Important considerations before getting chickens as pets
Keeping chickens as pets can be a rewarding experience, especially for children. However, chickens and other poultry can carry germs such as Salmonella, even when they appear healthy and clean.
These germs are found in the chickens’ faeces (poo) which can contaminate the chickens' feathers, the environment they live in, and the surfaces of their eggs.
Keeping chickens and staying healthy
Follow these simple steps to help make sure that keeping chickens is a positive experience and reduce the chances of you or your family becoming sick:
Wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water as soon as possible after touching chickens, collecting eggs, handling nesting material, coming into contact with chicken litter or manure or the environment in which the chickens live.
Help young children with handwashing to be sure they are thorough
Supervise young children closely when they are around chickens to make sure they do not cuddle or kiss the chickens, let them touch their face, or put unwashed hands in their mouths.Don’t eat or drink around live poultry and make sure hands are washed thoroughly before eating.
Have a dedicated pair of shoes or boots to wear inside the chicken enclosure and don’t wear these shoes or boots inside your house.
Clean and disinfect these shoes or boots regularly.Wear gloves when you are cleaning out the chicken enclosure and when you are handling any nesting material which might be contaminated with chicken manure.
To avoid gastroenteritis from eggs at home, follow these safety tips:
Discard cracked, damaged or heavily soiled eggs. Lightly soiled eggs should be cleaned with a dry cloth or a tissue. Never wash your eggs with water as it makes them porous and can enable bacteria on the surface to penetrate and contaminate the egg.
Always store eggs in the fridge in clean packaging material.
Label the packaging with the date of lay so that you know how fresh your eggs are. If stored under refrigeration, eggs will keep for 6 weeks.
When storing, handling and preparing eggs, take the same precautions as you would with chicken, meat, seafood or dairy products:
Thoroughly clean your hands, food areas, work surfaces, dishes, utensils and cleaning cloths after working with eggs, especially after egg spills.
Serve hot dishes containing eggs straight away, or cool them quickly in the fridge, and keep them refrigerated until they are eaten.
Thoroughly cook eggs and foods containing eggs until they are hot all the way through.
Uncooked foods that contain raw eggs (such as homemade mayonnaise or uncooked cake batter) are higher risk, so consider alternative recipes that do not contain raw or undercooked eggs, especially when serving to infants, the elderly and those with weakened immune systems.
Can I keep chickens in my backyard?
In Victoria, most councils have local bylaws limiting the number of poultry that can be kept on a property. Some councils also have restrictions or regulations relating to the construction of chicken housing. You may require a permit.
Roosters are usually not permitted due to their crowing. Contact your local council for the most accurate and up-to-date local bylaws and regulations.
In Victoria, by law, owners of more than 50 poultry are required to obtain a Property Identification Code (PIC) for their property. For further information please consult the Property (PIC) information for poultry owners page on the Agriculture Victoria website.
When purchasing chickens, it is best to purchase vaccinated birds from a reliable commercial source. A good starter flock usually consists of 4 to 5 birds aged 16 to 24 weeks. This many birds will usually produce enough eggs for a household.
Ensure your chicken house and chicken run are fox-proof. Fully enclose the chicken run with wire mesh buried into the soil at a depth of 50cm to prevent foxes from digging under the fence.
Cover the floor of the chicken house and the nesting box with sawdust or straw to a depth of 8cm so that it mixes with the poultry droppings to form a litter. This litter can be removed and composted.
Ensure the chicken house is adequately ventilated and positioned to protect against prevailing winds and rain. Additional vegetation along the fencing can assist with wind protection.
Feeding your chickens
It is important to feed your chickens with appropriate food and clean water, refreshed regularly. Commercial layer pellets provide a balance source of the correct nutrients. Kitchen scraps can also be given to chickens to supplement their diet.
Avoid giving them chocolate, onions and garlic as these can sometimes cause health problems. Use a chicken feeder that is vermin-and-wild-bird-proof to prevent them from eating the chicken feed and contaminating it. Store excess feed in a sealed, vermin-and-waterproof container. Don’t feed your birds mouldy feed.
Like all animals, chickens can experience health problems. Check your chickens regularly to ensure they are alert, active, eating well, have clean eyes and nostrils and have noiseless breathing. If you are concerned, consult a vet to assist you with diagnosing and treating any health issues.
Chicken care considerations
Chickens are energetic, inquisitive, and friendly animals who are a joy to watch, but the decision to keep them should not be made lightly. Chickens require dedicated, consistent care and there are important issues to consider before acquiring a backyard flock.
Many municipalities prohibit residents from having backyard chickens. Be sure to contact local authorities (such as your local animal control or zoning/planning departments) to ensure such animals are legal before you bring any chickens home.
Within city limits, many municipalities that permit chickens nevertheless limit the number of chickens that one household can keep, and roosters are generally not permitted at all, as their crowing can disturb neighbors. This creates an ethical conundrum, because when chickens are purchased as young chicks it is not possible to accurately determine their sex.
Chicks purchased through mail order or local farm supply outlets may be sold in groups separated by sex, but since gender determination is inexact, as the birds grow, families often find they have one or more male birds when they were expecting to have only females. Many young roosters are being relinquished to shelters and sanctuaries, organizations already overburdened with unwanted animals. Worse, these roosters may be simply abandoned or killed.
The adoption option
For these reasons, The HSUS recommends that families consider adopting adult birds, when the animal's gender is already known. Adult hens can usually be located through your local humane society or animal control. Chickens end up in traditional shelters more often than people realize, and adopting from a shelter is a great way to save a life. You might even ask to be put on a waiting list to be contacted about hens as they come into the shelter.
If your local shelter has no chickens available, look to adopt a "retired" hen from a factory farm who now lives at a rescue or sanctuary that adopts these birds out. While not as productive as they were in their prime, many of these chickens still lay multiple eggs per week. Most of these older hens would otherwise end up being killed on the farm or sent to slaughter. You can find a list of adoption agencies near you by visiting sanctuaries.org or petfinder.com.
Alternatively, you may want to look at flyers posted in your local farm/feed stores, check your newspaper's classified ads, or even scan websites like craigslist.org to find chickens who need good homes.
Chicken care essentials
Once hens have been adopted, proper care and housing are vital. In addition to regular daily attention, feed and clean water, and securing them in their shelter at night, the following care principles are also essential.
Chickens are heat- and cold-sensitive
Like dogs and cats, chickens must have shelter to protect them from temperature extremes. Hens and roosters with large single combs are prone to frostbite in cooler climates, and all chickens need shade during periods of heat. It is important that the shelter is both insulated and well-ventilated. Straw bedding will add comfort and warmth to a shelter's floor space, but it should be replaced regularly with new, clean straw.
Predator protection is vital
Chickens need absolutely secure shelter at night or they can easily fall prey to urban wildlife like raccoons and opossums. Dogs may also attack chickens.
They must be completely enclosed in a safe henhouse, with four solid walls and a sturdy roof, every night. Predators can also dig under fences and walls, so this should be considered when planning the chickens' home.
During the day, chickens should be kept in a fully-fenced enclosure or yard with proper protection from aerial day-time predators, neighborhood dogs and, in the case of small bantam hens, free-roaming cats.
Hens need an appropriate environment
Hens need an enclosed nesting space (a "nestbox") in which to lay their eggs. They also need an elevated roost on which to perch at night; this is where they prefer to sleep.
Hens enjoy loose substrate such as dirt, sand, or peat for dustbathing, and they should also have free access to grass and other vegetation to engage in natural pecking, scratching, and foraging behaviors.
Often-used areas may become denuded, and it is important to provide plenty of space, giving them as much room as possible to express natural behavior outdoors. Hen houses, coops, and runs must be kept very clean at all times, for the health of the chickens and the food safety of the eggs.
Chickens will require veterinary care
While it may be tempting to think of a backyard flock as a source of inexpensive eggs, hens, like cats and dogs, require periodic veterinary care.
Chickens can become ill or get injured, and vet exams and treatment can easily cost over $100 per visit. These expenses should be carefully considered before the decision is made to keep backyard chickens.
Not all avian veterinarians are experienced with chickens, so be sure to locate a trusted poultry vet in your area ahead of time.
Vacation help is a must
Since chickens require daily care, a designated caretaker must be arranged for vacations and other periods away from the house. Someone must be present to feed and water the hens and to put them inside their secure shelter every evening.
Chicken nutrition is important
It is a common misperception that chickens can be fed on corn kernels or kitchen scraps alone. Chickens need a balanced diet, like one of the commercially available feeds that have been carefully formulated by nutritionists specifically for adult hens.
The protein requirements of chickens change with the birds' age, so it's important to feed an age-appropriate diet.
Laying hens also need access to a supplemental source of course calcium, such as limestone (available at livestock supply stores) if their feed ration does not already contain enough. In addition to calcium, hard insoluble granite grit should be fed, free choice, 2 or 3 days per month.
Chickens enjoy fresh fruits, grains, and vegetables in addition to their regular feed, but certain plants can be toxic. Avoid raw green potato peels, dried or undercooked beans, and avocados. Chickens should receive fresh feed and water daily—discard any feed that is old, moldy, or stale.
The Alabama Cooperative Extension System has published a detailed page on the feeding requirements of backyard chicken flocks throughout their lives.
Chickens can carry and become ill from a variety of infectious diseases. It is important to keep the hens' environment clean with regular manure removal, and by washing the feed and water containers.
You should also avoid mixing birds from different flocks. (Temporarily quarantine any new birds for two weeks and watch them closely for signs of illness or parasites before introducing them into an already established group.)
Don't share equipment with neighbors (each chicken house should have dedicated tools, wheelbarrows, buckets, etc.), because pathogenic organisms can travel on these items. Diseases can spread to chickens from pet birds and wild birds, so limit contact where possible.
Give your birds plenty of attention
If you spend time watching and interacting with your chickens, you will find that each one has a unique personality, and they are friendly and curious when treated kindly.
They display interesting behavior patterns such as dustbathing and foraging, and their complex social interactions are entertaining to observe. Enjoy their antics, and remember that your hens are completely dependent on you for responsible, committed care for their entire lives.