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Vaccinating Your Chickens

There are many questions about vaccinating chickens that get asked among the chicken community. Questions like, “Should I be vaccinating my chickens?”, “When should I vaccinate them?”, and “What vaccines do my chickens need?” are among the few common ones.

For many these are tough questions and they deserve a clear breakdown with all the information one would need to make informed decisions. As with many choices you will have to make regarding your flock there are a few important factors to consider. We will discuss them here, and ultimately, you will have to decide what is right for you and your chickens.

What’s The Purpose Of Vaccinating Chickens?

Just like vaccines for people they are designed to help give your bird’s immune system a boost to protect them from catching various viruses, parasites, and diseases. They are far from 100% foolproof, though, so don’t think that they are some sort of miracle cure that will prevent your flock from ever becoming ill. Honestly, there’s a 0% chance that you will never encounter a sick chicken in your flock.

Many people say that vaccinating chickens is a good idea because it helps to establish herd immunity, reduce the spread of lethal bacteria, and improve the overall death rate of chickens in a flock. Others say that’s a bunch of hooey.

So, what’s the point really? Well, that’s what the big chicken vaccine debate is about, isn’t it?

What Are Some Common Vaccinations For Chickens?

There are a few very common chicken diseases out there that most vets would recommend you to vaccinate your chickens against, should you want to start vaccinating your flock.

These include, but are not limited to, Marek’s Disease, Salmonella, Infectious Bronchitis (IB) /Avian Rhinotracheitis (ART), Newcastle Disease, Fowl-pox, and Mycoplasma Gallisepticum (MG). Each one of these diseases can cause significant health problems, and even death, for a chicken if they contract it.

As far as Marek’s disease goes, it is one of the most common infections that chicken owners will come across. It’s a serious virus that affects the nervous system of a chicken. Depending on the strain it can cause damage ranging from rapid weight loss to not being able to walk followed by blindness and eventually death.

This disease is not curable and will always be lethal. The best way to prevent it is to vaccinate against it and this is why it’s usually the first disease mentioned when researching vaccinating chickens. It’s not 100% preventable either, but the vaccine will lessen the chances of a chicken getting it.

Marek’s disease is a highly degenerative and aggressive infection and it’s sad to watch a chicken go through it. If you do come across a chicken in your flock that has contracted Marek’s it’s highly recommended (read: necessary) that you put it down as soon as possible as it can spread to the other chickens in your flock and it will put the bird out of it’s inevitable misery.

Where Can I Find Chicken Vaccines?

Finding chicken vaccines can be a pretty difficult task and this is especially true if you only keep a small number of backyard chickens. Most chicken vaccines are batched out and packaged for huge corporations that raise chickens for eggs and poultry.

If and when you do find the vaccines you need you will see that it is nearly impossible for you to get them in small batches. Usually the minimum number of doses sold is for around 500 to 1000 chickens. They can also be found with hundreds of thousands of doses per batch. 

This may cause a dilemma for those that hate wasting money (or don’t have the money to waste to begin with) as the thought of buying enough medicine for 500-1000 birds when you only have 10, 20, or maybe 50, may seem extravagant.

It’s obviously a lot less cost-effective since you will end up needing to dispose of the surplus as it will not last forever. However, it should be noted that if you are more inclined to vaccinate your chickens, you shouldn’t let this aspect deter you.

You will find that most farm stores don’t vaccinate their chicks or even sell vaccines. A lot of times private chicken hatcheries will vaccinate their chicks, at least for Marek’s disease. In that aspect sometimes it’s better to buy from an actual hatchery so that one’s already taken care of and you don’t even need to worry about it. 

If you’re concerned about bringing sick or infected chickens into your flock you will want to avoid buying them from auctions. If you want to rotate or expand your flock your best bet would be to deal with reputable chicken hatcheries exclusively or possibly just stick to raising and hatching your own chickens at home in a safe environment.

How To Vaccinate Chickens

If you have gotten your hands on the necessary vaccines, as well as the tools (vials, syringes, eye droppers, etc.) that are needed to deliver the medication, it’s not quite time to gather your birds together and begin administering them just yet.

You will need to know the exact age of your birds as there’s a certain time that each vaccine should be administered. For example, the Marek’s vaccine should be given between the first day and three weeks of your chick’s life and the vaccine for mycoplasma gallisepticum shouldn’t be administered until your fowl has grown to be somewhere between 10 and 14 weeks of age.

You will also need to know how to administer the medication correctly. Some vaccines require intraocular application (medicinal drops in the eye via an eyedropper) like the one for the MG mentioned earlier or perhaps subcutaneously (just under the skin via a syringe). Others can simply be added into the chicken’s drinking water.

If a vaccine is not delivered properly it will not be as effective, if at all. Also, delivering the wrong amount of vaccine or delivering incorrectly could make your chicken extremely ill or even kill it. Regarding vaccines all instructions must be followed to a T. Vaccinations must be delivered correctly and at the right time in order to make the whole ordeal worthwhile.

If you’re not 100% sure that you are up for the task, it may be better to consult a trustworthy vet that specializes in birds and administering vaccinations to them. This might even be an easy way to avoid wasting surplus medication as the vet will likely bring just enough dosages required for the job.

It’s hard to say whether this will be more cost-effective overall or not, but at least you’ll know that the vaccinations have been done professionally and correctly.

What If I Don’t Want To Vaccinate My Chickens?

Remember, the decision to vaccinate your flock or not is a personal decision that only you can make. Only you will know the situation that you are facing, and if you’re able to significantly reduce the amount of risk that your birds will come into contact with another diseased animal, you may decide that it’s just not worth the hassle to vaccinate them.

Most bird diseases and infections are caught from other sick birds and animals. As long as you keep a closed flock of chickens at home and don’t expose them to any other compromised animals, you should be perfectly fine. If you tend to have house guests that visit to see your chickens you should also take extra precautions that will aid in reducing possible contamination to your chicken’s run and coop. This can be as simple as just having them disinfect their shoes before entering the area and on the way out.

Just know that if you have been raising chickens for a while, and have not experienced any (or many) issues with diseased chickens or other frequent health problems, you probably have a small chance of ever needing vaccinations to begin with. This is especially true if you practice good husbandry and are able to maintain an immaculate environment for your feathered friends.

Tips Worth Mentioning

There are always a few extra precautions that chicken owners can take to ensure that their flock remains as healthy as possible even without vaccinations.

As mentioned above good husbandry is a great place to start. This includes maintaining a clean environment for your chickens by frequently cleaning and disinfecting the coop, changing nesting materials daily, and keeping the food and water bowls pristine. Regular health checks will also help you to quickly spot any problems before they get out of hand.

You can also work with other natural solutions around your chicken run to help reduce the chances of mass infection among your chickens. This includes such things as sprinkling diatomaceous earth around any area your chickens spend a lot of time in (coop, run, etc.) and even in their water. This will help keep disease-spreading insects at bay.

If you’re really concerned about your chickens contracting serious illnesses, but don’t have the resources or the desire to vaccinate the flock by yourself, your best bet would be to purchase your chickens from a respectable hatchery. A lot of hatcheries will offer the option to have your chicks pre-vaccinated for a fee before they are delivered to you. This will give you the best of both worlds and, as long as you maintain a clean environment, should lead to a happy and healthy flock for years to come.