Written by Shannon Fujimoto Nakaya, DVM
Disclaimer: The information provided on this page is not intended as a substitute for veterinary care.
Backyard chickens are on the rise along with a lot of questions about how to care for them and keep them healthy and what can be done for them when they are not right. I've now answered certain questions often enough that it seems reasonable to just post a few answers and comments and ideas. Again, the information provided on this page is not intended as a substitute for veterinary care, just some information to get you started in the process of decision making on behalf of your chickens.
- Chickens will eat almost anything, but they are usually as healthy as what they eat. Everyone has heard about how much chickens and chicken manure smell. Unhealthy chickens in overcrowded conditions do reek. Commercial chicken pellets are cost efficient, but they contribute to that smell. Chickens fed fresh grains and vegetables do not smell. And their poop is not nearly as pungent either. I'm not campaigning against chicken pellets; I'm just saying there's a noticeable difference in the smell of chickens and chicken poop depending on what they are eating. And part of the goal of commercial chicken feed is to be cost efficient. Admittedly feeding fresh foods can make for some very expensive eggs.
- Some chickens have been selectively bred over many generations for rapid growth and high egg production, not longevity.
- Nutritional deficiencies are still prevalent in chickens, even chickens eating "balanced" commercial feed. There are several reasons for this:
- Chickens are great scavengers and don't always scavenge balanced meals.
- Many breeds of chickens have been genetically selected for rapid growth and/or high egg production -- speed and quantity more than quality. When body's are putting out so much, the nutritional needs of the bird can outweight the nutrients that it can process and the patient becomes deficient.
- Deficient eggs hatch deficient chicks.
- Parasites vary between backyards, but tend to be consistent within each backyard from year to year (unless they introduce new chickens bearing new parasites). Different wormers are used to treat different parasites. Therefore, rather than randomly worm the flock, I encourage my clients to invest in doing a single batched fecal test (meaning we collect fresh poop from random flock members and run it as a single specimen to make it cost efficient), and then we can know what parasite(s) they need to be concerned about on their property and tailor their worming protocol accordingly.
- Soft shelled eggs and egg binding are almost always due to calcium deficiency. I have never observed an egg laying bird to ingest toxic levels of calcium. If you have hens, you should offer generous calcium-rich foods. You may also want to have a supplement on hand for the individual who avoids all of those calcium-rich foods. (More on egg binding in the bird library.)
- Sometimes you need to decide whether it is a food animal or a pet chicken. I get phone calls all the time about sick chickens and I have to start by asking, "Is it a food animal or pet?" This may sound irrelevant, but the reality is that there are restrictions on which drugs can be used on food animals, and there are withdrawal times during which eggs and flesh from an individual that's been medicated cannot be consumed. My treatment choices are much more limited if the bird is a food animal. And sometimes the cost of care and medications becomes a factor, particularly with food animals. I can provide the same level of veterinary care for a chicken as I can for a parrot or an endangered owl -- xrays, bloodwork, cultures, intravenous catheters, tube feedings, anesthesia, surgery, acupuncture, etc., etc., etc. Some of my clients expect nothing less for their pet chickens. But not all of them. It helps me to know my client's goals and expectations so that I can make appropriate recommendations.
- Roosters can be neutered. I do this procedure under anesthesia as a sterile surgery with post operative pain medication and supervised recovery. It is easier and less risky with young roosters (14 weeks) compared to old ones. Like neutering a dog or a cat, neutering a rooster decreases the crowing, aggression, territoriality, fighting, and incessant jumping on the hens. It also renders that individual incapable of fertilizing any eggs.