Maine farmers, homesteaders and backyard poultry enthusiasts are getting ready to place their orders for this year’s chicks. But the annual ordering comes amid increasing concern over a new outbreak of a coronavirus, which can be carried by poultry, among other animals.
Experts say that there is no cause to panic at the thought of bringing the virus home with your new birds. However, they are urging residents to prepare for the worst as they ramp up a response to deal with any possible outbreak.
The current virus is a new version of a common strain that can cause cold-like symptoms in people or animals. It originated in Wuhan, China, and may have spread from animals, including chickens, pigs and bats. While it’s known that chickens can carry strains of coronavirus, there’s no evidence in the US of chickens being infected by the specific strain COVID-19.
“I think it’s pretty important to be quite sure of [information] sources and data during this COVID-19 — or any other — disease outbreak,” Dr. Anne Lichtenwalner, director of the University of Maine Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory and professor of animal and veterinary science at the university, said using the official name of the new strain of coronavirus. “At the moment the [U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] is issuing guidance to be careful around pets if you or they seem ill.”
Should you get new chicks?
Don’t stop planning for your new chicks. To date, there is no indication of any increased risk of catching the virus from your existing flock or any new flock members. But that does not mean you should let down your guard. Even in a non-epidemic year, strains of coronavirus can pass from chickens and other animals to humans through physical contact.
That is why, according to Dr. Dora Mills, former director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention and current senior vice president with MaineHealth, it’s crucial to always practice good hygiene around poultry.
“In terms of human risk the coronavirus, like influenza, circulates among animals like poultry and swine,” Mills said. “Spring is one of those times people are thinking about getting chicks and, just as in any year, you need to keep some appropriate barriers between humans and chickens.”
In addition to the possible risks posed by coronavirus, proper hygiene around chickens is also important because poultry carry dangerous bacteria like salmonella and campylobacter.
Both of those bacteria affect millions of people in the United States every year, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and both can be fatal in extreme cases. At the very least, both bacteria can cause a great deal of digestive and intestinal discomfort, including diarrhea, stomach cramps and vomiting.
Those bacteria, Mills said, can live on the chickens’ feathers and be easily transferred to humans through touch. The bacteria also live in the birds’ feces and be transferred to any surface on which a chicken decides to poop.
So it’s always important in any year to stick to a rigorous and thorough hygiene program. Always wash your hands thoroughly after touching your chickens or any surface in the coop or anything with which your birds may have come in contact like waterers, feeders, bedding or newly collected eggs.
Wash your hands with warm water and soap or use a hand sanitizer to disinfect your hands. Ideally, have one set of clothes or coveralls and pair of footwear used only for chicken chores. Then, when before you come back inside change out of those clothes into clean garments.
The key, according to Lichtenwalner, is remaining hygienically vigilant at all times.
“Really good biosecurity, getting chicks from an [National Poultry Improvement Plan] certified hatchery, excellent [flock] management and nutrition are all important to keep your home flock and your home happy and healthy,” Lichtenwalner said.
The National Poultry Improvement Plan — or NPIP — is a voluntary health certification program in which breeders and hatcheries agree to have their birds and facilities inspected.
What are Maine poultry sellers doing?
Sellers of chicks like Janice Bouchard in Fort Kent, say they are not taking any increased steps this year as they await the arrival of the spring chicks and planned events around those arrivals.
“I don’t think it will be a problem this year,” Bouchard said. “We are still having kids come to our petting zoo to pet the chicks and we will be as cautious as we always are.”
Bouchard said she works to ensure anyone who touches any animal at her store washes their hands immediately after.
Mills sees no reason for Bouchard to cancel her annual petting zoo, as long as strict hygiene protocols are in place and practiced.
At Tractor Supply in Bangor, employee team leader Bob Cammack said they never let customers handle the chicks in the store, and always take biosecurity seriously.
“We clean the [poultry] pens out twice a day,” he said. “Our employees always use hand sanitizer after handling the chicks.”
Will there be enough chicks to go around?
Despite global fears in the poultry market — China has destroyed thousands of chickens in an attempt to control the spread of coronavirus — neither Bouchard nor Cammack reported any issues with getting their chicks from their U.S. suppliers.
“We have more than 1,000 chicks coming on March 6,” Cammack said. “There is no indication from the supplier that there are going to be any problems.”
What does coronavirus look like in chickens?
Coronavirus affects chickens’ respiratory tract, gut, kidneys and reproductive systems. It can also cause infectious bronchitis. Chicks that are infected at a young age may experience permanent damage to their oviducts, preventing them from ever laying eggs as an adult. In adults it can cause coughing, gasping for air, sneezing, watery eyes and swollen sinuses. It can also result in diarrhea and damage the kidneys of the birds.
In humans, it has primarily affected the upper respiratory tract, including pneumonia in the lungs, coughing and shortness of breath, along with typical flu symptoms including fever. The CDC estimates symptoms can appear between two to 14 days after exposure.
Will it become an epidemic in Maine’s chickens?
Mills said if the coronavirus gains traction in Maine, there is the chance it could transfer from humans to backyard poultry.
“We really don’t know at this point,” she said. “But the bottom line is any farm animals are not meant to be in close contact with humans [and] people should not have chicks or chickens living in their homes as pets.”
Similar challenges we’ve faced
In the summer of 2015, Maine faced a possible avian flu outbreak when the highly pathogenic avian influenza, or HPAI virus, forced the euthanization of more than 49 million chickens and turkeys in the United States to control its spread.
Avian flu carried little risk to humans but decimated commercial and turkey flocks in other states creating higher prices for consumers.
Where to find more information
The University of Maine Cooperative Extension maintains a database of publications on animal health, including poultry at poultry.extension.org.
Mills recommends checking the CDC, the Maine CDC and the World Health Organization websites for updated information.
“Information about proper hygiene around poultry is true any year,” Mills said. “It’s just more important this year.”
This story has been updated with clarifying information.