Quick facts- Incubationperiod: 21 days Point of lay: 16-20 weeks Life expectancy: 6 years but if well cared for some live past 10 years
Keeping chickens has seen a resurgence in recent years as internet age urban dwellers discover the pleasure of reconnecting with their rural roots. Hens are family favourites as they are gentle and robust enough withstand the attention young children without harm to either party, while grown-ups get enjoyment out of watching the flock interact and the relationships formed with individual birds. Then there’s the added bonus of being able to collect and eat fresh eggs. It’s relaxing to be able to take life at chicken pace!
What type(s) of chicken(s) make the best pets? Chickens were first domesticated on the Indian subcontinent over 4,000 years ago from the Red Jungle Fowl and there have been a vast number of varieties developed since then. Some standard-size, egg-laying varieties that we commonly see in Australia include Isa Browns, which are relatively small (around 2 kg) quiet birds and good egg producers that were developed from crossing White Leghorns (that can be a little skittish) and Rhode Island Red chickens. Chicken vets know that these good egg producers can be more inclined to develop female reproductive problems as they age compared with lower egg producers such as Australorps, Wyandotes or Barnavelders or the decorative spotted Hamburg chickens. Our Chicken vet has noted that Heavier breeds, such as Plymouth Rocks or Orpingtons can be more inclined to foot problems and generally aren’t as good egg producers but they can still make good pets. Aracara (Easter Egg Chickens) are a South American species (likely pre-Columbian for folks that are into evolution) that lays eggs with blue shells. Many people enjoy keeping several different varieties of chickens.
Bantams are small chickens that are often miniatures of the standard varieties. Silkie Bantams are small fluffy chickens that were developed in China that are particularly good at incubating eggs. They are often used to incubate eggs from other birds, even, for example, parrot eggs. Bantams are a good option if you are in a confined area.
The poultry vet does not recommend keeping broiler breeds. These birds, bred for meat, are genetically selected for high food consumption and very fast growth and literally eat themselves to death if kept as adults. To keep adult rescue broiler chickens comfortable, food needs to be restricted but even so the chicken vet note that they often suffer from a variety of skeletal and medical problems that impact on their quality of life. Likewise, while roosters can make great pets in rural areas, we generally do not recommend keeping them in the suburbs because neighbors may complain about crowing and re-homing can be difficult. There are surgical techniques available to chicken vets to devocalise roosters but they are complicated, carry risk and are not always successful. For animal welfare reasons, we don’t recommend the procedure. Similarly castrating adult roosters is not recommended by our poultry vets.
There are ‘starter’, ‘grower’ and ‘layer’ rations commercially available that have been well researched and suitable for chickens of various ages. These generally form a good basis for feeding and should be used in accordance with the manufacturer’s recommendations with a few provisos. With pet chickens there is not the need for maximum growth or egg production and commercial rations may be too high in calcium and protein for pet hens that are not laying eggs. Also chickens should have the opportunity for enrichment and foraging. We recommend commercial pellets as the basis for their diet but also encourage the addition of table scraps, grains and free range foraging. Clean fresh water and shell grit should be freely available.
While well intended, feeding chickens grains exclusively (organic or otherwise) is not a good diet as it is too low in calcium and a variety of other nutrients and egg laying problems can result. Crushed egg shells (boiled to prevent bacterial contamination) can be used as a natural source of calcium but we also recommend the inclusion of commercial chicken rations.
There are many designs for fowl yards that have been used successfully. Ensure there is an open area for the hens to forage and an enclosed, sheltered, hen house for nesting, egg laying and roosting. Ideally, to avoid fighting, there should be more nest sites than chickens and nests should be accessible for egg collection with minimal disturbance to the hens. Roosting perches should be placed so that birds on higher perches are not passing droppings on birds lower down. Especially with heavier breeds, perches should be comfortable and not so high that landing on the floor causes excessive impact on their feet with the risk of foot damage or bumble foot. Feed and water dishes should be placed so that they will not be contaminated with droppings and the area surrounding them should remain dry.
Melbourne has one of the highest urban fox populations in the world and unfortunately fox and dog attacks are a common reason that pet chickens are presented to Bird Vet Melbourne. Chickens need to be locked up at night for protection and, even during the day, they need to be carefully watched or kept in predator proof enclosures.
Rodents can spread disease and are a major challenge in keeping chickens. Care should be taken with storage of grain and rations to minimise food sources that attract rodent. Ongoing rat and mice control programs are generally needed. Live traps are safest. Rodenticides (e.g. warfarin-based Talon) are toxic to poultry so cannot be used where chickens may have access or where rodents may move poisoned grain into enclosures. They can be used, with care, in other areas.
Behaviour and Enrichment
Chickens are known for their strong ‘pecking order’ behaviour and it is important to manage them so that the birds lower in the pecking order are able to avoid those higher on the pecking order and still have access to food, water and nesting sites. Once the pecking order has been established outright aggression is less common. Allowing opportunities to free-range and ensuring multiple nests sites, feeding and water stations, depending on the social dynamics of your individual flock, should be considered.
There is an active network in Melbourne that rescues ex-battery hens and finds them pet homes. It’s heartening to watch these girls discover freedom and social interaction for the first time.
Routine Care –
We recommend pet chickens be acquired from a source that vaccinates for Marek’s Disease and that they are brought into the clinic for a ‘Well Bird Check’ as soon as they are acquired and before being introduced to any other birds you may have. Avian vets at Bird Vet Melbourne will check the birds for any signs of illness, review care and husbandry requirements and likely recommend droppings tests looking for worm parasites or coccidia, which are common health problems in chickens. Preventative care recommendations are based on individual circumstances but would typically include worming and possibly treatment for coccidia.
Top 10 Health Problems in Pet Chickens seen at Chicken Vet Melbourne
1. Female Reproductive Related Disease. Because chickens have generally been bred to produce lots of eggs but not necessarily to live a long while we see a lot of female reproductive tract problems, especially in older hens, such as ‘egg yolk related peritonitis’ (where egg yolks end up in the abdomen rather than moving along the oviduct to form eggs as they should); egg binding; infections or cancer of the oviduct and ovarian cancer. 2. Respiratory Tract Infections may be caused by germs such as bacteria, mycoplasmas, viruses, fungal or chlamydia. Treatment will depend on the cause. 3. Marek’s Disease is caused by a cancer-forming virus that affects the nerves, often resulting in leg paralysis in young birds. There is a vaccine available but it is not always effective in every individual bird. 4. Coccidiosis This disease is caused by a type of parasite that invades the intestinal lining and can cause ill-health, weight loss and bloody diarrhoea 5. Worm parasites, especially Round Worms (Ascarids) and Capillaria, can also cause ill-health, weight loss and diarrhoea. They may be transmitted by wild birds. 6. Scaly Leg is caused by a mite that burrows under the skin and causes proliferative lumps to form on the legs and other non-feathered areas on the bird. 7. Crop impaction can be caused by overeating grit or eating fibrous grasses (e.g. onion grass) or can sometimes be associated with cancers or foreign bodies further along the intestinal tract. 8. Wounds from fox, dog or other predators. 9. Bumblefoot, also called ‘pododermatitis’, is caused by a combination of factors – e.g. walking on hard substrates, a vitamin A deficient diet, obesity and other foot problems. 10. Fowl Pox is caused by a virus that can be transmitted by mosquitoes. It causes ulcerated lumps around the head and legs as well as generalised illness.