Veterinary Care: Do broiler chickens receive veterinary care? How do veterinarians treat sick chickens?

A veterinarian consults with a chicken farmer.

Licensed veterinarians, who have a professional obligation to protect the chickens’ health and welfare, provide comprehensive health care programs for every commercial broiler chicken flock.

To help provide more detail on veterinary care for broiler chickens, Dr. Ken Opengart, who has worked for nearly 25 years within the poultry industry and oversees live operations, health and nutrition, animal welfare, biosecurity, pre-harvest food safety, sustainability and grain risk management programs, shares his professional expertise and experience, and answers the most frequently asked questions about veterinary care on broiler chicken farms.

What degree of formal training is required to ensure a veterinarian is licensed to provide health care to a chicken flock?

Poultry veterinarians have a wide degree of training that can qualify them for poultry industry practice. Some veterinarians enter the industry and are able to work for an integrated poultry company right out of veterinary school and are able to learn on the job. For others, there are a number of post-veterinary graduate, intern and residency programs that give more hands on experience along with various amounts of classroom and laboratory study. The path is really up to the individual and their interests. Most integrated poultry companies require that a veterinarian that they employ become licensed in the states that the company has birds (or at least the states in which the veterinarian will work). Since the poultry company maintains ownership of the birds, the veterinarian is then able to work in and care for the birds in those states.

How many farms does a veterinarian work with at once?

Most veterinarians that work for broiler companies have responsibility for the health and welfare of multiple broiler complexes. The average broiler complex processes 1,000,000 – 1,250,000 birds per week.   A typical complex usually has between 100 – 200 farms that are owned by individual producers.   Broiler complexes within the same company are spread over several states so travel is a part of a broiler veterinarian’s routine.

How often does a veterinarian visit an individual poultry farm?

Like most things, farm visitation subscribes to the 80:20 rule. 20 percent of the farms require 80% of a veterinarian’s time. For a multitude of reasons, the same farms need repeated veterinary service over time.   Many farms never need veterinary service but the veterinarian may visit the farm to assess overall management as veterinarians are often asked to provide assessments of biosecurity, welfare and husbandry practices.

The way the system works is that veterinarians train technicians to implement the program, recognize signs of sickness and disease, perform necropsies (bird autopsies) on the birds if needed, take and deliver blood and fecal samples to the veterinary diagnostic lab, recognize lesions and then communicate all of that the veterinarian. The veterinarian cannot be on every farm at all times, but the technician is on the farm to work with the farmer once or twice every week. They are the eyes and ears for the veterinarian. The use of technology, tablets and smart phones to take videos, text pictures, etc. aids the technician to remain in constant contact with the veterinarian.

How can a veterinarian ensure only a select number of chicken are sick versus the entire flock? If one bird becomes sick, how does the veterinarian ensure that the rest of the flock does not get sick?

If you work as a veterinarian for a broiler company, you practice flock health. In other words, because the birds live in close proximity to each other, inside a chicken house, if one bird gets sick, all of the others are at risk. The population is treated as an individual and the smallest unit is one house of chickens. In those cases where a disease is diagnosed by a poultry veterinarian, treatment would be assigned based on the causative agent to the entire house to treat those birds that are clinically ill and prevent the spread of the disease to other at risk birds in the house.

As the saying goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure and this fits the practice of poultry medicine as well. Consequently, there is a lot of attention paid to preventing disease from entering a house (biosecurity) and ensuring the flock is best suited to be protected from a disease challenge (disease surveillance, vaccination, optimal environment and management, proper nutrition, minimal stress.)

What are the alternatives to treating a broiler chicken with antibiotics? Do veterinarians use any holistic or herbal medicines?

Organic acids, vitamins and water sanitizers are sometimes used to reduce the risk of spread or minimize the impact of a disease. Additionally, there are more and more products that are entering the marketplace with claims of antibacterial activity and poultry veterinarians may use holistic or herbal medicines if they or a colleague have had success treating specific conditions with these compounds. Judicious use of antibiotics is a critical component of veterinary practice so if there is occasion to use a GRAS (Generally Recognized As Safe) product to achieve a favorable response, it is the veterinarians responsibility to do so.

Does the veterinarian monitor the sick chicken(s) or is that the farmers’ responsibility?

There are several individuals who share the responsibility for monitoring sick chickens. Ultimately, it is the veterinarian’s responsibility to develop and implement poultry health programs for the company. Health programs typically include biosecurity programs, vaccination programs, disease surveillance programs and sanitation programs. Additionally, the veterinarian is usually tasked with training the company representatives to recognize signs of disease. These individuals visit the farms on a weekly basis and make health and welfare assessments of each flock. Together with feedback from the farmer, they communicate to their management and the veterinarian when they suspect there might be a disease present. The veterinarian will develop a diagnostic plan, visit the farm or have birds taken to a poultry diagnostic lab, evaluate lab results and develop a treatment plan if needed. If treatment is assigned, the veterinarian receives feedback on how effective the treatment was and will use that information in subsequent cases.

Under what circumstances will a veterinarian deem a broiler chicken too sick to be treated with antibiotics?

If a broiler can no longer get to feed or water because it is sick, it is necessary to humanely euthanize the bird to relieve its suffering.

Dr. Ken Opengart received his Master’s Degree in Poultry Science from Virginia Tech, his Veterinary Degree from the Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine and his Ph.D. from Virginia Tech. Dr. Opengart is a Diplomate of the American College of Poultry Veterinarians and was certified by the Professional Animal Auditor Certification Organization as a Foundation Poultry Welfare Auditor.

Dr. Opengart has worked for nearly 25 years within the poultry industry. Past employers include Elanco Animal Health, Wampler Foods, Seaboard Farms and ConAgra Poultry. Dr. Opengart has been employed by Keystone Foods for 13 years and during that time his responsibilities have included overseeing live operations, health and nutrition, animal welfare, biosecurity, pre-harvest food safety, sustainability and grain risk management programs within Keystone Foods’ U.S. Proteins Division. In his current capacity he leads Global Animal Health and Welfare and continues to lead Sustainability for Keystone Foods’ U.S. Proteins Division.

LOOKING FOR MORE INFORMATION?

Learn more about broiler chicken welfare in this FAQ.

To see what daily life is like for a conventionally raised broiler chicken, visit our “Day in the Life” section.

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