Happy, healthy chicks turn into productive egg-laying and meat-producing chickens…at least, that is the goal, right?
Interest in self-sufficiency, food security, and leaving the system behind is growing (and I love it!).
And chickens tend to be the gateway animal to the homestead life. Chickens are easy to come by, not really high maintenance, and can provide a small amount of food security.
With the interest in raising chickens on the rise, I get asked more and more questions from my readers about chicken health, diseases, and chick vaccinations.
I’ve been getting a pretty frequent question these days from many of my readers: “Do I HAVE to vaccinate my chicks?”
Short answer? No.
But SHOULD you vaccinate your chicks? As with any health-related topic and/or homestead topic, there isn’t one simple answer.
Complicated answer? Do Your Best…
As responsible chicken owners, it is our job to ask the questions, read the research, talk with other homesteaders/professionals for advice, and do our best to make an informed decision that is right for our flock. BUT it’s also important not to stress out about it all and get overwhelmed. You should learn what to look for as signs of sickness in your chicken flock, but make sure you balance it with some common sense.
For the most part, your chickens, if you treat them right (with shelter, clean food and water, etc.), will be healthy and vibrant and you’ll be able to relax and watch their antics and thrive together on your homestead.
With that being said, here is a some information about common chicken diseases, what vaccines are available, and what we can do for our chickens to give them their best life possible.
Should You Vaccinate Chicks?
There are a number of variables and scenarios that could affect who should consider getting chicks vaccinated for different diseases.
Small flock owners should consider vaccinating chicks if:
- They take their poultry off their property and bring them back again. An example would be a poultry show.
- Chicks, chickens, or other forms of poultry are frequently bought from hatcheries, auctions, or other outside sources to add to an existing flock.
- A flock owner is aware of past flock diseases on or near their property.
Common Diseases to Vaccinate Chicks Against
Disease: Marek’s Disease
Marek’s disease is caused by a chicken version of the herpes virus. It is one of the most common diseases found in chicken flocks today. Like the human herpes virus, once a chicken has been infected, it will be a carrier and can spread the disease for the rest of its life.
It’s spread from chicken to chicken through their dander and you can usually see the symptoms starting at 6 weeks to 30 weeks of age. Early symptoms of Marek’s Disease can include leg or wing paralysis making them appear hurt, loss of appetite, signs of dehydration, and being less social within the flock.
Once clinical signs start to show, Marek’s Disease is no longer treatable.
Note: To help prevent the spread of Marek’s disease to your new chicks, be sure to house them in a clean area where adult chickens have not been.
If you would like more about Marek’s Disease take a look at this article on Marek’s Disease in Chickens.
Disease: Newcastle Disease
Newcastle disease is a contagious respiratory disease that can sometimes be fatal. It affects the infected chickens’ respiratory, digestive, and nervous systems.
If your chick starts coughing, gasping for air, has nasal discharge, or bright green diarrhea, then they could be in the early stages of Newcastle disease. This disease is mainly spread through manure and the bird’s secretions.
Chicken keepers can infect their flocks through manure on shoes and contaminated equipment. If you vaccinate a chick, it can still become infected; it will just reduce the disease’s symptoms.
For a more clinical explanation read this article on Newcastle Disease provided by the Penn State Extension.
Disease: Infectious Bronchitis
Infectious Bronchitis is a very contagious viral respiratory disease in chickens. Like other respiratory infections, Infectious Bronchitis causes coughing, nasal discharge, and watery eyes. Chicks with Infectious Bronchitis will appear lethargic, have breathing trouble and not want to leave their heat source.
Infectious Bronchitis is spread through droplets of moisture when your chicken coughs or sneezes. The vaccine is usually combined with the Newcastle Disease vaccine and can be administered internasal or through drinking water.
Note: There are different variants of this disease and the vaccine is only effective if it contains the right strain of the virus.
To learn more about Infectious Bronchitis in chickens Infectious Bronchitis Virus: Classic and Variant Strains is a very helpful article.
Disease: Fowl Pox
Fowl Pox is a contagious virus that can affect almost all species of birds, but there are different variants that target specific bird groups. This is a very slow-moving virus and can take months for it to spread and leave your flock.
There are also two different kinds of fowl pox: you have wet fowl pox and dry fowl pox. Both types can infect your flock at the same time.
- Dry Fowl Pox is the more common of the two, you will see scab-like lesions develop on the non-feathered area of your chicken. As the virus progresses the wart-like blisters turn into growths that eventually scab and fall off.
- Wet Fowl Pox has a higher mortality rate because the growths are found in the respiratory system and throat. Sometimes the growths can become large and chickens won’t be able to eat or breathe correctly.
Once your flock has fowl pox, there is no treatment, but there are vaccines available for most poultry species. You can vaccinate chicks or adult chickens but it may depend on the instructions of a specific vaccine.
For More information on Fowl Pox, you can take a look at this article Fowl Pox in Backyard Flocks.
Disease: Infectious Bursal Disease
Infectious Bursal Disease is another highly contagious chicken disease that targets young chickens and chicks. This disease targets the Bursa of Fabricius and makes it easier for chicks to become infected with other poultry diseases, bacteria, and parasites.
Chicks with Infectious Bursal Disease may seem depressed, have no appetite, be unsteady on their feet and not want to leave their heat source. This virus is very strong, once your flock has been infected with Infectious bursal is extremely hard to get rid of.
There is no treatment for infected chickens, but you can vaccinate chicks through drinking water to help prevent an outbreak.
If you would like to learn more about Infectious Bursal Disease this Article provided by Washington State University maybe some help.
Disease: Avian Encephalomyelitis
Avian Encephalomyelitis is also known as Tremovirus, and it affects the nervous system resulting in tremors and muscle weakness that can turn into paralysis. Unfortunately, most chicks that show signs of this virus never recover.
This disease can be passed from hen to egg or chicken to chicken. If a chick is infected, it will start showing signs within days of hatching. Infected chicks will show leg weakness that may cause them to lay on their sides and cause head or neck tremors.
The vaccine is recommended for breeding hens 4 weeks before they start laying. This will help give a form of immunity that can be passed to chicks while still in their eggs.
Note: This vaccine is usually combined with the Fowl Pox Vaccine.
If you would like to see a more scientific explanation read Avian Encephalomyelitis.
Check Before You Vaccinate Chicks
Different diseases are present in different environments and locations. Before vaccinating chicks being brought to your home, I strongly recommend that you contact your local extension or poultry veterinarian to see which diseases are present in your area.
Chicks rarely have disease problems right from the egg; if they do get sick, it is from an egg-transmitted illness, they were exposed right after hatching, or have a stress-related problem.
To create a less stressful environment be sure you know How to Prepare for New Baby Chicks. If they appear to be stressed when they arrive, make sure you have the ingredients for this Homemade Electrolyte Recipe for Chicks available in case you need to help perk them up.
Chick Vaccines and Disease Prevention
Different vaccines have different plans and instructions. If you are planning on vaccinating your chicks, here are some helpful tables explaining vaccinations for different chickens and purposes.
Vaccinate Chicks at the Hatchery
If you are buying your chicks from a hatchery, they should be able to provide you with the information you need about vaccinations and common illnesses with their chicks. The easiest way to vaccinate your chicks is directly from the hatchery, as they have experience with this and are able to provide them in bulk.
Why it is Less Common to Vaccinate Chicks in Small Flocks?
Poultry vaccines are more commonly used in commercial operations with very large flocks (thousands of birds).
It is less common in smaller homestead flocks for many different reasons, including:
- Smaller closed backyard flocks are less likely to contract certain diseases.
- Owners may not be aware there is a disease problem in their flock.
- Small flock owners may be more likely to not get a sick bird diagnosed.
- Poultry vaccines are more commonly found in large doses for commercial use (500 to 1000 dose vials).
- Owners are unaware of where to purchase and how to administer vaccines.
Small Flock Biosecurity
Small flock owners that take biosecurity measures and raise a closed flock (aka your chickens never leave the property and new additions are not frequent.) can help prevent the spread of disease.
Some basic biosecurity measures that can be taken include:
- Minimum Contact with Outsiders
When you have visitors on the homestead or in your backyard, don’t allow them to walk freely into your chicken yard and coop.
- Wash Hands After Handling Poultry
Washing your hands after handling poultry from different areas can help contain the spread from one flock or pen of chickens to another.
- Clean Your Equipment Regularly
Clean any equipment that is used in your chicken coop or around your flock. This can include feed pails, waters, tools, coop clean equipment etc.
The USDA Animal and Plant Inspection Service has an entire program dedicated to education and disease prevention. Check out this link if you are interested in learning more about the Defend Your Flock Program.
It is Your Choice to Vaccinate Chicks
Your flock’s health is a major factor in how well they do their job on your homestead, whether it is laying eggs or producing meat. You know your flock and your area the decision to vaccinate your chicks is ultimately up to you. As I mentioned before, as chicken owners, we can only do our best when it comes to making decisions for the health of our flock.
If you stay aware of the surroundings for your chickens, keep things clean, and watch your chickens for the first signs of illness, you are already making great strides towards making a safe place to raise your chickens.
More About Chicks and Chickens:
- 5 Easy DIY Chick Brooders You Can Make
- Save Time by Using Chicken Power on Your Homestead
- Beginners Guide to Chicken Coops
- 20 Ways to Save Money on Chicken Feed
- How to Clean and Disinfect a Chicken Coop