What You Should Know Before Getting Backyard Chickens

Published Apr. 2, 2019

Backyard chickens are extremely popular as pets, even in urban areas. They are fun, interactive, entertaining animals that have the added benefit of providing tasty, fresh eggs.

While chickens can be wonderful pets, their care isn’t simple. They actually have very specific needs that, if not met, can lead to a host of health problems. What should a prospective owner know before getting a backyard chicken?

Types of Backyard Chickens

Chickens come in more than 400 varieties, with standard chickens being larger and more common, while Bantams are much smaller, weighing only 1-2 pounds. Standard chickens are kept typically for their egg-laying abilities, while Bantams are generally chosen for show.

Chickens vary not only in size but also in feather color, length and pattern. Some also lay different-colored eggs, including pink, green and blue eggs, in addition to the familiar brown and white eggs found in grocery stores.

Things to Consider Before Getting Backyard Chickens

With their inquisitive, explorative nature, chickens are amusing to watch, and they make great companions, as they recognize their owners by sight and sound. Chickens can also teach children about the responsibilities of pet ownership, and all family members, including children, can participate in their care.

Although there are plenty of benefits to keeping chickens as pets, consider the following points about backyard chickens before you decide if you are ready.

Chickens Are Not Legal Everywhere

Before purchasing a chicken, you should check local laws to see whether chickens can be kept legally as pets in your area. Laws vary by state and by town, and not all locations are zoned for chickens. Many areas require chicken owners to have permits for ownership, and some towns even limit how many chickens can be kept as well as the size of the coop.

Chickens Require a Long-Term Commitment

While chickens typically lay eggs for only two to three years, they can live as long as 15 years. As a result, unfortunately, many unwanted backyard chickens are left in animal shelters across the country after their egg-laying years are over. So, if you’re looking for chickens more for companionship than for egg-laying capabilities, you may want to visit a local shelter before purchasing them at a hatchery or farm supply store.

Chickens Have Specific Housing Requirements

Chickens are appealing as pets to some people because many chicken coops are designed to look like decorative houses that are attractive additions to the yard. However, chickens have very particular housing needs, and some of these designer coops are not constructed to meet these needs.

Chickens Need Sunlight

For example, not all chicken coops are heated, yet chickens housed outdoors in cold climates need heat when it’s very cold so that they don’t get frostbitten. Similarly, chickens that are housed inside continuously over cold winters lack exposure to the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) rays, which are critical 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, chickens often lay soft or shell-less eggs or have eggs get stuck inside of them when they try to lay—a life-threatening condition called egg-binding. This happens because their uterine muscles run out of the calcium needed to push the eggs out. Consequently, chickens living indoors in cold climates must have UV light bulbs built into their coops so that they don’t lay abnormal eggs or become egg-bound.

Chickens Need Nesting Boxes

In addition, chickens will only lay eggs if they are provided with boxes in which they can nest. Coops should have one box for every four to five chickens for optimal egg-laying. Nest boxes ideally should be placed in the least-trafficked part of the coop to prevent disturbing hens while they are laying, and they should be elevated 1-3 feet off the floor to prevent predators from jumping in them and debris from the coop floor collecting in them.

Nest boxes should be lined with bedding (pine shavings or straw hay) to keep chickens comfortable and to protect eggs once they are laid, and the boxes should be cleaned out regularly. Coops should be spot-cleaned daily and fully swept out weekly, and they should be placed outside in areas where the top layer of soil can be raked up and removed at least once a year. This prevents chickens from ingesting parasite eggs that are passed into the soil in their droppings and re-ingested, thereby perpetuating the parasite infection cycle.

Chickens Need a Fenced-In Area to Roam

In addition to a coop, chickens need a safe, fenced-in area outside to roam and exercise in when there’s good weather. Fences must extend both high above and deep below ground to prevent predators from jumping over and digging under them to get inside.

Chickens must also be provided with mental stimulation and environmental enrichment so that they don’t feather-pick or bully each other. Enrichment may be offered in the form of perches of different heights, tunnels made from cardboard boxes, compost piles to dig in, and hanging vegetables, like heads of cabbage or lettuce, that they can peck. Other favorites for chickens include toys such as mirrors and rope swings, bins filled with sand to bathe in, and insects such as mealworms to snack on.

Chickens Need to Eat More Than “Chicken Scratch”

While chickens can eat some “scratch,” which is usually a mixture of cracked or rolled corn, barley, oats, wheat, sunflower seeds, milo and millet, they also need a nutritionally complete pellet made for their life stage (i.e., grower, layer, etc.) as well as some fresh vegetables and smaller amounts of fruit.

They should be offered food and water daily and should be provided with supplemental calcium in the form of commercially available oystershell to help them keep up with their calcium needs while egg-laying.

They should not be fed potentially toxic foods, including chocolate, avocado, alcohol, caffeinated products, uncooked beans and rice, or salty items, like chips and pretzels. Small amounts of table scraps, including bread, cooked egg and corn, can be fed occasionally.

Food should be offered in feeders off the ground so that insects and other parasites don’t crawl into food troughs, and water bowls must be heated in cold climates during winter to prevent them from freezing.

Chickens Require Regular Veterinary Care

Pet chickens should be examined by a veterinarian at least once a year to help keep them healthy and to make sure their eggs are safe to eat. Chickens can carry parasites that can be transmitted to people through contact with their droppings and consumption of eggs.

While commercially raised chickens are monitored for parasites and other health problems before their eggs are sold, pet chickens are rarely checked for these problems.

Owners should not administer any medications to their pets that might be ingested by humans eating eggs from these chickens.

Chickens Should Not Hang Out With Other Pets

Chickens are prey species that become fearful when they are around predators. Predators must be kept away from chickens with strong, high fencing and solid coops that should be locked securely at night.

In addition, naturally predatory animals, such as dogs and cats that may want to chase and catch chickens must also be kept away from them. Even friendly cats and dogs may still want to pick up a chicken in their mouth to play with it, and they could injure or kill it with their sharp teeth and strong jaws. Therefore, all predators—wild or domesticated—should be kept away from chickens.

Chickens Commonly Carry Toxic Salmonella Bacteria

All chickens potentially carry the infectious salmonella bacteria in their gastrointestinal tracts and can pass it in their stool. They may not be affected by it, but people or other pets in contact with chicken droppings may accidentally ingest this bacteria and develop severe gastrointestinal infection.

To prevent accidental ingestion and infection, anyone who has come in contact with a chicken, its droppings or objects contaminated with droppings, should wash their hands.

Chickens can make great pets, as long as you take the necessary steps to help ensure that you, your bird, and your family members stay healthy.

By: Dr. Laurie Hess, DVM, Diplomate ABVP (Avian Practice)

Featured Image: iStock.com/JasonJiron

Laurie Hess, DVM, DABVP


Laurie Hess, DVM, DABVP


Originally from New York City, Dr. Laurie Hess is one of approximately 150 board-certified avian (bird) specialists worldwide. After...

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