This semester I’m taking an elective course focusing on avian and exotic animal medicine. It is primarily geared to the common pets that we will see in general practice that aren’t cats, dogs, horses, or cows. So far, it is my favorite class this semester. Possibly the most common “exotic” animal that vets see are actually chickens! Keeping small flocks has really grown in popularity in recent years, and more chickens mean the need for more vets knowledgeable in caring for their medical and husbandry needs. I think chickens can be a great way to teach families about agriculture, and while I don’t personally have any they seem like pretty fun animals to have around.
For starters, there are two basic types of chickens: those raised for meat and those raised to produce eggs. Most of those I know with small flocks have egg-laying hens. There are many breeds of chickens, and they come in all colors and sizes. I think one of the most fun parts about keeping a backyard flock is the ability to have a variety of different breed hens that all look unique and even produce different colored eggs.
While many towns used to not allow chickens to be kept inside city limits, many have changed their ordinances to allow for a few number of hens to be kept. This allows even those who can’t live in the country to get a taste of agriculture and growing their own food. I think this is wonderful! Egg production can also provide supplemental income as many people are looking to buy “farm fresh” eggs straight from small flock owners. Eggs can also supplement your own diet and thus spend less at the grocery store. Keeping a small flock and selling their eggs can be a great way to teach kids about caring for animals and about financial literacy.
While keeping chickens can be quite rewarding, there are some risks to consider. Chickens can carry bacteria that are harmful to humans, like Salmonella. Just as when working with chicken breasts purchased from the store, it’s important to practice good hygiene with backyard flocks as well. Washing hands and making sure not to touch your eyes, nose, or mouth while out working with your chickens is important. Chickens can also get internal and external parasites, so it’s important to watch for signs in your hens so you can treat them before it results in production losses.
Another thing to consider before getting chickens for a backyard flock is their safety. Chickens can be hurt or killed by dogs, coyotes, birds of prey, raccoons, foxes, and other animals. It’s important to keep your chickens somewhere safe. For this reason, most backyard flock owners have coops to keep their chickens in during the night. It may also be useful for your chickens to have a fenced-off area to free-range during the day. This will prevent them from wandering too far from home and will deter animals from coming onto your property and harming your chickens.
I am excited to learn more about chickens and other “exotic” pets in vet school. I think chickens can make great additions to the family, but that doesn’t mean they don’t come with their own risks and specific needs. Chickens can teach valuable lessons about animal care and small business. I think it is great that so many communities are opening up about the keeping of small flocks within city limits. I look forward to hopefully being able to care for chickens in my practice one day!