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University of California backyard poultry.jpg University of California-Davis

Veterinarians play critical role in backyard poultry, livestock welfare

Few veterinarians actively treating urban livestock due to lack of facilities, interest or experience.

Backyard poultry and small-scale livestock agriculture are a growing trend in the U.S. — even in large cities such as Seattle, Wash.; Portland, Ore.; Denver, Colo., and San Francisco, Cal., where residents may be raising backyard poultry and livestock for a variety of reasons, such as access to locally sourced food, companionship and sustainability, according to the University of California-Davis (UC-Davis).

The UC-Davis School of Veterinary Medicine wanted to explore how often owners seek veterinary care in these urban and peri-urban areas.

A western regional team of collaborators, including UC-Davis researchers, conducted a survey of veterinary practitioners to better assess their engagement with owners of these animals. They received responses from 880 veterinarians in California, Colorado, Washington and Oregon.

According to the university's announcement, most respondents reported working in companion animal-only or companion animal-predominant practices. Although most of the veterinarians perceived an increase in backyard poultry and livestock in their practice areas, few were actively treating such animals, primarily because of a lack of facilities, interest or experience.

The findings, published in the July 15 issue of the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Assn., indicate an increasing demand for veterinary services for poultry and livestock in peri-urban areas and a need for ongoing continuing education of practitioners as well as the animal owners, UC-Davis said.

“This segment of agriculture has been largely overlooked by the veterinary community in North America,” said Dr. Alda Pires, University of California cooperative extension specialist in the UC-Davis School of Veterinary Medicine and co-principal investigator in the study. “Due to the potential for public health issues and the spread of zoonotic disease, veterinary professionals need increased training and better awareness of the health and welfare of these animals.”

Dr. Ragan Adams, veterinary extension specialist at Colorado State University and a co-principal investigator, emphasized that the animal owners also need better awareness of the importance of regular veterinary care and a willingness to pay for that medical expertise.

“Many of these owners are unfamiliar with the responsibilities and challenges of owning poultry and/or livestock,” Adams said. “County extension personnel can teach the new animal owners, as they have taught youth in 4-H programs for more than 100 years. With enhanced knowledge about animal husbandry, the new owners will understand the importance of seeking veterinary services when their animals show signs of illness.”

Disease spread from these peri-urban areas can spell disaster for other animals. For example, the 2015 outbreak of highly pathogenic avian influenza was traced to backyard poultry flocks and had severe economic and trade consequences for the commercial poultry industry, UC-Davis said, adding that recent outbreaks of virulent Newcastle disease in California also posed significant threats to commercial poultry flocks and the agricultural economy.

“The health and welfare of animals in [urban and peri-urban areas] are of concern because their owners often lack the knowledge or expertise regarding safe handling and animal husbandry,” said Dr. Dale Moore, Washington State University veterinary medicine extension specialist and co-investigator.

A previous survey found that the owners want more access to livestock and poultry medicine. This follow-up survey highlights the need for veterinarians, along with extension specialists, to work with small-scale poultry owners to improve biosecurity measures, better detect disease and mitigate potential future outbreaks,” Moore said.

The original study ideas for these surveys came from the Washington State University veterinary medicine extension (Moore and Dr. Amos Peterson) as part of Peterson’s master’s thesis project. The project was then extended to veterinary medicine extension in California (Drs. Pires, Jerome Baron and Beatriz Martinez-Lopez) and at Colorado State University (Adams). Extension educators at Oregon State University and the Oregon Veterinary Medical Assn. helped with contacts in that state.

The increase in popularity of backyard and peri-urban agriculture provides both challenges and opportunities for veterinarians, UC-Davis said. Providing veterinary service to owners of backyard poultry and livestock, who often view their animals as pets rather than production animals, requires a different approach and some different skills versus providing veterinary service to owners of conventional or commercial livestock operations.

The study authors suggested that a new model of practice might be envisioned for urban and peri-urban poultry and livestock clientele to ensure the health and welfare of their animals and to safeguard public health.

Specific opportunities for the veterinary profession are to identify local or regional veterinary service needs for these owners, become equipped to address exotic or zoonotic disease detection and husbandry questions and provide medical care as well as food safety advice, the veterinary researchers said.

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