By Dr. Jeanne Smith, DVM
More people are getting chickens to produce their own eggs. What they are discovering is what good pets these birds make. I have had clients tell me that the best pet they ever had was a chicken. Chickens have unique personalities, are friendly and are entertaining to watch.
In general, backyard chickens are very hardy and not prone to diseases if they are managed correctly. Before you purchase your first chickens, do some research. Even though it is more work, it is best to purchase day-old chicks to raise yourself. If you purchase older pullets or hens you run the risk of introducing a variety of viral, bacterial and parasitic diseases. One disadvantage of buying day-old chicks is that you may end up with roosters.
The one virus that is commonly found in backyard flocks is Marek’s Disease. You should order chicks that have received a vaccination against Marek’s Disease at the hatchery. Once chicks have been put outdoors they cannot be effectively vaccinated.
If you do buy adult chickens, or take your chickens around other people’s chickens, quarantine your chickens from your other birds for a month and watch for any signs of illness before introducing them to your flock.
Feeding your chickens right will prevent many health problems. Feed a starter crumble for the first six to eight weeks. Then switch them to a grower or flock raiser diet until they start laying eggs. Once they start laying they should get a laying hen diet. You should also offer oystershell in a separate feeder.
Another important health consideration is proper housing. In our area predators are common. Chickens need to be put in a totally enclosed area at night. If that area has wire as part of the enclosure, you need to put ½-inch-by-½ inch wire around the bottom 2 feet so raccoons cannot reach through. You’ll need to bury the wire or put rocks or pavers around the perimeter to keep skunks and foxes from digging under the wire.
If you let your chickens free range during the day, make sure the area they roam in is free of hazardous materials they might eat. Chickens are attracted to shiny objects or anything new and different. So if you mow a field of tall grass they might overeat the mown grass and become impacted. If they have access to broken glass, paint chips, small metal objects, paper, etc. they may eat those things.
Other than the health risks mentioned, the most common problem I see is tumors. Not all hens develop tumors and if they don’t, they will often live to 8-14 years of age.
Unfortunately, people who do not want people to have chickens spread misinformation about the disease risks backyard chickens pose. In 26 years of practice, I have never had a client get an illness from their chicken. The California Health and Food Safety Laboratory published a paper listing the diagnoses found in 1,301 small flock chicken cases. These are chickens submitted because they were severely ill or have died, not just a random sampling of backyard birds. Out of 1,301 cases only two had salmonella; that’s only 0.15 percent.
You’ll be amazed at how much fun and endearing chickens are. Many of my poultry clients are new to chicken ownership and tell me “I had no idea how attached I’d get to these birds.” I say they are pets with benefits — eggs.