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What is Marek's Disease?

Marek’s disease is a very common disease that may affect your chickens. It spreads quickly through a flock, affecting young birds between the ages of 8 and 20 weeks of age. If you raise chickens, it is vital to understand the signs of this virulent disease so that you can take action against it. There is no cure, with prevention being the most important course of action to take. The disease occurs most commonly as the nervous form, with progressive paralysis in one or both limbs, and sometimes showing in the neck or wings as one of the main symptoms.

Marek’s disease is highly contagious amongst chicken flocks and is caused by the herpesvirus. There is no cure and it brings a high mortality rate.

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Symptoms of Marek's Disease in Birds

  • Vision impairment, with a change in the eye colour showing a grey iris or irregular pupil 
  • Skin change in texture around the feather follicles, often appearing raised and bumpy 
  • Lameness and leg weakness without any visible signs of swelling or heat within the limb 
  • Partial or progressive paralysis of the limbs is a typical symptom of Marek’s disease 
  • The paralysis can also affect your chicken’s neck or wings causing your bird distress  
  • Loss of weight due to the inability to reach the water and their feed  
  • Difficulty in breathing 
  • Diarrhea 

Types

  

Nervous Form

 The most common type of Marek’s disease begins as a progressive paralysis of the neck or wings, and limbs, affecting the sciatic nerve (main leg nerve). If your bird has this type of MD it may seem uncoordinated on its feet. Paralysis takes over very quickly and blindness can occur.

Visceral Form

This presents as tumors within the internal organs of your bird such as ovaries, spleen, liver and heart. Symptoms include depression, paralysis, loss of weight, anemia (pale combs) and sometimes diarrhea. Your bird may die suddenly without any sign of the disease.

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Causes of Marek's Disease in Birds

  • Marek’s disease is caused by the herpesvirus or more specifically, it is a DNA virus 
  • This highly contagious disease (among your chickens) is spread by chicken dander (dust) through inhalation 
  • This condition increases the risk of other diseases as the immune system is compromised 
  • It can also spread rapidly through contact with other contaminated chickens in the flock 
  • Dander from other wild birds, the wind, human shoes can all spread the disease 
  • It can be spread through environmental factors such as an infected enclosure
  • MD can survive in the soil where chickens are kept for at least five months
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Diagnosis of Marek's Disease in Birds

If your notice any of the symptoms of Marek’s disease within your bird population you will need veterinary assistance to diagnosis this condition. On examination, the symptoms will be a major factor, and if any of your flock have died, a post mortem will confirm your veterinarian’s analysis. With post mortem findings, the enlargement of the nerves such as the sciatic nerve will be obvious, and changes within the internal organs may be visible. 

There is a vaccination (for commercial poultry but small doses are not yet available to the backyard bird keeper) against MD that is advisable for your birds; it is not a cure, it only helps your bird to build up a resistance to the disease. In other words, just because your bird is vaccinated it is no guarantee that it will not catch this disease. Marek’s disease is a common virus that occurs where there a flock of chickens being raised. It can spread rapidly in unvaccinated birds, so that they become infected. They can carry the virus for life and can shed the virus through the feather follicles which then spreads rapidly in the dust and fluff in the environment. One thing to note, it is not spread from the hen to the chick through the egg, and the meat and eggs from infected birds are perfectly safe to eat.

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Treatment of Marek's Disease in Birds

There is no cure or treatment for Marek’s disease. Those birds who are diseased should be removed from the others, and sadly humanely destroyed. Close monitoring of your remaining birds to see if they are infected is important. Although vaccinations are commonly used for those commercial poultry farmers, it is not available in small doses for the hobby poultry keeper. If you are buying new birds choose from a commercial source that has vaccinated its stock. Although it will not prevent your birds from getting this disease, it will make them more resistant to it.

Preventative measures are also important, such as ensuring chicks are separated and reared so that they don’t get the infected fluff and dust of older birds. A regular clean out of the shed or enclosure, and equipment such as feeding bowls is very important. Disinfecting these areas will help prevent MD. Superior quality feed and regular treatment from parasites is also good practice. By practicing good management, it will ensure your birds have the best chance to resist Marek’s disease. Consult your veterinarian regularly as to the annual care for members of your backyard flock.

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Recovery of Marek's Disease in Birds

There is no cure for this disease. There is only prevention and management of your birds. Because MD is spread via chicken dander and dust, maintaining good conditions within enclosures is important. Sterilising of the utensils, perches and even relocating the birds to another enclosure while you turn over and treat the soil (if you have a dirt floor) is a good routine to get into. MD is not contagious to humans thankfully. But care with new breeding stock or chicks from reputable breeders who vaccinate their birds is important. Because this disease is so contagious it can travel through your flock of birds leaving them decimated within weeks. Prevention is an essential part of bird rearing management.

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Marek's Disease Questions and Advice from Veterinary Professionals

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Ask a Vet

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Goldie Hen

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buff

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Eight Months

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Moderate severity

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1 found helpful

pill-rating-filledpill-rating-filledpill-rating-filledpill-rating-filledpill-rating-filled

Moderate severity

Has Symptoms

Not Laying

Our chicken less (than 1 yr presented with one wing hanging down 3 days ago so treated as broken wing and isolated her for observation. Now she seems to have neck tortion (torticolis) and blindness in one eye with general uncoordination. Otherwise eating and drinking well and vocalizing and breathing normally with normal poop- All hens (16) have been laying poorly for 2 wks. They are free range 1/2 day and have large pen and roosting area. Is this Marek's?

July 9, 2018

Goldie Hen's Owner


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1 Recommendations

Without examining Goldie Hen and (I don’t want to say) perform a necropsy (if necessary) I cannot say whether or not she has Marek’s Disease or another condition, given the symptoms I would recommend that you visit an Avian Veterinarian for an examination to diagnose the cause of the symptoms (the torticollis and asymmetric wings are concerning). Regards Dr Callum Turner DVM

July 9, 2018

SHE SEEMS BETTER TODAY! ALL OTHER HENS NON-SYMPTOMATIC SO WILL CONTINUE TO OBSERVE- NO VETS IN OUR AREA TREAT POULTRY... WOULD HAVE TO TAKE HER TO DAVIS- 1HR AWAY. IS IT IMPORTANT TO DX THIS FOR THE HEALTH OF THE FLOCK? TRYING TO FIND OUT FROM SOURCE IF SHE WAS VACCINATED... THANX FOR YOUR RESPONSE- MELANIE

July 9, 2018

Goldie Hen's Owner


I have a new born pheasent poult... He has disease of leg weakness and mouth opening.... Please suggest me how to treat this kind of disease

Aug. 9, 2018

Adnan K.

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Jon jon

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Toyogamatsu

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2 Months

pill-rating-filledpill-rating-filledpill-rating-filledpill-rating-filledpill-rating-filled

Moderate severity

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1 found helpful

pill-rating-filledpill-rating-filledpill-rating-filledpill-rating-filledpill-rating-filled

Moderate severity

Has Symptoms

Unable To Balane

We got 7 chickens. They're about 2 months old. All are doin well except for Jon Jon. He can't stand or walk. He falls forward and just pushes himself on his breast and face.and afterward he shakes a little. I just wanna help him. He's still the same size and weight of his siblings too.

July 7, 2018

Jon jon's Owner

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Dr. Michele K. DVM

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1 Recommendations

JonJon may have an inherited problem, or an infectious disease. Since the other 6 chickens are okay, it seems that there may be a problem that he was born with that is affecting his balance or mobility. It would be best to have him seen by an avian veterinarian to have an examination and see if there is a treatment that might help him.

July 7, 2018

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