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  News from the Maryland Veterinary Medical Association                                                    Fall   2013

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Some General Information for Veterinarians Treating Poultry for the First Time

by Dr. Guy Hohenhaus
Maryland State Veterinarian, Maryland Department of Agriculture

In the last few years, there has been an uptick in the number of Maryland residents who have
decided to keep chickens and backyard flocks as pets or for private use of their eggs. We are also beginning to hear a little more from veterinarians who treat companion animals that they are facing clients with sick chickens.

The Maryland Department of Agriculture (MDA) Animal Health Section works to prevent and
control infectious and contagious diseases in livestock and poultry, with particular emphasis on
those diseases that threaten public health, endanger food supplies or threaten the economic
security of the animal industries. Ensuring avian health is a large part of what we do. Maryland is the 7th largest broiler (meat-chicken) producing state in the nation, and poultry is our single
largest agricultural commodity, accounting for 35 percent of the state's farm income. We would
like to provide our colleagues who specialize in companion animals with some general
information about the laws regarding poultry ownership that may be helpful.

The Law:

Poultry Ownership: Whether your clients can legally keep chickens on their property is a
matter of local zoning, not state animal health regulations. Any questions or complaints related to poultry ownership should be directed to the local city or county where your client lives.

Anyone who keeps or cares for poultry, including suburban homeowners, must register
their location with the Maryland Poultry Registry, which MDA maintains.
Poultry includes chickens, turkeys, ratites, waterfowl, game birds and domestic/captive pigeons. The purpose of the registry is to allow MDA to contact flock owners immediately when a potential disease is identified so that it can be quickly and safely contained. If a registered flock owner has birds that develop an illness, MDA will work with the owner to contain the disease. Flock owners who are not registered put their neighbors' flocks - and maybe even the state's poultry industry - at risk. There are currently some 4,200 flocks registered in Maryland. The registry is confidential, free and easy. Click here to register or for more information.

Anyone who sells or distributes hatching eggs or live poultry in Maryland must be certified by the USDA's National Poultry Improvement Plan (NPIP) or equivalent program approved by the state and have a permit by MDA All NPIP certified hatcheries follow strict biosecurity practices, maintain detailed records of where their chicks come from, and have had their sites and chickens tested for particularly debilitating diseases. If you have clients who ask you where to buy a chick, you can refer them to the USDA NPIP Directory of Participants.  (Many chicks are sold online and delivered through the mail by uncertified and unapproved hatcheries. That practice is illegal.)

Anyone who sells, donates or distributes table eggs in Maryland must be registered with MDA
and in compliance with the Maryland Egg Law. This includes people who give their eggs away
to friends and relatives, but not to those who keep eggs solely for their own use. If you have
clients who wish to distribute their eggs to others, you can refer them to the MDA Food Quality
Assurance Program

What if Your Chicken Gets Sick or Dies?

Find an Avian Vet: There are avian veterinarians in Maryland who you may be able to consult
or refer your clients to if you are uncomfortable treating poultry. To find an avian veterinarian,
see the Association of Avian Veterinarians website at

Report Sick Flocks: There are more than 15 reportable poultry diseases in Maryland. (Click here for a list.) Veterinarians and flock owners should report sick birds to MDA if more than one bird in a flock is ill, since that could be the start of a devastating outbreak. MDA may direct flock owners whose birds die of unknown causes to send the bird to one of the state's two animal health laboratories for testing. MDA's Animal Health Diagnostic Laboratories in Salisbury and Frederick are ISO-OIE accredited for Avian Influenza Molecular Diagnostics (Qiagen Method). Salisbury is also accredited for Salmonella Isolation and Identification (Environmental Samples). Those labs will determine whether the bird died of a serious or contagious disease or some other cause. Call MDA Animal Health Program at 410-841-5810 to report an unusual disease in a flock.

Recognizing a Sick Bird: Unusual symptoms that may indicate a chicken is sick and should be reported include:

  • Sneezing, gasping for air, coughing and nasal discharge

  • Watery and green discharge

  • Lack of energy and poor appetite

  • Drop in egg production, soft or thin shells, misshapen eggs

  • Swelling around the eyes, neck and head

  • Purple discoloration of wattles, combs and legs

  • Tremors, drooping wings, circling, twisting of the head and neck or lack of movement.

It should also be noted that improper handling of poultry can cause illnesses in humans, such as Salmonellosis. Children, especially, should be taught proper handling measures.

If your clients discuss buying chickens with you, we hope you will strongly encourage them to
study the issue careful and be sure they are prepared to take on the responsibilities of poultry


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Important Links from this article

Information on flock registration

MDA Food Quality Assurance Program

USDA NPIP Directory of Participants

Association of Avian Veterinarians

Poultry Diseases in Maryland

2013 Maryland Veterinary Medical Association

PO Box 5407 Annapolis, MD 21403 (410) 268-1311 fax (410) 268-1322