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Backyard Chickens

Silverton Vet Surgery is now a Chicken Vet Associated Practice. Vet Kate Rew BVSc (Hons), M.R.C.V.S. Cert Vet. Ac. (I.V.A.S), has an interest in backyard poultry, and has completed further training in husbandry and diseases of domestic hens.

Keeping chickens has become increasingly popular in the UK in recent years. “Backyard poultry” may include anything from a few pet chickens to pampered exhibition birds to small egg laying flocks, and chickens are being kept as feathered pets as well as for the production of home grown eggs. Ex battery hens have become popular, as have other species of poultry such as duck and quail.

There is a difference between smaller scale and commercial poultry, and flocks of over 50 birds should be registered with the Great Britain Poultry Register by law. DEFRA encourages smaller scale flocks to register voluntarily.

Before purchasing any birds, it is important to understand about the basics of keeping chickens as well as common conditions and diseases that may affect them. This will ensure that you get the best from your birds and that they keep healthy and produce eggs.

How to choose your chickens

Birds should be purchased from reputable sources to avoid the risk of introducing diseases and parasites. A local reputable breeder is ideal and all new birds should be quarantined initially for 1 - 2 weeks to assess health and reduce the risk of disease spread. Laying birds ideally should be purchased at point of lay and this is from 16 - 21 weeks depending on breed.

Chickens are flock creatures and when purchasing your first chickens ideally you should have a minimum of 3 birds, to provide company yet avoid bullying. Chickens have a natural pecking order, and bullying is common when new birds are introduced into an established group. This may be helped by introducing 2 - 3 new birds together at a time. A trio consists of a cock and two hens, and this is ideal to start breeding, but remember that cockerels will crow and may not be ideal for gardens and neighbours may not appreciate his presence!

It is important to keep the right species of bird for the right situation and certain breeds will be more suitable than others. Size, temperament and egg laying capacity should be considered. For example, bantam varieties are often better for small gardens, whereas if the aim is to keep chickens for eggs, modern hybrids such as Black Rocks, Sussex or Warren type as well as ex battery hens are ideal. Some traditional breeds such as Leghorns are excellent layers with a better feed conversion to egg ratio, but may be more flighty than the traditional heavier breeds such as Orpingtons and Rhode Island Reds. Laying hens may thrive in smaller gardens but may scratch and destroy plants and also attract vermin.

Some rare breed varieties species such as Pekins, Silkies, Frizzles and Modern Game are more ornamental and often valuable, but may lay small or very few eggs. They often make excellent garden birds, however, as they are less destructive than traditional breeds and require less space.

Housing Chickens

Some investment in suitable housing will be required and should ideally provide:

  • Shelter from wind, rain and sun
  • Protection against predators and vermin
  • Sufficient space inside (4m per bird) to lay eggs and perch (perch height is important in relation to nest box height), and outside (10m per bird) to free range, dust bath and forage
  • Be well ventilated and not too warm or too cold in weather extremes

There are a variety of types of housing and include pens, coops, arks and plastic pods. Dust free shavings are ideal to use as litter, but straw and hay may also be used. This should be removed regularly and housing cleaned and disinfected weekly. Housing should be well designed and easy to clean and checked regularly for red mite as this may cause heavy infestations at certain times of year.

Nutrition and worming for Chickens

Balanced nutrition is key in maintaining the health of birds, and it is important birds are fed a balanced commercial ration suitable for their use and age. Newly hatched chicks up to 5 weeks will require starter crumbs and then may be put on a grower ration until around 16 weeks. Layers should be fed a layers pellet or mash as the basis for their diet, but may be supplemented with mixed grain and grit (birds must be over 12 weeks old and the gizzard properly developed).

Chickens enjoy foraging and eating greens but care should be exercised when feeding household scraps, and inappropriate feeding of certain food such as mouldy bread, may lead to sour crop. Sour crop may also occur when antibiotics are administered long term so an appropriate pro-biotic is usually recommended 5 - 7d after an antibiotic course is finished. Large amounts of long grass and very fibrous material should also be avoided as this may result in crop impaction.

Poultry infected with worms may lose condition and production and may become lethargic and severe worm burden may lead to death. Birds need worming every 3 - 6 months with licensed poultry wormer Flubenvet and this is given either as a powder mixed into the food or is available in medicated feed. This will control roundworm, gapeworm, tapeworm and hairworm. Environmental control is also important and overstocking and excessive mud should be avoided.

Common poultry conditions

Good basic husbandry will avoid many problems with chickens and often prevention is better than cure.

Egg laying problems include:

  • Egg bound and egg peritonitis
  • Soft shells
  • Egg eating

Other conditions that affect chickens include:

  • Broodiness
  • Moulting
  • Feather pecking
  • Vent pecking
  • Overgrown beak and claws
  • Bareback

Common diseases and the role of the vet in Chicken care

It is important that animal health and welfare standards are maintained and flocks of over 50 birds would be considered as commercial flocks, and may require regular checks in order to assess flock health. Good management and husbandry is vital in disease prevention and most commercial flocks will vaccinate against many of the common diseases affecting poultry. These include:

  • Gastro-intestinal disease: e.g. Coccidiosis, diarrhoea, internal parasites, diet, stress
  • Respiratory disease: e.g. IBR, Mycoplasma, Avian influenza
  • External parasites: e.g. Red Mite, lice, Northern fowl mites, scaly leg mites
  • Locomotor disease: e.g. Bumblefoot, Mareks

Owners expect and deserve high quality veterinary attention and advice. The availability of vaccines and necessary licensed medications is limited, so effective high quality management and husbandry is required in prevention of disease and maintaining standards of health and welfare.

Veterinary care and medications used in poultry can be discussed with our very own “Chicken Vet” Kate Rew BVSc (Hons) M.R.C.V.S now at Silverton Vets.