The word tuberculosis probably strikes fear in your heart, whether in the context of your health or that of your chickens.
Although not common, avian tuberculosis can strike anytime, and this bacterial infection is one you don’t want anywhere near your flock. It’s sneaky, slow-burning, and quite deadly.
It’s a highly contagious avian bacterial infection, and chickens are susceptible to it, which is not good news to the average homesteader.
There are ways to avoid avian tuberculosis through good animal husbandry and hygiene practices, so let’s dig in.
What is Avian Tuberculosis?
Avian tuberculosis, sometimes called Avian mycobacteriosis, is a slow-burning, contagious bacterial infection that infects both birds and humans.
It is usually caused by Mycobacterium avian subsp. avium (MAA). This is a mouthful, but don’t worry, put the name aside, and concentrate on the bacteria itself and the health of your chickens.
There are about ten other pathogens that can cause the disease, but it doesn’t really matter which is causing it.
Avian tuberculosis occurs in all avian species, but for some reason, some species are more susceptible than others.
The disease impacts many organs in a chicken’s body, but is most common in the intestinal tract and liver. Other body parts that can be affected include the spleen, lungs, skin, and bone marrow.
This bacteria can survive in the soil for up to four years. It has distinctive signs, which we will look at next.
Symptoms of Avian Tuberculosis
Avian tuberculosis may not be evident to the average homesteader because, often, there are no symptoms at all until the bird dies. Other times, there will be symptoms that may not be obvious but are there if you pay careful attention.
Avian tuberculosis has a long incubation time, so even if a bird gets it young, it will be more common in chickens over one year old. Once you see signs (if any), the chicken can still take weeks or months to die.
- Emaciation that happens over time. The chicken gradually loses weight and never puts healthy weight on. The breast muscle loses size more than other parts of the body.
- Diarrhea that is prolific and hard to control with medication or other methods.
- Weakness will be evident when the bird walks, tries to eat, or gets up and down from the perch.
- Loss of appetite. Where chickens are typically keen eaters, a bird with avian tuberculosis will show little signs of being interested in food.
- Coughing or hacking is likely to be intermittent rather than constant.
- Swollen lymph nodes are something a vet may pick up if you get the chicken checked. It is a little tricky for the average homesteader to check.
- Depression. The chicken will keep itself away from the others and won’t look happy.
How Avian Tuberculosis is Spread
Understanding how this disease spreads is key to preventing it in the first place.
The bacteria is spread when the chicken eats something that is contaminated with feces from another chicken or bird that is infected with avian tuberculosis.
The intestines of an infected chicken become ulcerated and exude bacteria through their droppings. Other chickens ingest the bacteria, which enters their body through the digestive tract. This is the most common way this bacteria is spread.
Water can be contaminated with infected feces and other matter.
As well as the digestive tract, the respiratory tract can be a route of infection. The bacteria can become aerosolized, and the healthy chicken can breathe the particles into their lungs.
This may be a problem in coops with insufficient ventilation and airflow and with crowded coops with too many chickens. Learn about proper ventilation in our guide.
If you excavate an area, such as when digging out a new garden, and you give the sod to the chickens, make sure what you give them isn’t contaminated. If the excavated area is where farm or wild animals may have defecated, don’t give it to the chickens.
This also applies if you free-range the chickens. Give them fresh grass areas where animals haven’t grazed.
Wild or Other Farmed Birds
There are four categories of susceptibility to avian tuberculosis. It’s essential to know if you farm other birds on the same property or have these birds in the wild near your coop so you know to watch for the disease.
- Highly susceptible. This group includes chickens, sparrows, partridges, and pheasants. If you keep or hunt for partridges or pheasants, keep them well away from your chickens, and don’t field dress hunted birds where your chickens may forage. Sparrows should be kept out of coops and runs as best you can with fencing, netting, or other methods.
- Slightly less susceptible. Domestic turkeys and guinea fowl. While it may be convenient to run a turkey or two in the same area as your chickens, it’s not a good idea. Having two highly susceptible birds in the same area in large numbers may encourage disease transmission.
- Moderately resistant. Ducks and domestic geese. Both these popular birds are more resistant than chickens but could still catch it from chickens or give it to them in the right circumstances.
- Highly resistant. Domestic pigeons. As far as avian tuberculosis goes, close proximity to your chickens is not an issue.
Boots, Mud, and Clothing
The bacteria responsible for avian tuberculosis can survive on dirty boots and clothing for a long time. If you deal with other animals or go into the areas they defecate in, you shouldn’t wear the same boots and clothing directly into the chicken area.
You shouldn’t handle your chickens without washing your hands after touching other animals.
Dirty Tools or Chicken Equipment
Don’t leave the tools and equipment you use for chickens in the run or coop. They will end up being pooped on, and any germs will be spread around when you use them again. If you can, keep these tools separate and only for the chicken area.
Rats and Mice
Rats and mice can spread this disease by eating dead, infected animals or birds, running through areas with infected feces, and leaving their droppings in the coop and run.
Introducing New Chickens
Avian tuberculosis is a slow-acting disease once a chicken catches it. That’s why most chickens identified with it have had it for a while.
If you get new chickens, isolate them for a couple of weeks to ensure they don’t have any other diseases, but avian tuberculosis likely won’t be apparent.
If you add rescue chickens from commercial egg producers, make sure you know how they operate and what hygiene practices they use.
Chickens in crowded environments with little airflow or sunlight may be more likely to carry this and other diseases.
Treating Avian Tuberculosis
There is no cure for avian tuberculosis, so the only thing to do is avoid it through proactive habits.
- Avoid overcrowding. Overcrowding causes all sorts of problems.
- Make sure the coop is well-ventilated with good airflow.
- Clean the coop and run regularly.
- Clean the tools you use in the coop and run.
- Regularly clean the water and food containers.
- Keep wild birds, rats, and mice out of the coop and run as best you can.
- Move your chickens around if you can. It’s beneficial to have a winter run and a summer run.
- Don’t walk mud and feces from other areas of your land into the run if you keep other animals.
- Keep chickens separate from other animals and birds to reduce the risk.
- Consider culling a flock if avian tuberculosis takes hold. Destroy the coop and hay and straw used. Thoroughly disinfect any tools used.
Feeding Tips to Avoid Chicken Diseases
Some things are easier to control than others.
Given that many diseases, including bacterial infections like avian tuberculosis, can be transmitted by the chicken ingesting the germs when eating, here are some tips to consider when feeding your flock.
Store Food Properly
Store food in sealed drums or containers that are gnaw-proof. Mice and rats poop a lot wherever they go, and you don’t want to feed their droppings to your chickens inadvertently.
The same goes for wild birds. Keep them out of your chicken food stores.
Put Feeders Away at Night
Leaving partially full or even dirty feeders can attract wild animals. Don’t lure them into your chicken run by leaving them scraps. Put all feeders away each night.
Adjust the Feeding Schedule
If you see signs of rodent or wild animal activity around your coop, consider feeding your chickens a set amount rather than leaving food out constantly.
You will need to consider how many chickens you have, the overall weight, and the type of food you have. You will need to make sure all the birds eat. This should be a temporary measure until the wild animal activity stops.
Keep Water Fresh and Containers Clean
Water containers get very dirty from chickens kicking dirt into them, feces falling in, or algae from the summer heat. Keep all containers clean and supply fresh water daily.
Don’t Feed Chickens Chicken
Chickens love table scraps, but you should not feed them any leftover chicken meat. In many places, this is illegal, but it also increases the risks of chicken-only diseases.