Pet Appeal and Behavior
Of all the fowl species, chickens seem to bond most easily with owners. They are entertaining and have individual personalities. Chickens are usually gentle. However, during breeding season they can become aggressive, especially the males.
Sources of Chicken for Pets
Many commercial hatcheries provide chickens. They should be purchased as chicks that have already been vaccinated for Marek’s disease, which is a highly contagious viral disease. Chickens that are intended for show competition need to be vaccinated for avian pox, infectious laryngotracheitis, Newcastle’s disease (another viral disease), mycoplasma, and other diseases that are specific for the state and/or club.
Housing for Adults
Chicken coops provide shelter and safety for sleeping and laying eggs. Be mindful that coops need to be made of strong material to prevent chickens from getting injured as well as predators from getting in. The sides should be made up of wire or sheet metal that is extended underground. The materials should also be easy to clean and dry. Finally, the coops need to be well ventilated.
During the summer months a shaded portion is essential to prevent overheating. During the winter months, heat may need to be supplemented to prevent the chickens from getting hypothermia.
Indoor/outdoor aviaries can also be used. They should be as large as possible. There should be extra height to allow for roosting. The roost should be placed so that the tail or wing does not touch the side of the aviary. To avoid sharp corners, dense nontoxic bushes can be planted. Natural turf surfaces are best since it can be easily cleaned. Finally, there should be an area used for dust/sand baths.
Appropriate substrate needs to be placed on the turf surfaces. This includes shavings, sawdust, straw or recycled paper pellets (Yesterday’s News). The depth of the chosen substrate should be 6-8 inches deep (15-20cm). The substrate needs to be changed as often as possible to prevent ammonia buildup. Clean nesting material needs to be provided for nests at all times.
When a chicken is residing in the home, an appropriate area is needed to be section off with a child’s gate or puppy play pen. Appropriate substrate is also needed. Newspaper covered with stray or hay works well. However, towels and blankets may be used for bedding. Carpet and upholstery fabric may not be used since the chicken may entangle its nails which can lead to injury. Also, be mindful of small household items (i.e.: rubber bands, jewelry, grouting, window/door insulation material and foam shoe insole). This can lead to impaction or other gastrointestinal disorders.
The pet chicken should not be left unattended in the house, especially with other pets. The sleeping boxes or pen areas should be well secured. They should be offered some daily access to the outdoors and dust/sand areas for grooming.
Housing for Chicks
Baby chickens need to have supplemental heat in a draft free area when they hatch to about 10 weeks of age. For 1-week-old chicks, the room temperature should be 90°F (32°C) and then a gradual temperature drop of 5°F (3°C) every week until the temperature is 70°F (21°C). As the chicks grow, larger living space needs to be provided. At 4 weeks of age the floor space for each chick is ½ sq. foot. This will increase to 5 sq. feet (0.5 m2) at 21 weeks of age. A water container is provided for every 25-50 chicks. The water and food container needs to be outside the edge of the hover brooders.
Diets for Adults
Many disorders of chicken and other poultry are usually related to malnutrition. A seed diet, chicken scratch (pelleted food), or cracked corns are not a complete diet. There are commercial formulated diets that are specifically made for domestic fowls. This includes chick starter, layer, broiler, and adult maintenance. Among all these, there are considerable variation in the levels of calcium, protein and energy. Therefore, it will be good to combine the different commercial diets. It is best to feed commercial diets that are free of coccidiostats, antiflagellates, or antimicrobials. Extra-label use of medicated feed for production purposes is not allowed.
To make a feed change, mix new feeds into the daily diet slowly over a few days. This will gradually help the chicken convert to the new diet. Fresh greens should be provided to give diversity. Owners should not offer table scraps, bakery goods, and human food in general. An occasional treat of mealworms or earthworms may be provided. Always measure out the portion of feed. This will give the owner an idea if the chicken is getting enough feed or too much if the chicken is becoming obese. Pellets or complete rations have an adequate supply of calcium. It should not be supplemented with lime or crushed shell. Fresh, clean water must be available at all times and clean daily.
Chickens that are not allowed to freely roam should have access to grit. There should be various sizes of grit since the chickens select stones that are suitable for the body mass. The container must be emptied and refilled regularly.
Diets for Chicks
At the first 6 weeks of age a chick needs a 20% protein starter mash. Gradually this can change to a 16% protein formula after 8 weeks of age.
Newly hatched chicks should have feed provided. It should be on a large, flat plate on which they can move around and practice picking. By 5-7 days of age, food can be offered in a larger container. Shallow bowls should be used for water since they can drown in larger containers.
Most chicken breeds have sexual dimorphism between adults. This can be seen with size (height and width), body mass (weight), and color of the plumage, shape of certain feathers, presence of spurs and the length and color of the tail feathers. In some breeds, fertile cocks may have plumage that resembles the hen. Some skilled individuals can determine the gender by examining the cloaca in 1-day-old chick or in an adult.
There are also behavioral differences between the cock and the hen that can indicate gender but is not always indicative. Endoscopic examination of the gonads provides definitive determination of gender.
The major goal in owning more than one chicken is disease prevention. This means avoiding entry of disease organisms into the home. Important vaccinations are Marek’s disease, infectious laryngotracheitis, avian pox, Newcastle’s disease, and infectious bursal disease.
Before chickens are transported to another country, the Veterinary Services Area Office of the state must be contacted. Health certification usually requires testing for mycoplasma (bacterium that can cause respiratory distress), salmonella (specifically the poultry-specific Salmonella pullorum), and influenza species.
For grooming, many chickens do not prefer water. They take baths in dust or sand. The dust/sand on the plumage may function to lightly abrade and polish the edge of the feathers. This may also help reduce the number of external parasites. However, the owner needs to make sure the dust/sand are not contaminated. If the chicken has external parasites, then insect powders should be used only if they are nontoxic.
Beak trimming is not recommended for chickens that are raised for hobby or pets. If beak trimmings are needed, a veterinarian should be the one to trim it. If done improperly, it can interfere with the bird’s ability to eat as well as causing an infection. Also, it may interfere with the bird’s social ranking in the flock.
Owners of roosters may have a veterinarian blunt the tips of the spurs. This needs to be done by a veterinarian since there is a potential for bleeding. Blunting of the tips of the spurs can prevent bodily harm to other roosters, chickens, and the owner.
Trimming of the flight feathers can be done to prevent the chicken from escaping from open aviaries. This may be important during the breeding season to reduce the mobility of an aggressive cock. Some of the flight feathers must remain to prevent damage to the keel; this allows the chicken to fly instead of crashing when frightened.