Back in May (2015) my husband built a big beautiful coop, and we decided to start getting chickens. Being new at this I didn't know where to get them from. I figured raising chicks would be way too complex (oh boy was I in for it anyway), so.. I made the dumb mistake of taking some home from a nearby zoo.. They were silkies, so they were cute and tempting of course, and two bantam RIRs. Then I added 3 bantam barnyard mixes from a random farm. Then came a Gold Star from a friend of mine. Within a month, the deaths started. First a 6 month old RIR pullet. I had found a wonderful vet an hour away that was willing to help me out. After a fecal sample was done they concluded she was wasting away and she wasn't absorbing nutrients. She must have had a virus at one time that damaged her organs. A short time later my other bantam RIR started limping. The vet had never dealt with Mareks before.. and neither had I. So they thought maybe she injured herself. I had some hope at that time, hope that she would recover from her injury and life would go on for BOTH of us. Sadly, we were wrong. She stopped eating and lost too much weight.. it was very sad to see her like that.. Just sleeping all the time. So yet again I had another chicken humanly put to sleep at the vets office. (Please understand our chickens are pets, not for dinner. We love them and they are part of our family.) Only about a month had passed and my Gold Star started limping. The vet again thought it was another injury. At this point I started doing my own research. I literally spent every night (and still do to this day) reading articles about various diseases and chicken related problems trying to figure this out. Really?? I thought.. How could this happen again?! Then I found it. Mareks disease. I read the awful stories and hoped it wasn't true, but it was the only thing, other than possibly leukosis that really seemed to fit. On one hand I was hoping it was leukosis because that virus can easily be killed with most cleaning solutions, and you can "start over" without it spreading. But since there is no vaccine for leukosis, I figured my chickens would keep dying because the virus is passed through exposure to infected chickens bodily fluids. On the other hand a small part of me "hoped" it was Mareks, because after all, there IS a vaccine, and at this point in my story the remainder of what I had left had been vaccinated. Little did I know the nightmarish news I would be receiving!
After I had to have the 2nd limping chicken put to sleep, I told the vet about my Mareks suspicions, so they sent some of the chickens blood out for testing at a state lab This is where it gets interesting! Please stick with my story!
The blood test came back NEGATIVE for Mareks. I was shocked, but thought, ok, it must be leukosis then. Only a couple weeks past before I found one of my barnyard mix chickens lethargic and sleeping in a corner. Here we go again.. One more, followed by my beautiful bantam mixed rooster, having to be put to sleep at the vets office. When I saw my rooster producing light green poop, which means the organs are failing, I knew. Sure enough.. By the time I got him to the vet he was stumbling and couldn't stand. I cried. I cried EVERY. SINGLE. TIME. I loved them all! I had made so many trips to the vet, that one of the workers became my friend. We BOTH knew I needed a more definite answer as to what awful disease I had in my flock. So she helped me send two of the chickens out to the state lab for necropsy. It took a little over a week, and she was kind enough to make several calls to the lab. They concluded I do indeed have Mareks disease. BUT HOW COULD THE INITIAL BLOOD TEST BE NEGATIVE?! Well.. The state pathologist explained that the blood test only checks for one kind of Mareks. I unfortunately, have a more uncommon, more fatal strain of Mareks. I amped up my research! I called hatcheries, I called manufacturers that MAKE poultry vaccines, I called everyone I could think of that could help me learn more. I desperately wanted to know if I should expect the rest of my flock to die. I knew from my own reading that Mareks vaccines aren't always effective, and I knew that in some RARE occasions chickens can have their own resistance to certain diseases. But here are some things I learned from the calls I made.. I hope I'm not boring people, but please read on.. This next part is IMPORTANT!
The lead poultry vet a vaccine manufacturer explained that blood testing for Mareks isn't always accurate. It is a long complex process of separating white blood cells, and many other things.. and there is definitely room for error. He also explained that there are three types of vaccines. HVT (Serotype 3) is the most common used. It is the one most easily purchased by consumers, so home breeders use this, and also hatcheries who want the cheapest vaccine. HOWEVER, this is the weakest form of the vaccine. Sadly, this is what the rest of my flock has had, and he told me since I have a very virulent strain, this probably is NOT good enough for my situation.
SB1 (Serotype 2) is a "middle of the road" type of vaccine. This is used by mostly commercial flocks, broilers, etc.
RISPENS (Serotype 1) is the strongest vaccine. This can also be combined with HVT to give the chickens the best possible defense. THIS is what I needed to find! If course, it's too late for my existing flock, because the vaccines must be given within the first 36 hours after hatching. So I needed to find a hatchery that used this so I can someday order chicks who will be more likely to (hopefully) survive. Either this, or I give up on chicken keeping, which is possibly what some may say I should do. Trust me when I tell you if this route doesn't work I indeed will call it quits. Maybe guineas are in my future instead. Time will tell. (As a side note it wasn't easy to find a hatchery that used RISPENS. Maybe HVT is ok for some home flocks, but some of the chickens I had that passed away had only had HVT.. So in my case it wasn't, and isn't, going to be strong enough.) I have read several articles that say the Mareks virus is mutating and has become more resistant to this basic vaccine. The state pathologist also mentioned to my vet friend that Mareks is more common in my state than people realize.
Let's go back to where I'm at now for those of you who aren't sleeping and are still reading. 😉 The remaining flock has only had the HVT, and I currently have two chickens who are doing a weird high stepping sort of walk sometimes. It is different than the limping I had seen before from ones who died of Mareks. It's possible that something else is causing it. It is, after all, only in the 20's where I live. Are their legs just cold? I don't know but I'm not going to ignore it. I have read that certain vitamin and mineral regimes can improve Mareks symptoms. I'm not sure if it's possible, especially considering how strong of a strain if the virus I have here.. But it's sure worth a try. I've had one on St.Johns wort and other vitamins for about a week, and one on the regime for just a few days. If anyone wants more info on that and/or how it's going please just message me. (Another side note, I think I brought Mareks into my beloved flock by feeding them store bought meal worms..PLEASE DO NOT use them!! I thought I was spoiling my flock but I think my mistake is what could have led to all this!)
Thanks to all who take the time to read this. I hope it helps someone to avoid going through what I went through. The word devastating doesn't even begin to describe it.