Top 7 Questions About Vaccinating Your Flock

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By Michelle Miller – It’s spring again, which means lots of us are ramping up to bring home new birds. However, with new birds, come new (and old) questions about vaccination. It can be difficult to decide what is necessary for small flocks. Here are some common questions and answers to get you started.

What Vaccines are Important?

There are a multitude of vaccines on the market but only a few of them are serious considerations for small flock owners. It isn’t practical or advisable to vaccinate for every potential illness. Some diseases, such as Fowl Pox, should only be vaccinated against if there have been outbreaks in the area. My vaccine list includes Marek’s, Newcastle, and Infectious Bronchitis. You may also consider adding Infectious Bursal Disease.

Can I Purchase Vaccinated Chicks?

It has become common for hatcheries to vaccinate day-old chicks for Marek’s. Some offer additional vaccines but you may have to request these as part of the purchasing process. Keep in mind there are restrictions if you receive your birds by mail. The USPS specifically outlines that one-day-old birds that have received a live vaccine against Newcastle cannot be shipped. Some vaccines may need to be administered when your birds are older so you have to do those yourself.

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Where do I Get Poultry Vaccines?

Most vaccines are sold online in 1,000+ dose vials as the target market consists of large production farmers. Even at this scale, a 5,000 dose vial may only cost $20-$30. Try to find other poultry owners who are interested in vaccinating to coordinate splitting an order and vaccinate your entire flock at one time.

I Ordered Them, Now What?

Vaccines must be temperature controlled so be prepared to store the vials in a refrigerator until you are ready to vaccinate. Understand the methods of vaccination before purchasing: subcutaneous, wing web, nasal spray, and drinking water are most common. Take precautions to avoid exposure by wearing nitrile or latex gloves and washing your hands thoroughly after handling. Do not administer a vaccine to a sick bird. I can’t reiterate that enough. The only time this is acceptable is if you are treating an outbreak. If this is the case, I recommend you have an in-depth conversation with a veterinarian or call the free USDA hotline staffed with veterinarians (1-866-536-7593) before treating your birds.

What if I Already Have Birds that Aren’t Vaccinated?

It’s always good to be consistent. If you are vaccinating chicks that will be added to your unvaccinated flock it isn’t too late to vaccinate the older birds as well. If you are raising meat birds instead of layers, read the label carefully. A general rule is that vaccines should not be administered within 21 days of slaughter, but this will be clearly stated on the product.

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Does Organic Mean Vaccine-Free?

The USDA clearly states that preventative vaccines are allowed for organic birds (broilers or layers). I would take this a step further and suggest that organic poultry farmers should practice vaccination. Vaccinating early in life prevents infected birds later in life who may lose organic status if treated (some treatments are acceptable but others may not be allowed under the guidelines). Vaccinating is actually the most effective way to ensure a higher quality of life and reduce potential suffering in your flock. See more about the USDA Guidelines for Organic Certification of Poultry here: http://bit.ly/USDAOrganicCertificationofPoultry

Will Vaccines Make my Birds Sick?

One aspect of vaccination that deters a lot of people is the black box of how they work. Most vaccines are live or modified live. This means you are giving your birds an actual virus. Yes, these can cause some mild and short-term effects resembling illness such as a nasal discharge or lethargy. This does not mean you have given your bird a disease. Like people, chickens have an immune system that has to be introduced to the bad guys ahead of time so that when that virus does show up in your backyard, they already have an established immunity. These vaccines have gone through years of extensive study before being sold to the public. The doses are high enough to stimulate the necessary immune response (this is why you see those effects) but low enough not to cause the disease. As long as you follow the instructions specific to the vaccine, the risk of serious side effects is extremely small.

One last piece of advice: write down the hatch dates and vaccination dates for each of your chickens for future reference.

Happy Vaccinating!

Michelle Miller has a doctorate in Immunology from the North Carolina State University College of Veterinary Medicine and experience as a poultry vaccine research and development scientist.  She currently raises her own (vaccinated) backyard flock in Hillsborough, North Carolina.

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