Veterinarian offers recommendations to properly care for newborn chicks

By Robin Eggenberger, doctor of veterinary medicine at Kulshan Veterinary Hospital

Springtime is always special for poultry enthusiasts. Winter is over and it is time to start a new year with some new chicks.

If you are considering ordering chicks from a hatchery, get your chicks vaccinated for Marek’s Disease. Chicks can usually be vaccinated for less than 50 cents just after they have hatched and will arrive to you with the vaccine on board.

Marek’s Disease, also known as Visceral Leukosis or fowl/range paralysis is caused by a herpes virus. Just like other herpes viruses, once you get it, it never goes away.

Chickens are most commonly affected; however, there have been reports of infection in turkeys, quail, pheasants and game fowl.

The most commonly affected are chicks between 12 and 25 weeks old. I have personally seen it in birds over one year. Once you have become well attached and have invested a lot of time and feed into your young birds, Marek’s will hit and it is truly heartbreaking. Unfortunately, the virus is prevalent everywhere in the environment and it is almost impossible to control.

If you start to see 12- to 25-week-old chicks displaying an inability to raise or use their wings, a lack of muscle control or ataxia (walking somewhat drunken-like), emaciation, blindness or partial paralysis, be thinking about Marek’s.

The disease is a type of avian cancer and the tumors affect nerves, eyes, feather follicles and many internal organs. In the later stages of infection, chicks will have pale, scaly combs, be very thin and have green diarrhea.

Marek’s is spread by inhaling the virus in contaminated feather dander as well as by excretions from infected chickens. Thankfully, it will not infect humans.

Since there is no treatment and it is difficult to control, vaccination at hatching is a great option. As long as the chicks make appropriate immunologic protection after the vaccine has been given, you may get to bypass the losses from this disease.

In a sense, there is a race going on in your chicks – will they gain enough protection from the vaccine before the virus infects them? Or, will the virus attack them before they have time to develop protection? Most feel it is better to vaccinate than not to.

Just like with any viral disease, stress can play a large part in inciting the disease.

To help your chicks be as strong as they can be, provide adequate heat and ventilation. During the first week, the brooder should be at 95–98 degrees and then reduced by 5 degrees each week. Do not overcrowd your chicks and provide multiple feeding and water stations so that as they get older and are establishing a pecking order the chicks lower on that order will still have plenty of food and water. Avoid introducing new chicks or poultry into your flock until you have had at least four weeks of quarantine.

Consider becoming a National Poultry Improvement Plan (NPIP) certified flock. The program stems from a partnership between state and federal departments of agriculture and helps to ensure that poultry and poultry products are free of disease. Learn more at poultryimprovement.org.

As a chick owner, be sure to provide a high quality starter formula feed. I prefer medicated feed to help ward off the parasitic disease Coccidiosis.

Have a fecal analysis performed by a veterinary laboratory that knows how to identify poultry parasites. Reducing the load of parasites reduces the stress which could help to improve overall chick health and immunity thus reducing Marek’s incidence.

Purchasing Marek’s vaccine is possible, but usually it is sold in quantities for vaccinating thousands of chicks at a time and should only be done on one-day-old chicks by those who know how to administer vaccines. Ordering vaccines as a large group sometimes works, but remember, all chicks need to be day-old in order to vaccinate, or else you are wasting your time and money as the chicks will get exposure to the virus early in their life.

Springtime should be a fun time with re-birth and the sound of new chicks peeping in your brooder. Having your chicks vaccinated for Marek’s before you purchase and performing some simple tasks will keep your chicks strong and healthy and allow you to enjoy the fun and benefits of raising new chicks.

For a selection of poultry information, visit articles.extension.org.

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