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Chickens can make wonderful pets. Generally, they are very low maintenance but still need everyday attention just like dogs and cats.

Chickens usually produce just less than one egg a day (they produce about 320 eggs in a year).

Accommodation

The chicken house is where the chickens will live and will need to be dry, draught-free and secure.  It is important that the house has a nest box (1 nest box per 3 hens), perches (usually 25cm per hen), a dust-bathing area and has adjustable ventilation. The floor of the house can be covered with wood shavings, straw or chopped cardboard.  It is recommended that the chicken house be cleaned out once a week at least.  A full scrub-out of the house is recommended once in Spring and once in Autumn.

As well as a good house, it is important for the chickens to have a run or a small pen/fenced area.  This area needs to be secure to keep both the chickens in and the predators out! It is best to bury the netting that secures the area deep into the ground so that the predators cannot dig underneath it.

Diet

Chickens need a balanced diet.  They used to just be fed on scraps (this is now technically illegal) but now there are feeds that have been created that contain the correct balance of nutrients, vitamins and minerals.  They are usually available as pellets or as a powdered mash. Pellets are usually preferable as it stops the chickens choosing which bits they eat.

Flint grit and oyster shell grit are also required.  Flint grit is also good as it helps them grind down the food (hens do not have teeth!) and oyster shell grit is full of calcium to help them make strong eggshells.

Mixed corn can be given as a treat in small amounts but it can be fattening which can in turn cause issues with egg laying.  Access to grass is very important too, as long as the grass is not too long as this can contribute to an impacted crop.  There are many different feed dispensers out there and it is important to have enough for the number of birds you have.

In terms of water, there should always be drinkers available and these should store enough water to last all day with some spare capacity for hot days.  A litre per hen with a litre spare is usually enough.

Parasites

Red mites
These are very common ectoparasites. They live in small cracks inside poultry houses, coming out at night for a blood feed from chickens during the warmer months. They are difficult to eradicate and have significant welfare and egg production implications in commercial and backyard flocks.  An infestation will usually cause skin irritation, decrease in egg production, stress and may even cause anaemia.  Red mites are small, up to 1mm long and 0.7mm wide, slow-moving mites.  They range in colour from a very light grey, almost translucent to a light brown, black and blood-red colour after a feed.

It is a good idea to check the chicken house regularly for red mites.  Sometimes they can be found at the end of perches or in the walls of the housing. Red mites are nocturnal so checking after dark with a torch can help.  A deep clean and treating with commercial products can help to eradicate red mites…but it can be difficult.

Worms
Chickens can get intestinal worms and need to be checked for these regularly. You can have faecal samples sent by the vet or you can get worm testing kits- either of these methods are advised to be used in Spring and Autumn. This will then tell you if your chickens need to be treated. We used to routinely worm chickens but this has lead to resistance so it is better to treat them when we know there is a problem.

Rotating the area of grass the chickens are kept on and general good hygiene can help prevent infestation.

Other Parasites
Other parasites include Lice, Northern Foul Mite, Depluming Mite and Scaly Leg Mite.  These usually cause irritation and you may see crusting/scaling of the skin too.

Other common health issues

Diarrhoea
This can be due to bacterial, viral or parasitic infections.  May also be due to liver or kidney issues.

Respiratory infections
The hen may sound chesty; you may see sneezing and the sinuses around the eyes may be swollen.  You may also get foamy discharge from the eyes.  Again, these infections can be bacterial, viral or parasitic.

New birds into a flock can often bring in these infections so ideally it is best to quarantine new birds for around 3 weeks before entry into the flock.

There are two notifiable diseases (meaning the government needs to be notified if they are suspected to be present by the vet) that cause respiratory signs.  These are Avian Influenza and Newcastle’s Disease and often they can cause neurological and gastrointestinal signs as well as the respiratory signs.

Problems with egg laying

Internal laying
Eggs enter the abdomen instead of the oviduct.  This may happen when just coming into lay or because of stress and will normally resolve itself but if not, some birds may need a hormonal implant.  The signs include a swollen abdomen and the hen adopting an upright stance (like a penguin).

Egg peritonitis
Associated with blind layers- the egg yolk in the abdomen provides nutrients for bacteria to grow.  Hens are usually febrile (have a fever), have an enlarged abdomen and adopt a penguin-like stance.

Egg bound
This is where eggs get stuck in the oviduct.  Obesity, large eggs, calcium imbalances and stress can be causes.  The hens often strain, seem dull and hunched and may have a fever.  Eggs usually need to be manually removed.

Prolapse
Can happen with obesity and large eggs.  Usually the prolapse needs to be repositioned and sutured in place.

Lameness
Can be from trauma, infection in the skin or joints or infections in the feet.

Crop bound
Where the crop (where food enters) distends and cannot empty.  Can be due to neurological disease or a blockage from a foreign body or long grass.  The chickens are usually dull and have a swollen crop.  Treatment usually involves surgery.

For more information about keeping chickens please follow this link: https://poultrykeeper.com/general-chickens/beginners-guide-to-keeping-chickens/