Canadian Poultry Magazine

How to make the most of poultry telehealth

By Mark Cardwell   

Features Health

How to make your vet’s life easier during remote consultations.

Dr. Mike Petrik, a veterinarian and director of technical services at McKinley Hatchery, shared recommendations for facilitating remote consultations with poultry vets at a recent virtual event. PHOTo: Poultry Industry Council

The ratio of flocks to vets is very high,” said Petrik, a veterinarian and long-time director of technical services at McKinley Hatchery, one of Ontario’s main laying hen hatcheries.  “There are times when a flock needs attention but we just can’t be there.”

An added wrinkle is that not all vets treat all species of poultry, meaning that vets who specialize in turkeys, breeders, layers or broilers may be far from producers who need their services.

“Technology can help,” Petrik said at the outset of a virtual presentation he gave at the Poultry Service Industry Workshop in early October. 


Entitled ‘How to be your vet’s right hand,’ the 20-minute talk offered a detailed look at best practices for the use of telehealth in the poultry industry.

For Petrik, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has allowed new communication technologies to flourish, enabling both the growth and efficacy of telemedicine for both human and animal healthcare.

But for telehealth to be successful for poultry, Petrik says producers must be able to use those digital technologies and know what information they should be recording and transmitting information.

“Talk to your vet, preferably in advance,” said Petrik, an author and co-author of several articles on animal welfare and poultry health.  

“Communication is the key.  None of this will work if you send me a random bunch of pictures and videos and ask me my opinion.

“What often happens is that I don’t see the things I need to be able to make a diagnosis.”

Petrik laid out a series of recommendations on how producers can get the most bang for their buck when communicating virtually with their vet.

Communicating virtually
“Live conversations are ideal – assuming you have a signal (and) your vet isn’t in a meeting or out on the golf course,” he said. 

Producers with good signal, he added, can and should use video conferencing platforms like FaceTime, Zoom or Teams that provide real-time interactions.

“If not, send information while you’re still on or close to your farm to easily return if necessary (in case) the quality of pictures or videos isn’t good and more details are needed,” said Petrik.  

Helping vets make a diagnosis of birds requires more than just snapping pictures.

“You need to feel your way around flock and narrow down what sort of problem you’re dealing with,” said Petrik.  “A shotgun approach will sometimes generate a lot of information that is not going to help make a diagnosis.”

Vets, he added, must rely on producers’ skill as technicians who know their flocks to help them zero in on problems as if they were there in person.

“You often know the type of problem you’re dealing with,” said Petrik.  Common problems, he added, range from mortality and lameness to production issues like growth rate and behaviour.

In cases of mortality, for example, he said taking and transmitting pictures of everything from feed, water and mortality records to litter quality, feeders and bird distribution inside a barn often contain more pertinent information than images of dead birds.

“Very seldom do (the latter) have any value to me,” he said.  “I always want to know what the records say.”

“Do your best to make me feel like I’m there,” added Petrik. “Tell me what’s going on in the barn.  Is it quiet? Are the birds active, bright, quiet or dull?  How’s the litter, the air?”

Videos help
“Don’t hesitate to send a short video of the room where the birds are to give an idea what conditions are like,” he added.  “What jumps out at you?  What do you see that you think is weird?  What is the pathology that’s there – whether it’s a wet part of the litter or a really heavy ammonia smell.”

When taking videos, Petrik recommends producers stay away from birds and even remain outside pens so they don’t get spooked and crowd together.

“I want to see how they’re acting and what their attitude is,” he said.  “It gives me an idea of what the litter is, how the birds are dispersed, the light level – things like that.”

Petrik recommends producers use FLAWS – feed, lighting, air, water and sanitation – as a checklist to help narrow down the type and/or source of the problem.

“It helps to organize your thoughts and focus on potential problems and what might be normal or not,” he said.  “Once you start to narrow it down, you need to focus on the potential areas of concern.”

Sample taking
In addition to knowing how to take and transmit photographs and videos that are clear and not blurry or washed out by flashes, Petrik said sample taking is crucial to the success of telehealth for poultry.

In regards to feed, for example, he recommends producers take a “glove full” of feed from hopper, not from pans or other areas where feed has already been picked over and may not represent what’s been delivered.

“Go to the hopper, grab a handful of feed and turn your glove inside out,” Petrik said in the presentation, which showed a producer doing the procedure.  “That makes a good 100- to 150-gram sample than we can take into the lab.”

A free-flow water sample should also be taken from the line at the back of the barn, away from the supply, and be caught in a sterile or otherwise clean container.

Post mortems
In cases of suspected disease, Petrik says producers can also perform post mortems of dead birds – ideally in video contact with their vet.  If not, they can take and send pictures at various stages of the procedure. 

“It’s not difficult with practice,” said Petrik, who showed a series of videos and pictures of how he does port mortems, using the same procedure for poultry of all variety and age.  

“(But) you need to do it in a standard, systematic way so that you’re always opening the bird in the same order and sequence or orientation so that normal things always look normal.”

Doing several birds is important, he added, “to give an idea of how uniform the problems are (and) to narrow down what’s actually going on with the flock.” 

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