ACVC 2016: Poultry as Pets - A Fad with Legs?

February 22, 2017
Beth Thompson, VMD

American Veterinarian, February 2017, Volume 2, Issue 1

If sales of chicks are any indication, owning backyard poultry is a trend that’s found its following.

Not very much is known about the actual num ber of chickens living as pets in urban and suburban neighborhoods in the United States, but a Google search on their popularity yields more than 10 pages on the pros and cons (mostly pros) of owning them. And if sales of chicks are any indication, owning backyard poultry is a trend that’s found its following.

The largest rare-breed poultry hatchery in the world, McMurray Hatchery in Webster City, Iowa, sold 1.7 million chicks in 20091 and 3 million in 2016.2 Smaller feed and pet stores also report steady growth.3 There are even “chicken farmers” who have made pet chickens into a multimillion-dollar business. Just take a look at the profile of MyPetChicken.com founders4 in Startups magazine’s March 2013 issue. In that same year, the community forum BackYardChickens.com counted 170,000 members—up from 50,000 in 2010 and 25,000 the previous year.1 That same community has 436,000 members today.5

Dr. Matthew Edson, owner of Rancocas Veterinary Associates in Mount Holly, New Jersey, emphasized the need for veterinary care for these animals and urged an interested audience at the 2016 Atlantic Coast Veterinary Conference to join him in treating this underserved population. “Most people want chickens for egg production,” he said, “and a chicken is the first choice of farm animal to own. Therefore, you can expect clients who are inexperienced and who think of their chickens as (usually) outdoor pets.”

Basics of Poultry Ownership

Dr. Edson noted that most people obtain chickens from feed stores, hatcheries, other chicken owners, or auctions. In his experience, auctions are the worst place to get a pet chicken due to overcrowding and poorer sanitary conditions. A healthy hen from a productive breed will start laying eggs at about 6 months of age and, in the warmer months, will produce one egg per day for about 3 years.

The two primary things people should think about before getting backyard chickens are the ability to house and care for them properly and the legality of keeping them in their backyard, he said. Although many municipalities now allow chickens, zoning laws and ordinances can be confusing. No definitive website references for regulations exist. Obtaining the proper permits may be a frustrating experience because who has final control varies with geographic location. It may reside with a municipality's public health department, animal control office, inspections department, or even the city clerk. Perhaps, Dr. Edson joked, “the most important factor is the neighbors’ opinion.” He suggests future backyard chicken keepers get buy-in from adjacent property owners before investing too much time or money.

There are many good online husbandry and safety references for the first-time chicken owner. Adequate shelter from the elements (i.e., a covered coop), easily cleaned surfaces, and fencing that extends below ground are essential, as is access to clean water. Suggested veterinary references include the textbook Backyard Poultry Medicine and Surgery by Cheryl B. Greenacre and Teresa Morishita, www.avianmedicine.net, and www.partnersah.vet.cornell.edu, which includes an informative atlas of avian diseases. Nutritionally, Dr. Edson recommends feeding a commercial poultry diet supplemented with oyster shells and grit. A diet inadequate in selenium can cause feather loss and skin conditions. Make sure the feed doesn't contain ionophores as they may pose a danger to other mammals (particularly horses) if ingested. He discourages feeding chickens broken eggs, which could lead to them attacking their own eggs, and suggests keeping table scraps to a minimum. The feed should be kept in secure cans to keep it dry and fresh and discourage rodents.

Physical Examination

Physical exam of a chicken starts with general appearance and behavior. After that, perform a systematic check from beak to tail. The eyes and nares should be free of discharge. Look in the mouth and at the skin and feathers, paying special attention to the base of the feathers. Palpate the crop to check for impaction or excess flaccidity and the keel to determine body condition. Slide your hand behind the keel to check the abdomen for fluid and masses (including eggs). Always check the vent with a lubed finger.

Normal temperature for a chicken is 106°F to 107°F. Auscultation is helpful to evaluate respiratory rate (normal is 15 to 20 breaths/minute). Normal heart rate ranges from 260 to 320 bpm, which is generally too fast to characterize the quality of heart sounds. If you need to take a blood sample, use the median wing vein. Lay the bird on its back and extend the wing; blood can be obtained with a butterfly set. Fecal sampling should be a standard part of the health exam. Dr. Edson gave a brief overview of the most common diseases and disorders seen in chickens in mid-Atlantic veterinary practices.

Common Diseases and Disorders

Parasites

Among the most common external parasites Dr. Edson sees are lice. Immature nits or adult lice are found on feather shafts and are easily visible at the bottom of the shaft near the skin. They are also readily transmitted from bird to bird. Treatment is possible with subcutaneous or oral ivermectin. Note that if the eggs are being sold commercially, the only permitted treatment is diatomaceous earth.6

Scaly leg mites are another common pest. Leg scales will appear to be lifted, giving the legs a rough appearance. This condition is potentially serious and can lead to digit loss. Treat with 0.2 mg/kg injectable ivermectin, and dip the legs in petroleum jelly to suffocate the mites. Dr. Edson noted that lice live their entire lifecycle on the chicken, but mites do not. Therefore, although environmental cleanup is important with both parasites, it is essential with scaly legs mites. Dr. Edson noted that there are no labeled treatments for most parasitic problems, including scaly leg mites.

Backyard birds can be infected with internal parasites such as Ascaris, Capillaria, Coccidia, and Heterakis spp. Few labeled drugs can be used for treatment, but piperazine, levamisole, ivermectin, and sulfadimethoxine (for coccidia) are a standard part of the arsenal. Tapeworms are uncommon, which is good considering there is no labeled drug for treatment.

Viral Disease

Marek’s disease is very common in backyard flocks and affects only chickens. It is caused by herpesvirus, and there are many different serotypes and strains. The disease can cause T-cell lymphoma, tumors of various organs, ocular lesions, paralysis, and neurologic disease.

It is easily transmitted via air or by direct contact. It can also spread via fomites, making it difficult to remove from the environment. Vaccination of day-old chicks is common and offers about 90% protection, although it doesn’t keep infected chickens from transmitting the disease. Diagnosis can be made by submitting a serum sample to either the National Veterinary Service Laboratory in Ames, Iowa, or the Poultry Diagnostic & Research Center at the University of Georgia in Athens (www.vet.uga.edu/avian).

Respiratory Illness

In New Jersey, Dr. Edson mostly sees respiratory problems secondary to crop disease and resultant aspiration. “But you need to rule out reportable diseases like avian influenza, mycoplasma, and the like,” he said. Infectious upper respiratory disease typically presents with nasal discharge, rhinitis, conjunctivitis, epiphora, and sinusitis. Lower respiratory disease yields more serious clinical signs, such as increased respiratory rate and effort, exercise intolerance, open-mouthed breathing, weight loss, and anorexia. Sounds related to abnormal air movement through the lungs are rarely auscultated. Infectious disease processes involving lung or air sac tissue are typically associated with a significant leukocytosis (more than 3 times normal), which is often accompanied by a relative and absolute heterophilia.7 Respiratory problems can also result from excess ammonia due to unsanitary coop conditions.

Pododermatitis

Bumblefoot (pododermatitis) can be caused by obesity, unequal weight bearing, abnormal abrasions on the plantar surface of the foot, trauma, or even excessive standing.6 Infectious pododermatitis due to Staphylococcus occurs when environmental conditions are poor. Dr. Edson treats the foot with antibiotic soaks or, in more severe presentations, by removing encased pus and getting a diagnostic swab for culture to prescribe the appropriate antibiotic. Because this is a painful condition, he uses meloxicam at 1 mg/kg to control the discomfort. “You can close the wound if you think you’ve removed everything,“ he noted. “Otherwise, leave it open and pack with Betadine pads under a clean wrap.”

"Backyard chickens are a trend that shows no signs of lessening."

Abnormal Egg Production

Salmonella pullorum most frequently affects the ovary. Clinical signs include decreased egg production and infertility. Transmission is primarily transovarian, and young chicks suffer diarrhea and high mortality. They are also capable of infecting other flock members. Surviving chicks can produce infected eggs at maturity and repeat the cycle. Bacterial culture is used to diagnose and, because this is a reportable disease, backyard flocks are euthanized under the auspices of state agencies. Egg binding is a painful condition. The owner will describe decreased egg laying and possibly difficulty walking. It can usually be diagnosed on palpation. Hypocalcemia, obesity, and excessive artificial light (especially in young birds) can cause the problem. Treatment consists of analgesia with meloxicam or buprenorphine and egg removal—either manually with soaks and lubrication or with surgical needle decompression. Supplemental calcium gluconate (23%) should be added (1 mL/30mL water or 5 to 10 mg/kg SC) as needed. Reexamine nutrition and housing practices to ensure proper calcium supplementation and avoid repeated problems.

Behavior

Vent pecking and even cannibalism can be seen in backyard flocks. When it appears, Dr. Edson suggests taking a closer look at the environment and nutrition. “Overcrowding, excessive heat or light, parasite infections, an unbalanced diet, or inadequate food can lead to this behavior,” he said. It is essential to correct the underlying problems to prevent trauma and mortality to flock members.

Summary

Backyard chickens are a trend that shows no sign of lessening. However, backyard flocks can be a public health hazard by harboring or spreading dangerous pathogens like Salmonella to naïve caretakers or creating larger health hazards by establishing pockets of infectious disease that could affect the food supply.

Veterinarians do a great service by caring for these pets, both as individuals and as flocks. Be familiar with these national reportable chicken diseases: highly pathogenic avian influenza; low pathogenic avian influenza (H5 or H7 subtypes); Newcastle disease (exotic); avian infectious bronchitis; infectious bursal disease (Gumboro disease); Marek’s disease; mycoplasmosis (M. gallisepticum); avian chlamydiosis (psittacosis and ornithosis, Chlamydia psittaci); and pullorum disease (Salmonella pullorum).7 In addition, individual states require reporting of other diseases, and it is the veterinarian’s responsibility to be informed.8

We are just scratching the surface on pet chicken health, and the more veterinarians get involved the better it will be for the chickens and the people who care for them.

Dr. Thompson is a small animal veterinarian, animal health executive, editor, and writer. She has held numerous positions with oversight responsibilities for editorial and business direction, including for Veterinary Learning Systems (publisher of Veterinary Technician and Compendium), Vetstreet.com, HealthyPet, and NAVC.

References:

  • Orlean S. The it bird. The New Yorker website. www.newyorker.com/magazine/2009/09/28/the-it-bird. Published September 28, 2009. Accessed January 16, 2017.
  • Personal communication, Tom Watkins, McMurray Hatchery Ames, Iowa. January 4, 2017.
  • Backyard chickens continue to gain popularity. ABC Newspapers website. http://abcnewspapers.com/?s=backyard+chickens. Published May 18, 2016. Accessed January 16, 2017.
  • Jerome M. How mail-order chickens became a multimillion-dollar venture. Entrepreneur magazine website. www.entrepreneur.com/article/225943. Published May 18, 2016. Accessed January 16, 2017.
  • BackYard Chicken stats. BackYard Chickens website. www.backyardchickens.com/. Accessed January 17, 2017.
  • Greenacre C, Morishita T, eds. Backyard Poultry Medicine and Surgery, Ames, IA: Wiley Blackwell; 2015:147-148, 162.
  • Fitzgerald B. Common diseases of backyard poultry. Proc Atlantic Coast Veterinary Conference; 2015.
  • What diseases of poultry are reportable? eXtension website. http://articles.extension.org/pages/38433/what-diseases-of-poultry-are-reportable. Published April 23, 2010. Accessed January 4, 2017.
  • Extralabel druguse (ELDU) resource page. Food Animal Residue Avoidance Databank website. Accessed January 17, 2017 at www.farad.org/eldu/eldumain.asp.
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