Understanding the Veterinary Feed Directive

January’s a time for New Year’s Resolutions and new starts. For backyard poultry owners in the United States, January 2017 was a new start in the way we medicate and treat our flocks as the Veterinary Feed Directive from the Food and Drug Administration took effect.

In a nutshell, the Veterinary Feed Directive ended over-the-counter sales of medically important antimicrobial drugs that are to be used for livestock in feed or water. Water-soluble antibiotics now require a prescription from a licensed veterinarian that has an established veterinary-client-patient-relationship with the poultry owner. Antimicrobials that are added to feed now require a Veterinary Feed Directive which is a written document that allows for the purchase of the antimicrobial and directs the use of it.

That’s a lot to take in at once and it can seem confusing, so let’s break it down.

Why is the Veterinary Feed Directive Needed?

To set the stage, it’s important to remember what life was like before the VFD. If you had a sick bird, you could try to diagnose it yourself and order antibiotics for chickens online or pick them up at the local farm store. Lots of people took advantage of this ready availability and gave their birds antibiotics as they saw fit. You could attend any poultry show and find fanciers that had administered a “preventative” antibiotic to their birds before coming to the show and were planning to administer a different “just in case” antibiotic to the birds when they got home.

At the same time, we’re all aware of the increasing problem of drug resistance in humans. It’s not uncommon to turn the TV on and see a story about a drug-resistant strain of bacteria that doctors are struggling to cure. There has long been concern that antibiotic use in food-producing animals contributes to this problem. The VFD is an effort to curb this and help keep medically important drugs effective into the future.

For large poultry farming operations, complying with the VFD was not anticipated to be a problem since they normally have a visiting veterinarian or two and they can diagnose and administer antibiotics for chickens as needed. For backyard owners, access to a veterinarian that can treat chickens can be more complicated. Many worried that without unfettered access to antibiotics for chickens, their birds would die.

What Does this Really Mean?

The Veterinary Feed Directive sounds so technical and governmental that most people that own backyard chickens and poultry don’t think this applies to them. But it does. While many people are raising chickens for eggs or for meat, others keep them just as pets. Under the directive, there is no distinction. It applies to all people who own livestock regardless of the end use for their birds.

For backyard poultry owners, the biggest impact of the Veterinary Feed Directive is that they will need to establish a relationship with a licensed veterinarian. This can be hard for poultry owners since many veterinarians don’t treat livestock. A good place to start a veterinarian search is by contacting your local extension service. Many times they are aware of licensed veterinarians in the area that do treat livestock. A helpful tip when searching is to look for local veterinarians that will treat pet birds like parrots. Many of the common chicken maladies like bumblefoot and worms are also present in pet birds. So you may have luck finding a veterinarian that treats pet birds that will also treat your chickens. Regardless of the Veterinary Feed Directive, it’s always good to have a veterinarian that you can consult if the need arises. And it’s good to have a well-stocked emergency kit on hand for temporary care until you can reach a veterinarian or for incidents that you can treat from home.

What Drugs are Affected?

For those wondering what to feed chickens, especially baby chicks in the brooder, the Veterinary Feed Directive does not affect medicated chick starter feeds. These feeds contain a coccidiostat that reduces the chances of Coccidiosis in growing chickens that do not have a fully developed immune system. Amprolium is a common coccidiostat and it’s not an antibiotic. Also not affected by the Veterinary Feed Directive are bacitracin and the dewormer, piperazine.

Common Drugs Not Affected by the Veterinary Feed DirectiveDrugs That Now Require a Veterinary Feed Directive
Amprolium (Coccidiostat in Medicated Chick Starter FeedHygromycin B

Prevention is really the key to lessening your need to follow the Veterinary Feed Directive. Make sure your chickens stay healthy by keeping a clean coop and nest boxes with proper ventilation and nest bars. Provide clean food and water daily. And make sure your chickens get outside each day for some fresh air, and hopefully, some free range time. It’s also important to give your flock a once-over each day. Know what’s normal for your flock. That way you’re more likely to notice if something is wrong and you can treat it early.

Advice for Adding Birds

Besides sanitation, a key to successful chicken keeping is to get birds from a reliable source.

Newly purchased birds should immediately go to a veterinarian. The veterinarian can take a blood sample from the wing and screen for diseases. While waiting for results, the bird(s) should be quarantined away from the existing flock. The results will give data so folks know what they are dealing with and can make an assessment.

Finding a Poultry Veterinarian

If you’re looking at your local veterinary offerings, you may try looking for an exotic animal practice or a specific veterinarian within a practice that handles exotics. Those veterinarians typically go beyond the treatment of dogs and cats by treating pet birds, hamsters and snakes to name a few. You may also find an avian veterinarian that treats pet birds like parrots. Those birds can have the same issues as chickens, including bumblefoot and crop impaction so a vet versed in parrots may be able to treat chickens too. 
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