Fowl cholera, otherwise known as avian cholera, is one of those infections you want to avoid at all costs.
It’s devastating to a flock and will surprise you with its infectiousness if you are caught unaware.
It’s hard enough to keep chickens healthy between finding the correct nutrition, clean water, housing, and avoiding predators. The last thing you want is to come out to your coop one day and find one or many of your chickens dead.
If you have chickens, take the time to read this article on fowl or avian cholera because it may just save you a lot of grief in the long run.
What is Fowl or Avian Cholera?
Fowl cholera is caused by the bacteria Pasteurella multocida. It is known as avian cholera because it also infects ducks, turkeys, other wild birds, and pet birds. It is sometimes common in pigeons, sparrows, and waterfowl.
Older chickens and roosters are most at risk, especially if they are in cold and wet conditions.
Avian cholera can infect your chickens in either one of two types: acute or chronic.
Antibiotics are available to treat this bacterial infection if you get it quickly enough, but it’s persistent and often returns once treatment is completed.
The best defense against avian cholera is not getting it at all.
Symptoms of Avian Cholera
We’ll look at both forms of this bacterial infection because if you notice these symptoms, you’ll know what stage the chickens are at with it.
Acute Fowl Cholera
The acute form strikes so swiftly that you may not notice any symptoms before your bird dies. You’ll find one or many chickens dead in the coop, or you might discover the majority of chickens in your flock have succumbed in just one day.
It’s not unheard of for the symptoms to show, and then the chickens die within a couple of hours.
If you are lucky, you may notice the following signs:
- Mucus on and around the beak
- Bright yellow diarrhea or watery green and sloppy poop
- Lethargy and depression (just a sad, quiet bird that is normally energetic)
- Ruffled feathers with a sudden fever
- Yawning a lot and heavy breathing
- Purple or blue combs
In rare cases, over time you may see rapid weight loss and repeated lung infections.
Chronic Fowl Cholera
The chronic form of fowl cholera can show up as swelling in the wattle, eyes, face, feet, and legs.
It could be a sign if you notice breathing problems like rapid breathing, deep breathing, and drawing the chest in to breathe, though not always.
If the chicken’s head suddenly seems to be tilting down, the infection could be affecting the neck muscles because it has spread from the ears.
If the legs and feet are affected by the inflammation from fowl cholera, the chicken will most likely be lame or at least be struggling to move.
A chicken with the chronic form of fowl cholera can be asymptomatic, showing no signs of infection. Unfortunately, this can be spread to other chickens who catch it and get extremely sick.
A chronic infection usually lasts up to a month, though it can return after it is gone.
How Fowl Cholera is Spread
First, fowl cholera has to find its way into your flock. This can happen in a variety of ways, such as:
Birds that get into your run or coop can easily spread this bacteria. Set your run and coop up so that no other birds get in. If wild birds discover an opening, they’ll try to come in and get food every day.
If you free-range your chickens, do this in areas where wild birds are less likely to visit. You can’t control everything, but if you keep your chickens close to your home, for instance, the activity will limit the number of wild birds that visit.
If you use a chicken tractor, make sure it’s sealed from avian invaders.
Dogs and Cats:
These animals often carry the bacteria in their mouths and under their nails. If they have eaten or played with a dead wild bird infected by avian cholera, they can easily pass it to your flock if they interact or use the same area.
If rodents feed on dead birds in the wild and then come into the run or coop, their poop can pass the bacteria to your chickens. They can also carry the pathogens on their feet or faces.
Trap them rather than poisoning them to avoid sickening pets or even chickens that stumble onto a dead body.
It’s often a good idea to keep pigs and chickens away from each other. There can be issues when the two are raised together, including the spread of disease.
That doesn’t mean chickens and pigs can’t ever live together, but if you’re worried about avian cholera, it’s best to keep them separate.
Clothes, Shoes and Tools:
The bacteria can last long enough on surfaces to be spread by humans entering and working where the chickens are or will be.
You might not realize it, but maybe you took a hike, walked over an area where a dead bird was recently, and now you’re carrying the disease back to your flock.
Introducing New Chickens:
Be careful if you add chickens to your flock. It’s great to bring rescue birds home, especially from battery hen operations. Still, you should always keep them in isolation for around two weeks before introducing them to your flock to make sure they aren’t carrying any diseases.
Once in the coop or run, the bacteria is easily spread by infected water, droppings, or food.
It can also spread by direct contact with another infected chicken or even in the air through tiny aerosols.
Like many avian infections, fowl cholera will spread rapidly in poor conditions, including:
- Poor ventilation
- Unhygienic coop and run
Dead birds must be removed as soon as possible. A carcass infected with fowl cholera will be highly infectious.
Since this bacteria thrives in wet, cold weather, be vigilant in fall and winter.
Treating Fowl Cholera
Being a bacteria, antibiotics are available, though they often have variable results. This is because infected birds improve with treatment but relapse once the medication is finished.
Many birds infected with fowl cholera will be carriers for life.
You should talk to your vet if you want to try antibiotics, and a few are available, including penicillin. You will likely find that a prolonged treatment is necessary by adding medication to the food or water. Many times, these have a withholding period for eating the eggs.
A last-resort option, unfortunately, is what is known as a complete depopulation of the flock. All the birds would need to be destroyed, and you must thoroughly disinfect the coop and run.
Once that is completed and the run has been left vacant for three months or more, you can then repopulate with healthy birds.
Of course, this is not going to be the first method to try, but be aware in bad cases, this ends up being the only option.
Talk to your vet if you notice any of the symptoms early on or if you suspect fowl cholera.
There are three possible steps to take initially:
- Keep the healthy birds separate from the sick ones.
- Disinfect the coop thoroughly.
- Consider antibiotics.
9 Tips to Prevent Fowl Cholera
Although vaccines are available, this is usually only considered in commercial operations. For the homesteader, prevention is key.
Sanitation and good animal hygiene practices should never be omitted when keeping chickens. To prevent fowl cholera as best as you can, try these steps:
Make sure you have a consistent and effective rodent control program. You should be setting traps all the time to keep them away as best as you can.
Dispose of Dead Birds Properly
If a chicken dies in the coop or run (or anywhere on your property) dispose of it properly. This will be either burying it, incinerating it, or sealing it in a bag and putting it in the garbage.
You should do this for any wild, dead birds you find on your land as well.
Clean the Coop and Run Regularly
This job is often neglected by the busy homesteader, but it is necessary. How often is dependent on the number of chickens you have, the size of the coop and run, the season, and if they are free-ranged or not.
Keep Chickens Separate from Wild Animals
This is not as easy as it sounds, but make the area as unattractive to birds as best you can. This can be by using feeders that close when the chickens aren’t eating, sealed water containers the chickens have to manually open to drink, and using good fencing from rabbits, raccoons and other wild creatures.
Give Free-Ranging Chickens New Ground Often
If you free-range or move your chickens in a chicken tractor, don’t allow them to remain in the same spot too long. If the chickens remain in a run, supply fresh greens often.
Don’t Overcrowd the Coop
It may be tempting to get as many chickens as you can, but make sure you don’t overcrowd their coop. Overcrowding causes poor ventilation, and this is a recipe for your chickens to get fowl cholera.
Keep Chickens Warm and Dry
Fowl cholera bacteria like cold and wet conditions. Make sure you provide your chickens with a coop that is protected from adverse weather, doesn’t leak, and has good ventilation, but shelters them from the wind.
Isolate New or Sick Chickens
If you add new chickens to an existing flock, you should isolate them for two weeks to make sure they aren’t carrying any diseases. Get new birds form reputable sellers. Isolate sick chickens until they are well and showing no symptoms of sickness.
Act Fast if You Suspect a Chicken is Sick
If you suspect a chicken is sick, act quickly in whatever method you choose. Whether it is isolating the chicken, calling a vet, treating it yourself, or euthanizing it, acting quickly should help stop or at least minimize the spread.