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Backyard Biosecurity | Keep your Chickens Healthy and Safe

Basic biosecurity is so important when you raise a flock of backyard chickens.

It happens time and time again, but it is heartbreaking to me every time I hear it.

Readers too often tell me that they brought home a new chicken from a swap or got a few pullets from a friend or neighbor to add to their existing flock and now all their chickens are sick and/or dying.

They always say "but the new ones LOOKED so healthy."

Chickens are masters at hiding injury, illness and other health issues. They are not only the bottom of the food chain and sick flock members risk predation, they also risk being picked on by flock members.

Chickens take their pecking order very seriously, and there's no room in the flock for incapacitated birds.

All this is to say that its hard if not impossible to detect sickness in birds just by looking at them.

Backyard Biosecurity | Keep your Chickens Healthy and Safe

I cringe whenever I hear about new pullets or hens being added to an existing flock immediately after being acquired, separated in the run only by fencing. Disease can still spread so easily. 

This method is only appropriate when introducing pullets you have raised from chicks that you know are disease-free. 

What a lot of people don't realize is that many diseases do not always manifest themselves in visible symptoms; and chickens, being the ultimate prey animal even within the pecking order of their own flock, are masters at hiding symptoms.

Disease spreads so quickly and easily from bird to bird. At the very least, basic biosecurity precautions really need to be taken in order to protect the health of your chickens.

What is Biosecurity

Biosecurity is merely a routine of basic hygiene measures to keep your chickens safe from pathogens and disease. It's not only during the introduction of new additions to your flock that you need to take precautions - germs also spread very easily through contact with other poultry keepers.

They can be transmitted to your flock merely from walking through the feed store after someone with infected birds has been there.

Whether you visit your feed store, go to a local fair or chicken swap, or even simply invite friends over who also raise chickens or keep pet birds, you could potentially be introducing deadly germs to your run.

Basic Biosecurity Methods

There are several easy precautions you can take to limit your chickens' exposure to the deadly viruses that chickens are most at risk of contracting:

  • Do not let other people who raise chickens or keep pet birds go inside your chicken run.
  • Caretakers or others who need to come in contact with your flock should change their footwear and wear a pair of rubber boots you keep outside the run dedicated for visitors.

  • You should also have boots or other footwear designated solely for your use inside the run and they should not be worn outside your home, especially not to the feed store.
  • Set up a foot bath for disinfecting boots. To make the foot bath, cut a piece 'fake grass' door mat to fit inside a plastic dish pan.  Fill the dishpan with a mix of bleach and water or white vinegar and water (one part disinfectant to five parts water).  Also keep a stiff brush nearby.
  • Ask friends who come to visit to first scrub their boots to remove caked on dirt and manure and then to stand in the foot bath and scrape the bottom of their boots on the mat before approaching your chicken area. It's also good practice to use it yourself any time you enter or exit the run. (Rinse and refill as needed as the bath gets dirty.)

  • Keep your chickens in an area that wild birds can not enter. 
  •  Do not hang bird feeders in or near your run. 
  • Pick up all feed, seeds and kitchen scraps every evening so rodents aren't drawn to the area.
  • Keep hand sanitizer in or near your coop - and use it often. Also keep one in your car and use it after visiting the feed store.
  • Don't share cardboard egg cartons, flats or wooden pallets with other chicken keepers. And don't reuse them.  They are too porous to be able to disinfect well enough.

  • Avoid borrowing feeders, waterers and other supplies from friends or neighbors who keep chickens. If you must, disinfect them with bleach before using them.
  • Avoid visiting farms or other households that keep poultry or pet birds.  If you do, change your clothing and wash everything immediately when you return home.  Disinfect footwear as described above.
  • Any birds who leave your property for any reason, i.e. if you bring them to shows or fairs, should be quarantined from the rest of your flock for at least two weeks after you return home with them. New birds you bring home should be kept separate for at least 30 days.
  • Buy birds only from reputable sources like hatcheries and breeders.
  •  Clean and disinfect your vehicle tires after visiting poultry swaps, shows and fairs.
  • If you have a bird die of old age, a predator attack or other injury, be sure to dispose of the body in accordance with local ordinance.
  • Watch for signs of disease or unexplained deaths in your flock.  

Backyard Biosecurity Concerns

There are two infectious diseases in particular that spread quickly and are of particular concern to the backyard chicken keeper.

Avian Influenza (or avian flu) is a virus that is carried by migratory waterfowl. It can be fatal and spreads by direct contact from bird to bird as well as through manure, farm equipment and vehicles, egg cartons and crates, pallets, as well as on your clothes and shoes.

Sudden unexplained death with no symptoms is possible, but common symptoms include: 

  • decreased egg production
  • soft-shelled eggs
  • swelled or purple head, eyelids, combs, wattles or legs
  • nasal discharge
  • coughing and sneezing
  • loss of coordination
  • diarrhea

The virus can stay alive for long periods of time at moderate temperatures, and indefinitely at temperatures below freezing.

Exotic Newcastle Disease is a virus that is spread by direct contact or the bodily excretions of infected birds. It is highly contagious and nearly always fatal. The virus is so deadly that many birds show no signs of disease.

The incubation period ranges from 2-15 days. Possible symptoms include: 

  • decreased eggs production 
  • soft-shelled eggs
  • sneezing
  • nasal discharge
  • gasping for air, diarrhea
  • drooping wings
  • twisted head and neck
  • swelling of the head and neck
  • paralysis
  • loss of coordination

The virus can live for several weeks in a warm, humid climate on feathers, manure, clothing and shoes, and indefinitely at temperatures below freezing. However sunlight and dry conditions destroy it quickly.

Reporting Biosecurity Issues

Report sick birds immediately if you have sudden, unexplained deaths or see any of these symptoms in more than one of your chickens.  Call your veterinarian, local cooperative extension service, State veterinarian, State diagnostic laboratory or the USDA at 1-866-536-7593.

For more information as well as educational materials, including posters, brochures and guides, plus detailed instructions on reporting an outbreak of disease visit the USDA at:

There is no charge for USDA veterinarians to work with you investigating a suspected disease.

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