By Dr. Robin Eggenberger, DVM
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, one simple and economical option is to get your chicks vaccinated for the dreaded 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 herpes, 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 12-25 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 heart-breaking.
Unfortunately, the virus is prevalent everywhere in the environment and it is almost impossible to control.
If you start to see 12-25 week old chicks showing these signs, be thinking about Marek’s:
- Inability to raise or use the wings
- Lack of muscle control or ataxia—walking somewhat drunken- like
- Very thin or emaciated
- Partial paralysis
Marek’s 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. There is in a sense 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 disease—of any kind.
To help your chicks be as strong as they can be:
- Provide adequate heat and ventilation for the age of your chicks. During the first week the brooder should be at 95-98 degrees and then reduce by 5 degrees each week
- Do not over crowd
- Provide multiple feeding and water stations so that as chicks get older and are establishing a pecking order, the chicks that are lower on that order will have plenty of food and water.
- Do not introduce new chicks or poultry into your flock until you have had at least 4 weeks of quarantine
- Become an NPIP certified flock—for more information visit: www.poultryimprovement.org.
- Give chicks a high quality chick starter formula feed. I prefer medicated feed to help ward off 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 vaccine 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 perform some simple tasks will keep your chicks strong and healthy and allow you to enjoy the fun and benefits of raising new chicks!
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