How to prevent and detect disease in small flocks and pet birds

Diseases such as highly pathogenic avian influenza (AI) and velogenic Newcastle disease can cause serious illness and death in many bird species. Fortunately, you can protect your birds and keep them healthy.

Follow 5 basic rules in the day-to-day care of your birds to reduce the risks posed by harmful diseases.

1. Prevent contact with wild birds and other animals

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Wild birds and other animals such as mice can carry a range of disease-causing viruses, parasites and bacteria. Make sure that your birds and their food and water are kept away from wild animals. Promptly clean up spilled feed and litter, and keep feed in sealed, waterproof containers to avoid attracting unwanted guests and to protect it from becoming contaminated.

Biosecurity protection from wild birds

Avian influenza viruses (or bird flu) are present in wild bird populations throughout the world. Typically, wild birds (particularly waterfowl) carry bird flu without being affected, but they can spread the viruses to domestic poultry. Specific avian influenza viruses may cause serious and potentially fatal disease in domestic poultry.

AI viruses are transmitted through bird secretions or feces. The viruses may pass directly from bird-to-bird or indirectly through contaminated feed, water, equipment, boot or clothing.

Domestic poultry owners can implement several measures, collectively known as biosecurity, to protect their flocks from bird flu. Examples of ways to minimize the risk posed by wild birds include:

  • keeping domestic poultry in and enclosed shed or barn and covering all openings, including vents, with screens to prevent contact between domestic poultry and wild birds
  • storing and using feed and water in an enclosed area to prevent contamination
  • removing spills of feed and standing water as quickly as possible to avoid attracting wild birds; and
  • cleaning potentially contaminated equipment by washing with a solution of detergent and water, followed by disinfecting using a commercial disinfectant or a solution of one part bleach and twenty parts water

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA), in collaboration with a number of partners, monitors AI viruses in wild birds through an annual survey. All viruses detected through this activity are publicly reported.

2. Clean, clean and clean

Viruses, parasites and bacteria can live in organic matter such as litter and soil. Eliminate the risk of disease spread by routinely and thoroughly cleaning barns, cages, egg trays, gardening tools, and water and feed containers. No equipment should be shared with or borrowed from other bird owners. Always clean your hands, clothing and footwear before and after handling birds. Promptly dispose of dead birds, litter and unused eggs.

Cleaning and disinfection tips for small flock owners

Cleaning and disinfection helps to prevent the transmission of disease agents from contaminated equipment, such as footwear, tools and cages. Proper cleaning and disinfection procedures are a vital component of any biosecurity program for small flocks.

Most disinfectants will not work properly if there is a presence of organic matter. Therefore, all organic material must be completely removed before applying a proper disinfectant to the items that are being cleaned.

The CFIA recommends a simple, three-step cleaning and disinfection process. The following procedures should be completed outside or in a well-ventilated room, wearing protective eyewear and gloves.

  1. Remove all organic material from footwear, tools and other equipment with a brush or sponge, using detergent and clean, hot water.
  2. Scrub again, using a solution of 50 millilitres of household bleach (sodium hypochlorite, 5%-6%) and 4 litres of water. Let stand until the surface is dry.
  3. Lastly, scrub with hot water and common household disinfectant following the label directions.

3. Spot the signs and report early

Bird owners are legally responsible to notify authorities of serious bird diseases such as avian influenza. Call a veterinarian or a local office of the CFIA if you suspect your birds are sick with bird flu.

Signs to look for include:

  • lack of energy, movement or appetite
  • decreased egg production
  • swelling around the head, neck and eyes
  • coughing, gasping for air or sneezing
  • nervous signs, tremors or lack of coordination
  • diarrhea; or
  • sudden death

It is always better to be overcautious. Report any bird that you think may be sick. Early reporting can greatly limit the effect of a disease on the health of your birds.

4. Limit exposure to visitors

People can spread bird diseases, too. As a general rule, do not give visitors access to your birds. If someone must enter your property or handle your birds, make sure that their clothing, hands and footwear are clean and free of debris. Provide shoe or boot covers, or use a foot bath to prevent disease from entering or leaving your property. As well, the tires and wheel wells of any vehicles that have been around birds should be cleaned before entering your property.

5. Keep new birds separate when entering your flock

Avoid introducing disease to your birds. New birds should be segregated and monitored for at least 30 days before entering your existing flock. Make sure that new birds come from reputable suppliers that have strict disease controls in place. Birds returning from shows or exhibits should also be segregated for at least 2 weeks.

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