Not too long ago, my hometown made the keeping of six backyard hens legal within city limits. Initially, I was intrigued by the possibilities. We have a big back yard and I’d love for my kids to gain a hands-on understanding that food does not originate in the grocery store or restaurant. Two things quickly squashed my plans: a letter from our home owners’ association saying that the subdivision still does not allow chickens and the realization that even though I’m a veterinarian, I really know very little about how to raise chickens.

On the off chance that my chicken patient load was going to increase due to the passage of the new ordinance, I decided to do a little research into the basics of chicken husbandry.

Predator-proof shelter is essential. Chickens need an appropriate amount of floor space based on how many hens will be sharing a coop. Proper ventilation is also important. Without it moisture and odors can accumulate, which will adversely affect chicken health and productivity. The chickens’ living space also needs to be kept clean. A thick layer of good quality litter (wood shavings are ideal) in the coop helps to maintain healthy conditions between weekly cleanings. Nest boxes should be located low down in a dark part of the coop. Perches should be available and spaced throughout the coop so chickens can group together or find privacy based on their needs.

Chickens need access to clean water at all times, especially when it’s hot. An individual’s diet should be based on its life stage. For example, egg-laying hens need a food containing high levels of calcium, but too much of the mineral can harm a younger chicken’s kidneys. Chickens are omnivores and so can eat table scraps and forage in the garden/yard (so long as it is pesticide and herbicide free), but they should also have access to an age-appropriate, commercially prepared food to prevent nutritional deficiencies. Chickens need access to grit (small rocks that they eat) to properly digest their food.

At the risk of stating the obvious, chickens can get sick. They can also harbor and transmit Salmonella and Campylobacter to people. Some backyard chickens become pets and are whisked to the veterinarian when they become ill; others remain livestock and are “culled” at the first sign of a problem that might adversely affect their productivity or the health of the flock.

Which brings me to one last point. My town’s backyard chicken ordinance states, “the chicken hens may not be killed by or at the direction of the owner or keeper thereof except pursuant to the lawful order of state or county health officials, or for the purpose of euthanasia when surrendered to a licensed veterinarian or the Humane Society for such purpose, or as otherwise expressly permitted by law.” In other words, you can’t slaughter your chickens yourself but need to make alternative plans for when they get old or sick.

Should you be interested, state university extension offices are excellent places to find more information about what chicken ownership involves.

Dr. Jennifer Coates

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