a completely separate coop, shed, barn or garage that is distanced from your regular coop. Don’t let new or returning birds come in contact or even come near the birds that didn’t go to show.

Watch your Step

As you do your daily chores, be sure to start in the coop that has the least likelihood of being infected and end in the coop that has the highest risk of being infected. To illustrate what I mean, let’s use an example. Imagine you have three coops. Coop one is your hatchery, coop two is for your adult breeders and coop three is your isolation coop. You should start your chores in coop one with the chicks, then take care of coop two. The inhabitants in coop two didn’t go to the show, so they are less likely to be sick. Last, you should visit coop three with the new or returning birds under isolation.

If you visited in reserve order (coop three, then two and one) you run the risk of tracking disease from the high-risk isolation barn all the way through your entire flock. Doing that would completely defeat the purpose of isolation.

An Ounce of Prevention

We all know the old adage, and as tired as it may be, it’s still true: An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. It’s far less traumatic to treat a handful of chickens in your isolation coop than to have your entire show chicken flock get sick. Limit your risks by taking these basic precautions to prevent a disease from infecting your whole flock. The world of poultry shows and the fancy, in general, is supposed to be a fun venture for all. Keep it that way by practicing good biosecurity.

What protocols do you use for shows? Let us know in the comments below!

Originally published in Backyard Poultry August / September 2017 and regularly vetted for accuracy. 

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