The Essential Quarantine:
An Important, but Often Underestimated Part of Raising Chickens
Many who raise chickens are unaware of what many risks there are in bringing new birds into a flock. New birds could be carrying anything from mites or lice to disease, and in many cases, the cure is not so simple. A quarantine period when bringing new birds onto your property can lower the risk of you unknowingly infecting your birds with something nasty, and it's recommended that everyone invest the time into performing a quarantine for new birds.
How exactly does the quarantine period work? My goal in creating this page is to put that information in one place for convenience, as well as to explain why quarantining is really a simple effort as compared to the alternative of spreading disease!
Before I begin, I would like to add a disclaimer here. I am not a veterinarian, nor have I had any training in that field. I have simply spent my share of time researching and learning what I can about the topic of quarantining for the safety of my own flock, and decided to share what I learned.
Margaret the Silkie during quarantine
Quarantining is immensely important because in poultry, many diseases have the potential to leave birds as carriers. These disease carriers can appear completely healthy in every way, but continue to spread disease to other birds that they are housed with or close to. Most of the diseases that will leave birds carriers spread quickly, but some are not particularly deadly. However, symptoms of these diseases continue to show up, especially in times of stress such as when new birds are brought into the flock, and you may find yourself treating your birds over and over again for the same thing. You may also spread this disease to others’ flocks simply by wearing the same clothes or shoes as you had around your birds. It’s also not considered to be ethical to try to sell birds from a diseased flock, whether birds look healthy or not, and in the case of a select few diseases they can even spread to hatching eggs and some of the chicks that hatch from them, rendering a breeding flock pretty much entirely contaminated.
The quarantine period is also a good idea in order to keep internal and external parasites under control. If a new bird is healthy overall and does not carry disease, but is infested with lice, for example, this can spread to your flock easily. Lice, mites, and other parasites, unlike many diseases, can be eradicated, and it’s much easier to do if it’s only a few birds in quarantine as opposed to an entire flock!
Who Should I Quarantine?
The answer to this is simple. Any and all new birds should be quarantined, regardless of age, species, or source, if you want to be as sure as you can be that carrier diseases do not get to your flock.
Yes, you should quarantine birds from swap meets, feed stores, fairs, pretty much anywhere where someone may have walked after being around a contaminated flock or where a contaminated bird may have been! Birds from fairs and swaps are particularly important to quarantine, because while the birds may have been healthy upon arriving there, they could have picked up something from other birds while at the event! This means, too, that you should quarantine your own birds if they went to a fair or show, whether any of the birds there were visibly sick or not!
Yes, you should quarantine birds from breeders or hatcheries you consider reliable, even those from NPIP certified sources! NPIP testing does not cover a few nasty diseases, and what diseases it does test for vary slightly from state to state. This means, for example, that while one state may test for the cause of Chronic Respiratory Disease (CRD), another may not, and buying birds from an NPIP flock from that state could potentially bring CRD into your flock.
Yes, you should quarantine birds that are not even the same species as the birds you already have! There are several diseases that are communicable between poultry species, and especially if those birds are housed in the same coop or share the same run.
Yes, you should even quarantine chicks hatched from eggs that did not come from your own birds! As was pointed out in the last section, a few diseases can transfer through the egg to some of the chicks that hatch.
Overkill? Perhaps. And in many cases, you might decide that it is worth the risk to go without quarantining, such as when buying hatching eggs or chicks for a broody hen. My point here is that if you want to be as sure as possible that you are avoiding bringing in diseases, quarantining all new birds is necessary.
Poppy and Violet, a Legbar pullet and a Bielefelder pullet. Cute as they
were, they still had to go through quarantine before they could join my flock!
Where Should I Quarantine?
This is possibly the trickiest part of the quarantine. You want your quarantined birds to be safe from predators, but you also want them to be away from your flock to avoid contamination. What has been recommended in many cases is to quarantine birds at least 100 feet from where the current flock roams, and downwind if possible. However, since many flocks are kept on smaller plots of land, such as in the case of city backyard flocks, other means must be used to quarantine.
A quarantine can also safely take place if in a building completely separate from the one your birds live in, a decent distance away, and in an area restricted of bird traffic. For instance, you could set up a quarantine zone in your garage, your basement, your tool shed, or even, if you’re up for it, in a spare room in your house. The important thing to remember is that you must take precautions entering and leaving a quarantined area, and any birds that enter quarantine, intentionally or by accident, should remain in that area for the rest of the quarantine . Remember, your goal is that no dirt, droppings, dander, or any kind of bodily material belonging to a quarantined bird make it to your established flock during quarantine!
A Guide to Quarantining
Okay, so now that the basics are covered, let’s look at the steps for the quarantine period!
Before the Quarantine
This is possibly the most essential step in the quarantine period, and it comes before the quarantine even begins! When you arrive at the place you plan to purchase the birds from, it is important to do an initial check up on the bird or several birds in the group you will be taking home. Look very closely for signs of external parasites, make sure the bird’s eyes and nose are without discharge, and check for general signs of the bird being unwell, such as favoring one leg or having diarrhea. You may want to see how well they tolerate being handled for your own purposes, and make sure they are of an appropriate weight and size for their age and breed.
The most important thing to remember at this stage is that you have absolutely no obligation to take home any birds you suspect may be diseased . You may feel the urge to rescue a bird and help it heal, but remember that this may involve you bringing home sickness to the flock you have already established and making them carriers as well. It may seem cold, but you must make your original flock the priority and consider their well being when presented with sickly birds.
As a side note here, whether you bring home new birds or not, you will want to wash yourself thoroughly and change out of the clothing and shoes you wore to look at these birds before going anywhere near your own birds!
If the birds pass the first check, they are ready to come home for quarantine. During the entire quarantine period, take care of the established flock before taking care of the quarantined birds to avoid tracking dirt and dander out of quarantine. After caring for the quarantined birds, the minimum you should do every time is wash any exposed skin, change your clothes, and switch shoes before returning to your established flock. It’s advised that you have a pair of shoes specifically for the quarantine that you can leave with the quarantine birds, or that you prepare a disinfecting boot wash to dip your shoes in as you are leaving the quarantine area. If you are using a boot wash, make sure no dirt or droppings remain stuck in the tread of your shoes after dipping them.
For the first week, allow the new birds to become used to their new surroundings. Symptoms can show up during this acclimation period due to the stress of the move. Catching something at this stage can save a lot of time and effort, so keep an eye out for new symptoms and check the birds over frequently! At the end of each week, I like to perform a thorough check up on each quarantined bird as well. This step is not absolutely necessary if you are checking the birds over frequently anyway.
Tilde the Swedish Flower Hen checking out her new digs
During quarantine, you can either simply continue on as above, or you may choose to move to what I call the ‘Canary in the Mineshaft’ method of quarantining. This is when you choose a bird from your flock, preferably one that you aren’t too attached to, and enter him or her into quarantine for the remaining duration as a first exposure to the new birds. I highly recommend the Canary method as it offers the smallest loss in a flock if new birds are diseased, but it may still be difficult for some to commit to, especially those with very small flocks as it is.
What are the advantages of the Canary method? Well, as has been discussed in previous sections, some diseases will leave the birds carriers and those carriers will spread that disease, often while being asymptomatic themselves. If you choose not to use the Canary method, you will run the risk of introducing an asymptomatic carrier into your flock. The Canary method is the easiest way to be as sure as you can be that your new birds are safe to introduce into your flock, short of having those new birds tested. As mentioned above, though, it isn't for everyone.
Because of the recent HPAI outbreak in North America, I would recommend waiting at least 21 days before introducing a sacrificial bird into quarantine if one chooses to do so. 21 days is the incubation period for these HPAI strains according to this document from the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service of the United States Department of Agriculture.
To continue quarantine, whether you are using the 'Canary' method or not, I would suggest offering the new birds some dry soil from your yard, either in the form of sod or a dust bath. There are different strains of some less severe problems, like Coccidiosis, and by offering dry soil to the new birds, you are allowing them to naturally build an immunity to them and avoid future issues when the birds are later introduced to your yard.
Of course, continue to check the birds over frequently and watch for symptoms in all birds present. During quarantine, it is advised that you do not treat any of the quarantine birds with any kind of medication unless you are beyond a doubt sure of what they have. Treating them too early can disguise symptoms and you may inadvertently treat something that will make the new birds carriers. Care should be taken when treating for anything at this stage except for parasites!
The quarantine should last a minimum of 4 weeks and can go as much more time beyond that as you feel necessary. At the end of the quarantine period, check over all birds present in quarantine, including the 'Canary', for any signs of illness or parasites. If all is well and the birds are clean, they may be released from quarantine at this point!
If you detect symptoms, however, and especially if they are respiratory symptoms, you are left with what may be a very difficult decision at this point. You can either treat the birds and introduce them to the established flock, or cull all birds in quarantine, including the ‘Canary’, and dispose of their remains in a way that will not allow disease to spread to the established flock. Most will advise that the birds be culled. I know this can be tough, but as I explained before, your established flock should be made the priority in this case. If you do choose to introduce the new birds and the disease spreads, you will be left with a carrier flock and should maintain a closed flock--no established birds should be sold or rehomed to another person's flock. Of course, in the end, what you do with your birds is your choice and your choice alone.
Just a final note to add to these methods, if you are buying birds from multiple sources at different times, each group of birds should be quarantined separately. This way, you will know which group brought disease in and the source they came from when deciding where to buy birds in the future. It can be difficult to do multiple quarantines, because the birds or groups must not only be quarantined from the established flock, but from each other as well, and if you follow the Canary method, you must be willing to sacrifice one ‘Canary’ for each quarantine. Obviously, if birds from different sources share a car ride on the way to your property, they are already exposed to one another and could be quarantined together.
The end result of a successful quarantine! Poppy and Tilde meeting as
I worked to merge the flocks together.
Having Birds Tested
This is a section I have chosen to add so that it may help others that are at a loss as I was. You see, in December of 2014, I found myself in quite a spot. I was quarantining a pair of call ducks using the 'Canary' method as described above, and my 'Canary' showed just one symptom--a slight runny nose with clear and colorless discharge. This was a difficult place to be in. Is this single symptom enough to cull the birds in quarantine, or too little to bother worrying about? Well, my belief is that no symptom is too small to worry about it, and so I set about researching how I could find out what I was dealing with.
Where to Start?
A good place to start is here: All NAHLN Lab List. Search for your state and contact the lab or labs listed to ask questions. Some good things to ask about are what the symptoms you are seeing may indicate, what you need to do to get birds tested, what fees may apply for each test, and whether they know of any veterinarians in your area that can help you with collecting samples for the tests. The people I talked to at my state's lab were very helpful and I would expect the same of any of them, so try not to be nervous! This will give you a direction to go in if you're completely lost.
After communicating with a nearby veterinary lab from the list above, I ended up contacting a vet's office in my area and taking my birds in to them to have them take the samples. The vet's office took care of shipping the samples as well, so I could rest easy knowing it was done correctly. As a side note, I also took a sample from my established flock on a separate occasion, just to see if there was already something here. This is optional, of course, so only do so if you want to and are willing to pay any lab fees twice over.
If one of your quarantine birds has already died, I would suggest checking out this thread: How to Send a Bird in for a Necropsy. Remember, do not freeze birds that you intend to send in for a necropsy! They should be refrigerated only to preserve them!
The Waiting Game
Test results will take time to get back to you. It can be anywhere from a matter of days to a few weeks, depending on the lab and how long it takes the samples to get to them. While you are waiting for the results, if you suspect there may be disease in your quarantine birds, do anything in your power to up the amount of biosecurity between your quarantined birds and your established flock. For example, my quarantined ducks had an area to roam outside. Though I am relatively sure that area was secure from the rest of my flock, I still decided it was best to keep them in their inside pens until I knew what the results were.
When the Results are in...
This, again, comes the time where you must make a choice. If your birds come back clean, then you're golden! Quarantine can be ended and your new birds can join your established flock!
But, if they test positive for something nasty, then you must choose what to do with them. Keeping positive birds guarantees that the disease will spread to your established birds and you will have a carrier flock, meaning that you shouldn't sell or rehome any birds. However, culling can be an emotionally difficult thing to do, even with new birds. As I said before, what you do with your flock is entirely your choice--just remember the consequences of your decision!
And that’s about all you need to know to quarantine new birds safely! I have collected some links below with more information relating to the topic. I recommend you read up as much as you can in order to be as prepared as possible!
Helpful and Informative Links
Chicken Injuries & Diseases - How To Diagnose & Treat Your Chickens
Common Poultry Diseases
Poultry Pedia - Lots of good info to help with diagnosing, especially leg problems
The USDA's Biosecurity for Birds website
Poultry Biosecurity, an excellent article on Biosecurity!
'My Chicken Has a Cold' - Information relating to Chronic Respiratory Disease, MG, and MS
NPIP: The National Poultry Improvement Plan (NPIP) official website and some information about the program
If your quarantine birds show symptoms, I would also recommend you make a thread here and see if others agree with your diagnosis before treating: Emergencies / Diseases / Injuries and Cures. They can also help you out with testing birds or having a necropsy performed.
Breeding for Resistance - This is something worth considering if you find yourself with a carrier flock. Here are a few links with information on the topic: What does breeding for resistance mean? - Breeds and Disease Resistance - Breeding for Resistance to Marek's Disease