Medicine is the Best Medicine

Basing your flock's treatment on pure anecdotes could be doing harm.

Medicine is the Best Medicine

Reading Time: 6 minutes

It turns out laughter is not the best medicine. Medicine is the best medicine. And when it comes to herbal remedies and old wives’ tales, I’m cynical at best. Do you know what home remedies that actually work are called? Medicine. If there is evidence that it heals, it’s medicine. If you base your flock’s treatment on pure anecdotes, you could be doing harm.   

You cannot use anecdotes as evidence that a treatment works. For example, if a chicken took Y and then recovered, you cannot say that Y works. It would be more appropriate to say Y has some interesting characteristics and warrants further research. Anecdotes, including grandma’s home remedies, suggest to researchers possible medications to investigate. Still, a large controlled study must determine if Y is the actual thing healing the birds or just a coincidence. 

I am passionate about medicine being the best medicine because of a homestead incident earlier last year. My new neighbors let their dog out, who killed one of my chickens. Despite my efforts, they tried to amend the situation by replacing my beautiful agility-trained bird with two birds rescued from a local layer operation. These birds were in poor feather condition and heat-stressed. I did not expect them and did not have a proper quarantine setup. One of the birds died within a day, and within two days, I noticed the other bird coughing. Even though we physically separated the bird from my flock, my entire original flock started to cough as well. Not wanting to waste my time on homemade concoctions of herbs and apple cider vinegar, I contacted a board-certified, 10+ year education poultry veterinarian. They gave me antibiotics and, after three weeks of treatment and not being able to eat the eggs, all of my birds recovered.    

My beloved Betty White Australorp mid agility session.

My veterinarian prescribed medicine because I have a valid Veterinarian-Client-Patient Relationship. The details are given here: A vet cannot get a call from somebody they have never met before, write a prescription, and then never hear from them again. This is why even a hobbyist should find a poultry vet.

I think homesteaders use home remedies in lieu of medicine because they want to be self-sufficient. It is also difficult to find proper medical information or a poultry veterinarian that will treat backyard chickens.

“Most poultry veterinarians work for the industry and have to follow strict biosecurity rules, which prevent them from visiting other flocks and potentially spreading diseases,” Dr. Ruediger Hauck says. Dr. Hauck is a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine, has a Ph.D., and is an Assistant Professor with a shared appointment at the Departments of Pathobiology and Poultry Science at Auburn University.  

 I think homesteaders use home remedies in lieu of medicine because they want to be self-sufficient.  

When the first bird died, I should have submitted her to state diagnostic laboratories, which would have been free or very low in cost. In my state, it is $50. That gives a thorough diagnosis, often including isolation of bacteria and an antibacterial susceptibility test, but the diagnosticians will not recommend a specific treatment.

“The next best choice is to contact local veterinarians and ask if they would take chickens as patients. They might have some experience with chickens or with other avian species,” Dr. Hauck says. “If there are no veterinarians nearby that can help, and backyard chicken owners need to educate themselves, they should consult books about chicken health for a broader audience, but written by veterinarians, or websites hosted by universities or extension services.” 

Information on private blogs, forums, or websites selling products, can be helpful but should be considered more cautiously. I then asked Dr. Hauck if there was a home remedy that would work for respiratory infections in chickens.  

“Not that I would be aware of, but I do not know many home remedies in the first place. Therefore, there might be some that are at least plausible. The best “home remedy,” as with all diseases, is Tender Loving Care: no stress; clean air; agreeable temperatures, maybe a bit warmer than usual; tasty, hygienic and easily digestible but nutrient-rich feed; a clean environment.” 

General antibiotics that are safe for poultry with respiratory problems include tetracyclines and macrolides. “These are two classes of antibiotics that are frequently used in the industry for respiratory diseases. They are safe to use and, if there is some involvement of sensitive bacteria, effective,” Dr. Hauck explains.

If you want to test your birds for respiratory infection and not euthanize or submit a dead bird, you can take swabs from the cleft in the palate where the beak cavity and nasal cavity connect. “This is relatively easy,” Dr. Hauck assures me. “You can also swab the windpipe, which requires more experience and is more uncomfortable for the bird but gives more reliable results for some diseases. Depending on the test(s) you want to have run on a swab, storage and shipping require different conditions. So, if you want to do that yourself, you should check with the laboratory what they recommend.” 

One popular suggestion I see at my local feed store is VetRx Poultry Remedy.

“I didn’t know it, but I briefly checked it out. I’m sure it doesn’t hurt chickens if used as indicated. I doubt that it will help a lot,” Dr. Hauck says.

Dr. Hauck and a lab in Poland did two studies on apple cider vinegar and its effect on chicks with coccidiosis.

“The Polish group found some effect, we did not. The difference might be due to a higher dose.

Information on private blogs, forums, or websites selling products, can be helpful but should be considered more cautiously.

“There are probably a few hundred articles on all kinds of plant products, on all kinds of physiological and health parameters. These tests are usually not rigorous enough. It’s usually one experiment, and then often one or two results are cherry-picked. There is no follow-up on a larger scale to verify the results. Another problem is that many of the tested products, and certainly not fresh herbs, are standardized when it comes to the active ingredients. A batch of a certain plant grown and harvested this spring in Alabama might have a different activity from a slightly different variety grown in France last year.” 

I asked Dr. Hauck to explain the dangers of following anecdotal stories rather than medicine, as I am not a doctor.

“Medication approved by the FDA has been shown to be safe for the birds, people consuming birds or their eggs, and effective against the disease in question by independent and rigorous testing.” 

Consequently, using other treatments involves three risks:

(1) Plants can be toxic, and if certain plants are given in high doses or concentrations, like in essential oils, they can poison the birds. I remember a small animal hospital case when the owner nearly killed their cat by bathing them in essential oils because the cat had fleas. It is easy to imagine that something similar happens with chickens.

(2) Residues of the treatments can be in meat or eggs and negatively affect people eating them. This risk is relatively low, especially if this is not a daily and major component of the diet, but shouldn’t be neglected, especially when using medication not approved for use in chickens.

(3) The birds might not receive the treatment they require because owners trust only anecdotal treatments. Extreme examples are kids not receiving cancer treatment because their parents rely on charlatans. Not every common cold requires the full arsenal of treatments. Often birds will recover without antibiotics, but it is important to monitor the condition and be prepared to use medicine without hesitation if the conditions worsen.

“Also keep in mind that drugs are approved by the FDA for specific animals, specific doses, and specific diseases. A drug that is safe in one species can be quite toxic for another one; the risk increases if owners forget to adjust the dose for significantly lower body weight. More than a few dog and cat owners have poisoned their pets by giving them drugs intended for humans; ibuprofen is notorious for that. I do not know a similar example for chickens, but using medication developed for and tested only in mammals in birds is very risky.”

The FDA approves drugs for specific animals, specific doses, and specific diseases. A safe drug in one species can be quite toxic for another. Owners have poisoned their pets by giving them drugs intended for humans.

Dr. Hauck and I agree that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

“There is a shortage of proven treatments for chickens, and this is not going to change. So prevention by good management is key, basically what I outlined above as TLC plus vaccines, at the very least against Marek’s Disease.”

Do you have experience with medicine being the best medicine? I would love to hear it.

Originally published in the February/March 2021 issue of Backyard Poultry and regularly vetted for accuracy.

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