Chicken Care Sheet

Maria Zayas, DVM
By Maria Zayas, DVM on Oct. 26, 2023
Red-haired woman holding chicken

In This Article

Species Overview

Chicken Species Overview

Known for their ability to produce farm-fresh eggs, backyard chickens are hardy birds with big personalities! Raising a flock of chickens for companionship or egg production can prove to be a rewarding experience for beginner hobbyists. 

There are hundreds of chicken breeds, each with unique appearances, temperaments, egg-laying abilities, and hardiness against disease.

Chickens are not legal within every state in the U.S. Before deciding to care for a chicken, research the laws and restrictions of your state to determine if the state is zoned to keep chickens and how many you’re allowed to keep at a time. 

Chickens are highly social and should be kept in groups of at least three hens. For most households, a flock of five to six chickens is ideal. 

Healthy hens begin to lay eggs between 18 to 24 weeks of age. Depending on the hen’s breed, chicken eggs can appear white, green, blue, brown, or pink in color. Hens need at least 12 hours of exposure to UV light each day to absorb dietary calcium and produce healthy eggs. Hens produce the highest number of eggs between one and two years old. After that, egg production begins to wane. 

When overcrowded, chickens will create a “pecking order,” or a hierarchy within the flock. Dominant birds that are higher in the pecking order will peck at submissive birds, which can lead to serious injury or even death.

If this happens, more space needs to be provided for each chicken. If chickens are still aggressive toward each other even after being moved to a larger coop, they may need to be separated. Due to stress, chickens may try to attack each other if kept in an overcrowded habitat. 

Since early 2022, commercial poultry flocks around the world have become infected with highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI). Affected chickens will show signs of decreased energy and appetite, diarrhea, nasal discharge, decreased and/or abnormal egg production, and even sudden death. If you notice any of these signs, contact a veterinarian immediately.   

Chicken Characteristics 

Difficulty of Care 


Average Lifespan 

Up to 7+ years with proper care 



Minimum Habitat Size 

2.5–3 square feet of indoor space, plus 5–10 square feet of outdoor space for each adult chicken 

Chicken Supply Checklist

To keep a chicken happy and healthy, pet parents should have these basic supplies on hand: 

Chicken Habitat

Choosing the Right Enclosure 

Chickens should be housed in a well-ventilated, predator-proof outdoor shelter, called a “coop.” A shed, bard, or stable with an outdoor animal run can also be used to house chickens if the shelter is modified properly.  

All coops must be large enough to provide at least 2.5–3 square feet of indoor space, plus 5–10 square feet of outdoor space, for each adult chicken. Always provide the largest habitat possible.  

When selecting a coop for chickens, make sure the shelter meets all the following qualifications: 

  • Must have multiple outlets for lighting, fans (if needed), and air inlets or holes drilled through the roof for ventilation. 

  • Must have a shaded area away from direct sunlight. 

  • Must have enough nest boxes for all chickens to nest at the same time. 

  • Must be slightly raised off the ground to prevent rain from flooding the enclosure. 

  • Should have windows on each side of the enclosure. 

  • Floors should be solid and made from a material that is easy to sanitize and drain, such as concrete or non-slip wood treated with a pet-safe waterproof coating.  

  • Must be able to keep chickens within the ideal temperature range (65–75 F). 

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Attached to their coop, chickens also need an outdoor chicken pen, or “run,” that they can use to exercise, forage, and roam freely. Coops and outdoor runs should be fully enclosed with a fence made of 3/4-inch wire mesh to protect the chickens from predators. Fences should stand at least 6 feet high and be buried at least 6 inches underground.  

One nesting box should be provided for every three to four hens and placed in the darkest, calmest corner of the coop. The nesting box should also be elevated off the floor and filled with bedding. 

Commercially available coops often come equipped with nesting boxes and runs, but make sure that the run and nesting boxes are large enough for your flock. Be sure that any metal objects, such as wires, screws, and nails, are removed from coops and runs so chickens do not try to eat them. 

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Chickens are most comfortable in temperatures between 65–75 F. Be cautious of temperature changes and house your chickens indoors when the weather is extremely cold or hot. For chickens, excessive heat can lead to decreased egg production, decreased appetite, stress, and even death.  

During summer, fans can be added to the coop to increase ventilation and keep chickens cool. In cooler months, make sure the coop is well-insulated and kept warm with heaters, if needed. 

Keeping a Flock of Chickens 

Because chickens are social animals, it’s recommended to begin with a flock of at least three hens. If space is available, five to six chickens is an ideal flock size for beginner chicken parents. Before adding a new chicken to an existing flock, you should quarantine the new chicken in a separate area for at least 10 days. This will reduce the risk of introducing pathogens into the shared habitat. 


The bottom of a chicken’s coop should be covered with at least 8 inches of pine/aspen shavings or hemp litter. Avoid cedar-based bedding products, as they have aromatic oils that can irritate chickens’ sensitive respiratory tracts and put them at greater risk for infection.  

You will also need to line your chickens’ nesting boxes and coop floor with an absorbent bedding material. While hay, sand, and straw can be used to line nesting boxes, these materials are not recommended for use on a coop’s floor because they grow mold quickly when wet. 

Recommended Products: 

  • Nesting Pads 

  • Bedding 


Daily exposure to ultraviolet (UV) light allows chickens to produce vitamin D in their skin so they can absorb dietary calcium for healthy egg-laying. Chickens must absorb natural UV exposure by spending time outside in an escape-proof, predator-proof outdoor run whenever weather permits.  

During extremely cold weather, when chickens cannot be housed outside, you can shine a full-spectrum UV light designed for birds in your chickens’ indoor habitat for at least 12–14 hours each day. The light should be no more than 5 lux, as very bright lights can cause aggression. Replace lights after six months of use, as their potency wanes over time. 

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Décor & Accessories 

Nesting boxes: Several nesting boxes should be placed in a dark, quiet area of the coop to create a comfortable area for hens to lay eggs. At least one nest box should be provided for every three to four chickens, starting at 20 weeks of age. Nesting boxes should measure 1 square foot.

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Perches: Perches provide chickens with a comfortable place to rest and roost. Pet parents should install several off-the-floor perches in their chickens’ coop. Each chicken should have a 12-inch-long perch for roosting. Perches should be spaced 14 inches apart to create separation between the birds. 

Perches can be made of wooden dowels, branches, and boards. 

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Feeder and waterer: Chickens need clean, fresh water and food every day. Feeders and waterers designed specifically for chickens are available, but non-tip bowls can also be used for adult chickens. 

Feeders should be about 3 inches long per adult chicken, while waterers should be about ¾ inches long per adult chicken. 

Food and water dishes should be elevated a few inches off the group to prevent droppings from contaminating them. Dishes should be washed with soap and rinsed thoroughly each day to prevent bacterial growth. Elevated feeders and waterers help keep insects and pests from crawling in. 

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Toys: To keep chickens happy and stimulated, handle your chickens daily and provide them with a variety of enrichment toys. Some chickens enjoy playing with balls, mirrors, and objects they can peck at (like pinwheels).  

You can make DIY pecking toys by hanging up heads of lettuce or broccoli or by providing your chickens with whole pumpkins to peck on. 

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Chicken Maintenance

Chicken coops should be spot cleaned daily, removing any droppings, soiled material, and uneaten food. Bedding should be replaced at least once a month, depending on the total number of chickens being housed in the same habitat. To disinfect any items, use 1 tablespoon of bleach to 0.5 gallons of water or a commercially available coop cleaner. 

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Chicken coops should be thoroughly washed out at least once a year. To clean a chicken coop, take these steps: 

  1. Move the chickens to a pet-safe temporary enclosure. 

  1. Turn off electrical power for the coop. Remove any old bedding, accessories, food, and feathers. 

  1. Check the coop for any cracks or crevices. Use caulk to seal any cracks in the coop’s walls to help prevent drafts and access from small animals, like mice and rats. 

  1. Use a hose to rinse the coop and any accessories with water. 

  1. Using a wire brush or thick-bristled broom, scrub all surfaces in the coop, including nest boxes and perches, with hot, soapy water. You can also use a commercially available coop cleaner or a mixture of equal parts vinegar and water to wash your chickens’ coop. 

  1. Rinse the coop with water once again, making sure to remove any trace amounts or residual smells left by the cleaning agent or vinegar solution.  

  1. Allow the habitat and its contents to dry completely before placing new bedding and clean accessories into the habitat. 

  1. Return the chickens to their clean habitat. 

Chicken Diet

Chickens enjoy a range of foods, including pelleted food or crumble, soluble oyster shell grit, vegetables, fruits, and the occasional treat. Chickens need to be fed daily and should always have access to fresh, clean water. Avoid homemade diets, as they usually lack the essential nutrients that chickens need to stay healthy. 

A nutritious and well-balanced diet for a chicken consists of: 

A high-quality crumble or pelleted food designed for chickens; a fresh bowl of crumbles or pellets should always be available for grazing. 

Pet parents should select a feed based on their chicken’s life stage and the manufacturer's recommendations. As a rule of thumb, “starter” feed is best for young chicks under six weeks old, “grower” feed is for adolescent chickens between 6 to 16 weeks old, and “layer feed” is for egg-laying hens aged over 16 weeks. 

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Live insects, including mealworms, black soldier fly larvae, earthworms, maggots, crickets, and Dubia roaches. Insects are high-protein treats. Along with vegetables, fruits, and other treats, insects should not make up more than 10% of a chicken’s total diet. 

When outside, chickens will also enjoy digging and foraging for insects on their own.

Live insects are commonly marketed for reptiles, but they are safe for chickens and healthier than dead/dried insects. 

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Vegetables, fruits, and other treats, offered in limited quantities (no more than 10% of a chicken’s total diet). Treats should only be offered in the afternoon, after the chickens have been fed a nutritionally complete staple diet. Do not offer more treats that the chickens can consume in 15 to 20 minutes. 

You can offer your chickens small amounts of supplemental vegetables, including corn, tomatoes, kale, spinach, and escarole. 

Fresh fruit and “scratch” (mixed grains like barley, wheat, oats, and seeds) are both chicken-safe treats that can be fed occasionally. 

Chickens can also graze on live grasses that aren’t treated with pesticides, fertilizers, or other harmful chemicals. 

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Fresh, clean water; water should be changed daily and offered in an automatic watering system or other water source designed for chickens. During colder months, replace water often or offer it through a heated watering system to prevent freezing. 

Do not allow chickens to eat:

  • Onions

  • Garlic

  • Avocado pits or skin (contain a toxic compound called persin; the fleshy fruit is fine)

  • Undercooked or dried beans (contain a compound called hemagglutinin, which can inhibit clotting)

  • Rhubarb (contains anthraquinones, which can have a laxative effect, and oxalic acid, which can bind up calcium, leading to soft eggshells and death)

  • The leaves, stems, or raw fruits from tomato or eggplant plants and green potato skins (all contain solanine which can cause neurologic and respiratory signs or even death; ripe tomatoes and eggplant is safe)

  • Moldy or spoiled foods

  • Very fatty or salty foods can cause GI tract upset and/or dehydration 

Discard any uneaten fruits and vegetables after 10 hours, as they may spoil and cause infection if eaten. 

Chicken Supplements 

Laying chickens should also be offered small amounts of a soluble (digestible) grit made of crushed oyster shells. Soluble grit is a calcium supplement that helps promote healthy egg-laying. To prevent nutritional deficiencies, grit should not exceed more than 10% of a chicken’s daily diet. 

Grit should only be offered in the afternoon. Most chickens will naturally graze on grit and only consume as much as they need, so pet parents can leave a shallow dish of fresh grit in their chicken’s enclosure. However, if chickens are eating more grit than they need, remove the bowl of grit after 15 to 20 minutes. 

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Chicken Grooming and Care

Egg Laying

Most hens lay one egg each day, but the rate of egg production can vary depending on the chicken’s diet, age, or weather. Most hens begin to lay eggs between 18–24 weeks of age, and they produce the highest number of eggs between 1 to 2 years old. 

Eggs should be collected every day to encourage future egg-laying.  

Due to lesser number of daylight hours, chickens tend to produce fewer eggs during winter. 

Artificial light at five lux should be provided to your chickens. Lights that are too bright can cause aggression between birds. At around 27 weeks, you can provide 14–16 hours of artificial light to help with egg production. 

Chicken Bonding 

To bond with their chickens, pet parents should handle new birds for a few minutes each day. Never chase an adult chicken when trying to pick it up. Instead, use treats or food to train chickens to approach you. Then, follow these steps: 

  • Lead the chicken to a corner and place one hand on the middle of the chicken’s back, securing their wings under your fingers. 

  • Place your other hand underneath the chicken’s body and gently lift them. Be sure to keep the chicken hugged close to your body. 

  • Do not allow the chicken to flap or jump down, as they may injure themselves. 

  • Chickens can also be held under your arm, like a football. 

  • Never pick up a chicken by its feet or neck. This can cause both mental and physical trauma. 

  • Always wash your hands before and after handling chickens.  

Molting: At around 18 months old, chickens will begin to gradually molt their old feathers and regrow new ones. On average, the molting process spans about two to four months and reoccurs annually. Older birds may molt less regularly. While molting, hens stop laying eggs. 

Bathing: While they don’t need to be bathed in the traditional sense, chickens love to take dust baths! Aside from removing oil/dirt buildup, dust baths help kill any small pests that might be trapped in a chicken’s feathers. 

Pet parents should place clean sand, peat moss, or diatomaceous earth on the floor of their chickens’ coop or offer it in a small, shallow container. A dust bath should not be left in a chicken coop for more than 12 hours at a time.  

Nail Care: Healthy, active chickens should not need to have their nails trimmed regularly, as they wear them down with daily use.  

Chicken Veterinary Care

Annual Care

Chickens should be seen by a veterinarian that’s poultry-savvy once a year for an annual examination, blood/stool testing, and parasite control. 

Chickens infected with parasites often have other underlying health conditions and should be taken to a veterinarian for treatment right away. 

All chickens should be vaccinated against Marek’s disease, which is a contagious viral disease that is fatal to chickens. Generally, Marek’s vaccinations are given to chicks while they’re still in the egg or shortly after hatching. 

Signs of a Healthy Chicken

  • Clean, clear, bright eyes

  • Clean nostrils

  • Symmetrical, intact beak that moves easily

  • Intact, clean feathers

  • Clean feet with strong and equal grip

  • Clean vent/cloaca

  • Full and equal range of motion of wings

  • Consistent droppings

When to Call a Vet

  • Eye discharge

  • Nasal discharge

  • Overgrown beak or fractures to beak

  • Feather plucking, bleeding feathers, uneven feather growth

  • Itching

  • Foot sores or favoring a foot

  • Moist feathers around cloaca or any discharge from cloaca

  • Runny, liquid, or abnormally colored droppings

  • Limping, unwillingness to use a limb or wing, or holding a wing abnormally

  • Loss of appetite

  • Hiding

  • Constantly fluffed feathers

  • Rapid breathing

  • Wheezing or sneezing

  • Head tilt

  • Vomiting or regurgitating

  • Lumps or bumps

Common Illnesses in Chickens

  • Parasitism: external and internal

  • Avian encephalomyelitis

  • Avian influenza

  • Fowlpox

  • Infectious bronchitis virus

  • Marek disease

  • Newcastle disease virus

  • E. coli

  • Mycoplasmosis

  • Salmonellosis

  • Aspergillosis

  • Ringworm

Chicken FAQs

Are chickens a good pet?

Chickens can make good pets, though they typically do best living outside the home. They have inquisitive natures and distinct personalities that owners fall in love with.

Do chickens make good house pets?

Chickens are usually not ideal house pets due to risk of disease spread, smell, and soilage. That being said, it is possible to keep them in the home in some cases, especially for pygmy chicken breeds.

Is it easy to pet chickens?

Chickens that are used to regular handling are easy to pet and will often seek out contact with their pet parents.

What breed of chicken likes to be pet?

While some chicken breeds are generally considered more friendly than others, any socialized chicken will likely enjoy being pet, regardless of breed.

Do chickens bond with humans?

Yes. A chicken can bond with their humans with regular interactions and handling.

What is the cuddliest breed of chicken?

While some chicken breeds like Silkies are generally considered friendly, cuddly, and more likely to be kept as pets than other chicken breeds, any chicken breed can be cuddly under the right circumstances and upbringing.

Featured Image: FrankyDeMeyer/Royalty-free via Getty Images

Maria Zayas, DVM


Maria Zayas, DVM


Dr. Zayas has practiced small animal and exotic medicine all over the United States and currently lives in Colorado with her 3 dogs, 1 cat,...

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