All about Marek’s Disease- how to rebuild a healthy flock
Marek’s Disease claimed 2/3 of my flock in a single week. Months later, I had a healthy, happy flock despite the horrible experience starting out. This post walks you through my experience, my research and measures I take to keep everyone healthy. I’ve even included a quick reference guide for you to use at the end of my post! There IS life after Marek’s Disease! It doesn’t mean your days of chicken-keeping are over.
When I got my first chicks, Marek’s wasn’t even on my radar.
I was more concerned with Coccidiosis than Marek’s Disease since it’s so commonly discussed. I hovered over my chicks, fed them well, spiked their food with herbal goodness and watched them grow.
At week 14, my world slid sideways. Scarlett, my Copper Comet pullet, started limping. There were no signs of Bumblefoot. She was eating, drinking and otherwise perfect… except she was limping. Did she land hard or sprain something? I recorded video of her and posted it on my chicken forum to see what the more experienced chicken keepers had to say about it. I got a resounding “if it’s not Bumblefoot, it looks like Marek’s.”
… uh… MAREK’S?!?
I had read that Marek’s Disease was rare! There was a vaccine, but it was controversial so I opted not to get it. Most backyard chicken keepers have never seen it up close and personal. It COULDN’T be Marek’s, right?!?
I made an appointment with the closest vet who sees chickens and dove into Marek’s research, reading every extension article, forum post, Merck page and holistic healing site I could lay eyes on. I was hoping the forum was wrong, but was determined to save my babies if Marek’s was what I was really dealing with.
Here’s the scoop on Marek’s Disease.
Marek’s Disease sucks! It’s a virus, and one of the most common (and heinous) poultry diseases in existence. Tumors develop in all the major organs. If the tumors don’t kill the poor chicken, a secondary infection (which they’re highly susceptible to) will. Chickens usually start showing symptoms between 14 & 25 weeks old but it can happen to a chicken at any age. Oh, and it survives VERY well in arid climates (like southern California).
Marek’s Disease spreads through dander and feces and can travel on the wind for up to 3 miles. Wild birds can drop it in your yard. YOU can track it in on your shoes, clothing, or… say… unknowingly add tainted soil to your garden (ahem). Coops, roosts & other surfaces can carry the virus for up to a year and it survives in soil & litter for 3-7 years. To give you an idea of the awfulness of it, I was SOOOO hoping it was just a case of botulism and NOT Marek’s!
At the vet’s office
The very kind, knowledgeable vet examined & x-rayed Scarlett, and told me it looked like Marek’s. She also said that Marek’s is so common here that it’s assumed if you have backyard chickens, you’ve got Marek’s. Well, crap! I didn’t read THAT in all my pre-chicken research!
Now, I know this sounds like full-on denial, but I was STILL hoping everyone was wrong! Diagnosing Marek’s in a live bird is really challenging. There’s a blood test called PCR but necropsies (the animal version of an autopsy) are the most reliable, available method. I clung to the “looks like” verbiage the vet had used and held out for botulism.
Blog posts on Marek’s cures do exist but I still have serious doubts that those chickens in fact had Marek’s. They use a combination of homeopathic remedies and natural anti-virals, claiming full recovery.
The scholarly articles say that not every chicken who is exposed to Marek’s succumbs to the virus, but every chicken who succumbs to the virus dies. The morbidity rate, meaning how many chickens in a flock who are exposed actually get sick from the virus is 10-50% (although, I’ve read reports of up to 90%) and the mortality rate, or the number of sick chickens who die from the virus, is up to 100%. There is no treatment and the prevailing recommendation is to cull the flock.
I tried the homeopathic remedy anyway.
Yep, I was willing to try anything. I mean, It was worth a shot! What did I have to lose besides some more sleep? “Before sunrise” became my new wake-up time, which anyone who knows me will tell you that’s just not possible. I did it though! Each day at 0’dark thirty, I made fresh preparations of 30x Hypericum dissolved in 1TBS of distilled water in a glass dish. The sites were VERY specific on these points. I crushed garlic and coated it in probiotic yogurt. I carried it all out to the coop with colloidal silver and administered the regimen.
In days, Scarlett couldn’t walk, so I moved her in and out of the coop and made support structures for her to take the pressure off of her keel bone.
Shortly after a second vet appointment, my Easter Egger, Fleur, seized and died in my arms. It was horrific. I was powerless to help her and it all happened in slow motion. I still shudder when I re-live that moment.
With a lot of tears and after calling in the big guns (Mom), I sent her off to my extension office for a necropsy to get some answers. I had two remaining pullets, Scarlett and Mabel and it was at this point that I REALLY started pleading to the universe. It sounded like “please, please let me keep both of them, but if I can’t… PLEASE save Mabel!” Mabel is my favorite, you see. She jumps in my lap and snuggles on my shoulder and we have a special connection.
Within days, Scarlett couldn’t breathe well any more. It was the humane thing to end her suffering. I was a wreck! Less than 4 months into the big homestead chicken-keeping experience I had worked so hard for and two-thirds of my flock was dead. I was grief stricken, felt like a failure and a fraud.
I turned my attention to Mabel, and faced the possibility of having to put her down too.
I watched YouTube videos on how to humanely dispatch a chicken and eyed my garden rake with disgust. Putting my favorite chicken down was NOT what I wanted, but I wouldn’t let her suffer either. I took a deep breath and evaluated the situation. While she was stressed out of her little chicken mind, lonely and afraid… she was not showing symptoms of Marek’s. She deserved a chance.
My parents and I took rotations keeping Mabel company and enticing her to eat, which she had stopped doing. I could regularly be seen on all fours “pecking” at a plate of scrambled eggs, yogurt and chick crumbles to trigger her social eating instinct. Ha! The lengths some people will go to for a freaking chicken! Have I mentioned that Mabel is my favorite?
I got the results back from the necropsy a week or so later and my heart sank. It was confirmed Marek’s Disease. Well, at least now I KNEW what was going on.
Answering the question: What now?
Marek’s Disease claims most of its victims within about 10 days. If Mabel could make it for a week and a half, she’d likely make it long term. Culling the whole flock, sanitizing everything and starting over in a new, chicken free area on your land is the consistent recommendation. That just wasn’t gonna happen here. Even if I could move the coop, there was no place in my 700sf micro-homestead that my chickens hadn’t explored. I needed a different option. If Mabel lived, she needed flock mates and I needed to know how to keep everyone healthy.
I mentioned there was a Marek’s vaccine.
Unfortunately, there is a lot of misinformation about the vaccine which is what I read in my pre-chicken research. The vaccine is “leaky”, meaning it doesn’t actually prevent the chicken from contracting or spreading the virus. It DOES prevent tumors from developing in better than 70% of cases, so it’s not totally useless. The controversy stems from reports stating that BECAUSE the vaccine is leaky, the virus is mutating and getting stronger, making it more virulent. While there is merit to this debate, a lot of fault lies in improper vaccination.
The vaccine only works when administered PROPERLY in-ovo (while the chick is still in the egg) or in day old chicks. It also takes about 12-16 weeks for the chick to build up resistance to the virus. If they’re exposed before the resistance is built, the vaccine is rendered ineffective.
Some forum posts and websites claim the vaccine GIVES the chick Marek’s and if you have a mixed flock (vaccinated & non-vaccinated) the vaccine will cause an outbreak of the virus. This is simply not true. If a chicken has been vaccinated against Marek’s, they can carry and shed the virus ONLY if they’ve been exposed to it. They won’t develop & shed the virus FROM the vaccine.
My opinion now is that in small, closed backyard flocks (no live birds leave the home… ever) having properly vaccinated birds is a good choice (especially in areas where the virus is common, like mine) since the chickens aren’t in general circulation.
Once Mabel made it for 2 weeks, I ordered some friends for her from a small farm up the coast who hand delivers vaccinated pullets of all ages to my door. I scrubbed the coop, the run, the walkways, anything I could! Then I filled my garden sprayer with cheap vodka and saturated EVERYTHING… it smelled like a frat party and I was seeing rainbows, but it was sanitized! A week later, 3 beautiful pullets of Mabel’s age arrived. Normally, I would quarantine them all, but at this point Mabel couldn’t wait for her flock so I integrated them right away.
Within 24 hours, Mabel was eating normally and establishing herself as head-hen. I was so relieved I cried. When she laid her first egg a month or so later, I let my breath out and cautiously dared to believe she’d make it long-term. I also did a happy dance. There may have also been some squealing and jumping up and down.
In all likelihood, at some point in Mabel’s life she will succumb to the virus. Chickens carry the Marek’s virus for life once they’re exposed to it and are likely to succumb to the virus at some stressful point in their life, like laying their first egg. They’re also much more susceptible to bacterial and parasitic infections. I have mostly accepted that I may not get to have Mabel for as long as I’d like and appreciate every lap cuddle and shoulder snuggle we get to have. She’s living a good life (read: spoiled rotten) for as long as she’s here.
Measures I take regularly to keep my flock healthy and protect other chickens from the Marek’s Disease Virus.
The three most important things I do for flock health are keeping their coop & run clean, feeding them well and checking their weight, crops & poop. I know, the last one’s a little gross sounding but it really is a great indicator of sickness!
I spend time with my chickens. Spending even 10 minutes a day with my flock helps me notice and catch issues right away. Mornings usually find me in the yard with the chickens, drinking tea before work.
Good clean food
I make sure to keep them on a regular schedule of immune system support and healthy food.
- fermenting or soaking their feed
- giving just enough crushed garlic for the benefits it offers
- adding a few drops of organic oregano oil per serving of their daily mash.
- Daily array of dark, leafy greens and ideal chicken forage.
When I notice there’s an issue, in addition to treating the condition directly, I dilute Natural Factor’s “Anti-V” tincture at a 10-1 ratio in boiling water (this helps to evaporate the alcohol) and let it cool. Then I give it to them as their only source of water for up to 14 days or until things normalize. It helps boost their system to keep the virus at bay.
Cleaning it up
When it comes to a clean coop, there’s a regular rhythm I maintain.
- Each day when I collect the eggs, I scoop up the accumulated droppings from the litter. It takes about 5 minutes and it helps immensely.
- Every week I spend about 10 minutes and rake out the run. Then I spritz the coop with my homemade coop cleaner and scrub it down. The whole thing, including cleaning the run, takes 15 or 20 minutes and I swear the girls are happier when it’s freshly cleaned!
- Once a month I remove all the litter, food and water containers for the “complete” coop scrub down. Then I get out my respirator and activate some Oxine AH. When it’s ready, I pour it into my fogmaster Jr. and make sure the girls are barricaded in a far off part of the yard where they can’t breathe the mist in. Then I fog the crap out of their coop, their run and their roosts. This really knocks down the viral load in their environment when done on a regular basis. I don’t let them back in until it’s completely dry and re-stocked with fresh aspen shavings. The drying takes a while depending on the season but the actual cleaning process from start to finish is usually under 30 minutes! Not bad!
a little bit of easy bio-security
Finally, when I visit other places where chickens dwell, or have fellow chicken-keepers over, I make sure to use boot covers, which are part of my chicken first aid kit. By doing this I’m protecting both of our flocks and it’s appreciated. Technically, everyone SHOULD dress up in full-on hazmat suits, but that’s not very practical. Boot covers are a happy medium and when I’m done, I pop them in a dish pan and sanitize them by soaking them in some activated Oxine AH. Within a few minutes, they’re ready for their next use!
It may seem like a lot of work as you’re reading this, but I promise it doesn’t take much time at all and quite frankly isn’t much different from regular chicken coop “good hygiene” practices. My landlord comments frequently on how my chickens don’t smell!
I hope you feel better equipped to handle a Merek’s outbreak in your own flock now that we’ve covered my experience it in-depth. It really, really sucks and if you’re dealing with it, my heart goes out to you. Take a breath, know that it’s not the end of your chicken-keeping adventures and you’re not alone.
If you’d like to get down-and-nerdy, here are a few of the articles I have used in my research.
Did you find this post helpful? Did you learn something or did I leave something out? Have you experienced Merek’s before reading this? Please let me know in the comment section!