The Veterinary Feed Directive – Two Years Later

The State of Small-Scale Poultry Farming Under the Veterinary Feed Directive

The Veterinary Feed Directive – Two Years Later

On January 1, 2017, the Veterinary Feed Directive (VFD) went into effect. If it’s something you’ve never heard of, you’re not alone, but it’s something to keep in mind if you ever have a need for antibiotics for chickens. In a nutshell, the VFD is a governmental regulation that ended over-the-counter sales of medically important antimicrobial drugs for livestock and requires VFD regulated drugs to be prescribed by a licensed veterinarian who has an established veterinary-client-patient relationship with the bird owner. Yes. That’s a mouthful, but what impact has it had? We decided to check in with Dr. Sherrill Davison, director of the Laboratory of Avian Medicine and Pathology at Penn Vet, to see how backyard chicken owners and their birds have fared under the new regulations.

To set the stage, it’s important to remember what life was like before the VFD. If you had a sick bird, you could try to diagnose it yourself and order antibiotics for chickens online or pick them up at the local farm store. Lots of people took advantage of this ready availability and gave their birds antibiotics as they saw fit. You could attend any poultry show and find fanciers that had administered a “preventative” antibiotic to their birds before coming to the show and were planning to administer a different “just in case” antibiotic to the birds when they got home.

At the same time, we’re all aware of the increasing problem of drug resistance in humans. It’s not uncommon to turn the TV on and see a story about a drug-resistant strain of bacteria that doctors are struggling to cure. There has long been concern that antibiotic use in food-producing animals contributes to this problem. The VFD is an effort to curb this and help keep medically important drugs effective into the future.

For large poultry farming operations, complying with the VFD was not anticipated to be a problem since they normally have a visiting veterinarian or two and they can diagnose and administer antibiotics for chickens as needed. For backyard owners, access to a veterinarian that can treat chickens can be more complicated. Many worried that without unfettered access to antibiotics for chickens, their birds would die.


Dr. Davison has a unique vantage point in the saga of the VFD. At Penn Vet, her role is in forensic pathology. She works with large farms and backyard chicken owners alike to determine why a chicken has died. In many cases, she just has the dead chicken to necropsy. In others, she may see the live and dead chickens from a flock to better understand what illness is taking place.

Dr. Davison has monitored her workload over the past year to see if more chickens have been necropsied that died because of treatable bacterial infections. The good news is that she hasn’t seen an increase in those cases.

“There are very few situations that I see that really do require antibiotics, ” said Davison. “I think what people were doing before was treating things that weren’t really bacterial infections.”

Top Problems Seen

Top among her cases that are not treatable by antibiotics are tumors and grass impaction. To stop grass impaction issues, Davison reminds folks that chickens need to eat first and then go out and peck around. Top cases that can be treated with antibiotics are roundworms and coccidiosis. But Davison is quick to remind people that prevention through proper sanitation is the first line of defense for worms and coccidia.

She also reminds chicken owners that all veterinarians can perform a simple fecal float test to tell you if your chickens have worms and what worms they may have. Even if you worm twice yearly, sanitation is still the key.

“Between the two times you worm, the worms can build up greatly,” says Davison. “The message to people is keeping the environment clean and knowing what that means in their particular situation.”

Advice for Adding Birds

Besides sanitation, Davison says a key to successful chicken keeping is to get birds from a reliable source.

“There are still people going to auctions. They see a bird that’s sick. They want to save it, so they take it home and put it in with their flock,” said Davison.

She advises that newly purchased birds that may be sick should immediately go to a veterinarian. The veterinarian can take a blood sample from the wing and screen for diseases. While waiting for results, the bird(s) should be quarantined away from the existing flock. The results will give data so folks know what they are dealing with and can make an assessment.

Where We Need to Do Better

Proper nutrition, Davison reminds, can do much to avoiding the need for a veterinarian. Davison sees two areas where chicken owners need to do better. First is in feeding chicks and young chickens layer feed before they are laying eggs. The extra calcium in layer feed causes kidney damage which can lead to death. The second is in limiting treats, especially in large breeds. Davison sees hens with accumulated fat in the liver. This makes the liver friable. When they jump off their perch, the liver breaks and bleeds out into the body causing death.


Finding a Poultry Veterinarian

So what is the best way to find a veterinarian if you need a diagnosis or advice about your birds? At Penn Vet, Dr. Davison’s staff keeps a directory of veterinarians across Pennsylvania that can treat chickens. In other states, she advises calling your Department of Agriculture or your local Veterinary Association. Some states do keep a directory of veterinarians that will treat chickens.

If you’re looking at your local veterinary offerings, you may try looking for an exotic animal practice or a specific veterinarian within a practice that handles exotics. Those veterinarians typically go beyond the treatment of dogs and cats by treating pet birds, hamsters and snakes to name a few. You may also find an avian veterinarian that treats pet birds like parrots. Those birds can have the same issues as chickens, including bumblefoot and crop impaction, so a vet versed in parrots may be able to treat chickens too.

Once you find a veterinarian, then you don’t have to worry about the VFD. Through continuing education, Davison says most veterinarians are aware of how to comply with the VFD. She says the bigger issue in the veterinary community is just making sure chickens can get treatment.

“Aside from the VFD, the key is to get vets comfortable on giving advice on poultry management or other things that come up, such as bumblefoot,” said Davison. “We need the network of vets that are willing to take those birds in to perform the types of treatment they need.”

Common Drugs Not Affected by VFD Drugs That Now Require a VFD
Bacitracin Chlortetracycline
Piperazine Hygromycin B
Amprolium (Coccidiostat in Medicated Chick Starter Feed) Lincomycin

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