Immunity and the Gamecock
A healthy gamecock is a wonderful sight:
brilliant feathers, bright eyes, red head, always moving and talking,
challenging the world to a fight. The only way a gamecock can reach his
genetic potential is through good management, including preventing and
The ability of the immune system to
defend the body against disease organisms depends on several factors, many
of which can be controlled by correct management of the flock. The following
article outlines the basic components of the avian immune system, their role
in preventing disease, and techniques that are available to prevent disease
and enhance the immune response.
The avian immune system is actually
composed of two different and complex immune mechanisms that work together
to keep birds healthy and resistant to disease. The innate or
non-specific arm of the immune system is the first line of defense. Examples
of this system include genetic resistance, body temperature, and the
presence of normal or beneficial bacteria which physically and chemically
prevent the growth of harmful bacteria. Other examples of innate immunity
are the body's physical barriers to invasion such as the skin, the mucous
membranes that line the respiratory and digestive tracts, and the
respiratory cilia (fine hair-like structures), which trap and "sweep" dust,
bacteria and other debris out of the trachea (wind pipe). Another component
of innate immunity is the "complement" system (proteins and enzymes which
circulate in the blood and attach to invaders and kill them). The last
component of innate immunity are large scavenging cells called macrophages.
These important cells travel throughout the body, engulfing and destroying
foreign bacteria, virus particles, fungi, and other debris, and aid in the
further development of the immune response, as explained in the next
paragraph. The second arm of the avian immune system is called acquired or
specific immunity. This system is activated when the first line of defense
(innate system) is overcome by disease challenge. B-lymphocytes or "B-cells"
are a type of white blood cell and are activated when the macrophage engulfs
the invading disease organism
The B-cell communicates with the surface of the macrophage, and if a foreign
invader is detected, the B-cells first begin to reproduce themselves and
then begin producing specific antibodies, otherwise known as immunoglobulins.
Antibody production begins after 4 to 5 days, and peaks at 3-4 weeks.
Antibodies circulate in the blood, and many perform their role by attaching
to the surface of disease organisms, preventing the harmful bacteria or
virus from attaching to the target cells in the chicken. Other antibodies
enhance the efficiency of the complement and macrophage activity against
disease organisms. Once exposed to a specific disease organism, the B-cells
display a "memory" of that organism, and can respond to future challenges
much more rapidly. The B-lymphocyte/antibody immune response is responsible
for the protection afforded by vaccinations, in which a weakened or killed
bacteria or virus is introduced into the body, allowing the "memory"
capabilities of the B-cells to be activated and readied to produce
antibodies if the B-cells detect the disease challenge in the future.
The B-lymphocyte/antibody immune
response primarily prevents the disease organism from entering and damaging
the target cells of the chicken. However, if the immune response was not
able to prevent this from occurring, the next response by the acquired
immune system is the production of T-lymphocytes. Depending on the specific
type of T-cell, these cells can attack the organism directly, enhance the
function of other cells involved in immune function (e.g., B-cells and
macrophages), and kill infected cells when required.
When a chicken is exposed to a disease
organism and produces antibodies itself, this is called "active immunity".
When a chick is hatched, the hen provides antibodies through the egg.
Mammals secrete antibody-rich colostrum through the milk to their newborns.
Obtaining pre-made antibodies is termed "passive immunity". New feed
additives are available which furnish egg-derived antibodies to livestock
and poultry, and have been demonstrated to provide protection against many
disease organisms [an example of this technology is the product Pro-Immune].
In fact, hens are such efficient antibody factories that egg-derived
antibodies are becoming the mainstay for research and innovative immune
therapy in humans. Certain vaccination programs for poultry are timed so
that they are administered after the maternal antibodies have diminished
somewhat, so that the chick's B-cell's are stimulated into producing
antibodies and active immunity to the pathogen. If the vaccination is
administered after the maternal antibodies have severely diminished, a
reaction to the vaccination is possible.
Prevention of disease requires effective
management of the flock. As gamefowl breeders, our challenges are similar,
yet different and can be significantly more difficult than the large-scale
commercial poultry operations. Many of the standard recommendations for
commercial flocks just don't apply very well to the real life situation of
the typical gamefowl breeder.
The most effective method to prevent the
occurrence of disease is biosecurity: preventing contact with potential
disease sources or vectors (fowl, other wild and domesticated birds,
animals, people, contaminated feed, and equipment). How feasible is this to
the typical gamefowl breeder? Nearly impossible! However, there are some
practical tips you can implement that will reduce your chances of exposing
your fowl to unnecessary disease challenge, and reducing the impact of
disease should it occur.
1. Keep your young fowl separate from
the adults if possible. Fowl running loose in the tie-cord area or drinking
from the same water containers as the broodfowl can spread disease from one
sick bird to all the rest. If young fowl are exposed to a significant
disease challenge before sufficient antibodies are produced, disease may
result. Many older birds may be carriers of disease, even though they do not
2. Before you buy fowl, determine what
procedures (medications, feed additives, vaccinations, management
techniques) the breeder employs to keep his fowl healthy. Find out what
disease problems he has had in the past and what he did to control or
eradicate them. If he uses many medications and has trouble with disease in
his flock, reconsider the purchase. You are buying his fowl and his disease
problem. If at all possible, examine the fowl in detail before you buy them!
Slow down and truly observe the fowl - not just the flashy battlecocks, but
the broodfowl and young chicks. Are they vigorous and alert, with clear
eyes, brightly colored plumage and bright red heads? When they crow, are
their voices clear and loud? Are young fowl and hens running all over the
tie-cord area? Are the broodpens and brooders clean and well-maintained?
3. When you bring your new fowl home,
keep them separate from your original birds for at least two weeks if
possible. Feed, water, and handle your fowl first and the new fowl last, to
prevent carrying a new disease to your fowl. Worm and de-louse them, and
watch them carefully. Sometimes the stress of moving fowl to a new place and
changing the feed will cause disease symptoms to appear.
4. Select your broodfowl from the
strongest, most vigorous fowl you have to choose from. Breeding from an
unhealthy individual of a valuable bloodline just doesn't work well; it's
better to lose the bloodline than take the chance of breeding genetic
susceptibility to disease into your flock.
5. Explain to visitors your policy of
limiting traffic on your yard to only what is necessary. If you sell
chickens, consider asking your visitors to use disposable plastic booties
and to wash up before they enter your yard. Disease can be easily tracked
from one yard to another on boots and clothes. If you know someone who has a
disease problem with his chickens, don't let him wander around and handle
your birds. This is very important because visitor traffic from infected
flocks to "clean" flocks is probably the way most diseases are spread.
6. Eradicate rodents! Mice and rats can
carry disease, including Cholera. Rodent droppings in the feed can pass
these germs on to your chickens. Keep mice and rat poison available where
fowl can't reach, and make sure it's available at all times. Use clean feed
from reputable, well-managed feed mills. If you see piles of wasted feed,
evidence of rodent infestation and other unsanitary practices, start looking
for another source of feed.
7. I recommend feeding twice a day for
several reasons, but one reason is that if you feed only once per day, often
your fowl will leave a little feed for later in the day or the next morning,
if you feed in the evening. The left-over feed will attract wild birds and
mice, which may carry disease. For large operations this may not be
possible, but for the majority of breeders, twice a day feeding pays off.
8. If you have the space, move your fowl
on fresh ground frequently. A model gamefowl facility would have a duplicate
yard area for tie cords, range for young fowl, and portable brood pens.
Periodically, the entire operation should be moved to fresh ground, allowing
the ground to rest and reducing the exposure of the fowl to the buildup of
droppings. Some partnerships involve individuals with different farms that
specialize in the different aspects of producing gamefowl for battle:
breeding, raising the young fowl, and conditioning. This is an ideal set up
to prevent the transmission of disease from one age of birds to another,
although keep in mind that people and equipment moving between farm can
spread diseases, too.
9. When setting up your yard and
broodpens, a gentle slope is better than flat, low-lying ground because it
will drain better. Low-lying ground invites breeding mosquitos (Fowl Pox)
and allows waste from droppings to build up.
10. Worm and delouse your fowl on a
regular basis. These parasites can rob your fowl of valuable energy and make
them susceptible to disease.
11. Implement a vaccination program for
common poultry diseases in your area, and any hard to control diseases
particular to your flock. Marek's and Newcastle are two diseases that can be
prevented through vaccination. In some areas, Fowl Pox and Coryza are
consistent problems, and should be included in a vaccination program. There
are many other diseases for which vaccines are availabe. Be sure you
carefully follow directions or you can get a severe reaction from the
vaccine. Try vaccinating at night to reduce stress.
12. Perhaps one of the most important
aspects of disease control is carefully observing your fowl for any changes
in their appetite, changes in the color and consistency of the droppings,
respiratory rattles, sneezes, coughs, ruffled feathers, slow movement, and
other changes from normal. These are symptoms requiring action! If possible,
isolate the affected birds immediately from the rest of the flock.
Administering a broad-spectrum antibiotic in the water to the entire flock
while you attempt to diagnose the disease is usually a good idea. Most
states have a land-grant agricultural university with an animal diagnostic
laboratory that will diagnose the disease, usually for free, although you
may have to work through a local veterinarian to submit the birds. Contact a
local vet or an agricultural extension agent for information. Diagnostic
labs will need several (2-3) affected birds (preferably alive, or very fresh
dead), plus background information about the flock (number of birds
affected, age of birds, what the symptoms are and when they were noticed,
vaccination program used, medications used, etc.) . The diagnostic lab will
furnish the disease diagnosis, and give specific treatment and prevention
recommendations, usually within a week to 10 days. Don't hesitate to call
them and ask a bunch of questions. Your tax dollars pay their salary!
13. Keep your fowl healthy so that their
immune system is strong and can overcome disease challenge. Provide a
balanced diet, clean water, and control stress conditions (see "Nutrition,
Stress and the Gamecock"). Consider using natural immune system boosters to
prevent disease rather than the routine use of antibiotics which builds
resistance in the disease organisms and can permanently harm the immune
system and internal organs (liver and kidneys). Natural products which have
been proven to increase immunity include "probiotics" or direct fed
microbials , which are beneficial intestinal bacteria, certain vitamins and
minerals such as vitamin E and selenium, herbs such as Echinacea (purple
coneflower) and Goldenseal, avian antibodies, which provide passive immunity
to disease challenge, and others. My web site carries natural products
proven to increase health and prevent disease in gamefowl…
The study of the immune system is complex and is constantly
evolving as new research is conducted. We can get the most out of our fowl
by breeding only the healthiest ones, preventing exposure, vaccinating when
necessary, rapidly and accurately diagnosing and treating disease when it
occurs, and strengthening and maintaining the fowl's natural immune system.