What is a galliform?
Order Galliformes consists of heavy-bodied, ground feeding birds like the chicken, turkey, quail, and pheasant. The most common gallinaceous birds encountered in clinical practice are chickens (Gallus gallus) and turkeys (Meleagris gallopavo).
What is a backyard flock?
Backyard or hobby flocks consist of meat and game birds; or ornamental or show birds (Fig 1). One important consideration when working with backyard flocks is to know whether the birds or their eggs will be used as human food as this will impact treatment decisions.
By reason of their small size, noncommercial backyard flocks are not recorded in national databases. The Great Britain Poultry Register does not report flocks less than 50 birds (Smith 2011). The National Animal Health Monitoring System (NAHMS) Poultry 2004 study defined backyard flocks as residences with less than 1,000 birds (Garber 2007), however a survey of backyard flocks in Colorado found that most flocks (68.6%) consisted of less than 50 birds (Smith 2012). The popularity of raising backyard chickens has grown in recent years as an extension of the urban local food or “locavore” movement. In a recent study, it was found that most backyard chicken flocks are owned for meat or egg production (Smith 2012).
Backyard fowl are rarely vaccinated unless the collection is very large; it is a breeding flock; or there is a persistent disease in the flock. Husbandry can also be suboptimal if new owners are unfamiliar with raising poultry.
Taking the history
History for the backyard fowl should include all the standard questions asked for the avian patient as well as vaccination history (Fig 2). Also determine…
- Is the bird considered a pet or strictly a source of food (Morishita 1999, Harris 2011)?
- Is the flock open or closed (e.g. exposed to other poultry from bird shows, etc.)?
- Do caretakers have outside contact with other poultry that could serve as a source of disease?
- What is the type of food and water source?
- What is the type of housing?
Conditions commonly seen in backyard fowl
Conditions commonly encountered in backyard chickens and turkeys often include endoparasites like Eimeria spp., pasteurellosis or fowl cholera, mycoplasmosis, staphylococcosis, and colibacillosis. Another common presenting problem is trauma, which can typically be categorized as attack wounds or long bone fractures (Murray 2012, Harris 2011) (Fig 3).
Below you will find a collection of differential diagnosis lists for common clinical problems observed in the gallinaceous bird. These abbreviated lists should in no way replace professional judgment when evaluating your patient. This “cheat sheet” is merely designed as an aide or reminder system and should never be used for diagnostic decision-making.
Diseases featured in the primer
|Avian influenza |
|Lice and mites|
Marek’s disease virus
Newcastle disease virus
The fluffed and ruffled bird
Non-specific signs of illness include fluffed and ruffled plumage, depression, anorexia, and a hunched appearance. Rule-outs for the fluffed and ruffled galliform include:
- Colibacillosis or Escherichia coli infection in chicks and poults less than or equal to 1 week of age (Fig 4)
Colibacillosis refers to any localized or systemic infection caused by avian pathogenic Escherichia coli or APEC. Most APEC isolated from poultry are only pathogenic to birds; these organisms represent a low risk of disease for people and other animals (Saif 2008). Colibacillosis can occur secondary to fecal contamination of eggs causing disease in chicks and poults 1 week of age or younger. Affected birds are lethargic and edematous. If infection involves the yolk sac, then the umbilicus will also appear inflamed (Morishita 1996).
Colibacillosis can also be transmitted by inhalation or ingestion, which most frequently occurs during cold weather periods when birds are housed indoors. Escherichia coli commonly affects the respiratory tract of both chickens and turkeys, often causing air sacculitis (Morishita 1996). Surviving hens can develop salpingitis and retained eggs. The coelom of affected birds can be greatly distended due to an accumulation of egg debris within the oviduct.
- Fowl cholera
- Salmonella septicemia caused by S. gallinarium or fowl typhoid
- Lymphoid leukosis
- Newcastle disease virus
- Roundworms (Ascaridia galli) infection
- Egg binding
- Internal lay (the presence of soft-shelled or fully formed eggs free in the coelom) or yolk peritonitis, usually occur secondary to reverse peristalsis.
- Colibacillosis or Escherichia coli infection in chicks and poults less than or equal to 1 week of age (Fig 4)
The Gram-negative rod Pasteurella multocida causes fowl cholera or avian cholera. Outbreaks of avian cholera are most often reported in chickens, turkeys, domestic ducks, and geese, however other types of gallinaceous birds, companion birds, zoo galliformes, and wild birds including birds of prey can also be infected. Among chickens, death typically occurs in older, laying flocks. Younger birds (less than 16 weeks of age) are relatively resistant. Pasteurellosis is sporadically seen in backyard flocks, especially those with exposure to other poultry through bird shows. Pasteurella multocida isolated from birds with fowl cholera will usually kill rabbits and mice, but other mammals are resistant.
Fowl cholera is classically an acute disease that causes septicemia with high morbidity and mortality rates. Clinical signs can include:
- Fluffed and ruffled feathers
- Mucoid discharge from the mouth
Cyanosis often develops immediately before death, and is most evident on the unfeathered areas of the head like the comb and wattle. Because the course of disease lasts only a few days, death is sometimes the first finding recognized by owners, especially in turkeys. Survivors of the acute form of fowl cholera can later succumb to debilitation secondary to emaciation and dehydration. Birds can also become chronically infected and recover.
The respiratory tract is an important site of chronic P. multocida infection causing infraorbital sinusitis, tracheal rales, and dyspnea. Clinical signs are can also be related to localized infections. For instance, local infection involving the middle ear and/or cranial bones can cause torticollis. Clinical signs of focal infections can include:
- Exudative pharyngeal lesions
- Joint and/or foot pad swelling
- Swollen sternal bursa
- Swollen wattle (chickens)
A tentative diagnosis of acute fowl cholera can be made by demonstrating bipolar organisms in liver imprints using Wright’s stain. Immunofluorescent microscopy can also be used to identify P. multocida in tissue or exudate. Definitive diagnosis relies on isolation of the organism from tissues or blood. Pasteurella spp. can be readily isolated from birds with acute fowl cholera and usually from lesions of chronic cases. The organism is less likely to be grown from debilitated survivors of an acute outbreak. Bone marrow, heart blood, liver, meninges, and focal lesions are preferred samples for culture. Antemortem samples can include choanal swabs, nasal flush samples, or sinus aspirates.
Necropsy findings in acute fowl cholera are associated with vascular disturbances such as petechia, ecchymoses, and generalized hyperemia. Large numbers of bacteria are often seen microscopically within blood vessels.
Antimicrobials are most likely to be successful in the treatment of fowl cholera when they are initiated promptly and based on sensitivity results. Like many Gram-negative organism, strains of Pasteurella can vary in susceptibility to chemotherapeutic agents. Sulfonamides, penicillin, and feeds containing tetracyclines are popular empirical choices.
Reproductive problems are a common finding in backyard poultry (Morishita 1995). Clients may not observe or recognize problems in the flock until egg production is influenced. Conditions frequently seen include salpingitis or infection of the oviduct, oviduct impaction, internal laying, and egg binding. Whenever reproductive disease is confirmed or suspected, the history should include:
- Has there been a drop in egg production?
- Has there been a change in the external or internal quality of the eggs?
Diseases such as infectious bronchitis in chickens can affect internal as well as external egg quality.
Some birds may be “false layers”. They show the characteristics of egg production, but lay no actual eggs. Reductions in egg laying are a common presenting complaint (Table 2).
|Table 2. Important causes of drops in egg production in gallinaceous birds|
|Husbandry-related||Change in management|
|Eggs eaten by predators||Egg production appears to drop but is in fact normal|
|Eggs destroyed by penates||Egg production appears to drop but is in fact normal|
|Viral disease||Newcastle disease virus||Chickens, turkeys|
|Infectious bronchitis virus (coronavirus)||Chickens, all ages|
|Marek’s disease virus||Chickens|
|Eastern equine encephalitis||Japanese quail, pheasants|
|Bacterial disease||Escherichia coli|
|Fowl cholera||Salpingitis, retained eggs|
|Parasitic disease||Endoparasites||Including coccidiosis|
|Nutritional disease||Cage layer paralysis||High egg producing breeds like Leghorn chickens may be more susceptible to cage-layer fatigue (Morishita 1999)|
|Fatty liver hemorrhagic syndrome|
Birds on commercially prepared feeds are less likely to succumb to nutrition-related diseases (Morishita 1999). “False layers” or abnormal egg production can result from prior infection with infectious bronchitis virus (IBV) in chickens (Morishita 1999). Salpingitis can also occur from prior respiratory disease such as E. coli air sacculitis or colibacillosis (Morishita 1995).
Important rule-outs for external egg changes like misshapen eggs, chalky egg shells, thinly shelled eggs, or shell-less eggs include conditions that affect the oviduct in general and the shell gland or uterus in particular such as:
- Eimeria spp.
- Newcastle disease virus
- Infectious bronchitis virus (chickens)
Mineral imbalances and urolithiasis are also important differentials for external egg abnormalities.
An important cause for internal egg changes like watery egg whites is prior infection with IBV (Morishita 1999).
The roundworm of chickens and turkeys, Ascaridia galli, is a common problem in backyard poultry. Roundworms can occasionally be found in eggs when birds are heavily parasitized. Worms exit the rectum, and then enter the oviduct via the cloaca where they can become incorporated into the egg (Morishita 1995).
Important causes of respiratory disease in backyard fowl include fowl cholera, mycoplasmosis, and infectious laryngotracheitis (Fig 5) (Table 3). Infectious laryngotracheitis (ILT) is particularly common in show chickens that come in contact with asymptomatic carrier birds.
|Table 3. Important causes of respiratory disease in gallinaceous birds|
|Disease||Signalment||Classic clinical presentation|
|Sporadically seen in backyard turkey||Sneezing (snicking)|
Uncommon in closed flocks
|Mycoplasma gallisepticum||Common in backyard chickens||Nasal discharge|
Sinusitis is especially common in turkeys, peafowl
|Pasteurella multocida (fowl cholera)||Adult chickens and turkeys||Dyspnea and high mortality in the acute form of disease in turkeys|
Sinusitis is especially common in turkeys, peafowl
|Avian influenza||Mostly frequently reported in free-flying aquatic birds (ducks, geese, shorebirds, gulls, terns, auks). Sporadically isolated from domestic poultry, most frequently chickens, turkeys, and ducks.||Sneezing |
|Infectious bronchitis virus (coronavirus)||Chickens||Nasal discharge|
Internal and external egg quality is also affected
|Infectious laryngotracheitis (herpesvirus)||Chickens (especially show chickens), pheasants; usually > 5 weeks||Cough-like sounds|
A bloody, mucoid expectorant is produced in severe cases, especially noticeable in white feathered birds
|Newcastle disease virus||Most species of domestic, aviary, and free-ranging birds have been found to be susceptible. Lentogenic and mesogenic strains are common in domestic fowl in the United States.||Cough-like sounds|
|All species of birds are susceptible to some strain of pox. Diphtheritic lesions frequently occur in infected pheasants and quail.||White nodules or caseous plaques on mucosa of oropharynx, larynx, trachea cause dyspnea, high mortality|
High mortality in quail
|Tracheal worms or gapeworms||Genus Syngamus (chickens, turkeys, pheasants, peafowl); Cyathostoma (turkeys)||Tracheal rales|
Flicking or head shaking
Aspergillosis can also be seen in Order Galliformes, but is rarely a primary pathogen in backyard flocks.
The most common cause of chronic respiratory disease (CRD) in chickens and infraorbital sinusitis in turkeys in Mycoplasma gallisepticum. Mycoplasma gallisepticum is common in backyard chickens. The onset of disease is often insidious. Clinical signs can include non-specific signs of illness, tracheal rales, cough, nasal discharge, conjunctivitis, and a drop in egg production. Foamy eye secretions may also be observed in turkeys. Clinical signs can also be more pronounced with concurrent E. coli or infectious laryngotracheitis infection. Disease can be transmitted through eggs obtained from non-commercial poultry sources. Mycoplasmosis tends to be variable in severity and duration, but it is typically more severe and prolonged during the colder months. Disease is also more severe in younger birds.
Avian influenza (AI) viruses have a worldwide distribution. The most frequent reports of AI occur in free-ranging aquatic birds like waterfowl, shorebirds, gulls, and terns, which are considered reservoirs of AI viruses (Saif 2008). In fact, dabbling ducks like the mallards (Anas platyrhynchos) have the highest reported isolation rates of AI viruses. Up to 60% of juvenile mallard ducks are infected prior to late summer migration.
Gallinaceous birds are not natural reservoirs of AI viruses. Avian influenza has been sporadically isolated from domestic fowl, most frequently chickens, turkeys, and domestic ducks. Most influenza infections in domestic poultry have been from avian-origin influenza viruses, however H1N1, H1N2, and H3N2 swine influenza viruses have infected turkeys, especially turkey breeders.
In recent years, outbreaks of highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) viruses have caused the death of millions of poultry and of more than 200 humans worldwide (Bavinck 2009). Fortunately research suggests that backyard fowl have played a marginal role in recent outbreaks of highly pathogenic avian influenza in commercial flocks (Smith 2011, Bavinck 2009)
Avian influenza replicates within the respiratory, intestinal, renal and/or reproductive organs. Virus can be shed from the nares, mouth, conjunctiva, and cloaca of infected birds. Virus is transmitted by direct contact or through indirect exposure to virus-contaminated fomites.
Morbidity and mortality rates are variable in poultry, and depend on virus pathogenicity and the host. Clinical findings can include:
- Oculonasal discharge
- Infraorbital sinusitis
- Dyspnea, tachypnea
- Edema of the head, comb, and wattle
- Subcutaneous ecchymotic hemorrhages of the legs and feet
- Blood-tinged oral and nasal discharges
- Green diarrhea
- Torticollis, opisthotonos, ataxia
Avian influenza viruses can be commonly recovered from tracheal, oropharyngeal, or cloacal swabs from live or dead birds. Definitive diagnosis of AI relies on viral isolation or direct detection of AI viral proteins or genes in specimens like tissues, swabs, cell cultures, or embryonating eggs.
Important rule-outs for oropharyngeal plaques in the galliform include:
Candida albicans overgrowth usually occurs secondary to prolonged antibiotic use or in poultry raised under harsh environmental conditions.
There are many infectious agents that can cause enteritis in galliforms. Important differential diagnoses include:
- Eimeria spp: Coccidiosis is common in chickens and turkeys raised on dirt floors. Heavy loads can lead to bloody diarrhea. Different species affect different parts of the intestinal tract, with some species like Eimeria tenella affecting only the cecum to cause hemorrhagic typhlitis and cecal core formation. Disease can be complicated by infection with E. coli or Clostridium perfringens (necrotic enteritis).
- Colibacillosis: Escherichia coli has been associated with enteritis, but more research is needed to determine the actual role in typhlitis and cecal core development (Morishita 1996).
- Lymphoid leukosis: Lymphoid leukosis is a retroviral infection that causes tumors in chickens 14 weeks of age and older. The incidence of avian leukosis is typically low (<4%), however, mortality can be high in affected birds. Lymphoid leukosis is transmitted transovarially; hens shed virus into eggs. Chicks are then infected at hatch and shed virus their entire lives. Necropsy findings include profound hepatomegaly, bursal enlargement, and neoplastic nodules. Unlike Marek’s disease virus, neural involvement does not occur in lymphoid leukosis.
- Pasteurella multocida: Fecal material is initially watery and white in acute fowl cholera, but later becomes green and mucoid (Table 4).
- Coronaviral enteritis is an acute, highly contagious disease of turkeys.
Table 4. Stool color or consistency as a clue to underlying cause of disease
|Stool color or appearance||Differential diagnoses|
(Bacillary white diarrhea)
|* Once the most important disease in poultry, Pullorum disease is now one of the least significant.|
Histomoniasis is caused by the protozoan Histomonas meleagridis. Histomoniasis has a complex life cycle that involves the earthworm and common cecal worm, Heterakis gallinarum. Visit Wildpro for a diagram illustrating the H. meleagridis life cycle.
Histomoniasis can be a serious disease in backyard turkeys. Disease is usually less severe in chickens and in fact, chickens can be an asymptomatic source of Histomonas sp. and Heterakis sp. Turkeys can contract disease by ingesting the protozoan from fresh droppings. Research suggests that contaminated water can also play a role in parasite transmission (Loft 2012).
Histomonas mainly affects the ceca and liver. An early sign in turkeys is sulfur-colored droppings. Affected birds can also display non-specific signs of illness. Most turkeys die acutely or after a more prolonged course of disease (McDougald 2005). Characteristic lesions found at necropsy include circular depressions surrounded by raised, craterlike lesions in the liver and cores of caseated debris in the cecum. Histomoniasis can also be found in the bursa of Fabricius, kidney, spleen, and other tissues (Saif 2008). Antemortem diagnosis relies of identification of the organism on fecal exam (Morishita 1996).
In commercial flocks, histomoniasis was relatively well controlled until the ban on nitroimidazole antihistomonals in the United States and Europe in the 1990s. There is currently no product available for treatment of blackhead disease (Saif 2008).
Marek’s disease virus is a highly infectious disease caused by a herpesvirus. While commercial poultry are vaccinated against Marek’s disease virus (MDV) at 1 day of age, disease occurs frequently in backyard chickens. Although less than 14 weeks is frequently listed in the literature, unvaccinated birds of any age can develop MDV. In fact, the common history is exposure to birds of unknown vaccination history.
There are four clinical forms of MDV (Table 5). The visceral form is difficult to distinguish from lymphoid leukosis. Marek’s disease virus is an important cause of neurologic disease in backyard poultry (Table 6). In the neurologic form, MDV is often first noticed as gait disturbances like ataxia or stilted movements. As MDV progresses, birds can exhibit range paralysis in which one leg is stretched forward and the other leg is stretched back. Unilateral enlargement of the sciatic nerve is identified at necropsy.
|Table 5. Forms of Marek’s disease virus|
|Cutaneous||White, distinct nodules involving feather follicles|
|Neurologic||Ataxia, stilted gait, range paralysis|
|Ocular||Blue-gray discoloration of iris|
|Visceral||Lymphoid tumors of liver, spleen|
Tumors can also occur in heart, kidneys, intestines
Table 6. Differential diagnoses for central neurologic signs in gallinaceous birds
|Bacterial disease||Arizonosis (turkeys)|
|Viral disease||Avian encephalomyelitis|
Eastern equine encephalitis (ataxia, paresis, paralysis, and/or torticollis in pheasants or Japanese quail)
Marek's disease virus
Newcastle disease virus
|Nutritional disease||Thiamine deficiency|
Vitamin E deficiency
|Other non-infectious diseases||Botulism|
Heavy metal toxicity
Important causes of peripheral neurologic signs gallinaceous birds include:
- Marek’s disease virus (chickens)
Differential diagnoses for swollen leg joints and footpads in galliforms include:
- Fowl cholera (localized infections of leg or wing joints)
- Staphylococcus aureus: Staphylococcus arthritis is common in poultry raised on wet litter or rough wire surfaces. Infection can involve not only leg joints and footpads, but also tendon sheaths.
- Viral arthritis (reoviruses)
- Rat-bite infection
Infections caused by Mycoplasma synoviae are less common than M. gallisepticum. Acute infection is generally seen in 4-16 week-old chickens and 10-24 week old turkeys, although natural infection has been observed in chicks as young as 6 days of age. Local Mycoplasma synoviae infection most frequently causes upper respiratory infection in chickens. Systemic M. synoviae infection causes acute to chronic tenosynovitis or bursitis.
Early clinical signs of infectious synovitis in chickens typically include lameness, retarded growth, and a pale comb. Additional clinical signs can include:
- Non-specific signs of illness like lethargy
- As disease progresses, feathers become ruffled and the comb shrinks in size. In some cases, the comb will appear blue-red.
- Warm, fluctuant swellings of one or more joints are usually found. Hock joints and footpads are most commonly involved but in some birds most joints are affected.
- Enlargement or swelling of the sternal bursa or “breast blisters”.
- Most birds continue to eat and drink if food and water are placed nearby, however severely affected birds lose weight.
- Mortality is usually less than 1%.
Respiratory signs are rarely observed in turkeys. Other clinical signs in turkeys, are similar to those seen in chickens. Lameness is the most prominent finding, however joint swelling may not be as prominent as in chickens.
A presumptive diagnosis of M. synoviae infection can be based on clinical signs. A definitive diagnosis can be made by isolation and identification of the organism. Mycoplasma synoviae is easily cultured from acutely infected joints, but in chronic infections viable organisms may no longer be present in lesions. Isolation from the upper respiratory tract is more reliable in chronically infected birds. Mycoplasma can also be directly detected in tissues or culture medium using DNA probes.
Mycoplasma synoviae is readily transmitted vertically (through the egg) or horizontally therefore the only effective control is to select chickens or turkeys from specific-pathogen free flocks.
Gastrocnemius tendon displacement or perosis is another potential problem in young, growing birds. Perosis may be caused by diets deficient in biotin, folic acid, niacin, or pyridoxine. Other potential causes of lameness include “curly toe paralysis” caused by riboflavin deficiency, pathologic fractures, and rickets. Additionally early in disease, it can be difficult to distinguish lameness from ataxia, so differentials such as Marek’s disease virus must also be considered (see neurologic disease above).
Knemidokoptes mutans, or the scaly leg mite, can be found in backyard poultry, particularly chickens. Crusty, raised lesions are most frequently found on the legs, but can also appear on the comb and wattles.
Poxvirus lesions also occur on the unfeathered skin of the legs and face of backyard poultry, especially chickens. These yellow pustules, vesicles, or brown scabs and crust appear quite different from Knemidokoptes (Morishita 1999). The causative agent is most often fowl pox, but turkey pox can also be encountered.
Pasteurella multocida can be responsible for localized infection of the wattles, comb, or the subcutaneous tissues of the head (Christensen).
Important rule outs for feather loss in gallinaceous birds include: (Morishita 1999)
- Feather destructive behavior
Lice are common parasites in backyard chickens and turkeys (Table 7). Infestations cause rough feathering. When feathers are parted, lice can often be seen scurrying away. Lice eggs can be found as white deposits at the base of feather shafts (Morishita 1999). Egg clusters or nits can also be palpated, especially over the ventral coelom and near the vent.
|Table 7. Distinguishing lice and mites|
|Size (mm)||1-6 (length)||~0.5 (diameter)|
|Egg location||Base of feather||Along feather shaft|
Mites are small, black organisms that resemble ground pepper. Mites often lay eggs along the midshaft of the feather, which appear as blackened areas along the feather shaft. Mites and mite egg-encrusted feathers are particularly noticeable on the ventral coelom and vent.
Important differentials for conjunctivitis in backyard fowl include: (Morishita 1999)
It is also important to remember that the ocular form of Marek’s disease virus causes blue-to-gray discoloration of the iris, usually in birds less than 14 weeks of age (Morishita 1996).
Peracute or acute death
When confronted with a complaint of sudden death in backyard fowl, important differentials include:
- Wet pox (dyspnea, death)
- Fowl cholera, particularly in turkeys
- Colibacillosis, chicks and poults
- Tracheal worms
Forming a differential diagnosis list for the gallinaceous bird follows the same principles as in any other species, however some diseases are relatively unique, or at least much more common, in this taxonomic group. The minimum database frequently includes fecal parasite testing (flotation and saline preparation), hematology, plasma biochemistry, and survey radiographs. Serologic tests and culture can also be used to detect various disease agents. Also keep in mind that is easy for poultry owners to medicate their birds before seeking help. This can butt the diagnostic picture and make recovery of the disease agent more difficult (Morishita 1999).
Be sure to consider the health of the entire flock and to remain vigilant for important poultry disease. Although the majority of small flocks appear to pose little risk of disease transmission because they are maintained in semi-isolation (Burns 2011), there is a potential for backyard flocks to play a role in the spread of infectious diseases within poultry populations as well as the transmission of zoonotic diseases to humans (Smith 2012).