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Fowlpox -
The real chicken pox!

Written by Lisa Vaughn

Fowlpox Lesions

What is fowlpox?
Fowlpox is a virus that affects chickens and turkeys. It causes lesions on areas of the body that are not feathered. Generally those lesions are found on the face, comb and wattles. They can also show up on the legs and feet of some birds. There are two types of fowlpox, a dry form and a wet form. If your bird has the dry form only area's outside of the body are affected by lesions, but if your bird gets the wet form they will also develop lesions inside their body, like in the mouth and down the upper GI tract and respiratory tract.

Is it contagious to people or other animals?
Fowlpox is only contagious to birds. It generally only affects chickens and turkeys but there are other pox viruses that can affect other birds like pigeons, quail and even canaries and parrots. The virus has also been found in many wild bird species. You cannot get chicken pox from your birds.

How did my chicken get this virus?
There are several ways your birds can get fowlpox, many of which are very difficult to prevent which is why vaccination is highly recommended in areas endemic to the virus. These are some of the main ways your birds can get the virus:

  • From an insect or other blood sucking bug. Many times it is mosquitoes that transmit the virus. Mites and lice can also spread it from bird to bird. The virus is passed along from one bird to another because when the mosquito or other parasite drinks the blood of an infected bird they also suck up the virus, then when they go to a healthy bird and begin drinking its blood they pass the virus on to the healthy bird. Most cases are seen in the summer months when mosquitoes are out in the highest numbers. So a recent influx of rain or standing water may trigger an outbreak in your flock just due to the shear explosion of mosquito populations. It has been found that mosquitoes have the ability to transmit the virus as much as three weeks after taking a blood meal from an infected bird!
  • Through contaminated water supply. If you have one bird that has become infected and it is drinking from the water supply and happens to backwash any liquid back into the water there is a chance of the virus contaminating the water supply and then all of the birds that drink from that waterer may become infected. Another example is if an infected bird defecates in the water supply and the other birds drink that water they can become infected. This is one way your birds could be kept in a secure coop and become infected by a wild bird. Or if you have birds in individual pens but the droppings of other birds are able to fall into the water supply of those below or around them.
  • Through cuts or wounds on the skin. The pox virus is found in the scabs and dander of infected birds and can live there for as many as several years. If you have a bird that has an open wound and the dander of an infected bird comes in contact with that wound, which can happen very easily in nest boxes or on perches, the healthy bird can become infected with the virus. The birds can also inhale or eat or drink the dander or scabs of infected birds and become infected.

As you can see it is very easy for your birds to become infected with the virus. It is very difficult to prevent the spread of infection once you have one bird that has become infected.

How Can I prevent my birds from getting fowlpox?

  • The best way to prevent your birds from becoming infected is to vaccinate them against the virus. The vaccine is fairly inexpensive and you can give it yourself.
  • You can also keep your bird's area clean and free of parasites. Any of the bloodsucking parasites like mites and lice have the potential of transmitting the virus, so keep your birds clean and free of these nasty little bugs. Not only do they spread disease but they suck blood and can weaken your birds’ immune system, making your birds more likely to contract diseases. Prevent the breeding of mosquitoes, not only do they have the potential to spread LOTS of different diseases, they are very annoying and their bites are painful. So keep standing water to a minimum.
  • Change the water in your waterers frequently to prevent a breeding ground for not only mosquitoes but other nasty bacteria. Your birds can also get the virus from water contaminated with the feces or backwash or other infected birds so changing this water out frequently may also help prevent the spread of disease.
  • Keep the bedding and nest boxes clean and changed out frequently. The dander of infected birds can harbor the virus for up to a year. So clean out the nest boxes and replace their bedding often and even disinfect the area as needed.
  • Abide by strict biosecurity protocols by not allowing strangers onto your property that also have birds. You don't want them to bring any diseases on to your property on their shoes or other clothing.
  • Quarantine any new birds that you purchase for a minimum of 3 weeks. Not just for fowlpox, but for many other diseases and infections. It is never a good idea to bring in new birds if you can help it. Buy from a reputable breeder. Only buy birds that appear healthy. Never bring a bird into your flock that shows any signs of illness. There are many diseases that your birds can get that they will become carriers of always have the potential to spread that disease to new birds that you acquire, along with contaminating your property.

Can I quarantine my sick birds from those not showing signs?
There are different opinions on this stance. Some people say to let the birds all go ahead and be infected because they will then have immunity and won't become infected in the future, like a child with chicken pox. Others suggest quarantining the sick birds from the healthy to prevent the spread of the disease. There are pros and cons to both. If you go ahead and let all of your birds get the virus they will typically all develop immunity to it and won't catch it again in the future.

However, some birds do become carriers and have the potential to infect any new birds you get or can even come down with it again if they are under a lot of stress. Another con is that some birds do die from the disease. It is especially dangerous if they get the wet form or if they are very young or old or already immune compromised from some other illness or a lack in their diet or a parasite infestation.

The other con is that the virus takes a long time to move through the flock, it could be a few months from the time the first bird shows symptoms till the last bird is no longer contagious. You also see a drop in egg production and growth in your flock.

If you are considering quarantining the infected birds you need to remove them as soon as you see any symptoms. You may already be too late though, that is the hard part. Other birds could have already contracted the virus and just are not showing signs yet. But if you do decide to quarantine you need to remove the birds from the rest of the flock. They need to be in a place where they have no contact with the clean flock. You need to disinfect the area as best as possible, cleaning all feeders and waterers and bedding and nest box areas.

When you handle your birds always handle the healthy birds first if possible. Then work with the sick birds, as the dander of the birds can be transferred and you risk exposure. Wash your hands often and between handling the birds. Make sure to get rid of any external parasites that could transmit the virus and keep your mosquito populations down.

A con to quarantining is it can make it difficult to care for your birds and even with good practices you may still have birds come up with the virus due to mosquitoes or whatever originally happened to infect your flock, like a wild bird that was infected... It can be a long time before you can put your birds back together, as much as a few months.

Even after your birds appear to be healthy again if one is a carrier and you reintroduce them back to the original flock they could still spread the virus. The healthy birds will still be at risk of contracting the virus unless you vaccinate them.

When my birds came down with the virus I did both things sort of. My buff orpingtons are the ones that showed the first signs of the virus, so I placed all of my buff orpingtons in their coop and kept them there. My serama are in a different coop area so I kept them in their area. So I essentially exposed all of the buff orpingtons to the virus but quarantined all of the serama and other fowl. I then kept an eye out to make sure the serama had not already been exposed. I never saw any lesions on any of them. My entire flock of buffs eventually contracted the virus and has recovered. I am now going to vaccinate all the birds so that the serama and other birds that were not exposed to the virus will get their immunity without having to go through the ordeal of catching the virus.

How long are my birds contagious to others?
As long as the birds have the lesions they are contagious and up to 3 weeks after the lesions have completely dried up and cleared they are contagious. But you have to remember that the dander of sick birds can harbor the virus for up to a year! Mosquitoes can carry the virus for 3 weeks.

How do I clean my birds’ area to prevent the spread of fowlpox?
You want to clean and disinfect the feeders and waterers. I use bleach once weekly to disinfect mine. You can also spray a 10% Bleach/water solution in the coop area to help kill the virus. Remove as much of the bedding from the coop and nest boxes and replace with clean, fresh bedding as often as needed.

Is there anything I can do to help my birds that are sick?
You can be sure that your birds are free of any parasites that would make their recovery more difficult. I would deworm the birds and check them for fleas, mites and lice and treat if necessary. You can add apple cider vinegar to their water, some believe that it will make them drink more and if they are having any trouble with coughing or sneezing due to mucus buildup it will help cut down on the mucus and make breathing a little more easily. This is especially helpful if they catch the wet form of the virus.

You can apply iodine to the pox lesions to try to dry them up faster, I did this on some of my birds and it did seem to help. Use a Q-tip and just dab it on the affected areas. Be sure to keep the iodine out of the bird’s eyes.

You can fortify their diet with added electrolytes and vitamins because many birds will go off their feed some. Especially if they have the wet form you can add liquid vitamins to their water so they can drink their nutrition. If they are not getting what they need nutritionally it will be harder for them to fight off the virus.

Some people suggest offering things like yogurt to the diet, because it is easy for the birds to eat and can help maintain normal flora in the gut. For some birds it may be beneficial to add antibiotics to the water to keep them from coming down with a secondary infection. You should talk with your veterinarian about this if you believe your birds are at risk.

Should I attempt to treat the lesions?
You don't have to treat the lesions. They will clear up on their own eventually. Some may leave a scar. You can treat them if you choose. I treated my birds’ lesions with iodine. It will help dry up the lesion and is said to reduce the time they are there as compared to those not treated. I have also seen some suggest using lemon or lime juice to treat the lesions. I think it is just preference. I don't think you are going to hurt anything by attempting to treat the lesions, it may help. The iodine seemed to help my birds clear up faster.

Do my birds need an antibiotic?
That is going to depend on your opinion of using antibiotics in your flock and how bad off your birds are. Some people are very against using antibiotics in their flocks, I personally am not one of those people, but I also understand their views. Some birds would benefit from antibiotics if they are having a very difficult time with the virus and the potential of them contracting a secondary infection is high. If your birds’ health has gone way downhill it may be easier for bacteria, which would normally be easy for them to fight off, to cause a serious infection.

Will the lesions go away, will they leave a scar?
The lesions will eventually clear up on their own. Some birds will have scars develop as a result, especially if they suffered from multiple, deep lesions.

Will my birds die if they get fowlpox?
Most birds that were very healthy prior to infection, that only catch the dry form and are adults will not die. The wet form has more potential to be fatal. Young birds or very old birds and birds that are not healthy or already immune compromised are more likely to succumb. Generally the virus itself doesn't kill the birds. They may lose a lot of weight from not eating due to sores in the mouth and trachea and esophagus, they may already have a parasite load making them more at risk for secondary infections. Young birds are not able to fight off the virus as easily and have less natural immunity than their older counterparts and may also develop secondary infections.

Can I vaccinate my birds?
Yes, you can vaccinate your birds. There are two vaccines available, one is for very young birds and one is for adults. You should not attempt to vaccinate any birds that are showing signs of the virus or that you know are infected.

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