Riverside County residents with backyard chickens, and people with other birds, should take steps to protect the animals from virulent Newcastle disease, county agricultural officials urged last week.

The disease has not been identified in Riverside County but recent outbreaks in Southern California demonstrate the need for precautions.

“This disease is so virulent it could significantly affect the poultry industry nationwide if it reaches commercial flocks,” said Riverside County Agricultural Commissioner Ruben Arroyo. “To avoid the risk of spreading the disease, Riverside County inspectors will defer to federal inspectors at production facilities.”

Arroyo pointed out that it is very rare for people to contract the disease, even those working directly with flocks. That risk can be easily eliminated if the person wears protective gear.

In just one day, exposure to virulent Newcastle disease can infect every bird in a single location, and cause serious illness or death within an entire flock. Residents are urged to protect their birds through a practice known as biosecurity:

• Restrict traffic onto and off of your property.

• Disinfect shoes, clothes, hands, egg trays or flats, crates, vehicles, and tires.

• Avoid visits to other poultry farms or bird owners. If you visit, be sure to change clothes, and clean your hands and shoes before entering your own bird area.

• Wash hands and scrub boots before and after entering a poultry area.

• Isolate any birds returning from shows for 30 days before placing them with the rest of the flock.

In addition to those steps, bird owners should report sick birds or unusual bird deaths through California’s Sick Bird Hotline at 1-866-922-BIRD (2473).

Dr. Allan Drusys, Riverside County’s chief veterinarian, recommended that bird owners shelter their flocks in place until the situation is completely controlled.

“In short, bird owners should not be buying new birds or trading their birds until this matter is fully resolved,” Drusys said. Epidemiologists recommend a stop-movement initiative as well.

San Bernardino and Los Angeles counties have reported confirmed cases in backyard flocks but not in commercial poultry operations. The highly contagious viral disease affects the respiratory, nervous and digestive systems of birds. Poultry and other birds can die without ever showing symptoms, and the disease can strike regardless of whether or not birds have been vaccinated.

Indicators of the disease include sudden death and increased death-loss in the flock, sneezing, gasping for air, nasal discharge, coughing, greenish diarrhea, reduced activity, tremors, drooping wings, twisting of the head and neck, circling, complete stiffness, and swelling around the eyes and neck.

No human cases of Newcastle disease have ever occurred from eating poultry products, which are safe to eat if thoroughly cooked. In rare instances, people working directly with sick birds can become infected. Symptoms usually are mild and limited to conjunctivitis. People can easily prevent infection by wearing protective equipment, such as gloves, goggles, face masks, boots and disposable coveralls.