Alexandra Vets, Clevedon
Chickens are becoming more and more popular as pets in the UK. Not only are they easy-to-keep, low maintenance pets that are a real pleasure to watch, they also provide fresh eggs which are far tastier than supermarket bought eggs.
BEFORE YOU GET CHICKENS
If you live in a residential area, check with your local authority for permission to keep chickens. You can also check the deeds of your house to ensure there is no mention of not being allowed chickens on your land.
Think about your neighbours — a cockerel would probably be a no-no, due to noise pollution and also bear in mind hens can make some noise in the early mornings and after laying.
Research what type of hen house and run you want to buy — chickens’ housing requirements are quite simple as they spend most of their time outside, so the hen house is basically used for sleeping, laying and as shelter in bad weather. Most hen houses are wooden, although you can nowadays buy an “egIu” — a purpose-built plastic hen house which is easy to clean and keeps the chickens warm in winter and cool in summer. Visit www.omlet.co.uk for more information. When buying a hen house, you should consider how many chickens you are going to keep and also how easy it is to clean and move. It must also be fox proof.
If you are a proud gardener, be aware that chickens will scratch up your lawn, shrubs and plants and will eat your garden-friendly worms!
Once you have decided how many chickens you want, you will need to decide what type of chicken is best for you. Hybrid (or crossbreed) chickens tend to be easy to look after and lay lots of eggs, whereas purebreds are more exotic to look at, but will require more attention. Don’t mix chickens from different sources without quarantining them first — keep them in separate groups for 30 days before integrating them together into one flock.
Ex-battery hens make excellent pets. They are usually condemned to slaughter aged 1-2 years when egg production begins to decline, however they will still lay prolifically and you can give a long-suffering bird a new lease of life. POL (point-of-lay) pullets are usually more expensive to buy but at this age they can be tamed more easily.
It is usual for each hen to lay around 6 eggs a week during the summer months — when daylight drops to 10 hours or fewer, egg production will decline.
A fully grown chicken needs around 130g of feed a day. Chicken food for laying chickens is called layers mash or layers pellets. Pellets are easier for chickens to eat, whilst the mash encourages foraging. The food is a mixture of wheat, barley, oats and maize. A good quality feed will contain soya protein only and it should say on the label that it is vegetarian.
A plentiful supply of fresh water is essential at all times — on a hot day a single chicken can drink up to 500mls. Refill the water container every day and check it does not freeze over in cold weather:
You can supplement your chickens’ diet with scraps from the kitchen (left over pasta, rice, vegetables and fruit), mealworms and corn. Check the DEFRA website (www.defra.gov.uk) for guidelines on feeding kitchen scraps. Insoluble grit must also be provided — as chickens don’t have teeth, they grind up their food in their gizzards with the grit. If you notice your chickens’ eggshells are thin or soft, you can supplement their diet with soluble grit (e.g. oyster shell).
We recommend worming your chickens four times a year. Signs of worms include weight loss, diarrhoea, depression and decreased egg production. Contact the practice for advice on worming products. The worming product we use does not require any egg withdrawal time, meaning you can still eat your chickens’ eggs during this time.
The living quarters should be thoroughly cleaned weekly and disinfected every two months. This will help prevent bacterial and mite build-up.
Wing clipping is necessary to prevent your birds from escaping. Only one wing needs to be done to unbalance the chicken and prevent it from being able to fly over fences. Using scissors, trim all the long primary feathers on the edge of the wing back to the point where the next line of feathers starts.
Chickens will moult once a year, once they are a year old, usually in the autumn. Feathers will be lost from all over the body and she will look quite bald until the new feathers come through. Chickens do not lay during a moult, which usually lasts around 6 weeks.
From time to time a hen may go broody — she will spend most of her time sitting in the nest box and she will be quite grumpy if you try to move her. It is not easy to snap a broody hen out of a broody spell, so during this time ensure she has twice daily access to food and water — lift her out of the nest box and put her outside if she doesn’t come out herself. Also check for faeces in the nest box and clean out regularly. Broody chickens can also pluck out the feathers on their lower abdomen — in chickens that are hatching for real, this allows body heat to pass better to the clutch of eggs underneath.
Broodiness usually lasts for around 3-4 weeks and it can be brought on if you don’t remove eggs often enough from the nest box.
Every group of chickens will have a pecking order. A cockerel in the group will naturally be in top spot, but if there is no cockerel, then the chickens work out their own order. This can involve vicious pecking and squabbling and the bigger the group, the longer this will take. Unless one hen is being badly picked on, do not interfere as they will finally sort it out and go on to live peacefully with each other. Introducing new chickens or removing chickens will disrupt the order and will generally trigger the whole process to start again.
COMMON CHICKEN PROBLEMS AND DISEASES
Soft-shelled eggs — this is normal if birds are coming into lay or nearing the end of lay. If the problem persists, it may be due to calcium shortage in the diet – feed more soluble grit.
Fewer eggs than expected — many possible reasons include :— early moult, mites, worms, coccidiosis, inadequate food or water, stress, inadequate light or broodiness.
Gapeworm — this is an infection with a worm which causes respiratory distress and open beak breathing. If you are worming your chickens regularly, gapeworm should not prove too much of a risk to your chickens.
Feather loss — this could be caused by an early moult, stress, boredom or possible food or water shortage.
Depression and anorexia — this can have many causes, including infection, mites or lice infestation. Contact the surgery for further advice.
Crop bound — there could be a blockage in the gizzard — visible as a bulge on the chickens lower neck. You will normally only notice this in the evening after a day’s eating. You can try to pour a small amount of vegetable oil down the chicken’s throat and massage the crop to try and loosen the blockage and break it up. If this does not work, contact the practice for an appointment with the vet.
Egg bound — this is a medical emergency where an egg becomes stuck in the chicken and is unable to be laid. Treatment will require injections of calcium and oxytocin. Symptoms include rapid breathing, ﬂuffed up feathers, straining in the nest box, constipation and a swollen stomach. If the egg which is stuck in the chicken ruptures, this can lead to peritonitis, shock and death.
Red mites — these live in the cracks and crevices of the hen house and come out at night to suck blood from your chickens. Affected chickens will look anaemic and they will stop laying. The house must be thoroughly disinfected and dried and then treated with a liberal dusting of mite powder over all surfaces. Allowing the chickens access to a dust bath will also help.
Lice – These live on chickens in between the feathers and lay their eggs there too. They cause itching and feather loss. Treat the chicken with lice powder, along with the house and dust bath until the problem clears up.
Scaly leg mites — these mites live under the scales on chickens’ feet, legs and faces and can cause lameness. You can treat this by cleaning the legs first with soap and water, then applying vegetable oil or Vaseline( to stop the mites breathing). There is also a veterinary treatment available, but this would mean an egg withdrawal time of 28 days.
Chickens can catch colds from wild birds — any discharge from her nostrils could be a sign that she has caught a cold. You may also hear sneezing or see her opening her beak to breathe. If you notice any of these symptoms, take her to the vet – a short course of antibiotics usually clears up the problem. Again, there would need to be an egg withdrawal period of 28 days.
Aspergillosis — symptoms include birds being thirsty, wheezy and lethargic. Avoid this by making sure you clean the dropping tray regularly. Young birds are most vulnerable, but adult birds can be infected. It is caught by breathing in spores from mouldy matter. Unfortunately there is no cure.
Please call us as usual. A recorded message will give you the number of our dedicated emergency service — Vets Now Ltd. (See Emergencies on our website). This is manned by vets and nurses who only work nights so they are fresh, awake and awaiting your call, enabling your pet to get the best out of hours hospital care. They are specialists in emergency and critical care and have access to all the facilities required to provide a high class emergency service.
We hope you find this information useful and would appreciate any feedback or comments. Remember we’re only a phone call away.
Hillyfields Vets, Winscombe
Monday-Friday: 9am – 6pm
Saturday : 9am to 11am
(Hillyfields Vets, Winscombe)
Consultations: 9am – 10.30am
Saturday:11am to 1:30pm
(Alexandra Vets, Clevedon)
Consultations: 12pm – 1.30pm