Backyard Chickens: Cage Free but Not Carefree

Image: Backyard Chickens Thinkstock 508669633

Cluck, cluck, cluck. You’ll hear these sounds in nearly every state these days.

Backyard chickens have become exceedingly popular and are popping up in suburban areas everywhere. There’s plenty that’s appealing about these feathered pets — and plenty to consider before you get them.

Chicken Charms

Believe it or not, chickens are extremely inquisitive and great fun to watch. They love to explore and investigate everything. Chickens also provide companionship, and nearly every chicken owner will tell you that these friendly birds recognize their owners and respond to their voices — they bond to their human families and can be devoted companions.

Chickens also provide fresh eggs to eat. This is perhaps the main reason so many people want chickens as pets these days. There is something very rewarding about being able to step out into your yard in the morning and bring breakfast directly to your table. Chickens can also teach children about responsible pet ownership. They need to be fed and watered daily, and their coop needs to be cleaned and swept, at a minimum, once a week. Nest boxes need to be checked daily for eggs and cleaned regularly. All family members, including children, can participate in chicken care, making it a fun family experience.

Chickens Come in All Shapes and Sizes

Unbeknownst to most people, there are over 400 varieties of chickens in the world. Standard chickens are the familiar large birds, while Bantams are much smaller, weighing only a couple of pounds. Standard chickens are kept mainly for their egg-laying abilities, as they generally produce larger eggs more frequently, while Bantams are kept more often as ornamental pets. In addition to size variation, different varieties of chickens come in different colors with varying feather length and pattern. And some chickens can also lay differently colored eggs, from the white and brown eggs you can find in the grocery store to those beautifully colored in pastel shades of pink, green or blue.

Chickens certainly are appealing as pets, yet they are not simple to care for. What many people don’t realize is that chickens actually require a fairly high level of care.
What should you know before getting a backyard chicken? Here are six things for you to think about:

1. They Can Be Backyard Outlaws.

Before obtaining one or more chickens, you should check your local ordinances to see whether chickens can be kept legally as pets in your area. Not all locations are zoned for chickens, and they may not be allowed, even in seemingly semi-rural areas or on large lots. The laws vary not only state to state, but also town to town. Some locations specify how many chickens you can have, whether you can have roosters and even what kind of coop is allowed. Many areas also require permits to have chickens.

2. Eggs: Eat at Your Own Risk.

Most people don’t realize that chickens may carry several parasites that can be transmitted to people through contact with their droppings and consumption of eggs. Commercially raised chickens are routinely monitored for parasites and other health problems before their eggs can be sold to consumers. Pet chicken owners should seek out a veterinarian who is familiar with chickens to ensure their birds are healthy and parasite-free. A knowledgeable poultry veterinarian also will not recommend any medications that might be passed on to humans who are eating the eggs. On the other hand, vets unfamiliar with chickens might not think about concepts like “antibiotic residues” in both eggs and chicken meat when they are medicating a sick chicken.

3. It’s a Lengthy Commitment.

People often don’t realize that while chickens typically lay eggs for only two to three years, they can live as long as 15 years. As a result, many unwanted chickens are dumped in shelters and rescue groups across the country. So, if you’re thinking of getting pet chickens, you may want to contact local shelters before ordering them through a hatchery or farm supply store.
4. Your Chicken Palace: Aim for Function, Not Flair.

Many people get backyard chickens because they look pretty in dollhouse-like coops in their suburban yards. Lots of popular stores also advertise coops like they are pieces of decorative furniture. The reality, though, is that many of these fancy coops lack features that are critical for good chicken health. For example, chickens housed in cold climates need heat when it’s very cold so that they don’t get frostbite, so the coop needs to accommodate a heat lamp or other heat source.

In addition, chickens that are housed inside for many days over cold winters lack exposure to ultraviolet (UV) light, which is essential to helping them make vitamin D in their skin. Vitamin D enables chickens to absorb calcium from their food so that they can make hard-shelled eggs. Without adequate UV light exposure, they can lay soft or shell-less eggs or, even worse, have the eggs get stuck inside of them. This condition is called “egg-bound” and is a life-threatening emergency for which you need to contact a veterinarian. Your coop needs to provide adequate daylight or an artificial source of UV light. Cute coops are great to look at, but they also need to be large and airy enough to accommodate your flock size and to allow for easy access for feeding and cleaning as well as providing protection from wild predators.

Finally, coops must be placed in areas where the top layer of soil can be dug up and removed at least once a year. Otherwise, chickens can ingest parasite eggs that are passed into the soil in their droppings and continually reinfect themselves.

5. “Ixnay” on the Pet Play.

Chickens are prey species and are naturally stressed when they are around predators — including pets like cats and dogs. It’s the predators’ natural instinct to chase and catch chickens as the birds flap away from them. Even docile pets who mean well and may only want to pick up a chicken in play will use their mouths to do so. But keep in mind their sharp teeth can puncture and kill a chicken in an instant. So, no matter how gentle a dog or cat may be or how much you’d like to see all your pets gamboling together on the lawn, keep your birds and your “predator pets” apart for safety.
6. Chickens Carry Salmonella.

All chickens potentially carry this infectious bacteria. Chickens can harbor it in their gastrointestinal tracts and pass it into their stool without being affected by it themselves. People or other pets in contact with chicken droppings may accidentally ingest this bacteria and develop severe intestinal infections. In fact, it has been reported that an increasing number of people are becoming infected with Salmonella due to backyard chicken flocks. The best way to prevent accidental ingestion and infection is to wash your hands whenever you touch a chicken or anything potentially contaminated with chicken feces (nest boxes, soil, the coop, food dishes, etc.). Also, never bring pet chickens inside your home, especially in the kitchen, and don’t kiss your chicken, even when she’s a cute and fuzzy little chick.

Bottom Line: The Reality “Cluck”

Chickens can make terrific, charming and entertaining pets — as long as you know what you are getting into ahead of time and can take the proper precautions to ensure that both you and your new feathered friends stay healthy and happy.

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