Avian influenza basics for urban and backyard poultry owners

Quick facts

Avian influenza is harmful to poultry flocks especially if it’s highly pathogenic. Always report any signs of disease to your state agency or veterinarian. Preventing disease is the best way to keep your flock healthy.

  • Separate your flock from disease sources including wildlife and wild birds.

  • Keep your poultry area and equipment clean.

  • Separate new or returning birds from your flock for at least 30 days.

  • Don’t share equipment between neighbors.

small flock of hens in outdoor, mobile pen with metal feeder

What is avian influenza?

Avian influenza (AI) is a disease that affects domestic poultry including:

  • Chickens

  • Turkeys

  • Pheasants

  • Quail

  • Ducks

  • Geese

Waterfowl and shorebirds are natural hosts for the avian influenza virus. These birds will shed the virus, often without showing signs of illness.

Highly pathogenic avian influenza

Highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) is rapidly fatal for poultry. Sudden onset of HPAI and high death rates are common among all poultry (except ducks and geese).

In chickens, HPAI signs often include respiratory (gasping) and digestive (extreme diarrhea) signs followed by rapid death. Chickens may have swelling around the head, neck, and eyes. The heads and legs may also have purple discoloration.

Other poultry species, including turkeys, may have nervous symptoms such as:

  • Tremors

  • Twisted necks

  • Paralyzed wings

  • Laying down and pedaling

Since December 2014, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has reported confirmed cases of HPAI. These cases were mostly of the H5N2 subtype. HPAI occurred in wild waterfowl and backyard poultry in the states of Washington, Oregon, California, Idaho. It also occurred in commercial poultry flocks in California, Minnesota, Missouri and Arkansas (updates available).

Public risk is very low with no food safety concerns because infected birds don’t reach the market. Infection risk normally only exists for people in direct contact with affected birds. As a reminder, always properly handle poultry and eggs and cook to an internal temperature of 165 F. Don’t eat birds that appear sick or have died for reasons unknown. For more food safety information read “Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza in Minnesota.”

HPAI in your flock

Each state has an agency to respond to avian influenza cases. Minnesota’s agency is the Board of Animal Health.

If your flock has sudden, high death rates or many birds with signs of HPAI, contact your veterinarian or the Minnesota Board of Animal Health right away.

The Minnesota Poultry Testing Laboratory (MPTL) works with the University of Minnesota Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory (VDL) to conduct and coordinate testing for AI.

You can contact the laboratories at:

  • MPTL: (320) 231-5170

  • VDL: 612-625-8787

Preventing disease

Biosecurity plans are steps flock owners must take to prevent disease in their flocks.

Poultry get HPAI from infected waterfowl (ducks and geese) and gulls. Infected poultry can spread disease to new flocks. Review your biosecurity plan often. The USDA has the following biosecurity tips.

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Wayne Martin, Extension educator; Robert Porter Jr., Extension poultry specialist; Sally Noll, Extension poultry scientist; and Carol Cardona Extension poultry virology specialist

Reviewed in 2018

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